I’m playing D&D with a group of friends. Since some of us are new we picked a module that would be easy play. This is a module that I have never played before.
While playing through the module, my character and by extension myself, managed to guess the motives and actions of the NPCs and the enemy we were dealing with, and therefore acted accordingly. The DM and one of the other players are angry about me guessing because they hate metagaming.
Is it really metagaming when I am just getting lucky with what happens next because I am playing my character smart and clever?
Should I tone it down with the lucky guesses or is this a sign that I should probably stop playing with them cause it might lead to blows or a fight with the group?
We are playing the ‘Hoard of the Dragon Queen’ module and I am playing as a Paladin with the criminal background. I wanted to play as a paladin that was once a criminal and is now reformed, and apparently a few times know when I used that criminal knowledge to find out where the dragon cultists are going or may do, the DM and even one of the players had to message me aside and tell me that I am metagaming.
I didn’t even know that using the knowledge that a criminal might know was considered metagaming.
I know that as a criminal what they would do such as hiding cargo in hidden compartments, be paying off the guards to try and get by without getting inspected, taking different routes or even using an underground tunnel to haul their ill-gotten loot through a swamp while everyone waited for the cargo to be moved from the surface back to a wagon.
My paladin has an intelligence of 12, I don’t know if this would matter but that is what I think of how he would use his prior-jobs knowledge when confronting these people.
My Group consists of me, the Neutral Good Oath of Vengeance Paladin with the criminal background, a half-elf Inquisitive Rogue with what I think is the cloistered scholar background, a goliath berserker barbarian with maybe the outlander background, a firbolg cleric of life with maybe the hermit background, a dragonborn sorcerer with the guild artisan background, a loxodon ranger with maybe the outlander background, and a recent addition to the group some sort of shifter with an unknown background.
I have been playing D&D for quite a few years, most of it with homebrewed campaigns with the exception of a Saltmarsh module and Ravenloft, the people playing the firbolg, goliath and rogue have also played D&D before with varying experience between them, the DM, the loxodon, dragonborn and the shifter-esqe have little or no experience playing. We all have tried to help the DM be a better DM by giving advice, some homebrewed rules that made sense cause some of the basic rules of D&D are a little odd or didn’t make some sense.
Anyways, I am confused that even with my ‘Criminal Background’ that I presented to the group cause at a point in the campaign we had a few sitdowns at taverns, campfires and other places of rest to talk about ourselves and they thoroughly know that I was a criminal at some point cause I told them that I was once one and that they can see the resulting punishments of branding and torture one would probably get for being a criminal. They know that I am a criminal yet they seem to forget that seeing how I was once a criminal that I would know the criminal thing to do to avoid getting caught or hide things from being noticed, hell, the barbarian in the group doesn’t fully trust my character because I was a criminal and has even threatened me ingame that if I were to harm the group or try to steal from someone that they would cut off the hand that did the stealing.
I am not sure if I am in the wrong or if its the group and that they sometimes forget about my background choice that led up to this point.
It is not metagaming and you should say so.
Metagaming is using outside (metagame) knowledge of yours to inform your character’s decisions. If you don’t know the module you do not a priori have any relevant outside knowledge on that module that the others do not so you cannot metagame the way you are accused of any more than the others can. If you had read the module, you would be metagaming. The information that causes problems in this case might be more of the type which is general knowledge to you but not be that for the average character in the Forgotten Realms (vide supra). Since the information you leverage is based on the background of your character (smuggling for an ex-criminal) your character has good in-game reasons to have knowledge on the subject that you have from your modern education.
It is almost impossible to exclude metagame knowledge.
Most people playing TTRPGs have had a very different life from the average character. First of all they have gone to school. Therefore, they know how a steam engine works, how to mix black powder or a thermite reaction, have the basic notions of quantum mechanics, know the basics of transmission of diseases, as well as that they should wash their hands when there is a risk of infection and that you cannot drink mercury to cure things. Much of this constitutes knowledge which is not reasonably available in the Forgotten Realms. The same might be true of information from other fantasy media. Most players have played multiple TTRPGs as well as video games, have watched movies and read books. They therefore know the principles that get rehashed in every other instance.
