During my last session of D&D,Â metagaming reared its ugly head again. My players were attacked by a couple of black dragons, and one of my players briefed the others on what tactics to use and what kind of breath weapon this particular type of dragon had, in spite of this being a low fantasy setting and the character having no idea what a black dragon was.
I think it’s fair to say that most GMs wouldn’t appreciate that, and I responded by yanking away the Inspiration die that the character had just earned during the previous scene, explaining that metagaming wouldn’t be tolerated at the table. That said, my friend’s “crime” was being overt; I’m sure other players at the table were familiar with black dragons and selectively chose their tactics accordingly. If I’m not interested in changing up monster stat blocks, then I should expect that sort of thing with seasoned players.
One of the things that sprang to mind while reflecting on this incident was that I would have allowed a character to make an appropriate ability check to see if she could recall anything about black dragons. That brought up the possibility of misinformation and how that could be applied at the table. It also brought up the question of what should I do, if anything, as a GM if I notice a player deviating from her character’s usual tactics?
Tackling misinformation first, one thing that I decided to change was how I set difficulty classes. InÂ D&D, typical difficulty classes are set in 5 point increments (e.g. an easy task is DC 10, while a very hard task is DC 25). It’s easy to use the crutch of thinking that way (hmm, this seems like a hard task, so I’ll set it at DC 20). Players tend to think in those terms as well. However, if I randomly add or subtract a point or two then it keeps players guessing.
This enables me to factor in misinformation. Normally, my knee-jerk reaction is to use a “1” or similarly low number to state that the character “recalls” bad information. That said it’s not fooling the player, but if I put that “1” right behind a success (say, a 15 when the character needed to roll a 16) then I can give that player misinformation and she’ll run with it.
This, of course, only works when the players at the table don’t know anything about the monsters or if they suspect that I’m changing stat blocks. Otherwise, I’m left with the question of whether to enforce appropriate behaviors on the characters.
So, I have two “fair or foul” questions for today:
First, if a character always enters combat with a particular tactic, but the player suddenly decides to switch tactics (ostensibly because she’s metagaming and knows that her normal tactics wouldn’t be effective against this particular enemy), then would I be in my rights as a GM to insist that she use her usual tactic until it is evident that it’s not the best choice?
Second, if a character makes an ability check/skill roll to find out something about a creature and botches it, would I as the GM be in my rights to make her use an ineffective tactic? Can I spread that to other characters as well if the affected character was sharing her misinformation?
I think it’s a losing proposition to try to “surprise” players with the abilities of a famous monster. Chances are significant that many of your players know some of the main points about black dragons. They might have run into one in a different campaign, or read them in the monster manual when they were the GM themselves.
So then they know in the back of their head what they probably should be doing, and it’s a question of how much they apply that, and how overtly. And you’re watching like a hawk, trying to decide where to draw the line.
A character casting Resist Acid – sure, that sounds suspicious. But a character moving “to flank” might also be conveniently stepping out of the breath weapon’s area. Foul? It’s hard to say.
The player giving overt advice, that’s something you can complain about. When we play Pathfinder, the common practice is that PCs can roll Knowledge checks to identify monsters when it’s their turn. They can’t do this at the start of combat; they have to wait until it’s their turn. Depending on how well the roll went, players receive a number of pieces of “useful information”.
Players are allowed to ask questions, to indicate to the GM what information they’d be interested in, like “special defences”, “weakest saving throw” and so forth. If a player knows something about the monster OOC, this is the time to launder that information. It’s also acceptable for the player to pass the question to the GM: “what’s this monster’s most notorious property that we don’t know about yet?”
This way, you establish what the players do know about the things they run into. And it becomes a habit: on the first turn of your PC in any battle, try all the relevant knowledge checks as free actions, and share the info with the other PCs.
This way, everyone knows clearly what they do know, and so what it’s okay to keep in mind for determining tactics.
This method doesn’t really help for spreading disinformation though. But I think if you want to spread disinformation, you first need to have an open discussion with your players. If they look in the rulebook and see nothing about disinformation, and you suddenly start doing that, they have a right to cry foul. If you tell the players that [under some mechanical conditions] there may be disinformation, that’s different.
That said, I think I’d do disinformation differently. I’d play around with foreshadowing a monster, making it look like a one monster, while it’s actually another.
