# How should I deal with metagaming?

I'm the GM and author of my own system, which we have been playing for a couple of years now. Last year, four completely new members joined. Two players are giving hints to others even when their characters aren't around. As this is cheating for me, they have been losing some EXP for it. This helped for a while. However, last time, the group decided to accept the punishment and "cheated" intentionally.

One player (Vincent) was mind controlled and I planned to use him as a betrayer. Another player (Vanessa) knew about this, but her character wasn't with the group, as Vincent's character was about to fulfil my plan. Vanessa accepted the punishment and blurted out my entire plan, leading to the massacre of Vincent's character.

In my eyes, that was unacceptable, so I decided to increase the punishment for future evenings to a removal of all EXP gained that evening if a player cheats. In addition, if the player has already lost all their EXP, I will remove one random player’s EXP too. I hope that the players won’t risk cheating any more.

I know this is harsh, but I'm desperate to solve this problem, since my punishments have clearly become acceptable to them...

Did I go too far? Are there better ways to handle this problem?

• He just got it as a task and this plan only happened with his permission. – Kendel Ventonda Apr 17 '16 at 8:56
• Ok, that's fine then. Also, I changed the title as it seems to me that the problem is about how to deal with metagaming in general, rather than whether your particular punishment was too harsh. Feel free to roll it back (click on the "edited XX ago" link) if you think I've changed your meaning. – Ladifas Apr 17 '16 at 10:08
• If an action has in-game costs, players will think it socially-acceptable to take that action if the in-game benefits outweigh the costs. To discourage social behavior, use social costs, not in-game ones. – starchild Apr 17 '16 at 20:30
• Punishment ... wait ... what!? – Sardathrion Apr 18 '16 at 7:18

I'm going to make one critical assumption about your gaming group. If it's untrue, I don't know if my answer will be helpful: The friendship of the people at the table is more important than the game you're playing. Going forward I'm assuming you're all friends foremost, and you play games as a form of mutual recreation. Now, on to my answer.

TL;DR: This is not a game-mechanic problem, and game-mechanic solutions won't fix it. I learned the hard way that if I need game-rule punishments to get players to behave the way I want, it's already gone too far. Solve it as a social challenge, not a game problem. The group needs an out-of-game talk about agreeing on goals and playstyles.

So, you've made it clear that you want to run a game with a particular kind of attitude toward metagaming and you're willing to enforce that attitude punitively.

Some people in your group have made it clear they don't want a game with that attitude, and are willing to endure punitive measures in order to play the kind of game they want to play.

No amount of mechanical leverage is going to fix this situation, because you're trying to use game rules to address a social-level disconnect about the kind of game the group is playing. If you manage to find punishments that are harsh enough to force them into playing the way you want them to, they'll leave instead.

The way to handle this situation is to treat it as the social challenge it is, rather than a game problem. Have a group discussion about playstyle and goals. Hold it outside of play time, maybe over a meal. And since nobody in the group, GM or not, can order other people how to have fun, the discussion needs to be one in which friends are working out how to have fun together. Some of the answers to this question may be useful. Take off your GM hat and have a chat with your friends about how to make game time enjoyable for everyone.

The purpose of the discussion should be finding mutually compatible goals and playstyles that the group can agree on. If that proves impossible (I hope not! but it happens), then the group will know for sure that they aren't all going to be able to have fun in the game together. You can stop trying to force unwanted behaviour on the group and instead spend your energy playing fun games with the people whose playstyles match your own, and the people you can't collaborate with will be free to find groups more suited to their goals.

