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Author Topic: Kirt's Standard Rant #1: Metaplots  (Read 18882 times)
xiombarg
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« on: July 28, 2003, 12:37:31 PM »

Recent events have gotten me thinking...

I've voiced this before, and it's perhaps more relevant to "traditional" RPG publishers who are overly-reliant on the three-tier system, but I think it has relevance to indie publishers who might be tempted to emulate "the big guys".

If you are considering having a metaplot in your game, reconsider.

First, a definition: A metaplot, for the purposes of this rant, is an onging "story" that is played out in a game world over the course of several supplements, which makes serious changes to the game world in question.

Frankly, metaplots appeal more to people who aren't going to play the game, but either through a collector's urge or due to a novel-reader's desire to "see how the story ends" will (in theory) buy the supplements.

I say "in theory" because while this has worked quite well for some people, and worked okay for others, chances are it won't work at all, and you could have spent your time on something better. (More on that in a minute.)

You have to ask yourself: Do I want my game to be played, or collected?

Because, if you're going to have supplements at all, why have metaplot supplements when you could be doing something else?

And that's an important consideration: Do you need supplements at all? Consider that the need for supplements is usually more driven by the three-tier system and it's constant, hungry demand for "new product" than by any need of the fans of the game. Consider that you can do quite well by having a complete game, in one book, that is sold direct to consumers over the Internet.

Given, however, that you are going to have supplements at all, why metaplot supplements? There are any number of things you could produce instead:

* Rules expansions
* Lists of NPCs
* Further exploration of the setting as it currently exists, rather than "as it changes"
* "Adventures"/Plot Seeds
* More detailed advice on running the game

The advantage of all these sorts of supplements is that anyone can use these supplements. Metaplot supplements, on the other hand, benefit only those who wish to follow the metaplot. On top of this, when integrating new players into a game, or when starting a new game, the existance of an officially-published metaplot means that extra time is going to have to be spent saying what the GM does and doesn't use. This is true of any supplement, but it's more egregiously true for metaplot supplements -- it's not just a matter of house rules or what happened in the campaign, but now it's a matter of outlining what didn't happen in the campaign, regarding the metaplot. Why create that sort of hassle for your customers?

If, despite all this, you still want to do a metaplot supplement, be sure to do it right.

First, make sure that the PCs can have an effect on the metaplot, and on the game world. If they can't -- if the metaplot rolls over them, no matter what -- this is frustrating and deprotagonizing. Unless utter helplessness is a major theme of your game, don't do it.

Second, go the In Nomine route. Create "Canon Areas of Doubt and Uncertainty". That is, create areas that you explicitly tell everyone (in print) that are not going to be affected by supplements -- and the metaplot. This way, GMs that are interested in the metaplot can run a game, mucking around in those areas, and know that what they're doing isn't going to be invalidated by a subsequent supplement. "Though this is a game about angels, we will never have a supplement that explains the true Nature of God in our universe." "There will never be a supplement on the Inconnu." "The metaplot will never affect the Duchy of Fnord, except insomuch as it affects the whole world. But rest assured that the Duke will always stay in power, even in the roughest times."

This also prevents people who want to be "in line" with the metaplot from waiting for a particular supplement before doing a particular thing with their game. The fault for this annoying form of game paralysis is mainly in the fanboy in question, but for crissakes, let's not encourage it, eh?

Third, provide support for those who don't want to follow the metaplot. It takes a little more effort, but it's be greatly appreciated it. If a customer doesn't like the idea of the World of Kool being invaded by hot pink cockroaches from outer space, at least put in a footnote about what direction the world heads if the hot pink cockroaches DON'T show up.

Hell, consider having several alternative metaplots, which can be switched between depending on what the PCs do -- this links into my first point about doing metaplots right.

Fourth, connected to the second part: If you say you're not going to do something, don't do it. No one likes someone without integrity. If you say you're not going to do a Gehenna supplement, don't do one. Luckily, assuming you stick to the creator-owned ethic, this is easier than if you sold your work to a company, which can then renege on any promises you made once the work is assigned to the "new team", or else your plans can be mis-interpreted by others.

And, since this is a rant, let me leave you with a final comment, though it's been said a thousand times before: "If I wanted to read a novel, I'd buy one." The advantage to an RPG is the story is NOT set in stone. Even in an Illusionist game the PCs can have an effect on Color.
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love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT
Lxndr
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« Reply #1 on: July 28, 2003, 01:09:03 PM »

I'd like to add something to this (yay for the rant).  In general, I agree with what is being said.  However:

Part of "Doing the Meta-Plot Right" is, in my opinion, NOT stuffing important rules clarifications/expansions or interesting non-plot-related setting exploration into ONLY a metaplot supplement.  To use the example above, I don't want to have to buy "Invasion of the Hot Pink Cockroaches from Outer Space" to get those spacecraft rules for the World of Kool.