Never EVER tell players what their characters are doing! Never! Of any crime a GM can possibly commit, telling players what their characters are doing is by far the worst. Not only is it bad manners, it also sets the precedent that the players are only allowed to play their characters as long as they do what the GM wants them to do, and when they want to do something else their character gets taken away from them.
And then what’s the point of playing the game at all? The GM could just write a story and post it on the internet, no players needed.
I don’t see any problem with telling the player “remember, your character does not know that” and most of the time almost all halfway decent people will say “guess you’re right. I will not try to go straight for the weak point for massive damage but do other things I still know are going to work well here”. If the player doesn’t care and insists doing the same thing in later scenes as well, then there is a much bigger problem than encounters turning out easier than they were intended.
But grabbing the players wheel and steering his character for him? That’s completely unacceptible. Doubple plus ungood. Never!
The much more practical solution is indeed doing a little bit of effort and creating your own enemies, simply by customizing existing ones.
While I agree that telling the players what their character does is Bad with a capital B, I think there is room for questioning what the character is doing. “Would your character really do that?”
I’ve run into this most often with one-shots. I tend to let the players put whatever spin they want on the pre-generated characters, but there are times when they’ve done a 180 on the character’s concept and I’ve stepped in to nudge them back into the general vicinity of the character’s concept. “He’s a gentleman from 1918 transported forward in time to 2010. He probably wouldn’t ‘pop a cap’ into anyone.”
I dealt with this a lot running 3.5 games and I think the general idea will work for 5e just as well.
3.5 had rules for “taking 10”, which meant that any time the player wasn’t being rushed and there were no consequences of failure, he could simply assume a d20 result of 10. I allowed this for Knowledge skills. By looking at a character’s skill modifier plus 10, I knew how much he knew about a creature. When a player wanted information his character didn’t automatically know, he would roll a skill check.
If he rolled poorly (failed by 5 or more) I would give misinformation, and COMBINE it with the valid information he already had. For example, the PC might automatically know that black dragons breathe acid as well as basic dragon information. But I might add that their acidic blood would harm anyone who attacked with a slashing or piercing weapon and destroy that weapon. The mixture of true and false information made it harder for a metagamer to disregard the “bad roll result”.
Couple of things.
The world _we_ live in is about as low fantasy as you can get. Dragons don’t exist. But I know what Dragons are. They are part of the shared cultural heritage in both eastern and western society. We’ve all heard stories about them; We know that they breathe fire, that they are huge, that they have claws and teeth. Imagine how much more you know know in a world where they were real – especially if you were a professional adventurer.
Also, never penalize players for knowing how to play the game that they love. It is completely unfair to take an iconic monster and then expect players make their character act like they don’t know what it is. If you want to sneak one past the players (and maybe murder a few of their characters), do it legit – come up with your own monster.
I like this approach. Plus in a world of adventurers and monsters, I’m pretty sure everyone who fights monsters would have some information about them. If I don’t want my players to know dragons have breath weapons- I make it a game fact.
Many people can tell poisons frogs apart by coloration, solid color-coded dragons aren’t easily identifiable by monster hunters? If you really want to cut down on stuff like this- make all dragons the same color (fact for the game). Now when a dragon attacks and breathes fire, the PCs can react. But the next one may breathe acid or lightning. Maybe after fighting a couple different types of dragons the PCs can learn to identify a characteristic that determines breath weapon so they can get defenses up before hand. Or a dragon’s past can be researched- “20 years ago, the great wyrm burned down the castle, it’s fiery breath melting even the stone”. Time for some protection from energy spells!
It really depends on the characters, and how RP heavy your game is. If you’re intending to have strict RP, and your players are aware and on-board with this, then it’s entirely possible to have a set of characters who have risen up from podunk little villages to become adventurers. In middle-ages type settings news and lore does NOT travel well, so unless their village gets raided by dragons every 10-20 years, it’s highly likely that such characters would either know nothing of Black Dragons, or most of what they think they know is false. Like, dragons can’t sense you if you’re covered in mud, or something ridiculous like that.
In THAT situation, the GM should absolutely bring the hammer down, and pulling the inspiration is totally appropriate.
However, most D&D games I’ve seen aren’t anywhere near that strict, and so such a heavy handed GM response isn’t appropriate at all. Depending on what point the game is at on the Casual/Serious RP spectrum, you can nudge them with varying degrees of sternness (e.g. “Hey now, I don’t think your characters would know that, give me a knowledge check or pick a new strategy”), or just let them have their metagaming fun, and surprise them with a different monster later.