It is very difficult to pretend to not know something. Usually you can either use the knowledge to your advantage, or say that if you hadn’t known you had done the exact opposite and done that. Both is metagaming, i.e. doing the exact opposite of what would be reasonable given some info is still using that info.
Usually, the vast player knowledge is not a problem. The moment it becomes obvious that outside knowledge is relevant and that it makes a big difference, there is a problem and a quandary because people need to decide between doing the one thing or the opposite.
There are some cases where such a thing might often happen, like separating groups when all players still talk together or give a challenge which has a solution that is obvious with metagame knowledge but unknown to the characters. The best is to avoid such situations in the game from arising. I will always use problems in my game where the players do not know an obvious solution either unless they acquired information in the game. By doing that I could avoid those problems which has worked well.
For further reading, refer to this article [Warning: long and contains some strong language]:
What you should do.
What problematic metagaming is, might be a matter of opinion. Being on the same page on this is probably important to have everyone enjoy the game. You should tell the others that you do not know the module at all and hence do not have knowledge that the others have not. If they disagree, it is likely that they want you to do what I designated the opposite above. If you understand that that is expected of you and you cannot convince them otherwise, you should either do what they want or leave. Having a friendly discussion first without accusations might solve the problem before it comes to that. If they want you to do to the opposite of what your metagame knowledge suggests (when there is) and you do not want to do that and they do not want to avoid problematic situations (vide infra), you have a problem of divergent expectations. If the divergence is too big, you probably have to look for another group since everyone’s expectations can never be met. For the moment you should assume, however that you are not metagaming any more than anyonr else.
Absolutely Almost Certainly Not Metagaming
Taking you at your word that you’ve never read or played this module (and I do believe you– I have no reason not to) then this is not metagaming and you’ve done nothing wrong.
Meta-gaming, very tersely defined, is the inappropriate application of player knowledge to guide character actions. Usually, people think of situations like the following, rather than just outright reading a module:
- Using knowledge of the game system (Order of the Stick-style) to guide actions
- Using knowledge of scenes with other characters that your character wasn’t present for
- Using knowledge of die rolls to guide actions, etc
I guess technically reading an adventure before hand would count, but I think most people would class that as something even more severe. But in any case, if you had no knowledge of the adventure before making your observations and turning out to be correct, then you weren’t metagaming.
There is a possible edge case when dealing with, for instance, genre conventions. But there are at least two problems with that idea:
- Genre conventions are subverted so often, that relying on them is useless, and your GM’s solution would be obvious: Subvert more genre conventions. (If indeed this is what your GM is complaining about in the first place.)
- Demanding that you ignore (or intentionally play into) genre conventions is ipso facto a form of metagaming!
I would not change my play style. But I might not play with people that I thought would start a physical fight over something so trivial.
Your Specific Situation
Based on the recent updates to your post, if I bend over backward, squint, and use a jeweler’s loupe, I can kinda sorta see a path from your actions to accusations of metagaming. It runs like this:
- You’re a Paladin, but you have (I believe, based on the phrasing) taken the ‘Criminal’ background from the 5e PHB in a formal sense.
- Te-e-echnically, nothing in that Background gives you special game mechanical access to knowledge of typical criminal methods. It is strongly, strongly implied in the proficiencies of Deception and Stealth– I think it is reasonable and customary to allow converting most skills into a sort of “Knowledge: Skill Application” check. Heck, it’s strongly, strongly implied just in the description of the background.
- It is possible, I suppose, that the GM wanted you to go through those mechanics of checking skills, or go through the mechanics of checking the Background Feature: Criminal Contact, or that if you didn’t choose the Backgroung Specialty of Smuggling they just considered all of this out of bounds.
And that would be a decision technically within the remit of the GM to make and enforce. But I wouldn’t like it as a player, and I’d probably argue my point:
First, I as a real person playing the game do not have a criminal background, and yet the idea that smugglers employ bribery, concealed compartments, tunnels, etc is not foreign to me. It’s a gut check, but I cannot imagine this knowledge would be foreign to the average resident of a major trading hub like Waterdeep, much less a character with a criminal background. It’s too obvious.
