The question is whether you are metagaming for more fun and drama, or metagaming for an advantage over the other PCs or NPCs.
Metagaming is a perennial topic of discussion among tabletop RPG players and has been, I imagine, from the beginning. What I mean by metagaming is thinking about what to do in a gaming session from your point of view as a player, with the knowledge you have as a player, rather than from solely from the point of view of your character, with the knowledge that your character presumably has.
I hear more people speaking against metagaming than for it. It is in a similar category to min-maxing or power gaming – behaviors that are common but generally frowned upon. In all of those three cases and more, however, I think these behaviors can be a good thing in game. In the case of metagaming, I think it is unavoidable. Given that it is unavoidable, I will give some instances where I think it is good for the game, and then talk about some examples of when it is anything but.
Good Kinds of Metagaming
Thinking about the other players
“That’s what my character would do” is a statement that I have heard many times as justification for something that made the game less fun. Here’s the thing – don’t prioritize the thoughts and feelings of your imaginary person over the thoughts and feelings of the real people at the table with you. Period. We don’t play RPGs because we are stuck for ideas of what characters might do – you can always justify your character doing something interesting.
Thinking about the moment
We’ve all been playing out an encounter or a scene, and have thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a particular thing happened right now? Sometimes it is up to us to make that interesting thing happen. Even if it might feel “out of character” for your own character, people do surprising things all the time. Maybe this is a sudden turning point in your character’s life – she dramatically chooses just this moment to show something she hasn’t shown before. Seize the moment, and make the cool thing happen.
Thinking about the story
No matter what kind of story you think RPGs produce, whether Picaresque, or Story Now, or Story Later, or improv comedy, or epic fiction, RPGs allow us to create stories together. And sometimes, it is best to prioritize the story in a given moment. Do we need to move on from this scene? Would this be the best moment for me to reveal my character’s secret? Should we skip this because it’s only interesting to me?
What Makes Metagaming Bad?
Doing it for your advantage as a player
Using your knowledge of the game, or the setting, apart from what your character would know so that you personally can have an advantage over the other players is just being a dick. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you this, but laying out this distinction might be helpful if you need to call someone out for their behavior.
Doing it for your character’s advantage over the other characters
Metagaming to give your character an advantage over the other characters is also clearly a dick move. There are always opportunities for your character to shine if you know more about the setting or the system than the other players, but all of these are better opportunities to make the other characters shine.
Doing it to shut down another player
Niche protection is a thing. Every character hopefully has at least one special thing that they are best at. The street samurai fights in the street. The bard charms and improvises. The hotshot pilot hotshots and pilots. It’s possible, but crappy, to shut another character down where they would normally be strong. You understand the stealth mechanics better, so you out-sneak the rogue. You know the setting’s politics better, so you out-maneuver the courtier. A negative metagamer can shut down other characters, rather than letting them have their opportunity in the spotlight.
Bonus round: your stories
What’s the worst example of negative metagaming that you’ve seen? Or the best example of positive metagaming?