On the other hand I'm someone who LIKES non-narrative fiction (i.e. the kind of stuff you'd get by reading setting/metaplot information), so if you want to do some metaplot, I don't have any objections, as long as you do it right.  Go right ahead!  Multiple metaplots would be fun too!  And if you don't do the "PCs can have an effect on the metaplot" route, make sure that there's enough interesting stuff happening that ISN'T metaplot related.

Just please, please, keep the metaplot out of the rules supplements, and keep important/useful rules out of the metaplot.
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Alexander Cherry, Twisted Confessions Game Design
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jdagna
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« Reply #2 on: July 28, 2003, 04:11:42 PM »

You know, it may be a little unfair to blame the three-tier system or corporate greed for supplement production.  I had more than a few dissapointed fans this year at GenCon and Origins because all I had was the finalized version of the book.  Supplements do generate money for the publisher, but they also satisfy some consumers' desires - a win-win situation for both.  And the people who don't want supplements don't have to buy them.

Which isn't to say that I totally disagree with you, but I wouldn't make any of those rules absolutes.  Every player/GM has different tastes.  Some really like reacting to a changing world and don't give a rip whether they can stop or affect that change.  Additionally, it seems fairly obvious to me that people who don't like to do that can either ignore metaplot supplements or change them.  

So... why have metaplot supplements when you could be doing something else?

Because at least some people like metaplot supplements, and dislike the something else (or at least like it less).  You can't make everyone happy.  

Me for example - I dislike metaplot supplements, and I also avoid adventure supplements and lists of NPCs (two of the items you listed as being better uses of time).  I do like supplements that explore the existing world instead of changing it.  This probably explains why I liked Palladium's Robotech supplements better than their Rifts ones, and why I'll regularly play Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play but not Vampire.
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Justin Dagna
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John Kim
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« Reply #3 on: July 28, 2003, 04:59:01 PM »

Quote from: jdagna
Me for example - I dislike metaplot supplements, and I also avoid adventure supplements and lists of NPCs (two of the items you listed as being better uses of time).  I do like supplements that explore the existing world instead of changing it.  This probably explains why I liked Palladium's Robotech supplements better than their Rifts ones, and why I'll regularly play Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play but not Vampire.

Hmm.  In general, I have rarely bought into supplement lines at all.  However, that said, I can see potential value of metaplot.  It seems to me that metaplot and adventure supplements can be dropped into an ongoing campaign more easily.  If a supplement details a new area or topic in the world, then there are two possibilities.  (1) the PCs haven't explored that area and I would have to lead them to do so, or (2) the PCs have explored that area and the supplement may contradict what I have improvised about it.  In contrast, a metaplot supplement deals with change to known elements.  If I already have X as an NPC, then I can make a change to her and it will be directly usable in the campaign.  

I guess one factor is that my campaigns rarely have much wandering.  Thus, expansion supplements have the problem of either (1) I need a ton of them at the start, if they are small areas that the campaign spans; or (2) I just don't need them.  Nothing wrong with (2) in some sense, but game companies like to sell things, and I like to have neat material for play.  

The trick, of course, is flexibility -- but that is always the trick, isn't it.  I don't get adventures mostly because they suck, I find.  However, if there were less sucky adventures I would get them.  For example, I buy Call of Cthulhu adventures even though I'm not into horror gaming simply because they are high quality.  I won't pay any money for adventure ideas: I have plenty of those.  But CoC adventures come with maps, player handouts, and other details which make them much more useful in-game.
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- John
xiombarg
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« Reply #4 on: July 28, 2003, 05:02:17 PM »

Quote from: Lxndr
Just please, please, keep the metaplot out of the rules supplements, and keep important/useful rules out of the metaplot.
I wholeheartedly agree with this -- I meant to mention this. Consider it part of the rant. ;-D

Quote from: jdagna
Supplements do generate money for the publisher, but they also satisfy some consumers' desires - a win-win situation for both. And the people who don't want supplements don't have to buy them.
I DID say that my comments applied, to some extent, to ALL supplements.

Supplements can be a win-win, but I think people want them because they've been conditioned to want them. Perhaps I'm a crusty old gamer, but I remember when you were supposed to be able to get everything in one package. People played for years with one rulebook.

That's why I say consider why you're doing it, not "don't do it." It's just if you're doing it for greed, perhaps you should reconsider. You ain't going to make a lot of money with RPGs. If you want to do a supplement, make sure it's a labor of love.