(I would be more understanding on this point if the character in question had some obvious deficiency in Intelligence or perhaps Wisdom, but that does not seem to be the case. Wisdom is not mentioned, and Intelligence is high enough to grant bonuses.)
Second, as a GM, if I thought a player in a similar situation were taking liberties or springing over a lot of plot that I wanted to play through, I wouldn’t bust out the Metagaming accusations (because I don’t consider it so.) I’d just insist on more mechanical structure. Just because you know about secret compartments and tunnels doesn’t mean you automatically know how to find them– I’d probably ask for that Deception check and, on a success, allow you or the Rogue a bonus on searching for them. More likely, I’d steer you toward (re-) developing criminal contacts in the area, and have your Paladin up to their armpits in moral dilemmas.
An experienced GM would make this a teachable moment in how Backgrounds and Skills work. As an experienced player, there’s the potential to make this a teachable moment for your GM, but I will admit this is dicey at best.
Third and most abstract, when I see players metagame real world or professional knowledge into a game, it almost always causes issues because it’s wrong in-universe and ends up trying to hijack the way the game world works. Examples:
I’ve seen players in high tech game settings try to make arguments about what should or should not work based on modern electronics. This is particularly bad in settings like Star Wars, where tech is magic.
beenseen a player who tried to coax enough real world information out of a GM in a fantasy game to figure out the weak points of a castle. Uh, no, that really is specialized knowledge and influenced by fantasy game logic.
No one makes gunpowder in my fantasy settings. Ever. Even if gunpowder for some reason would work, the knowledge would be far too specialized for a person to just whip up into working devices.
But this doesn’t seem to be a case of that. This is a player using what seems to me to be ordinary knowledge and insight, backed up with a mechanical justification, to make some astute inferences that turned out to be correct.
I would still not consider this as metagaming, and I would look askance at anyone who really does.
Time to teach the table about metagaming.
You aren’t doing metagaming.
Introduce them to this post about metagaming.
Point out that every die roll is a meta game activity; none of the characters “in-world” see a d4 roll for dagger thrusts, nor do they see a d20 roll by when making a saving throw. Also have them look up how Bardic Inspiration and the Wizard, Diviniation school, feature Portent works: these two PC features interact directly with the metagame of dice rolling.
Read your background(Criminal) to them, word for word, from the PHB.
Feature: Criminal Contact
You have a reliable and trustworthy contact who acts as your liaison
to a network of other criminals. You know how to get messages to and
from your contact, even over great distances; specifically, you know
the local messengers, corrupt caravan masters, and seedy sailors who
can deliver messages for you.
This is your character. You want a Paladin, and you want his background to be Criminal. That is right out of the PHB as a character. You want to role play that character to include the features from your background. Your DM ought to be awarding you inspiration, and your fellow players ought to be appreciating you playing the character in a manner consistent with the background. Ask your DM why he objects to you playing the character that you created. Incorporating your background into play like that makes the character more three dimensional, rather than a cartoon cut out of a trope or a cliche.
The Paladin’s 12 Intelligence score actually helps your case.
Average intelligence from rolling 3d6 is 10.5, and from rolling 4d6drop1 is about 12.24. Your paladin has Average Int for an adventurer, and has above average Intelligence for an in-world persom. It makes sense to use his brain.
Good play includes being resourceful and interacting with the game world.
You are doing this.
Introduce them to Inigo Montoya as regards the term metagaming: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
If they can’t wrap their brains around this and accept that you are playing your character to its fullest, then I suggest that you find a less toxic group to play with. They are engaging in the disagreeable “you are having badwrongfun” attitude with you.
It might be worth asking them, after you explain the above, why they disagree with you role playing your character fully. If the answer is still “metagaming” it might be worth a few more iterations of Inigo Montoya, or, moving on to a group that doesn’t have this attitude.
This is something to discuss before and during the game
I’m going to approach this from a bit of a different angle than the other answers: you need more meta thinking, not less. At very least you need to consider the meta-game concept of “will my fellow players like it if I do this”.