• I probably should have added that four of the other players really don't like cheating and metagaming and one even asked me to do something about it. – Kendel Ventonda Apr 17 '16 at 8:58
• @KendelVentonda If you have a few disruptive players, and you want to improve the experience for yourself and your other players, maybe take a look at this question, or ask a more general one about dealing with disruptive players, rather than focusing on your use of XP penalties: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/61884/… – DuckTapeAl Apr 17 '16 at 9:05
• @KendelVentonda That is useful context, but it doesn't change my read of the situation: some people want to play one way, some want to play another way, and the GM is gamifying the problem. In my experience, the best solution for a group with mismatched playstyles and game goals is trying to find common ground for everyone through social channels. I'm specifically saying that you need to take off the GM hat for that talk, so it doesn't really matter that it's not only the GM who likes the playstyle the GM is enforcing. (It's telling the other players want you to fix the problem for them.) – BESW Apr 17 '16 at 9:42
• While I like your answer, I am not sure that the assumption is valid base on the follow up comments from Kendel. – KorvinStarmast Apr 17 '16 at 22:43
• "Some people in your group have made it clear they don't want a game with that attitude" -- I'm not sure they've even done that. They're playing the game that's been put in front of them, and in that game you can pay a certain amount of XP to break the in-game reality to your advantage. I still agree about the solution, but it's worth approaching the discussion bearing in mind you might not even need to deal with conflicting goals. It seems paradoxical, but offer them a game in which they can't pay to do this and just say it's not allowed, they might stop wanting to do it. – Steve Jessop Apr 18 '16 at 15:05

What you're running into is the difference between social costs and economic costs.

Typically, the 'cost' for metagaming is a social one. When you metagame in a group that doesn't like metagaming, your friends get disappointed in you, and you feel embarrassed and ashamed for ruining other people's experience. What you've done is effectively replaced that social cost with an economic one, namely the loss of XP.

Studies have shown that charging an economic cost for a social problem makes the problem worse, not better. The study I remember most about this involved a daycare that had a problem with parents picking up their children late. At first, this just had a social cost, when the daycare employees would remind parents that they needed to pick up their kids on time. At one point, the daycare started charging parents extra money when they picked up their kids late. When they added the economic cost, the number of parents that would pick up their kids late actually increased. Basically, adding the economic cost removed the social cost entirely, which was counterproductive.

If you don't use game rules to tell people to not metagame, then you get to scold them and tell them that they're not playing the game that you're running, and expect those strategies to be effective. Once you add an XP cost, you make it so they stop caring about the social cost, which will only make the problem worse.

The upshot is this: Talk to your players, and tell them what kind of game you want to play as it involves metagaming. Make sure you're on the same page. Don't bother 'punishing' players by taking away XP, because that will only serve to make the problem worse.

• Excellent point. Once you've instituted an XP cost for metagaming, you've effectively made metagaming part of the system. – lisardggY Apr 17 '16 at 5:49
• I am familiar with the Israeli day care experiment: it is used in the social sciences of an example of how to totally stuff up your experiment's methodology to get data that is fundamentally flawed econlog.econlib.org/archives/2005/10/revenge_of_the.html – Dale M Apr 17 '16 at 7:39
• While your post is very interesting to read, I already talked to both of them twice. And the actual problem is, that the rest of the group really doesn't like metagaming and asked me to do something about it. It seems as the two who are metagaming don't care for this "social cost". – Kendel Ventonda Apr 17 '16 at 9:01
• @KendelVentonda: if they absolutely will not play the game in the way that it's designed to be played and which the GM and the established players play it, then eventually you run out of social costs which you're willing to apply. If that point is reached you chuck them out of the game. You're playing touch football in the park and one of the players refuses to stop tackling, then you refuse to play with them. – Steve Jessop Apr 18 '16 at 15:17
• @KendelVentonda You should modify your question to add that "the rest of the group really doesn't like metagaming and asked me to do something about it". – Roflo Apr 18 '16 at 15:41

The game mechanics that have the most benefit are incentives. Reward the player that plays with role-playing as their focus. Give an indication or hint as to why the reward is being added. "As character X has made this decision, he/she finds X reward as a result." As a result you have encouraged good role-playing instead of decisions based on gaming.

