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Context/Research

Often the metagaming problem is about how the DM presents the things to the players. We have lots of questions and good answers in the tag. Most of them are about concealing information, though, as Make their knowledge uncertain, hide info and add "meaningless" thing, etc.

For PvP scenarios, this also applies: the player can write down a note and give it to the DM. The problem is: when the PvP gets too heavy, every player writing down a note for every action so they can conceal information takes too much time. Also, while concealing the information hides the information itself, there's also meta-information about the fact the player concealed information to start with: "Why is he hiding things from us? He's up to something." - and this leads to metagaming by itself. This question is more on this second problem.

Problem

One such scenario that happened to me was, while a group of friends was playing Curse of Strahd, one player decided that he wanted to eventually betray the party and help Strahd instead. An important member of PC's family was in Barovia and kept under Strahd's control (only he knew about it), and he loved more that member than the party.

As I mentioned, the player started to behave suspiciously (the player, not the PC) for the other players. In particular, we (I, the DM, and the traitor player) were trading notes often.

Gradually, the other PCs started becoming too aware of the traitor's PC, even though there was no in-game reason for that (yet). That took around 2 sessions of 4 hours. From this point onwards, everything went astray. They would constantly be suspicious of his (character's) actions and what he said. After they got him lying about I don't even remember what, they would even "try to listen carefully if there was a conversation going on in his bedroom". Note that by this time, the characters already had information enough to actually be suspicious. The problem is that they would never have gotten (okay, they might, but certainly not how they did) this information if the characters were behaving normally from the start.

To be clear, the notes were traded in times the party was split, e.g. when they were about to sleep (separate rooms, rich party).

This might make the question too broad, but I'm interested in solutions as any person involved in the problem, i.e.

  • As the DM handling the situation.
  • As the player betraying the party.
  • As the players being betrayed.

I'm interested in solutions as anyone because I think there were flaws in everyone's actions and I often find myself in the position of any of them, although in this specific scenario I was the DM.

It didn't become a personal problem, and even the traitor player didn't want to argue and make a fuss over it, so we didn't talk about it. It did give me a bad taste, though.

Important Note on the Problem

As you can see, most of the question is in the past tense. That's because it's something that happened a while ago. I'm more interested in how to prevent metagaming based on out-of-game information—specifically during betrayal scenarios—from happening again, since the campaign where it happened is long dead, including the PCs. (I mention the campaign is dead because this means there's no use handling the problem now - it doesn't exist any more. That's why I want to prevent it, not handle it.)


Social Contract

These details are mostly for people thinking "OMG traitor player! Don't do that!"

  • We had all agreed with the possibility of betrayals in the campaign, both from NPCs and from other players. This might actually have increased the metagaming problem, as they knew betrayal was a possibility.
  • Metagaming was agreed to be "bad", but it seems the players couldn't control themselves on that, because the meta-information was too much.

Bad Answers

Honestly, I don't want to tell you how to answer my question, but metagaming questions are having some answers that are not helpful for me. I'll list some that I'm saying in advance: this won't help me.

  • "Don't play a PvP campaign" - Check this meta for why this is bad: Can we affirm that RPG.SE embraces a plurality of playstyles? - there are people that have fun playing PvP.
  • "Stop caring about metagame" - Same meta.
  • "Don't betray your party, the player should have asked for help from the party" - Same meta.
  • "Don't create a scenario where your player/PC wants to betray the party" - Really? For me that's one of the most interesting scenarios I can create. Also, it can be done correctly, even if it failed this time.
  • "Don't allow them to do X" - As the DM, I don't want to remove player's agency, even if it ultimately means I'm allowing metagame.

Related Question

The most similar I could find is How to prevent players from metagaming when they split the party?. The question is still pretty different simply because of the PvP nature of mine.


Online Gaming

I can see the value of playing online or IRL with everyone having a notebook and having private chatrooms with that. I've done that and it completely solves the issue. Sadly, I can't do that with every group. In particular, my current group is so problematic with Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram that we had to ban cellphones so they wouldn't lose concentration every 10 secs. We're already low on time and I don't want "hey check this cute cat video" interruptions - and I know I'll be getting them if cellphones/notebooks are on the table.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If the question is considered to be "3 in 1" due to the different points-of-view, I'm thinking on creating three different questions. I didn't want to do that for obvious reasons, but since I'm actually interested in the answers for the 3 different parties involved, I would rather having 3 questions than none (i.e. one closed). \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 4 '18 at 22:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ How long did it take to go from "player made decision to betray party" to "other players becoming aware" to "characters blatantly acting on out of game information"? \$\endgroup\$ – Philip Kendall Jun 4 '18 at 22:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PhilipKendall When I mention players becoming too aware, I meant the characters (PCs), so there's no gap between your second and third situations (becoming too aware is acting on out of game information). From the decision to betray to the characters becoming too aware, around 2 sessions, it was a gradual process. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 4 '18 at 22:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Super relevant: How to secretly talk to one of the players while DM'ing? \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Zastoupil Aug 3 '18 at 21:45
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Back when I ran Paranoia games, note-passing and backstabbing was a vital part of the game. I would encourage everyone to pass notes to me, and I would pass notes back to them, even if I had nothing to say. (Some of the notes had big zeroes drawn on them, which was code for "no actual message here, I'm just trying to confuse the other players".)