The role-playing game scene borrows heavily from popular genres of fiction and for many players, emulating these genres is a core part of their enjoyment of the game. This means they may want to play straight tropes, clichés and conventions of the genre. Making choices appropriate for the drama of the genre often necessitates willfully suspending one’s disbelief and thinking about one’s character’s actions through the lens of the genre.
For an example, consider the Harry Potter series, where it is a repeated occurrence that the protagonists are mislead about the true identity of the bad guys of the particular installment. Even the extremely smart and observant Hermione Granger notices but fails to connect a lot of clues – including ones obvious in hindsight. While that’s chance at play in-universe, there is a clear purpose behind it: it just creates a better story.
For another example: spy fiction, both of the Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming variety, practically never has the protagonist succeed at foiling the bad guys’ plot until the last minute. No matter how close they get, they always fail to thwart the first stage of the evil scheme because it creates a more satisfying (and longer, and more eventful) story. A story where the villains are apprehended well before their plan is ready usually has a far more sinister plot unveil in the second act. Or is a parody.
This is why it is profoundly important to get your expectations aligned before the game (and maintain the alignment over the course of the game): different people might have different ideas on how these tropes should play out in RPGs. Some people like challenging themselves to outperform their traditional fiction equivalents and actually thwart the bad guys well before they come close to world domination, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as everyone is on board. Others prefer to stick close to genre conventions, and have an escalating progression of near misses until a big climatic showdown to decide the fate of the world. There is no single correct way to play, but agreeing on a common way makes for more enjoyable games.
To avoid “My Guy Syndrome”, your agreed play-style includes how your character traits manifest in the game: there is no single correct way to play a certain type of character, so you cannot avoid criticism by disclaiming the decisions to your character. If your character is ridiculously inquisitive in a game where the players are expected to do their best to reach a particular goal like stopping a villain, it is completely fine for such inquisitiveness to result in the villain’s scheme being uncovered “prematurely” like happened in your case. But if you’re playing a game where a more traditional plot structure is desired, which sounds like what the other players had in mind, a ridiculously inquisitive character’s observations about the villain should either be wrong in a way embracing dramatic irony or drowned in the noise of red herrings they also fix their attention upon.
I heartily recommend having a conversation about expectations of the group the next time you play, and before any new campaign you start, and every couple of sessions. The Same Page Tool is a popular discussion template, but I recommend also drawing inspiration from the issues you’ve had in the previous games, including this specific case.
One notable campaign started as one with a hidden evil plot masquerading as a heroic organization, but changed mid-way as the players guessed what the bad guys were up to. I congratulated them for their keen eye for clichéd bad guy coups, and then asked them which they’d like: have their characters come to the same realization, or have them remain in the dark and play the evil scheme to the climax.
They chose the latter, to keep working for the bad guys until the big reveal, and it was really fun. Of particular note, they really relished the dramatic irony of having their characters almost ruin the world by being too helpful to the bad guys, which wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t “meta-gamed” both the guess, and then their character’s ignorance of it.
One can never completely exclude themselves from meta-gaming knowledge. You know you’re playing an RPG, you probably know the genre at least vaguely. Maybe the scenario book synopsis, and most definitely if the scenario book is a 400 page door stopper you know it’s not over yet if things seem to be good after the second session. Used properly, meta-gaming is a force of creativity, not something to be avoided, and the best way to use it is up for you and your group to discuss and experiment.
But is it really metagaming when I am just getting lucky with what happens next cause I am playing my character smart and clever?
Whether this is metagaming or not, in this context, doesn’t really matter.
If you really want to know what I think about metagaming you can read my answers on it.
In short: all RPG gaming is metagaming because you are not your character and the best you can do is to imagine what it’s like to be your character and imagine what they would do. No matter how good your imagination is; you are going to fail. See What is it like to be a bat?
Where people draw the line between acceptable metagaming and unacceptable metagaming is entirely a matter of personal preference. The problem is not whether you or I think you are unacceptably metagaming; its whether the people you are playing with think so. Since this is a matter of personal taste and opinion it is not something they can be wrong about.
