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Author Topic: The Dread Metaplot  (Read 15123 times)
Rich Ranallo
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« on: April 24, 2002, 12:15:43 AM »

After lurking on this board since Ron told me about it, I might finally have something to contribute (though I'm sure the topic has come up before).

I'm wrestling with metaplot issues in Starchildren.  There is a definite metaplot in the game, but I think I may have been able to minimize its impact for those that hate the things.

What I need to know is this: what is it about metaplots that makes people hate them?  And, of course, what is it that makes people like them?

I'm personally kind of neutral on the issue in games I play/run.  I'm one of those "they've got their place" type guys.
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contracycle
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« Reply #1 on: April 24, 2002, 01:24:57 AM »

Well, the haters, as I understand it, say that it mandates actual in-game action, which they wish to create themselves.  I have little sympathy for this argument myself.  I like metaplots becuase they lend the setting a sense of dynamism, progression.
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hardcoremoose
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« Reply #2 on: April 24, 2002, 01:33:52 AM »

Gosh, this would make a good topic for the Theory forum.

And yeah, we've discussed it before, http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=972&highlight=metaplot">here, and http://indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?topic=886&forum=4">here, and finally http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=663&highlight=metaplot"> here, where Ron explains why Hero Wars does not suffer from a metaplot.  There are probably other threads about this topic, but these are the ones I remember the best.

I can't speak for everyone, but I'm sure a few folks out there will echo my opinion:

My basic problem with metaplot is that it doesn't offer players any sort of ownership over the game.  All the important stuff has already been plotted out, and surprise, it's all perpetrated by characters that are not the PCs.  And as a GM, you have to manage the game's continuity, making sure that nothing the PCs do is so important that it'll disrupt the "official" happenings in the setting.  The story's already been written, and the players are merely observers to it, not major protagonists, and certainly not contributors of any significant content (note that the "protagonism" and "content contributor" are merely my goals within a game  - I'm sure there are people out there who enjoy watching a metaplot unfold, I'm just not one of them).

The funny thing about metaplot - and this is pointed out by just about every game publisher in existence - is that we can just ignore it if we want.  Many of us do - it's just words on paper.  Strip it out and suddenly we claim ownership of the game.  But my suspicion is that there are many, many people out there who aren't comfortable discarding huge chunks of text, as if by doing so, they aren't playing the game "right".   And frankly, I can kind of see where they're coming from...if the metapot was there to be ignored, why bother including it in the first place?

So there you have it.  Hope it was helpful.

- Scott
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: April 24, 2002, 05:35:23 AM »

Hey,

As some of the previous threads have shown, people mean different things by the term. Gareth, please correct me if I'm wrong, but your usage and mine differ significantly. What you call "metaplot," I tend to call "plot about large-scale events," or even "changing setting." Both of which I love. What I call "metaplot" might be thought of as a mandate, "Now we all must play this way," usually as a published phenomenon.

So Rich, I'm most curious about exactly what you mean by the term. Contrast ... say, the role of published metaplot in Mage, vs. the role of published metaplot in Hero Wars, vs. the role of published metaplot in Pendragon. I tend to use the term only for the first category. The second seems to me like "plot about large-scale events" (for purposes of honing Narrativist Premise) and the third seems to me like "changing setting" (canonically). The key to Hero Wars as opposed to Mage is that the players know all about it - it's not a matter of the GM channelling the information to them, like a funnel between game authors and players. Pendragon tends to be in-between in this regard (there's even a text passage which uses the funnel or channel metaphor, at one point).

Oh, and yes, this is a Theory topic. Movin' it on ...

Best,
Ron
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amiel
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« Reply #4 on: April 24, 2002, 08:33:08 AM »

Ron Edwards:
Quote
Contrast ... say, the role of published metaplot in Mage, vs. the role of published metaplot in Hero Wars, vs. the role of published metaplot in Pendragon. I tend to use the term only for the first category. The second seems to me like "plot about large-scale events" (for purposes of honing Narrativist Premise) and the third seems to me like "changing setting" (canonically). The key to Hero Wars as opposed to Mage is that the players know all about it - it's not a matter of the GM channelling the information to them, like a funnel between game authors and players. Pendragon tends to be in-between in this regard (there's even a text passage which uses the funnel or channel metaphor, at one point).

I don't even have a problem with having information funneled to me(funneling information to players), if it's there in front of me from go(the GM has it in front of her).
What bothers me about White Wolf (Seventh Sea, et al) metaplot is the spoon fed version. Over the Edge metaplot, love it to death. Is it all known by players? Generally not. Is it the GM's decision on how to spoon feed it to players? yes!
This thought, of course, goes into the "who trusts who" category. What I hate about most metaplot is the "wait 'til our next chapter" phenomenon. As moosey put it, you have to keep the players from doing anything too protagonizing, they might screw up "the story".
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Clay
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« Reply #5 on: April 24, 2002, 08:56:32 AM »

My own take is that Metaplot doesn't become a problem until the players are forced to directly interact with it. For instance, in 7th Sea, I don't find the metaplot terribly offensive, because the published material tends to present a snapshot of the metaplot.  Here's what the world looks like right now, do your worst. There do seem to be a large number of potential metaplot hooks for the players and GM, but nothing seems to indicate that you have to handle them a certain way.