Quote
Me for example - I dislike metaplot supplements, and I also avoid adventure supplements and lists of NPCs (two of the items you listed as being better uses of time). I do like supplements that explore the existing world instead of changing it. This probably explains why I liked Palladium's Robotech supplements better than their Rifts ones, and why I'll regularly play Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play but not Vampire.
Actually, I don't like adventures either -- but that's another rant.

The reason I think metaplot stuff is different is it's so tough to do well, so much so that I want to make sure people know what they're getting into before they try. The same goes for adventures, actually, but that's another rant, as I said.

A NPC book -- whether you personally like it or not -- is easy to do well. A metaplot supplement, even for people who like metaplots, is tougher to do well.
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love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT
Hardpoint
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« Reply #5 on: July 28, 2003, 11:15:04 PM »

I'm kind of on both sides of the fence here. While I like the metaplot from a reader standpoint, as sometimes the metaplot stuff is interesting storytelling. There is also the danger that said storytelling locks players into a certain thinking and way of doing things.

This was especially true when we tried to play Dragonlance, the GM and many of the players were so locked to the books that no one was able to free themselves enough to see what kind of different story we could do, thus it died quickly.

L5R's metaplot worked well for the card game, at least at first, as it gave a sense of an end (of sorts) to a traditionally endless stream of crap to buy (being the CCG market staple). WOD ending only means a re-imagining of the WoD. THere will be another one, only different, with a new metaplot.

With the game I'm doing, Realms of Wonder, I plan to do supplements, but only because I want to see other people's take on expanding my world and to really delve into some of the minutae that has come up in the campaigns I have run during the many years of playtesting I've done. While not as rigid a metaplot as say WoD, I do have one, which is that the campaigns I run are the "canon" for the world. However, I have no grandiose plan which will culminate in a psuedo world ending. I don't run often enough to do anything like, plus I agree, it's cheesy marketing BS. The supplements I plan to release are expansions of the various regions of the world, but is just that, expanded material from the main rulebook, which includes a fair amount of information on the world as it is. The sourcebooks are designed to flesh out the various lands and peoples a little deeper. This is the type of supplements I've always appreciated as a GM and my group as well.

As far as rules expansions I plan to keep those to a minimum, adding them where they are appropriate and always having them be optional, as they should be. The intention is to create a game that only needs the core book, but having the additional supplemental material is nice to have. Any "future" expansions, as in where the world is going, will be far enough in the fictional future as to create an entirely new setting using the same basis.

I'm from the win-win standpoint on supplements, but I also don't much care for adventures, preferring adventure hooks included in the various supplements simply intended to trigger your own brain's deliciously devious GMing prowess. The idea is to empower you, not hold your hand. Only reason I see to do prebuilt adventures is to provide a controlled environment with which to experience a taste of the rules, which is how we are doing our freebie version of the game. We will be providing 4 adventures that include pregenerated characters in somewhat rules-lite editions of the character sheet with pleasant layout and art and an adventure designed around those Heroes. The idea is to show what the game is about, but not to give away so much that you don't need to ever buy the full game.

And there's no way you could say that I'm not doing my game as a labor of love. I know there's no money in RPG publishing, not buy a house kind a money anyway. I only want to produce a game that people can enjoy and is one I will run for the remainder of my gaming days, as it is truly the game I enjoy running the most of any I've played in my 20 years of gaming. If I sold only copies to my playtesters and family, I'd be happy as a clam just to hold that book in my hands and be able to say, "I wrote that". This is why I bust my ass on all levels of production to see it done right.
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pete_darby
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« Reply #6 on: July 29, 2003, 12:42:30 AM »

Greg Stafford wrote pretty much the whole metaplot for Hero Wars in King Of Sartar...

...but characterised it as the attempts of a scholar several centuries later (after a period of universal illiteracy) to determine what happened during the Hero Wars from a diverse collection of historical, mythic and folkloric sources.

So Gloranthans can very easily find out kind of what happens... but "through a glass, darkly."

And Greg has explicitly stated that large chunks of KoS are just plain wrong... but he's not sure which bits yet...

And, as ever, Your Glorantha Will Vary.
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Pete Darby
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« Reply #7 on: July 29, 2003, 04:21:06 AM »

The point that's always bugged me about metaplots is that it's "Let me tell you about my character", except from the game developer.

Thus my little diatribe, Why I Hate Your Metaplot

But White Wolf isn't going to stop making WoD books, or even change them much.  They're just making another PR push on their metaplot so they can print new editions of the rules which incorporate the metaplot so far.

