Talk about RPGs long enough, go to enough forums where people discuss gaming, and it won't be long before you start to see people talking about metagaming. The word gets bandied around a lot, and it's almost always said to be a bad thing, but what is it actually? Today I want to talk about that. In particular, I want to debunk the idea that it is always bad. There is good metagaming, and there is bad metagaming. When people talk about it on forums they're almost always talking about the bad, but knowing the difference - and how it works - will make you a better player and/or GM, and it will mean that when you call someone out for metagaming you can be sure that what they're doing is considered bad form.
What Is Metagaming
By it's most common usage, metagaming is defined as when a player takes an action because of OOC information they have as opposed to IC information/motives/etc. In other words, the PC makes a move, or benefits from information, that the player has, not the character that is being played.
The easiest example of this is when a group of adventurers goes against trolls for the first time. A player who has played other games, or who has read through the monster manual, will know to use fire against the trolls, or the fight will basically never end. However, when said player has their character use fire - despite the fact said character almost never uses fire - to hurt the trolls that is metagaming. Their character has no way to know to use fire - and never uses fire, but suddenly uses fire when faced with this creature.
Another example is when a player knows that a character is going to betray them, and so suddenly becomes suspicious of the character while in character.
A final example, more egregious than the others, would be a player reading through the adventure beforehand, and using that information to guide people through the 'easy' path to completion. This, unlike the others, is definitely malicious, and not something you should ever condone at your table.
All those examples are for bad metagaming, and bad metagaming is the one you see discussed the most often. To put it in one line, bad metagaming is using out of character knowledge to the benefit of your character and to the hindrance of the game in general. Basically, it breaks the game in your favor, and it's usually fairly obvious because it often involves breaking character in order to benefit from it.
Consider if you have a player who always uses a sword against everyone he faces. He loves his sword. He talks about it all the time. The character wants to be the best swordfighter ever and prove that everything can be beaten with a sword. Then you're fighting a monster, and that character suddenly starts hanging back and throwing molotov cocktails at the enemy. You've never faced this type of enemy before, the GM has said no one has successfully identified it, but there goes this guy now afraid to get in melee and throwing molotovs like it's going out of style.
It feels weird. It feels a little cheap. And it's pretty obvious.
Some uses are less malicious or bad, and are probably necessary. it stems from people trying not to metagame, but also wanting to benefit from what they know. I call it fishing.
Fishing is when someone tries to find a reason for their character to explore towards what they know the right answer is. The player knows the right answer. They know their character does not know the right answer. They don't want to metagame. However, they still want to win efficiently and safely (this is a more than understandable feeling.) And so you get people fishing.
you start seeing things like "Ah, well the acid splash didn't do anything against the creature. So maybe thunder will?" Only for the next round "Thunder also didn't work. Let's try fire!" Some people are good enough to put multiple fails in the way. Some put just one. But either way, you can see the person is fishing for an answer they know.
The other common time you see this comes with pending betrayal. Player A knows Character B is going to betray them. They don't want to metagame. However, since they know OOC it is hard. So you start getting a lot more queries like "Can I insight check that?" or "Are they giving any sign that they don't have my best interest at heart?"
This is again totally natural. It comes with letting the player in on the pending betrayal. Yes, you're going for tension, and these questions are coming from that tension. Very rarely is someone's fantasy "and then my ally will betray me and I'll get played like a sucker and end up like Robb Stark on his wedding day."
because of how understandable it is, I consider Fishing a grey area. Excessive fishing is bad, but that can be solved with the GM just putting their foot down on things. Most players will listen.
What about good metagaming?
I said above that bad metagaming was using OOC knowledge to the detriment of the game or the fun of others. Which means that if you use OOC knowledge to the benefit of the game and others, it isn't bad right? More or less yes. Good metagaming is actually relied upon for most games to even work.
Consider your normal party of adventurers. D&D has a long history of throwing a group of PCs together at a tavern, or through some twist of fate. But why do these people stick together? Consider your various groups. I bet you have some good reasons in there - became really good friends, etc - but I bet there are also some weak ones in their too. The reason most groups stick together is because the players know that if they break apart the game ends more or less. And so the characters stick together, sometimes for no reason, and the group happens and eventually the group has been together long enough that the Why doesn't matter.
Until someone dies. Then the group needs a reason to let the new PC in. This often results in a random person in the world being given more acknowledgment, respect, and concern than the PCs have shown to any other person in the world. Said person is then welcomed into the group, given a fair cut of the loot, and replaces the old member. Rarely is this with a good reason - and for good reason, it's hard - but people do it because it is necessary for the game.
Anytime your character has followed a hook you didn't think they'd normally care about, given someone an extra inch because their a PC, or quelled some urge to keep things running smooth you've metagamed a little bit. And that's perfectly alright.
There are other things too. Maybe it's not in character for Rhogar to allow his friend Flynn to face an opponent alone. However, /I/ know this fight is important to Flynn's player for story reasons. So, even though it is OOC for Rhogar, this one time Rhogar understands Flynn's need to do a thing on his own. Metagaming? yes. But it lets another player shine, and so it's great.