Should I tone it down with the lucky guesses or is this a sign that I should probably stop playing with them cause it might lead to blows or a fight with the group?
Ah! The important question!
You said, “this is pissing off the DM and one of the other players because” … reasons. The reasons don’t matter.
You have basically these choices:
- Continue to behave as you are and continue to piss people off.
- Moderate your behaviour and stop pissing people off.
- Negotiate a position between 1 & 2 which will result in an acceptable sharing of the pissing off between you and them.
- Decide that moderating your behaviour will remove the fun from the game for you but that you do not want to piss people off and leave.
If you truly think that your behaviour really might “lead to blows” then definitely look for another group because it’s a game about make-believe elves; it never justifies hitting real people.
This issue is about group expectations, not metagaming
So look, I know that they’re using the term “metagaming” in their complaint, and from a straight-up definition it would appear that this “guessing” would not fall under that.
So this complaint is misnamed… but then what is the real issue here? Well, just on the face of it, there’s clearly a mismatch on the kind of game that the DM (and the one other player) are trying to create. Perhaps the issue is that they want the players to be “along for the ride”, not trying to second-guess matters. If this group is similar to some groups I’ve been in, perhaps they want to fight more and talk less.
But even more, the OP said that the DM is not very experienced. He’s probably even less confident in “intrigue” plots, and perhaps not prepared to change his plots on the spot. It’s easy to imagine that he might see your “guessing” as “messing up my story”.
It can be really hard for a newer GM to handle experienced players. IF you like the group, you may have to rethink how your character uses his knowledge ingame, just for the sake of your group. If the GM is a jerk about it, maybe it’s not worth it. If he’s getting better and improving the experience over time, maybe it’s worth it to give him “room” to develop his style.
tl;dr: You do seem to have a problem at the table, but whether or not it’s “metagaming” is largely beside the point. Your DM may not be flexible or experienced enough to accommodate your correct guesses, and you may be using the criminal background too expansively.
It’s probably not metagaming…
Using a PC’s backgrounds and specializations to address in-game obstacles is what those backgrounds and specializations are for. Even if it’s a stretch to say that a character may be able to use a particular feat, feature, tool, or ability to deal with a challenge successfully, that doesn’t mean that a character wouldn’t try to use what they have to get what they need.
Wizards tend to look for magical solutions to problems and Rogues tend to look for sneaky solutions. That’s what the game is. A former criminal spent a fair amount of time thinking that crime and criminals are the right way to approach issues, and developing the skills, sensibilities, and contacts to do so. It is 100% appropriate for such a character to try to use the traits they think might apply in situations where they think those traits would help.
…but it might be.
Your question lists a lot of things that you think a criminal “might know”. That’s fair! But people may not be on the same page with the details.
- If your character’s criminal past was mostly as a pickpocket, as
opposed to a smuggler, it’s tenuous to say that they would know all
about secret compartments used to smuggle stolen goods.
- If your character was an enforcer for a criminal gang, they might
know a lot about how such gangs operate and could find a reliable
underground informant, but might know nothing at all about counterfeiting or money
- If your character was an experienced smuggler they might know about
moving goods discreetly, but that might not be much help in finding a
specific smuggling route through a swamp they otherwise don’t even
- A hired killer might be great at plotting and carrying out
surreptitious assassinations, but might be totally clueless about how
to carry out a con or a profitable fraud.
Trying to say that your character has an encyclopedic, or even generally practical, knowledge about any illegal activity of any type places a lot of plot-mechanical emphasis on a background that costs nothing to take at character creation. This is made slightly more intense by your statement that you are playing this character “smart and clever”, when the Ability you deem the relevant one (Intelligence) is only a 12 (above average intelligence, but not obviously a character smart enough to out-think a large, sophisticated, and coordinated secret society).
What makes it seem potentially metagamey is that you are using a single, non-mechanically relevant phrase on the character sheet to announce automatic successes on the recurring element of HotDQ‘s plot. If your guesses weren’t generally right then that wouldn’t be much of a problem, but since they are the lack of mechanical interaction between the background and gameplay leaves few tools for the DM to affect your ability to skip the investigation and mystery elements of the module’s plot. This is especially true if your DM is running the game strictly by the book.