I must be a very odd GM…I often throw curveballs at my players, and they often do not know the answer. They themselves have to figure it out, which makes metagaming an okay thing in my game. After all, they will not actually know the answer anyway.
What I do not tolerate are players commanding other players. They can know exactly how to handle the encounter, but if a player starts demanding people to do something they do not want to do, or at all, is when it becomes intolerable.
Puzzles, monsters, traps, dungeons, they are all outfitted the same way. There is no real expectation for them to have, and I do not provide them with one. I made a trap where the person was literally glued to a seat bolted into the ground. They didn’t know how to solve it, but they were able to figure it out together and they all had fun with it.
That is the part that matters, since it is, after all, a game. Therefore, while I would like for people not to come to assumptions, which they rarely do in my game, I often allow the player’s intelligence to make up for their investigative skills, then use their Intelligence to give them hints on what another possibly way of solving, investigating, handling and so forth are.
I would recommend, letting the player do so. Once the combats get boring, or the players call him on his metagaming, he will stop and fall in line. If it happens, that he doesn’t stop after all of this, let him know that he is ruining the fun of other players, and if the metagaming does not stop, he will have to leave or sit back.
Hope I offered, at least, some decent advice!
Buh-Bye! Looking forward to your next article!
I see nothing good for the players, PCs, or the game happening with misinformation. I wouldn’t go down that path.
As for what to do when a PC behaves outside typical tactics? Wait. Humans adjust tactics all the time, if you have a pistol and a tank rolls up (with limited combat experience) you are pretty sure your pistol isn’t going to help. You immediately start looking for something else to use, or for a place where the tank can’t pursue you. Is that metagaming or just adapting to situations. I wouldn’t worry about PCs adjusting to a dragon. And having the fight the whole battle uphill because “your characters don’t know about black dragons breathing acid” is not fun for the players.
I would just change tactics with the creature(s). Dragons fly, so they would hardly ever touch the ground and still dish out a severe punishment. In the example, black dragons are not the best at flying, but they can use swampy water to their advantage. The players can metagame all they want, but the thing is that a lot of creatures have advantages that are probably hardly ever used, especially dragons. Their metagames vs long established options. Even more to the point, their metagame vs you playing the creature going for the TPK. I wouldn’t take the players’ style (in the form of metagaming) away from them (although I might mention that they are using player knowledge instead of character knowledge). But I would certainly let them get the point (the hard way) that too much of it has consequences.
Its too bad that the frequency for creatures has been removed from (a)d&d… (common, uncommon, rare, very rare, unique). If those were still a part of the monster stat blocks, then that could help set a difficulty modifier for any knowledge checks. A common check could essentially be a Take 10 situation. Uncommon at least a 15 difficulty. Rare at least a 20. Very rare would be at least a 25. But, unfortunately, the creature frequency is long gone.
I dont know what exactly an “Inspiration die” is, but i would say its very poor form for the GM to take something away from a player once they have received it simply by GM-fiat; especially as I assume the “Inspiration die” was awarded for an action unrelated to the event that prompted you to award it in the first place
If you give rewards out for portraying the character, you would be perfectly entitled to say after the battle, player x, “no characterization xp for you from this fight scene; as you displayed out of character knowledge and used out of character tactics”. Thats about the limit of your power by the social contracts in every group I have ever played in. If you dont normally award xp for characterization… then you have nothing to complain about IMO.
Wow, your entire line of thinking about this seems wrong to me.
Look, if it’s important to your concept that the PCs be ignorant, then it is absolutely on your head to not throw them into situations where the players are knowledgable. Asking players to pretend they’re ignorant is a recipe for messing up roleplaying, because compartmentalizing is hard. There may be in-game reasons you have to do this (all of the players saw the big reveal but some of the PCs didn’t), but asking them to do it unnecessarily is a bad plan.
If you think it’s important the PCs don’t know how to fight a black dragon, then throwing them a stock black dragon out of the Monster Manual is just silly. Take five minutes and create a unique dragon. It doesn’t have to be hard work; maybe this dragon is half black, half red, with mix and match attributes, maybe it’s a white dragon with a very rare skin condition.
As to your suggested fixes, it seems to me that you can politely suggest to a player that his PC wouldn’t act the way he’s acting, but Yora’s right, taking control of the PC away from the player is very bad form. And giving false information to the PC from a knowledge roll strikes me as a terrible idea.