From the outset, you have to find a happy medium between the game that you want and the game that your players want. You can't change who the players are once they are seated at the table, and you can't change their behaviour that much. Try to get along better with your players, find a middle ground, and be a little less rigid in your approach. As gamemaster, you have the greatest potential to change the situation, much more than the players. You have the chance to compromise, for the sake of everyone's enjoyment and to engender a positive atmosphere.

Situations where you expect to put player characters in conflict against each other (e.g. the mind control scenario or where players are expected to lie and cheat on their fellow players) wont help to build common ground amongst a divided group. In the situation where you are struggling to manage the group, go for safer scenarios which build trust amongst the group (which includes you and the players).

Ultimately the question for your group to decide (and not you alone) is "how do we want to have fun with this game?". Decide this together, and if there are dissenters, as them the question, "are you with us?".

As already advised, have in depth meta discussions out of game time, when you're packing up or getting something to eat. Its good to use those times to talk about game style, and to keep the game time for roleplaying.

• Nice point about PvP and mind control inherently breaking group cohesion. – Miniman Apr 17 '16 at 8:50
• The only problem with this answer, which I mostly like, is that according to the person asking the question, the other players did not like meta gaming by the other players either, and were looking to the GM to do something about it. (Why they didn't use peer pressure is beyond our ability to mind read, as we only know one side of the story). – KorvinStarmast Apr 17 '16 at 22:40

It just shows how bad of a punishment XP loss is. There are some groups where that would work, but more often than not it doesn't. I would have done the same: if you can buy (or share with a friend) a vital info for your XP, why not go for it. It's likely that by taking away their XP you didn't show they can't do it, you just showed they can, for XP.

Not to mention that their characters XP is supposed to measure their characters progress and has nothing to do with their player's unacceptable behavior and metagaming. Well unless it's stated otherwise in your homebrew system rules, but that would be kind of silly.

And last but not least, many people in their place would keep doing it just out of spite. Or just to show you that they don't care about your punishment. It's like, saving a face, because nobody wants to appear "punished" or "put in their place".

What are the better methods... it depends. I find it best to talk to players, explain that such behavior ruins the game as intended. It usually helps. But my players are usually very roleplaying focused and while they do know lots of info their characters don't, they wouldn't even dream to act on it. I guess you can try and explain a clear distinction between a player and a character. Failing that, you can either stop creating complicated scenarios where different players have different knowledge. Or tell them you aren't going to run games for them anymore. But that's a last resort.

• As you mentioned, it indeed is a part of the reward to stay in role when it gets to XP. And that's how WoD, Cthulhu and other Systems handle it, too. So I don't think it's silly. I already talked to both, twice. Told them, that it's not fair to the others, that it's not fair to me and all that. Helped for like two sessions. And that's why I started to cut the XP, what helped for a year (like I posted). And like you wrote, I told them, that I won't write complex scenarios for them, when it won't stop. But I see, that's all I can do. – Kendel Ventonda Apr 16 '16 at 23:01
• @KendelVentonda you are right, in RP focused systems it's not silly at all to tie RP to character's progress. Although it's done more as a reward for exceptionally good RP than a punishment for metagaming, in WoD at least. Anyhow it seems to be the best course for everyone is to just get rid of those two players. – Sejanus Apr 17 '16 at 9:00

I will give one bad way (in my experience) to handle it, so you are not tempted to try it: Separate the players based on player character location.

This sort of meta-gaming used to bother me a lot more than it does now, and I would fret about it and try to prevent it by calling players to the side or even into another room for extended stretches. It technically worked by making the meta-gaming effectively impossible, but it was stressful for me as a GM, and reduced the effectively play time for the players in a way I did not fully appreciate until much later. (Specifically, it deprived them of the pleasure of being and/or having an audience. This is not as much fun as playing or being in the spotlight, but it's better than sitting around bored, waiting for the GM and the other players to come back.)

As a side note, you may wish to consider whether this was an case of one or more players basically vetoing your mind-control plot, or at least a blunt statement on their part about the relative merits of XP vs player agency/mind control.