It made for a more comedic game than you maybe intend to have if you're running Curse of Strahd again. But we all enjoyed it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I did likewise—with the addition that sometimes the notes included specific instructions like Tell me, "Yes, that will do" or Laugh like this is really funny. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 5 '18 at 3:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a solution that came to mind, but I didn't put it as self-answer because I didn't have the opportunity to try it out yet. Knowing someone else did and it works is nice for me :) \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint Jun 5 '18 at 4:55
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TL;DR: don't be afraid to discuss out-of-character issues out-of-character.

I'm interested in solutions as any person involved in the problem, i.e.

  • As the DM handling the situation.
  • As the player betraying the party.

As soon as it became obvious to me that players were having their characters act on out-of-game information in violation of the social contract, I would have called a temporary halt to the session - anybody in the group should always be able to do this if they're not having fun. You then sit down as a bunch of actual people (not characters) and work out what you want to do about this:

"Hey folks, I think we all know out of character that something funny is going on here. We've agreed not to meta-game, but it seems to me that we're letting out-of-game knowledge influence in-game decisions, and I think we're in danger of breaking our social contract. What do you all think?"

This is now the starting point for a discussion. Maybe the non-betraying players say "whoops, yes. We'll try hard not to let that happen again". Maybe people discover that while they thought they were happy with PvP, it turns out they're not really when it all goes down. This isn't a bad thing, a social contract is always up for change if people aren't having fun. Come to an agreement as a group on how you want to handle this.

  • As the players being betrayed.

This one is trickier. Potentially there are three possibilities:

  1. The players aren't aware they are violating the social contract. In that situation, they're probably not going to do anything until somebody else points it out (see above).
  2. They players are aware they're violating the social contract, but want to stop - i.e. they want to be better role players. This is a good situation to be in, but can be hard. Maybe institute a system where anybody can flag what seems to be meta-gamed decisions and the player is then asked to justify their character's decision.
  3. The players are aware they're violating the social contract and don't want to stop. This means your social contract needs updating (or in the worst case scenario, you need to change the set of players in your group).
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handling this kind of subterfuge in game is the hardest thing to manage. In the case you have presented the player had a perfectly good backstory and reason to act as he did, the one thing I will say is that, by pre deciding what the end goal would be he removed the ability from the other players to determine the storyline.

If this was to happen again my advice to you, first of all explain clearly to the player that while you are not stopping there story, they need to understand what the pitfalls are and consider that the end result of this might be they are rolling another character up pretty soon into the game, at the end of the day in game one character is deciding to betray a group of killers and so they should understand that they might not get to stick around until the end. The player should also be gently persuaded to create the backstory but not to pre decide where that characters story is going to end up, have an open mind to the idea that the story might take them in a different direction to betraying the group. Maybe they will find a way out of the predicament that is different to how they see there story unfolding, the character doesn't know what is going to happen, they can't predict the future and so neither should the player.

Also work with them to help them understand that this is not just there story. Done well with the right party this kind of betrayal can run really well, but, other players can also feel cheated, especially if at the end there hard fought victory turns into a TPK because one of the players was acting against them. Explain that the players also want to get enjoyment out of this and by acting against the group in what is designed to be a cooperative game may give them satisfaction but may also upset the other players when it all comes out.

In terms of the mechanics of betrayal. First of all, if the players are suspecting something then you are perfectly reasonable to tell the players that yes there characters are suspicious as well. As a human being you don't have to catch someone in the act to be suspicious of them, and in a world where the characters are on edge, naturally suspicious of everything and have only just recently met this person it is possible that subtle changes in behaviour might trigger questions to be asked. As a GM if the player insists this isn't fair refer them back to the initial conversation and the fact that this might happen but also tell your players if there characters find nothing, that's it, you found nothing, the act of looking should make the character back off a little anyway as well an dso suspicions die down.

Now to restrict the physical passing of notes there are a couple of ways of doing this. First option is to have a set of pre defined actions that the player tells you he will be making unless he tells you otherwise. For instance, in the past a player has told me, every night when the other players are asleep or I am on watch i will communicate with X using the secret messenger stone he gave me. I will be telling him everything that I think he needs to know that happened that day and plans for tomorrow, If I am on watch in a pair I won't do it, or, if I say. I need a full night's sleep I don't do it. That sets up a series of rules and actions that I don't need the player to communicate to me. Next we set up a way for the player to let me know he needs to pass over information. on a table where players regularly pass notes that is easy, but, if they don't it may be a text message (the player pops to the loo or to get a drink and sends it to me, or they may say they are checking something about there character on dnd beyond or a rule and do it then. Short messages to the point).

I also arrange to touch base with the player on a regular basis, talk to them about there character and the story, this is done away from the session and allows me to help them shape there story while making sure I can pre prepare for what there actions might trigger.

Hope these help.

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