Compartmentalizing can work in situations where the players know the GM won’t penalize them (at least not too much, and only in entertaining ways) for making suboptimal choices. But even then it’s tricky. When death is on the line and the rules encourage tactical, rules-centric actions? You’re doomed. “Play this wargame, but pretend you don’t know this useful information,” isn’t feasible and isn’t fun.
Penalizing players for metagaming is usually a mistake. It makes “good” players paranoid they’ll make a mistake or have an action misinterpreted. “Bad” players will just focus on creating plausible reasons to act how they want. Bleh.
Even if it somehow worked, what’s the benefit? If most of your table knows the answers, it’s not surprising. You’re just asking them to play suboptimally, and that is going to irritate. Worse, it can feel like the GM is taunting you by denying you options.
If what you want is for the players to be surprised and to have to genuinely think on their feet, yeah, what Foster and Mutak said: whip up something unique.
One issue is that, in some ways, D&D can play like two separate games. There’s the roleplaying game where you get into character and ‘do what the character would do’, and then there’s the tactical game where you’re confronting a challenge you’re supposed to beat. Even if you’re trying to play a RP heavy game, it can be very easy to slip into that clinical and tactical mode for the combats. Other games can fall into this with varying degrees, but I find D&D is particularly prone to it, possibly because of our pre-disposition to the game.
It’s very hard for a player to go into a combat using a strategy they as a player KNOW is bad for the situation, especially when their goal is to survive that combat. Going in with the wrong strategy would waste precious resources.
Not saying it’s necessarily right of the player to do, but as a GM, it’s probably good to be aware of where the player may be coming from. Especially if it’s not a player that’s prone to overt metagaming.
Yeah, I’ve run into the OP concern. Much like the discussion about screens at tables, any agreement that everyone understands is better than a line that half the group patrols carefully and the other half shrugs and optimizes to conserve resources.
One thing that’s hard to decide is how much is common knowledge in the world. In a low fantasy world, if creatures are rare and the subject of whispered legend,, then it’s hard to figure out how much a PC should know. I mean… if I knew I was going to face terrible beasts and put my life on the line, I’d learn every edge I could.
If it’s experienced players sabotaging the fun of “newbs”, I’d be annoyed. Of course, if the “newbs” were the only ones to suffer because they didn’t know about the acid, while the other players had their PCs take advantage of their metagame knowledge, it’d be bad the other way.
At the tables I play at, we have a lot of very well-versed players that know the ins and outs of most monsters we encounter. That being said, they may give a hint that they know something but try to not metagame and only do what their character’s know. They typically will not try a new tactic unless they make the appropriate knowledge check. All of us try to keep player knowledge separate from character knowledge.
That being said, if you have a metagamer at your table it is also important for your other players to try to keep the metagaming out of it. If everyone at the table goes along with the metagaming, then you have serious problems. We have had some players like this before in the campaigns I am in, and we generally try to ignore their advice unless they make a roll confirming what they’ve already told us.
I do think simply asking “would your character really do that? You don’t know a thing about black dragons.” is a polite way of not only pointing out to them that they are metagaming but also pointing out to the table that that person is metagaming. Perhaps they didn’t notice and just thought that that character knew something. If you can gently get everyone else on board to not metagame, then you have a fair chance to stop that one player from doing it.
If that player continues with their metagaming behavior, perhaps you need to pull them aside at some point and talk to them about it. Calling them out bluntly at the table, or flat out telling them they can’t do something is not the way to go in my opinion. It can lead to bad blood between you and all players.
What exactly do you want to accomplish by forcing them to play dumb?
If you want things to be a little harder, make them harder.
If you want to experience the process of discovery and make things fresh again, use different monsters, even if it’s just a pallette swap such as blue dragons breathe cold, grey dragons breathe lightning, orange dragons breathe fire, yellow dragons breath poison, and green dragons breathe acid. Etc.
I share the same thoughts here.
Out of all the responses, I think this one sums up almost everyone’s opinions the best.
Yikes! Never, ever, ‘make’ the players do anything. Why would they want to play in an RPG where they don’t get to make their own choices.
As others suggested, I’d support reminding players about metagaming and other friendly ways of discussing it.
If you want them to not know about the monster, then mix the monsters up. Otherwise, let them just know it. Maybe they heard it from a bards tale or whatever.