Deadlands I felt pushed the metaplot into the players face.  The supplements were peopled with characters that would directly involve the players, and they didn't provide a lot of flexibility as to how the players responded. One certain monumental badass character kept showing up, no matter how many times his remains were scattered to kingdom come, because he was crucial to the metaplot.  If you wanted to make use of the published supplements you had to make sure you avoided conflict with him or consistently lost.

So for somebody looking to produce a game with metaplot, I think that my hope is that they choose to leave options open for the players.  Closing off the future seems to be what causes a problem for me.
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Clay Dowling
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xiombarg
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« Reply #6 on: April 24, 2002, 09:22:38 AM »

Quote from: Clay
Deadlands I felt pushed the metaplot into the players face.  The supplements were peopled with characters that would directly involve the players, and they didn't provide a lot of flexibility as to how the players responded. One certain monumental badass character kept showing up, no matter how many times his remains were scattered to kingdom come, because he was crucial to the metaplot.  If you wanted to make use of the published supplements you had to make sure you avoided conflict with him or consistently lost.


What makes Deadlands particularly egregious in this respect is while blocking your abiliity to change the setting, they don't even tell the GM why they're doing it that way. It's usually just "we have plans for this character, so no stats for him, so you can't kill him yet".

And this is the sort of thing I hate in metaplots. Changes that straightjacket the GM, especially if it makes future supplements incompatible with your game if you do things differently. "Well, we have this really neat supplement... that we can't use because we disregarded the metaplot. Hmmm."
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #7 on: April 24, 2002, 09:25:21 AM »

Quote
Tools
Thirty spokes meet at a nave;
Because of the hole we may use the wheel.
Clay is moulded into a vessel;
Because of the hollow we may use the cup.
Walls are built around a hearth;
Because of the doors we may use the house.
Thus tools come from what exists,
But use from what does not.


The problem anyone who has with metapots is when there is nothing left for the players to do. This will happen, there is nothing you can do about it. Pop psychologist might cite that RPG players play because of a sense of helplessness or reduced self-worth and they play characters for a sense of enpowerment and such things deliberately counteract the reason these people play.

Well, whatever. I don't really care for pop psychology.

But the trick is to write your metaplot to give your world that dynamic while at the same time leaving much of it unwritten so that the players can have an effect.  It is the empty space that defines use. If there is no empty space, then you don't have a dynamic RPG world necessarily but a novel or a fantasy history.

Personal thingie:

I've been toying with such an idea for a superhero game.  I would lay out the career of a single hero for whom the game is named. The metaplot would layout the character's complete history from a child hero during WWII to a dark future where the hero becomes grim and mostly cybernetic. By focusing on a single hero like this, I map out a lengthy timeline but, since I'm focused on one hero, there is plenty of room for the PCs to do things. (Beside, I also avoid a common pitfall in super hero RPGs: lists of heroes. Like you need heroes. Pftui! You need villians, doggonit!)

TBH doing this is a personal thing. Like most art forms, you can't just follow instructions for how to put it together and expect it to come out good. You'll have to decide how to lay out your dynamic world yourself. Just keep in mind that there are supposed to be players interacting with this and the more you write, the more doors you close.
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joshua neff
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« Reply #8 on: April 24, 2002, 09:28:58 AM »

Quote
(Beside, I also avoid a common pitfall in super hero RPGs: lists of heroes. Like you need heroes. Pftui! You need villians, doggonit!)


A-frickin'-men!
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--josh

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Le Joueur
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« Reply #9 on: April 24, 2002, 09:31:40 AM »

Quote from: joshua neff
Quote
(Beside, I also avoid a common pitfall in super hero RPGs: lists of heroes. Like you need heroes. Pftui! You need villians, doggonit!)

A-frickin'-men!

And how am I supposed to play my favorite villain?  Or who comes after my wife's character because she was framed?  Hmm?

I think the common error is not presenting what they're for.

Fang Langford
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Valamir
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« Reply #10 on: April 24, 2002, 09:32:03 AM »

The reason I can't stand Deadlands and 7th Sea style metaplots is because basically they are bait and switch tactics at work.  You THINK you're getting this cool RPG setting...but what you're really getting is a poorly written novel delivered in installments each of which costs 2-4 times more than a paperback.

Much better would be for these would be novelists to write a Deadlands trilogy or a 7th Sea decology and THEN set the RPG into that world at some point in its history and say...there you are, play in this sandbox however you want.

Instead the metaplot is delivered via the vehicle of an RPG book.  Why is this especially bad?  Well beyond the extra cost and annoying effects on trying to GM a campaign against a moving target, it just flat out promotes poor writing.  

RPG metaplots are basically TONS of exposition of the sort that would make an intolerably boring, intolerably long novel, but which some wannabe writer feels compelled to share.