• I think this is a great way to handle it. It creates a real representation of the inconvenience that splitting the party represents. Telling someone that they are somewhere else and therefore may not act to affect the ongoing events undermines player agency just as much as anything, and should be used extremely sparingly. – Random832 Apr 18 '16 at 2:26

Premise: I absoultely agree with the solutions promoted by BESW (currently ahead) and with several others. Talking with the players and solving the problem out of the game is king.

I will however show you two other possible ways to mitigate or prevent the problem.

The first is just marginally better than yours. It only works with minor metagaming ("Since I know this, my character does that") and it is not useful when, like your case seems to be, whole storylines get changed by metagaming. Yet it is useful to avoid small outbursts of metagame from ruining the game: rule that the metagame-informed action does not happen.

Of course this removes the game from the players' hands and this is not good, but it might be better than your XP cost that still makes it possible to metagame and get away with it. If the problem happened sparingly and in small doses, this might be a way to rein the game back on track without shifting the focus to the social problem.

Second, since this is a game you made yourself, have you considered creating an environment where metagaming can't mess with the story? I have no idea how to implement this on such a large scale, but I've seen games where a player knowing a monster's vulnerability is not enough to get advantages from it. You need to actually pass the roll or have the relevant trait on your character sheet to have the bonus.

Talking about plots, this might mean "roll perception or what-have-you. If you fail, you have no reason to jump on Vincent. Since Vanessa blurted it out, you must now live with not jumping on Vincent until you pass the roll, even if you had other reasons to do it."

Two players are giving hints to others even when their characters aren't around. As this is cheating for me, they have been losing some EXP for it

You haven't mentioned what the nature of the "hints" are, so I'm making some assumptions here. If they're things that those players' characters know and have had no opportunity to communicate to the other character, this is somewhat reasonable. (except for the usual problems with splitting the party, and why are you doing that often enough for this to become a regular issue anyway?)

Otherwise... it's important to recognize that the characters are with each other (except when they're split up) 24/7. And they like and trust each other enough to, well, form an adventuring party together. It's reasonable, therefore, to assume they talk about things even if these conversations are not roleplayed out. A player giving someone a "hint" when their character is not present can model either the fact that the characters are more competent than the players (in the case of a strategic hint), or that they would have talked about things over a meal or something (in the case of knowledge hints). If it even is something that the character reasonably wouldn't know rather than just that the player forgot or didn't think of.

A GM-ing style that rewards obsessive preparation, or punishes the lack thereof (in this case "obsessive preparation" in the form of roleplaying out long boring downtime strategy sessions to make sure that every character "knows" everything)... well, there's no wrong way to play, but it is a very unusual way to play and can be off-putting to many players especially if they haven't signed up for it.

Obviously, the one example you gave is far more straightforward. (But are you really running these plots often enough for this to be the case every time?) It'd be far simpler to just veto the other players' attempt to act on the information Vanessa gave them, rather than hand out punishments. Did you give them any opportunity to figure out Vincent's character was acting weird though? In D&D that'd be a sense motive check vs bluff. Or were you just going to kill their characters without allowing them any chance to defend themselves or notice anything wrong? That wouldn't be cool even if this were straight-up PVP rather than a mind control plot.

I find that both my experienced players and my new players benefit from encouraging roleplaying the character, instead of rollplaying. The example usually given is that a switch for a trap is accessible by players because that's how D&D works - the DM wouldn't dare NOT put one in, because that would make it unfair to the players and make the DM out to be an evil bastard that's screwing with them out of spite.

The best way to reward players for avoiding metagaming is to reward them for figuring out the problem, even if it has to be creatively done. A DM should always give them a way out, unless the point is to kill a character (or all of them) but THEN to continue on. The knee-jerk "Rocks fall, everyone dies" approach to players testing the DM's patience is the immature, frustrated response.