Now, an intelligent dragon may have heard of these adventurous murder hobos and their famous tactics. Perhaps the dragon is prepared for them. Perhaps creating some misinformation about its color, or even an illusion making a black dragon look red or whatever.
I would choose to avoid play at a table where the DM tells me what my character does. (*short stints at being charmed/dominated excepted)
One of my biggest problems with D&D is not so much the fact that the entire monster manual is considered a known quantity (and thus exploitable by a rules actuary), but this idea that YOUR monsters/races/whatever have to conform to the MM as written.
You’re player noticed your dragon was black. Great. Now, if that dragon then proceeds to breath FIRE on him and make him meta charcoal, he would be CONFOUNDED. He might even piss and moan “IT *PACIFICALLY* STATES ON PAGE BLAH BLAH THAT BLACK DRAGONS USE *ACID* BREATH WEAPONS!!”
To which you reply: “Make too many assumptions, and you’re gonna get burned.”
(Then maybe put on some sunglasses David Caruso style and blast The Who.)
If something about a monster in the MM doesn’t suit your needs, ditch it, reskin it, or redesign it. Personally I find the whole Chromatic/Metallic thing limiting and think that it frankly takes most of the awe and wonder away from dragons.
You offer a number of good observations and thoughts in your article, but the two fair-or-foul questions you conclude with are both fouls. Requiring or forbidding players to take specific actions within the rules is weak GMing and likely to cause hard feelings in the group.
That said, let me be clear that it is wrong for players to use out-of-character knowledge in the game. GMs are right to object to it, and it’s within their prerogative to punish (in game terms) players who do abuse it egregiously. But make sure the players are warned in advance. As a GM it’s one of the things I discuss up front with players before every campaign. There’s even a section on it in the “What You Need To Know About This Game World” website I maintain. Failing that, discuss it after a problem happens (like a player blurting out a black dragon’s critical stats) and make the punishment apply the next time. Applying a spontaneous punishment for something the players may have thought was OK is likely to create hard feelings in the group.
I remember the old “Net Book of” ‘whatever’ series files that existed online before 3e was released. One of them was a “Net Book of Dragons” or some other similar title. There were even some simple DOS programs available to randomize the possibilities of cross-breeding different types of dragons. Say an offspring of red and black dragons may appear to be the type of one of the parents, but had the breath weapon of the other. In some randomized instances, the offspring could have BOTH breath weapons. You should use this information and not limit it to just dragons… think about other creatures as well. Establish to the metagamer that he never knows what he’s dealing with until he’s actually dealing with it.
Its hard to tell a player to dumb things down with his/her character. Would you tell a player with an actual 120-ish IQ that he had to play smarter for his wizard with 18+ INT (180+ IQ)? No. That’s not realistic either. Just let them play! If player knowledge vs character knowledge really becomes an issue, THEN deal with it by throwing a curveball like changing up stats.
fun is the goal–rpgs are in no way a simulationist activity. You need to up your GMing skills if something that is fun for the players is breaking your game. Sure you could change up the stats, or you could just run with the idea that the character knows this information. Try asking the player how his character knows this. And, what’s the creature in question doing while one character is explaining stuff to their fellow adventurers? Is that dragon just standing there like and good mook, waiting for its beatdown? A dragon wouldn’t be doing that in my games.
And there’s no reason why you cannot fold metagame information into the story line. If the players want to metagame and get enjoyment out of it, just let them do the heavy lifting for the justification in-game.
Like many have recommended, my typical prevention method is to simply change the monsters (or create them from scratch). You can’t metagame something that’s not in the monster manual. My players also tend to be good about not metagaming in general though, and even call each other on it.
My other tactic is to just play smarter monsters. Dragons in particular are supposed to be highly intelligent, so making them genre savvy should probably be the norm. On top of that most get spell-like abilities and it’s really easy to handwave a few class levels into their fluff. Throw in some creative uses of illusions, shapeshifting, and off-element evocations and suddenly the metagaming gets you in more trouble than it gets you out of. As an example, our current group up and fled from a black dragon because it wasn’t acting like a dragon (thanks to a very simple illusion).
All that said, metagaming isn’t a bad thing unless the group decides that it is. The important thing is that everyone is enjoying the game, and for some groups metagaming might add to the enjoyment rather than detract from it. It really just depends on the group’s expectations, and a lot of the casual and one-off games I’ve played rely heavily on metagaming as a shorthand to cut out the parts the group doesn’t enjoy.