Metagaming is something that is frowned upon by almost all groups, but the definition of what counts as metagaming differs from group to group. Some systems are more vulnerable to the practice while other systems are almost reliant on it.
Almost all roleplayers I know dislike and frown upon metagaming. Or, should I say, they frown upon any kind of metagaming that they don’t partake in. Speaking to them one quickly discovers that there’s a difference between metagaming and metagaming, almost as if there is a difference in how vile the metagaming is. But you won’t get a clear picture of what metagaming is.
According to Wikipedia this is the definition of metagaming:
Metagaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself.
And Wikipedia adds to this description a clause on roleplaying games:
In role-playing games, metagaming is a term often used to describe players’ use of assumed characteristics of the game. In particular, metagaming often refers to having an in-game character act on knowledge that only the player has access to (such as tricking a Medusa to stare at a mirror when the character has never heard of a Medusa and would not be aware of her petrifying stare).
So, according to Wikipedia metagaming is knowing the game system and using it to one’s advantage and/or using player knowledge in any in-game situation.
Read as written
If we read this definition as written we would have to take a good look at how turn-based combat in roleplaying games is played out. First of all, you need to establish what your character knows and determine if your character can act upon actions of other participants in the same round. Can you delay your action so that the friendly sorcerer behind you can cast her fireball? Does your character know that and if yes, how? Did the sorcerer call that out to your character and thus let everyone on the battlefield know that she was about to cast a fireball?
Does this also extend to your character‘s knowledge of the grids on the battle map? Does your low level fighter automatically know the area of effect of spells she has never seen cast before?
Answers to all these questions is no. All these actions are a classic example of when players use what they know and act upon it, assuming that their characters know the same. Novice warriors usually have little to no knowledge of spells and magic, other than what can be called rudimentary (fire burns, charms are bad, illusions deceive etc.). No playable race has, to my knowledge, eyes on the back of their head. If characters don’t share a telepathic link, there’s no way they that know what their fellows are thinking or what they plan to do next.
This also applies to using numeric values in-game. Calling out that your character is down to her last two hit points is metagaming, because it uses external factors to affect the game. Of course, it’s not as grievous as the low-level fighter that knows as much about spells as her player, but it is metagaming none the less.
Read as intented
Most games that use a turn-based combat system condition players to suspend their sense of the narrative the moment combat starts. When you have a combat where each character can take into account everything that has been done ahead of them in the same turn, is narrative nonsense. If you’re playing D&D and have 6 PC’s fighting 6 monsters, with all acting in the space of 6 seconds, then in turn-based terms every participant would have half a second to act. From a narrative perspective, all participants act at the same time but their actions are resolved in initiative order.
But the rules are written in board game terms, to try to make sense of the chaotic mess that combat is. And we need to apply the rules as intended and ponder on the spirit of the rules. Because, despite all metagaming and powerplaying, the spirit of the rules need to be taken into account.
All systems and all editions have the same goal, the same spirit, to create great and fun games. And that’s always more important that having your game 100% free of any kind of metagaming.
Gamemasters and metagaming
Please, don’t tell anyone, but gamemasters also metagame!
All the examples that have been mentioned here also apply to game masters, but we don’t see many gamers or gamemasters talk of this. Sometimes we have encounters where a number of NPC‘s, monsters and antagonists act with incredible knowledge of each others’ actions, even without ever speaking together in-game. I’ve even been a participant in games where untrained unintelligent beasts and animals used advanced combat tactics! That’s also metagaming.
The fact of the matter is, that despite being the arbitrator and judge on whether any of the players are metagaming, sometimes gamemasters forget to apply the same criteria to themselves. I know for sure that I am guilty of this.
Different systems and metagaming
There are some systems that seem to encourage metagaming, at least to some extent. D&D is especially guilty of this, more so if you choose to use models and a map instead of theatre of the mind. Combat in these systems has so many layers, has been turned into a sort of board game, so that players need to have good knowledge of the system and the rules of the game in order to prevail. This is specially true in groups where the players lean heavily into power-playing.
Combat-oriented systems, where the players constantly have to prove their characters‘ mettle and fight their way through scores of monsters and antagonists, condition players to think in terms of the system. Many players, despite being roleplaying veterans of 20-30 years, fall in and often let their knowledge of the game get the best of them, because in most of these kind of games you get rewards for each monster slain or defeated. And that is conditioning at its finest.
But metagaming can be just as much problem in less combat-oriented systems. Metagaming in the form of using player knowledge can be just as frustrating. Perhaps the most used form of non-combat metagaming is hidden in this cliché: Never split the party! This is of course, from a narrative perspective, nonsense. Why wouldn’t a group of people trying to achieve something, even in as short time as possible, split up and make the best use of time? Because it doesn’t suit the needs of the players or the game master? Or because the players know that undermanned they are less likely to defeat a troupe of adversaries?
Metagaming and meta-gaming
A couple of years ago I joined a group of great roleplayers. The game master has a post-it note on his game masters screen that says: No metagaming! We still metagame all the time, if we apply the Wikipedia definition to our actions.
However, we have a level of common understanding of what and how the group defines metagaming and we all try to abide to these unwritten rules. And this kind of group dynamics and common norms is way more important than any online or dictionary definition. This is a game, not a meta-game, and it’s supposed to be fun. Long as you all agree on these unwritten rules and you’re all having fun, then you’re doing just fine.