Amateurs. :p

D&D is about having fun. A serious campaign is fine, but many do fall into the silly category. DMs should be FAIR. Hitting them in XP is a dick move. There's a saying about arguments - if someone can't hold a candle to your argument, they will often, in frustration, attack you personally, or at least your character. They're attacking the person for who they are, because they're a sore loser. That's basically the DM version of character assassination. The XP loss is the lowest form of punishment, and it's petty payback, really. Punishing should be the last resort, not the first. People tend to respond better to encouragement and reward for good thinking, than to punishment. Encouraging creative solutions to problems that don't seem to have a solution at all, is a rewarding victory. Players will more likely talk positively about overcoming challenges with good tactics, and prefer that over being punished with an XP cost, for the reasons listed already in the answers. The XP cost is the lazy and unoriginal punishment, and you're a DM. Surely you can come up with more... creative punishments? :p

Don't punish the characters with a hit to their XP because the players lean on metagaming. What you do is persuade them to roleplay better, by reminding them that it's a more rewarding and satisfying experience if they play "in character" and actually ROLEplay, not ROLLplay. D&D is better when players get into it, as I can attest to personally. When they ACT their way out of a problem (or into it) it's much more satisfying to the player than overcoming a problem by knowledge that their characters can't know, but that players know because it's a mechanical system. It's hard to marry the two facets - story and dice-rolling - but if you make the effort, the players will respond better. You get more out of your players if you build them up instead of tearing them down.

• Not a bad answer for D&D, but if you read the question, the GM is playing a game that he authored himself. This isn't a D&D question (though a lot of the same principles apply ...) – KorvinStarmast Apr 17 '16 at 22:37

As others have already said here it sadly boils down to a social problem and not a problem solveable by game mechanics.

I had a similar case myself where I just put out 0 xp to the guy in question time and time again but still he didn't learn until he was thrown out of the group.

That experience aside it sounds like you had a solid group and the addition of those 4 started the problems. As sad as it is even 1 rotten apple can infect all others. Your first try was the standard method: 0 xp but also it is always good to let the meta playing player know that meta gaming is not acceptable.

That aside if he does it time and again despite this and in severe cases where it ruins the entire plot and the fun of things you should consider what is more important 1 player, 2 players or the group as from experience: When the gm has no more fun then the players will feel it over short or long and the group WILL break up as a result with no chance of saving anything.

Thus when the first method does not work stop immediately when it happens again and take a step out asking the player who did it to come with you.....then ask why he/she did it as metagaming is not acceptable in that group. Maybe it was an oversight or he/she found something funny and didn't think of consequences......if the answer though is not good or it happens more than once you should consider what is more important.....having that one player in the group or having a group that can play in character.

From the sounds of it you are like me someone who likes the later more, thus the removal of the player will then be the only option there.

If you remove this player then also let the others know WHY. Thus that you tried to make him/her play along the rules of the group but he/she didn't want to. As else it could be that you have a former player on your hands who sprouts rumors (at least if its a vengeful one) and manages to break the group up that way (seen and heard this before so also saying this sa final word there).

As summary here: Think what is more important: The player or the group and then act accordingly.

• This seems a bit extreme; are you really saying that if someone has opinions about how to play which the GM and/or majority of the group disagrees with, that person should either change their behaviour or leave the group? Is there any room for collaboration or seeking common ground, or am I correct in reading this as saying only people in the minority should consider making changes to their playstyle to accommodate their friends? If I'm mistaken in understanding your answer, can you edit it to be more clear? – BESW Apr 17 '16 at 11:55
• @BESW Like I mentioned in the answer it boils down mostly to what one can live with. If the gm is not able to as it makes him unhappy (as the OP seems to be) then something needs to change either the players behaviour or the consistency of the group. Else he will loose the group over short or long (more short) for sure. – Thomas E. Apr 17 '16 at 11:59
• IF its a player having the problems then it must still be seen if he can live with it.....if not a talk with the group is necessary and if that does not bring anything.....the player will have to think about leaving as like I said 1 unhappy/rotten player can and will bring the group down. As harsh as it may sound...I've seen and also heard it time and time again sadly. – Thomas E. Apr 17 '16 at 11:59