Whether or not this is actually metagaming, the true problem is almost certainly that your correct guesses are cutting out gameplay segments your DM intended and the other players expect. And that content isn’t being replaced by anything, nor is your DM capable of (or perhaps interested in) limiting your ability to do so in-game. Hence the blanket demand that you “stop metagaming”.
Your character’s criminal experience may be poorly related to activities of the dragon cult.
Some of the problem may be with the module itself. The dragon cultists are almost certainly not anything like any criminal groups your character’s background may represent. This is not an organized crime gang, where you have the (movie-style) Italian mafia, the Russian mob, and then oh yeah those dragon cultists. They are a secret society with specific, near-term goals and enormous resources– they do not
burgle a bunch of houses in Greenest, they besiege and rob the entire city!
It’s not clear to me that any amount of history as a pickpocket would give you any insight into the workings, general or specific, of an organization like the cult. They’re not trying to move a couple of kilograms of drugs past one customs checkpoint. They are stealing towns’ worth of valuable goods and moving an army around the region.
It’s also my feeling that Hoard of the Dragon Queen is heavily focused on both the mystery of what the cult is doing (and why), along with their being generally one or two steps ahead of the players. But the cult is also central to the plot, and there aren’t a whole lot of curve balls or cunning schemes around what it does– accurate guesses aren’t all that hard to make.
Getting too much of a leg up on them can take the whole campaign off-book and completely obviate the sequel Rise of Tiamat. It’s on your DM to handle that, and it certainly can be done, but not every DM is equally ready and capable of doing it well.
What to do?
There are a few things I’ve seen (and done) which might help ease these problems. The first and most important is simply to talk to your DM about the issue so that you can be on the same page about why they think you’re metagaming, and why you think you’re not. This is ideal because it helps ensure that you’ll be talking about the problem you actually have, and not solving one you don’t but which happens to have similar features.
- Define your character’s criminal past more precisely
As above, “criminal” is not a well-defined area of knowledge. This can help define how your character actually uses their background to address current problems:
A former smuggler might be able to piece together information about how so much stolen wealth is being moved around without notice, or be able to identify what things might need to be in place to even try to do so. A petty burglar might know how to find a local fence, who might have some information on an unusual volume of illicit goods moving through a city. A former enforcer or assassin might be able to find the sorts of places where the cult’s mercenaries are likely to hang out and get information from them. It is less plausible that a character would be equally capable of all three of these simply by virtue of having been a “criminal”.
Knowledge might also have some geographic limitations. A person expert in navigating the criminal underworld in Neverwinter doesn’t necessarily have contacts in or information about the underworld in Baldur’s Gate.
Importantly, details like this round out your character rather than being a poorly defined Swiss army knife which you, the player, use to back up guesses you probably could have made without your character having that background.
- Ask your DM more frequently if your criminal background applies rather than announcing that it definitely does
It can be irritating to a DM for players to declare that, since they have a “hammer” trait, every problem is some variety of nail. It’s not for a player to say that an NPC organization functions in some particular way, let alone that their PC has any deep understanding of or insight into that organization. It’s similar to asking your DM if you can make a specific roll. That happens, and often isn’t a big deal, but it’s not the player’s job to decide what is possible, what skills apply, or when opportunities to roll come up.
Asking your DM if your character’s background gives them any particular insight shows that you understand the DM’s role in the game and leaves the game world clearly in their hands. It also gives them the opportunity to organize the relevant information and place it in context, such as identifying when a roll might be possible (and what it might be) for your character to identify and process relevant information.
- Present ideas more as a suggestion that you look for supporting evidence, rather
than declaring what NPCs are probably doing without any such evidence
This one is a pretty big deal. For a player, correctly guessing the cult’s activities isn’t a huge strain. But would your characters go all-in on such a guess in-setting? What things might they do to figure out if a guess is worth following up on so that they don’t waste their time on an idea that goes nowhere?
