How to Use the Players’ Metagaming to Mess With Their Heads (and Improve Your Game)

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Dungeon & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax suggested speeding overcautious players by rolling “huge handfuls of dice” to raise fears of nearby monsters. Of course, the characters in the game world never hear the die rolls or Gary saying, “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far.” He relied on the player’s metagaming to speed the dungeon crawl. When metagaming, players use knowledge of the game in the real world to make decisions based on things their characters don’t know.

Gary intended to use the power of metagaming for good.

Whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. Players routinely ignore statues drawn on the map, but if I add a miniature, their characters inevitably sidle around thing, expecting it to animate and attack. The presence of miniatures sends the metagame signal that the figures represent things to fight.

Although this never fails to amuse me, it brings another benefit. Placing miniatures for harmless things defies a metagame assumption. Maybe next time, the players won’t tie up all the statues in the dungeon just in case.

Animated Statue?

These sorts of metagame stunts carry a price. They call attention to the game and may interfere with the players’ immersion in the imaginary world. When DMs use meaningless die rolls to hurry the players or foster paranoia, they can nudge players out of the game world.

Instead, consider fostering paranoia based on things inside the game world. Describe the sound of a door slamming in the last room, a smell of wet fur, a sudden chill, cries echoing through stone halls, and so on.

Still, my trick with the statures seems  innocuous to me. After all, the players are already focusing on the map and minis when I place the figures.

Despite the price of instigating metagame thinking, I occasionally ask players to make meaningless checks. This discourages the assumption that every roll signals something. I prefer requesting such checks when players already seem focused on the game table rather than immersed in the game world. For instance, if a rogue scouts ahead and checks for traps, I might also ask for a superfluous stealth check.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for two reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that break the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

I recommend playing with these metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption Countermeasure
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. From Twitter, @Styro_Vgc writes, “Watching the PCs carefully maneuver to flank the mailman delivering the summons is worth the effort of drawing a few building outlines.” I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If a non-player or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. Bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. Vary your adventures from the expected arc to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start.
Unique miniatures or tokens represent important NPCs. Players tend to focus attention on the unique figures in a battle. From Twitter, Kyle Maxwell writes, “I use and it’s fun to name the NPC tokens so my players immediately assume they are some highly significant character. (Bonus, the interaction with them sometimes turns this into a self-fulfilling prophecy!)” A variation of this trick works with unique or important looking miniatures mixed in with, say, a group of bandits.

While these tricks keep players on their toes by toying with metagame assumptions, I can think of one assumption DMs should uphold. A tricky DM can alarm players by lavishing description on a harmless, ordinary object such as a door. Don’t. None of this suggests you should avoid vivid descriptions—they make the imaginary come alive. Still, no player wants to spend a half hour investigating an ordinary door because their DM’s extra attention made it seem important. Your descriptions help guide players to the fun and interesting features in the world. Without that lead, you risk slowing the game as players poke, prod, and investigate every bit of decor.

7 thoughts on “How to Use the Players’ Metagaming to Mess With Their Heads (and Improve Your Game)

    1. Donovan Napolitano

      Make ‘fake’ character sheets, describe some mundane characters and scenes in depth, use bait and switch (I.e. a chancellor to the king who seems slimy but actually has the kingdom’s and King’s best interests at heart), have NPCs subtly or not-so-subtly mock overly paranoid players.

    2. Jacobo Blanco

      Give the NPC a name… Nothing throws players off-track more than a “monster” with a name. Did that in my last Numenera game with a standard goblinoid type, and they are still wondering what was all about.

      And, as mentioned above, it looped back to me, and probably the goblinoid will come back as a recurrent NPC (I know, the goblinoids have a specific name in Numenera, I just can’t remember it… A goblin is a goblin, by other any name, and smells as bad)

  1. Matt

    Something that’s been fun for me is to describe a miss on a mundane monster as not the attack flying wild, but something the bad guy did. “Oh you rolled low with firebolt? Yeah, the undead rider swung his dark lantern and caught the flame. ” And my player’s noped their way out of an easy encounter

  2. Tyler

    The best parts of RPGs are hard choices, whether tactical or narrative. Players need good information to make informed choices. Subverting tropes is fine, but that doesn’t mean the change should be hidden from the players. I understand that DMDavid is creating his own new tropes at his table, which is great (like statues always having a miniature). It doesn’t restrict or lie to the player with false information.

    But false information should really be avoided to foster trust and enable the players to play the game with skill.

    Take Matt’s example above. If the “undead rider” cannot cast a counterspell, you’ve broken the rules. The players might not know you’ve broken the rules, but you have. You’ve given them false information, and the ONLY way they can get information is from you. You’ve taken away their actual choice and given them a false choice.

    If the mundane encounter is going to be boring, skip it. If you want to make it not mundane, add real rules and abilities to give the players a hard choice.

    One way to realize this is to tell your players what they missed. The more I’ve told players what they missed, what surprises where out there, what things they misunderstood, the more I’ve come to realize that the players NEED true information. They can’t play the game correctly without it. If you rolled 10 perception checks during a session, but only 4 of them had actual things for the players to find, tell them that after a session and see what reaction you receive. Players will either get upset at the false rolls, in which case you can stop using them, or players will love the false rolls, so establish it as a rule, and understand in the future that any perception check *could* be false. They will still make hard choices even if they are informed, and the informed players will engage with the game at a higher level.

    Meta-gaming sounds like a bad term, but change the word to “player skill” to help realize what it truly is. Players want to learn patterns and improve their play. Learning how all of the character classes work is an example of Meta-gaming and player skill, but rarely do DMs find this type of meta-gaming problematic. DMs that dislike players doing skillful things are doing a disservice to the game and their players.

    Don’t be afraid to tell your players EXACTLY what you are doing. Design situations with hard choices and let the players see what those hard choices are.

  3. Bryce Lynch

    I understand some people don’t like metagaming, because of the immersion thing, but I present an alternative view. What if the players are trying to “win”, collectively, and the DM is still neutral? I think this framing is present throughout the early days of D&D. We can see it in the existence of the mimic, or in the ear seeker. “Ok, gonna listen to all my doors? Then how about this monster …” I think it is even reflected in the spell list. How many times did a captive princess stab the party in the back before a player created the Detect Evil spell, or the ESP spell? Looking at the early Monster Manual and the spell lists, to single out two areas of immediate interest, you can imagine a lot of this early back and forth going on between the players and the DM. But, and this is critical, not in an adversarial way.

    Screw with them, and allow them to screw back. 🙂


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