Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads

Way back in “The 11 Most Useful Types of Miniatures,” I confessed that whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. The characters inevitably sidle around the statue, expecting it to animate and attack. This trick never fails to amuse me. Does this make me a mean dungeon master?

When players metagame, they use information from outside the game world to make choices for their characters in the game, even though the characters would lack this information.

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

  • It discourages metagaming. If players know that every figure on the battlemap will have a role in the fight, no statue is safe a preemptive strike. But 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 defy the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
  • I’m a mean dungeon master.
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.

Most commonly, I toy with three 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. This helps set the scene, and the players become jumpy, expecting a fight. I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If an NPC 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. The recent Murder in Balur’s Gate launch adventure called for a ton of bystanders. More to the point, bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s bones lines.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. The fourth-edition design turns this into a bigger problem than with earlier editions, because players have more resources to save for the final showdown. Metagaming and fourth-edition design leads to the sort of trouble I described in “As a player, I enjoy action points, so why do I dislike them as a dungeon master? Vary your adventures from the expected route 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. Dan Anderson stands out as an author of Living Forgotten Realms adventures that defy expectations. For instance, in CALI3-3 Agony of Almraiven, the tough fight comes as an ambush in the middle of the adventure.
Everyone has access to the same information. In most sessions, the whole game proceeds with every player at the same table hearing everything the DM has to say. In the game world, not every character knows what the others know. When a character becomes privy to sensitive information, you can take the player aside to share it. If your players cooperate and everyone always reports back, private asides take more time that they merit. On the other hand, if someone enjoys playing the furtive, scheming type, keeping some things secret adds intrigue. If you only take the assassin’s player aside to ask, “Seen any good movies lately?” everyone else will think the assassin hides something. I think inter-party strife poisons too many of the games that allow it, so be careful with this suggestion.

Next: Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try.

2 thoughts on “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads

  1. Patrick

    You make a great point. We use index cards to write notes to each other. My players love the idea that they have information that no one else knows about. I even do this when players make a successful DC check. I will write on the card something like, “You think you see someone following you but you are not sure, you wait for the right timing to tell the group.” When things start to go down I’ll give that player a nod and they will blurt out “WE ARE BEING AMBUSHED, RUUUNNN!” It makes for some great times at are table.

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