Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sins of the Metaplot

How I hope all my games end
If there's one thing I really can't stand, it's a damn metaplot. Now, in theory, these should be great. A good metaplot in an RPG can be a wonderful tool to help make the world feel alive and dynamic and chaotic in a way that only the best Game Masters can hope to emulate. Probably the best use of metaplot in service of a game is with Pendragon and its Great Pendragon Campaign, and the players follow the story of Arthurian Romance beat by beat, from the rise and fall of Uther through the Sword in the Stone and the conquests of Arthur to the Grail Quest until finally to the Battle of Camlann.

But, too often, they just get in the way of the game. For one thing, a lot of GM's feel compelled to stick to the published plot as much as possible. And I really doubt any of the designers of these games intend their plot to be YOUR plot. Looking at Pendragon again, there was a question on the forums a while back about Lancelot--a given PC really didn't like him, the big reveal was about to happen (spoiler: Lancelot was hooking up with Guinevere), and this very loyal Knight of Arthur was going to be there for the big fight and, well, the GM was worried that the player just might be able to best Lancelot. Many posters gave various ways to save Lancelot, from boosting his stats to mystical protection to a "Disney death" where his body couldn't be recovered or his death confirmed. Then Greg Stafford (the creator and author of Pendragon) chimed in with "let him kill Lancelot." It your game, it's the players saga, and the PC is more important than an NPC and the precious plot. If it makes sense, let it happen.

And not only are individual GM's hampered by the metaplot, but too often I see it used as a cudgel. Particularly online, though it's been happening this way among geekdom for, well, probably centuries. But I see it more often thanks to being part of various RPG groups. A new player or a returning one will post an idea of a concept that doesn't jive with some of the later books or sources. Instead of giving the new guy some advice, or helping them tweak the concept to fit the books, or, well, anything constructive, the poor poster is harassed for their ignorance. It even occasionally has happened to me, but at least I can roll my eyes and go "fuck off child, I've been playing this game since it was released, and nothing the new LARP rules say about something will ever impact what I do in my tabletop game." But, others, I know get scared away and stop posting. I hope they keep playing.

Lord knows the world needs more gamers and dreamers in it.

You'll always be MY Prince.
So, in general, I ignore metaplot. Even though two of my favorite games of all time are rather well known for their ongoing plots--Vampire and Rifts. I pick and choose what I want for my game, and if it contradicts some source book or other, well, then the source book is wrong. If someone comes up with an idea that involves replacing my beloved Lodin of Chicago with some crazy necromancer witch queen, well, cool--let's talk about making that an awesome game, not about how Lodin is the Prince prior to X and blah, blah, blah.

The more I think about it, the only other game that did metaplot well was Mechwarrior--the RPG component of Battletech. Like a lot of games in the 90's, Battletech spread out among numerous tie-ins--various modules (Battletech is mainly a miniatures game, so a lot of these weren't tied to the RPG at all), novels, video games, comic books...I think there was a TED talk at some point...anyway, there was a LOT to cover, and as a casual fan of a niche part of it, there was a lot going that I never knew about. But, they would come out with various books at various times like "20 Year Update" which would bring you up to speed with everything that had happened in the past, well, 20 years.

Metaplot done right
Now, 20 years is a good long time. You can run several campaigns and never leave that block of time. And a LOT can happen in that time. I mean, multiple wars can be fought in that time, nations can rise and fall, alliances form and shatter, the entire world can change in that time. So, as a GM, I can start the game in the default year, and knowing the great events of the next 20, I can use them effectively as backdrop and to make the world alive and changing, and can use foreshadowing and subtle ways to wrap the players into these greater tales, and allow them to change it.

Not only that, but in the Second Edition of the RPG, Mechwarrior had a really cool "random metaplot generator" which was just lovely. It allowed you to roll for future events and where the major powers swirling around the players were going, and made for a much more dynamic and interesting setting that worrying about what some novel trilogy said about some character.

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