IMO if they can't put all of that stuff in a novel and make the novel an exciting breathtaking page turner, then they're not a good enough author for me to want to read their stuff anyway.

RPG metaplots are basically a peculiar form of vanity publishing where a guy who isn't anywhere near good enough to get his book published as a novel is able to drone endlessly on within the pages of an RPG supplement.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #11 on: April 24, 2002, 09:51:56 AM »

Quote from: Valamir
RPG metaplots are basically TONS of exposition of the sort that would make an intolerably boring, intolerably long novel, but which some wannabe writer feels compelled to share.

IMO if they can't put all of that stuff in a novel and make the novel an exciting breathtaking page turner, then they're not a good enough author for me to want to read their stuff anyway.

RPG metaplots are basically a peculiar form of vanity publishing where a guy who isn't anywhere near good enough to get his book published as a novel is able to drone endlessly on within the pages of an RPG supplement.


The Similarian?

Sorry to go off-topic there, guys, but I couldn't help making the connection. To most people who gripe to me about how dull LotR is, I simply say that Tolkien wasn't writing a novel but creating a history of a fantasy world.  The similarity is too deep to miss.  Anyone have an idea what we can do with this now?
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Rich Ranallo
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« Reply #12 on: April 24, 2002, 10:42:48 AM »

OK, so this mostly reinforces what I already figured.
To elaborate on what I meant by "metaplot," I meant pretty much all setting material that varies based on time and not geography.  I realize that, within that definition, a few different types of plots exist, and I mainly wanted to ifnd out if there was a type of metaplot that was acceptible by a large number of people.
I was intending to tie this into game design when I originally posted to the Design forum, and I hope I don't get blasted for it now that the thread's been moved...
The metaplot in Starchildren is basically a flashback.  The setting material is all written from the perspective of people looking back at how terrible the world was "back then" (In 2073).  What this means is that GMs will already know all the major events that happen in the storyline (including how it "ends"), without names or characters attached.  The adventures we publish will deal with these events, so that PC groups can participate, but GMs can just as easily ignore them or say that those events happened without the group's involvement if he wishes.
Hopefully, this means that no one will feel walled in by information left unsaid, because all the really important stuff is there (though not covered as much in-depth as the supplements will).  GMs will be able to even make their own scenarios about those events and not have to worry about them meshing with later-published material.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #13 on: April 24, 2002, 10:57:27 AM »

Hey Rich,

Seems to me, then, that you're not using "metaplot" except in the sense that the setting is changing in a coherent way, much as in Hero Wars.

To clarify that comparison, Glorantha is the setting, and it's a very magical, very god-heavy fantasy world. Everyone knows that "time began" literally sixteen centuries ago, and that before that, the world was an even more magical, mystical place. So they think of the world as mundane, now. However, we, the players, know that the Hero Wars in the 1600s put an end to Glorantha as we know it, and that the gods and magical powers are going to be reduced to abstractions, receding even further from "reality." Certain events in the Hero Wars are fixed (in 1625, a dragon does eat a whole ton of Lunars, and later, a guy named Argrath becomes the new God-guy, etc), but they are public as far as gamers are concerned, and are not fed to them as a kind of secret pact between publishers and GMs.

The great thing about playing Hero Wars is that the characters, at first believing that they are merely emulating and worshipping the gods in the context of the wars, actually end up redefining and shaping the actual ethical issues at stake, remaking the gods, so to speak. In other words, the changing setting is still just backdrop, changes and all, for the key decisions of the player-characters.

Is that something like what you have in mind?

Best,
Ron
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Lance D. Allen
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« Reply #14 on: April 24, 2002, 11:46:46 AM »

This reminds me of Star Wars, and the way my friend chose to run it. (I'll do my best to keep this from being a rambling anecdote this time, and stick to the point)

Everyone knows all about the metaplot. Luke and Vader, Leia and Han, Wookiees Ewoks and the Rebel Alliance. Yadda Yadda, Yoda, Yadda. When I was asked if I wanted to play, I didn't want to play all of that, because it seemed stupid to me. What if some die roll I made got Luke killed in the attack on the Deathstar? Or some such. But instead, we played in the Pronoxis Sector (don't look for it, my friend made it up) with the events of the movies being things we heard about, rather than experienced. We had our own epic struggle with the minions of the Dark Side, and left Luke to his. The way it was played, we neither screwed up the metaplot, nor did it screw with us. It was good.

I suppose that brings me to the point. SW Metaplot is mostly already written, either in the movies, or in the ensuing novels. It's not an ongoing thing, unless you decide to play in the era of SWE1 and SWE2. You don't have to worry about major events suddenly changing... Even if you are playing in the SWE1-2 era, you basically know what's going to happen. Everything else is details. Metaplot that makes the setting interesting is good, even when it populates the world with various NPCs. When, however, it deviates in more than details from what the players are playing, it suddenly becomes... bad. (Anyone ever play it out that Dunklezahn was elected and became president, only to discover, after you'd been running it with him alive, that he'd been assassinated?)
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