Asking a gate guard if they’ve noticed anything odd about wagons moving through the city might gain you a clue that some looked like they were carrying heavier loads than their shipping manifests suggested. That’s a great sign that there might be something odd going on, and is much better in-game than suggesting that the cult is definitely using secret compartments in wagons to smuggle items because they’ve stolen a lot, and you’ve seen criminals do it in the past.
It also gives the DM an easier opportunity to run the story in an interesting way, rather than having challenges be trivially overcome at your declaration.
- Consider having the criminal background enable rolls rather than automatically solving problems
This is a follow-on to the above suggestion. It’s very sensible to use a background to provide more opportunity for rolls than would exist without it. This keeps the knowledge “on the table”, by which I mean constrained by your character’s actual abilities.
Rather than saying “my character was a criminal, so they know what scheme would be best in this situation and exactly how to carry it out”, you might ask your DM “have I seen anything in my criminal past that resembles this situation?” and then the DM can call for a History check. PCs without the criminal background wouldn’t even have a chance to make such a check because they have no criminal experience.
The DM can then provide you with the information that relates to your current obstacle.
- Give up on the idea that there is a single “criminal thing to do”,
and the associated idea that knowing such a thing makes your
character an expert on it
Knowing how a pin-and-tumbler lock works doesn’t actually give you the ability to definitely pick one; you still need practice to learn the skills involved in picking locks. Knowing that a door is sealed shut by a magic spell, and that locks do something similar, doesn’t make you capable of using thieve’s tools to defeat the magic spell keeping the door shut just because it’s “lock-like” and your character knows how to pick locks.
Defining what your character’s criminal background actually covers will help a lot with this, but the core idea is that it isn’t an expertise in all things criminal. Your character wasn’t necessarily a skilled or successful criminal.
From what you describe, this is the aspect that would irk me the most as a DM. Backgrounds are tools that allow me to make the game more engaging and interesting for players, not tools that make in-game challenges irrelevant. It’s true that a “good” DM can arrange things to get the former and avoid the latter, but you can still help out with it.
The more problems you want your background to help you solve, the more detailed that background should be. That way the DM can weave it into the story rather than have it skip or destroy parts of a story.
“What could I have done better” seems like a more useful question than worrying specifically about metagaming. Overall if these are newer players, less experienced at role-playing, you could find a way to enjoy knowing what’s going to happen while still letting them have their fun:
Newer players often expect to play through the fights in order. They like being railroaded. It’s simple, and it’s how computer game work. In that way of thinking you can only do bonus quests, like searching wagons for smuggled loot, when the game slaps you with a major hint. Some players always want to play that way. Others can slowly learn the more sand-box style of play. Coming at the adventure a different way will only annoy those players.
You don’t need to be in charge. Let newer players be the leaders and make decisions. Ask the Rogue what they think these criminals would do. Only give them advice when they specifically ask for it.
You could role-play the Paladin more. In character she may suspect what’s going on. But so what? Maybe she’s embarrassed of her criminal history and doesn’t want to raise suspicion. Maybe she’s the strong and silent type and will only warn “I don’t trust that wagon driver” when it’s absolutely needed. Maybe she’s jumpy and immediately starts to mutter “I knew it — smugglers, every last one of them. That stable boy looks like their leader.” If out-of-character you’re just telling everyone the plot, that could get annoying.
Take in-game steps and see how the GM reacts. In this case, you might have used your criminal contacts to try to get in touch with someone local. Ask another player to come with you for safety and see how they react. The GM can then say “amazingly, there are no known smugglers in 50 miles”, shutting you down, or can roll with it and give you a clue.
If you are indeed just playing your character and having lucky/educated guesses, then I see no reason for you to tone it down. Unless your character’s stats suggest otherwise (low intelligence or wisdom) you should totally enjoy yourself.
The only thing you should consider is to let the other players and DM to have fun, too. Roleplaying is a group activity and everybody on the table should have fun. If you think that is in jeopardy then you can talk to the DM and sort it out. And He/she can always make some change on the go and thwart you 🙂