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Player Knowledge

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 60
Separating the information a player knows from the facts a character possesses regularly proves one of the most difficult challenges players face. “Metagaming,” or making decisions based on player knowledge as opposed to character knowledge, quickly erodes the group’s belief in the world the GM creates. It often frustrates both the GM and other players when an interesting adventure cracks because a given PC acts on information the character has no way of possessing, and such issues should be dealt with quickly and calmly when they come up.

To determine if a character’s action is appropriate, have the player justify his decision using only information the character knows. For example, if no one in-game has mentioned anything about vampires, but the player knows the GM loves vampires or was looking at vampire miniatures earlier, it’s metagaming to have his character stock up on wooden stakes and holy water. If, however, the character remembers the strange marks on the victims’ necks and the fact that all the attacks occurred at night (and perhaps makes a skill check to recall any information he has about monsters fitting those criteria), buying wooden stakes is a perfectly justifiable action.

Metagaming isn’t always intentional. If a player isn’t certain where the line between player knowledge and character knowledge falls, have him explain in-character why he’s making a decision. If he resorts to using game terms or vague statements (or sophisticated concepts that clash with the voice of his Intelligence 7 barbarian), the information likely comes from player knowledge.

This certainly doesn’t mean that characters have to be as dumb as posts, never making decisions unless they are blatantly obvious, but rather that players should strive to process information in the same way their characters would. This is the essence of roleplaying. For example, suppose a wizard character says, “The orc used sneak attack on us—therefore, he’s got to be a rogue, so I won’t cast fireball. I’ll cast charm person instead; he probably has a weak Will save.” This is clearly player knowledge: the player described his reasoning using game terms and rules knowledge. Contrast this with the player instead saying: “The orc is wearing light armor and doing an awful lot of damage with just a short sword. This reminds me of the wererat murderer we fought in Korvosa. That wererat avoided my fireballs like they weren’t even there, so I’m going to try charm person.” Here the player performs exactly the same action, using the same information, but justifies it with character knowledge instead of directly metagaming. Of course, this isn’t an excuse for players to fast-talk their way into metagaming, and if a character has too many justified epiphanies, you may still want to have a talk with the player.

One particularly sticky area of metagaming has nothing to do with game mechanics, but rather realworld knowledge and intelligence. Sometimes the player who’s a genius at solving puzzles and riddles wants to play a dumb brute of a swordsman. This is great—so long as his character isn’t still solving all the puzzles. In this situation (or the reverse, where the player who’s terrible at puzzles has an Intelligence score of 22), let all the players work together to solve the puzzle, but use skill checks and Intelligence checks to offer hints or determine who actually comes up with the solution. Similarly, don’t fall into the trap of letting a player’s knowledge base inform the character’s beyond what’s reasonable. Just because your player knows how to make gunpowder out of bat guano doesn’t mean his uneducated halfling cleric does.