Posted by: markfender | June 6, 2012


What’s the purpose of metaplot?

If it involves Poser art, I definitely think it’s time for judging.

Specifically, we’re talking the overarching story of a role-playing game. The publishers and writers of a roleplaying game have events moving slowly (or fast) forward in their created world. Exciting NPCs do exciting things that your players can never really interact with. So, what’s the point?

There are some games that handle metaplot better than others. Shadowrun is fairly decent. If they’re going to publish a book about organized crime, then, well, there’s a mob war that might take a couple of books to resolve. If Seattle needs another sourcebook, well, maybe it’s election season. So, the metaplot tends to trend along lines of what sort of books they’re publishing. It serves as background to maybe make the dry discussion of Seattle politics a little more visceral. Of course, that’s not the only type of metaplot they do. The recent edition has been publishing Campaign books that take the ongoing story and try to wrap some adventures around it so that your PCs can interact directly with those world-shattering events. These are hit or miss, honestly. For one, they’re way too frequent (something like four of the past five books have been metaplot-advancing campaign books) and they’re starting to fall into the Forgotten Realms trap of having important NPCs do cool things while the PCs watch. Plus, bringing back metaplots from year’s past (Boo immortal elves).

Speaking of Forgotten Realms, it’s also had its metaplot moments. The Time of Troubles, for instance, was a relatively stupid event that split the difference between 1st and 2nd editions. The big problem with these sorts of events is that a GM can’t ignore them. As world-defining events, they color what has gone before and what will come. Even if you’re ignoring the events, that has to be expressed to your players, or they might be coming from a very different place (“What? I can’t play an assassin?”). And as these events start adding up, it requires more and more explanation of what sort of game you’re going to be running (“Okay, so the Scorpion Clan Coup happened, but Yoritomo’s Alliance didn’t. And the naga are still around. But the Sun isn’t a person.”) before you can even begin talking about the specifics of your actual game.

I’ve always heard that White Wolf’s metaplot was particularity bad about this sort of thing. But, honestly, I have no idea. I was either not paying attention or didn’t buy enough White Wolf books because anything that might have been metaplot related, I just took as a plot-hook. Now, obviously, that whole Time of Judgement thing was quite the metaplotty thing, but I never picked up any of those either. The only things I vaguely knew about their metaplot was that those same characters kept showing up in the front of Mage books and that Revised Vampire had a hate-on for the Ravnos. But if one of their games was going to be metaplot heavy from the get-go (Orpheus, Trinity, etc.), I just avoided it.

But the most egregious examples of metaplot were those games that I think distinctly tell you what the point of a metaplot is: to sell books. Pinnacle’s Deadlands and AEG’s 7th Sea were particular offenders. “We’re not going to tell what this means until later.” were phrases that were actually published. Which pretty much lays out their cards on the table – continue to buy our books so you can find out what’s happening. Ultimately, this boils down to the supplement treadmill that seems to keep this “industry” afloat. GMs are the only people that seem to actually continue to buy books and these metaplot mysteries and revelations were another way to entice GMs into continuing to buy those books. But, that’s not why I’m buying your books. I would like more detail on whatever the subject of the books is. But by purposely withholding that information, you’re making your books useless to me. And, judging by the state of the industry, I’m guessing that wasn’t a sustainable business model.

This is to not say that metaplot is all bad. As a framing device, I think it can work decent. And I’m totally not against campaign books (In fact, I’d like to see more games publish complete campaigns because nothing gives a better idea of how the designers intended for the game to run). But can we please have those campaigns as separate things within the game world and not impact the books that might come after it? Because I’m truly not interested in your attempts to make your books more appealing to the only people who buy them. Guess that makes me the outlier or something. Again.



  1. Metaplot is good in so much as there is almost always an assumed setting in a roleplaying game, and that setting isn’t going to be static. If there was a calamitous war between the great clans recently, that’s important to the characters in-setting and influences a number of factors regarding attitudes, availability of blooded combat veterans in the NPC population, quantity and nature of resources available, and any number of other things. So I pick up the rulebook for this game, and it’s set right after the great clan war. Five years later they publish a cool sourcebook about one of the factions. I’ve been playing the game for five years with my group, and time has moved on in-game… So when should the new sourcebook take place? Still right after the war?

    I suspect that the Games Workshop approach of setting their 40k material in a seriously-expansive area and over the course of literally hundreds of years can help, in so much as it’s assumed that when you play one of the 40k RPGs you’re going to be picking your own timeline for things and maybe just making up a galactic sector from whole cloth to set your game in. It suffers from the problem of player characters not really being able to affect matters on a setting-wide scale (what, you’re going to defeat three hive fleets and permanently close the Eye of Terror? Sure you are, champ), but the metaplot is such that (provided they don’t have the Emperor wake up or something drastic like that), nothing they publish necessarily has any bearing on your game.

    • Your first paragraph is an interesting one with no good answer (other than “Congrats on running a five-year-long game”), which is one reason I called out the Shadowrun metaplot. It moves forward in real time – one year in RL is one year in game (barring publishing hiccups). So, yeah, Geneva’s been under siege for quite awhile. In fact, they went for almost a year without mentioning it. BUT, if you were actually playing a game set in Geneva, what if your players licked that thing into shape after only 4 months of game time (even if it took you a year to play out)? Now, the next sourcebook is saying that you’re still under siege. So, there’s really no way to win. Gamers change setting. That’s just how it the medium is supposed to work. So now we’re left with “how much work should GMs have to put in to adapt the published setting to their gamers?” Ultimately, that answer should be “the least amount possible.” But what that line is becomes the tricky part.

      I’m inclined towards the fractal model, where sourcebooks expand out from what the main book said without pushing forward into time. But, assuming the time skips/metaplot are handled adroitly, it might involve less setting mangling-to-fit-my-game to have sourcebooks advance the timeline in incremental steps.

      But I’m pretty sure the answer to “How much work should GMs have to put in to adapt the published setting to their gamers?” CANNOT be answered with “we’ll let you in on that secret next time.”

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