My apologies for not updating last week. Now that the trials of family holiday celebrations are at an end, I'm back at the grindstone, working away!
As a DM, I often recoil a bit from the term "meta-gaming." As a player, I find it less offensive despite my DM attempting to use operant conditioning to train us not to partake. But the prefix "meta-"is derived from Latin, and actually means "after, beyond, with, adjacent, self." When we have a discussion with another player about an over-powered feat, item, or combination, that is meta-gaming. When the DM puts his foot down and invokes Rule #1, that is meta-gaming. Ultimately, meta-gaming is unavoidable; and due to the nature of the game it is not even desirable to cut it out completely. But as with many things, each group must find the balance which works best for them.
There are several ways that meta-gaming can become troublesome. When one of these occurs, it can make a DM's life more difficult. The Dungeon Master's Guide already talks about how to tackle these problems as a DM, but ultimately the game relies on the participation of all for best results. Today, let's discuss when meta-gaming goes bad, and how to tackle it as a player at the table.
The first case where meta-gaming becomes problematic is when players damage the verisimilitude of the system in order to achieve optimal results. When a player rolls a Perception check to look for traps and gets a 1, the temptation is to say "Hey, meat-shield, come over here and step on this tile/open this door/open this chest!" This shatters the shared construct of imagination that the other players and DM have been creating up to that point in the game.
The second is when a player uses broad, system knowledge to motivate their actions: "Oops, that green lumpy monster is a troll, obviously, alright everyone, use fire attacks!" This use of meta-gaming also damages the verisimilitude, and additionally, makes balancing fights harder for the DM. If the DM balances the fight predicated on difficulty with a new, unknown (to the characters) monster, a player using their own extensive knowledge of the system can vastly skew that balance, and what was intended to be a significant, tense, challenging encounter can become a tedious, underpowered distraction.
The third is when a player uses system knowledge to attempt to strong-arm the DM. The rules are in place to keep the game fair, and certainly should only be broken on the rarest of occasions. However when a DM modifies the rules, or flat-out breaks them, for dramatic effect or to keep things interesting, it can be detrimental to have a player calling out what rules were violated and why the events or actions described by the DM couldn't have happened.
While it is often the DM's job to adjudicate disputes and rule on grey areas of the game, when the DM is one of the disputant parties, it can often seem like bullying or "cheating" when they try to resolve such a dispute. In addition to struggling with impartiality, the DM might overlook how the situation appears from the perspective of the players. For these reasons, it is important for players to have a few tricks up their sleeves to help out in these critical moments.
When a player is gaming the system, as in our first example, it can help not to play along. The "meat-shield" should refuse to set off the trap. Especially if they are not the person who usually opens a chest or door, or who walks down the hallway in the front position. If you aren't the player who can directly refuse, suggest that the player who is swerving into meta-game territory describe an in-game reason for the request. While it can damage the verisimilitude to simply call out for someone else to open the chest on a 1, it can reinforce it if the player who was searching changes the process to exclaiming, in-character, "I've got a bad feeling about this chest here, no trap? Not sure I buy it. Jarvis, try popping this open with that sword of yours; I'd rather not have my face right in it if I missed something!" Everyone at the table can then enjoy an additional moment of role-playing, the verisimilitude of the game remains intact, and the rogue with only two surges left does have to eat the symbol of pain trap he missed on the chest.
When a player is using their knowledge of the system to gain an advantage for their character, as in the example with the troll, a DM can often remedy this by swiftly swapping out abilities. Perhaps, with quick thinking, the troll becomes fire-resistant and only vulnerable to acid, or even cold. However, it is also possible for players to help in this situation. When a player declares "These must be trolls, hey guys, use fire and acid attacks!" you might help in two ways. If you are the "knowledge skill-monkey" in the party, ask the DM what type of skill check is required and then gently remind the player who "stole" your thunder that you would like to have the chance to use your skills when they are relevant. If you aren't the "knowledge skill-monkey" you might say something like "Garris has no way of knowing that, having never seen a troll before. He raises his ax and charges forward, shouting his battle cry!" Often, setting an example of how you would like to play is more effective than chastising another player, which can set up disagreements and tensions that will hurt the group and the game.
Finally, when a DM is called out for fudging or breaking the rules, it can be helpful for a player to perform two functions for the group. The first is to act as the "voice of reason." If the rule amendment or breakage seems to be onerous or unfair, rather than challenging it by declaring it "against the rules," try to explain why you think it would be harmful to the game. The DM probably thinks that the change is necessary, but may have overlooked some repercussions that you could bring to light. This type of meta-gaming can be quite helpful, and can often prevent hurt feelings and antagonism between the people at the table. The second role for the player in this critical situation is, if the changes seem reasonable, to remind the "rule-lawyer" that the DM has the prerogative to adjust the rules slightly if need be. Sometimes, simply voicing support of the changes can bring the opposition around. Other times, you might need to explain why you think the rule change would be good for you, the players, not just the DM. Suggest that you record the change in some form as a "house rule" for perpetuity. This can also ease the concerns of a gamer who feels strongly about the sanctity of the rules.
In these ways, players can help ease some of the tensions at the table caused by misplaced meta-gaming. Many times, meta-gaming is also the answer to the problem. When players rely solely upon the DM to keep the game running smoothly, they are bound to be disappointed. RPGs are a team game, and it takes the whole team to keep things moving on the right track. A little balance, the right people at the table, and everyone chipping in can make all the difference!
Happy Holidays, and may the New Year bring many 20s!