Updated: Jan 8
(Adapted from Learning to Roleplay in Virtual Worlds)
Sam: Hi Sally. Pleased to meet you.
Sally: /me knits her brow. "Oh... hello... how do you know my name? Have we met before?" then grins abashedly. "So sorry, my memory must be failing me... What was your name again?"
What’s going on here? Sam is metagaming and Sally is not playing along. Metagaming means using information that you couldn’t have known in-game, i.e., that you got from outside the roleplay itself. In this case, Sam saw Sally’s name in the tag above her head, which would not exist in real life, so technically would not be used in roleplay.
Virtual worlds provide many more opportunities to metagame than tabletop roleplay, such as reading profiles. It’s important to know who you are dealing with, and profiles are a good place to start. I always read a person’s profile before roleplaying with them. Ideally, there you will find clues about the person that cannot be conveyed in virtual worlds but would be available in real life, such as their accent, how they smell, a scar not seen in the pixels, or subtle body language signals. Using those would not be metagaming, but if you read where the person is from or what their favorite food is, that wouldn’t be available to you in real life, so you couldn’t use it in your roleplay until you learn it some other way.
Another form of metagaming is being aware of what happens behind closed doors and drawn curtains. If you cam into a home and see a couple having sex (which is creepy, so please don’t), you cannot refer to it later in your roleplay because what you saw was OOC (out of character), and roleplaying as if you knew about it would be metagaming. You would actually have to hear them moaning and groaning (which they would have to emote for your benefit), or you could emote peeking through an opening in the curtains (after asking their permission to join in the scene), or barge in and catch them in the act to include it in your roleplay, although this could have some very unpleasant consequences later on, of course.
Similarly, you’re not supposed to know what’s being said inside a building you’re not in, or through a wall, even if you’re within local chat range to ‘hear’ it—unless they shout it, of course. You wouldn’t walk down the sidewalk, hear the neighbors talking at home, and spread the news with your roleplay partners. One exception to this would be if the scene involved you listening at the keyhole and overhearing what was said—again, with prior permission—all of which would have to be appropriately narrated in one or more posts.
An exception would be if you are roleplaying a character that should already know everyone’s name and basic information, such as a long-time student in a school or the son or daughter of a family. Otherwise, you would need to learn about people ‘in character’ as part of the roleplay. So get used to saying ‘Hello, ma’am/sir’ or something like that when you first meet someone. And bear in mind that they won’t know your name either until you introduce yourself.
There are trickier cases that are easier to mistake. For example, when someone narrates historical context and inner reflections in a post, but without actually saying it as part of their dialog, you can’t use that information in your roleplay without metagaming unless your character is already aware of it. For instance, if someone uses the ‘thought emote’ /me thinks that she is the most beautiful woman he has seen on the beach,’ you couldn’t respond as if you had heard it said, unless you are playing a mind-reader, of course, which is very rare. That is why using thought emotes is commonly frowned upon.
Another tricky point is seeing another’s (or your own) stats and using them to win a fight based on calculations. In a real-life fight, you would not know that a person has only 5 HP left and is about to crumble. However, if text-based fighting is included in the scene (i.e., true roleplay), the other player may see the stats and emote something about being at the end of their stamina, in which case it would be legitimate to use their prompt in your roleplay.
Some roleplay groups compile notecards of each scene to share with the other group members. However, if a member isn’t present for a particular scene, they may risk metagaming with that information because it is hard to ‘unknow’ something once you know it. That is why many roleplay groups prefer to share the information IC (in character) during a social gathering or debriefing session, so that everyone can use it without metagaming.
One common form of metagaming is during rescue roleplay. Rescues can make for interesting, exciting scenes, but it is amazing how often people go to rescue friends when they had no way of knowing about their capture in-game. Finding out they need rescuing via IMs or using the mini-map or radar is metagaming, but hearing about it from an eyewitness IC is not.
Permadeath is a highly controversial issue in this regard. Some defend each roleplayer’s right to choose whether to accept or reject permadeath. Others say that surviving multiple mortal wounds is unrealistic and should not be allowed. They claim that it is a form of metagaming to put your character at unreasonable risk just because you know OOC that nobody is allowed to kill you. They say that if you don’t want your character to die, you shouldn’t place it in situations that any reasonable person wanting to survive would avoid.
To conclude, metagaming is one of the most common mistakes in roleplaying, but is often not intentional. It's easy to metagame without even thinking about it. So if you think someone is metagaming and feel it is important enough to the scene to say something about it, please do so courteously and do not just assume they were trying to cheat. Roleplaying should be fun, and maintaining good relations with the other players—even with those playing your enemies—will go a long way towards making sure that it will remain enjoyable for everyone involved.
What do you think? Do you disagree with anything or have something to add? An example from your experience, maybe? Please leave a comment below to make this more of a conversation. Thanks!