The WW business model is based on selling new core rulebooks every few years, as well as the endless train of supplements, which then become obsolete and have to be replaced.  This is just more of the same.
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Valamir
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« Reply #8 on: July 29, 2003, 05:41:39 AM »

For my upcoming, soon to go into open playtest, Robot's & Rapiers game, Mike Holmes hit upon a interesting approach to metaplot that I intend to use.

Basically this game has several local regions only one of which is detailed in the core book with a couple of others touched upon.  Other areas will be detailed in supplements.  Each supplement will have its own "metaplot" type of thing going on relative to itself, but the game assumes that the clock does not start ticking on those events until the GM buys the supplement and decides to begin to incorporate the new region into his own campaign.
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xiombarg
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« Reply #9 on: July 29, 2003, 06:48:33 AM »

Whew! Good stuff, people, I'll reply to this all at once:

Pete and Ralph give two additional ways, in my opinion, to "do metaplot right". Bravo to that --if we see more metaplot work in RPGs, I hope we see more metaplot work like Hero Wars or Robots and Rapiers.

Mark, your mini-rant makes an excellent addition to my own, in the "how to do metaplots right" section. The way I'd phrase it is thus: "When doing a metaplot, don't use it to showcase your favorite important NPCs. This is just like when an obnoxious stranger insists on telling you about his cool character from a previous campaign, only ten times worse. Don't do it. By all means, have important NPCs if you need them, but don't make them the utter focus -- the utter focus should be the PCs."

In other works, I completely agree. ;-D

Hardpoint, I think you accidentally hit the nail on the head when you said:

Quote
While I like the metaplot from a reader standpoint...

That's the problem with most metaplots. They're for reading, not for playing. I want to encourage designers to put out supplements that are designed to be used rather than read and put on the shelf.

Your Dragonlance example is the sort of "fanboy paralysis" that I talk about, and that's only ONE of the problems with metaplots.

Metaplot in a card game is another thing than metaplots in RPGs. You don't have the same flexibility and the same player-focus in a card game that you have in an RPG. It's apples and oranges. I actually think a metaplot is a real neat thing to have in a CCG.

As for your plans for your own game: looks good to me, not that you need my approval or anything. The point of the rant is not to say "all metaplots are bad" but to say "if you're doing a metaplot, consider why, and if you do it at all, do it right". The idea of empowering the players and the GMs is the thing I want to drive home: Too many metaplots seem hellbent on disempowering the people who play the game.

Everyone: Just trying to nip some potential drift in the bud, here. While I linked to the WW metaplot (mostly as an example of a bad metaplot) and my rant regarding it on my LJ, I mainly want to, in the context of the rant, talk about metaplots in general, not the White Wolf metaplot in particular, except perhaps as an example. If you want to go into the White Wolf metaplot, start a new thread or post on my Livejournal about it. (No one seemed to be drifting too hard this way but I thought I'd mention it anyway.)
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love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #10 on: July 29, 2003, 07:14:39 AM »

Hello,

Regarding the Glorantha issue, I want to point out that the changes and history of the setting were disclosed as public knowledge, for purposes of informed play by everyone at the table. They were also not released in sequential, step-by-step publication, but rather as a single overview.

This is rather different from the more common approach, in which a new publication "hits" the GM, who then "hits" the players with the revelations and changes and so forth, in a time-linear fashion.

I tend to refer to the former as "changing setting" as distinct from "metaplot."

Best,
Ron
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xiombarg
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« Reply #11 on: July 29, 2003, 08:15:08 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I tend to refer to the former as "changing setting" as distinct from "metaplot."
Hmmm, it might qualify as metaplot under my definition, but your point is well-taken. One could view "setting change" as a form of "supplement that's better to do than a metaplot supplement"...
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love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT
John Kim
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« Reply #12 on: July 29, 2003, 09:23:01 AM »

Quote from: xiombarg
  The point of the rant is not to say "all metaplots are bad" but to say "if you're doing a metaplot, consider why, and if you do it at all, do it right". The idea of empowering the players and the GMs is the thing I want to drive home: Too many metaplots seem hellbent on disempowering the people who play the game.  

OK, I'm not really familiar with published metaplots -- the closest I've come is a bit of Aberrant, I think, but I only have two supplements.  What about the metaplots makes them disempowering?  Is it just that it is change to the game-world which the players don't control?  How would you make an empowering meta-plot?  

On the one hand, I was irked by the fixed-future view of Aberrant.  I certainly wouldn't want pre-determined future in my campaign.  On the other hand, it seemed like a decent base from which to vary.  That is, if they tried to present it in a tree of branching possibilities, then you wouldn't get very far and it wouldn't be very coherent.  If they presented the background in fixed-time form (i.e. here's what everything is like in 2010), then it would all be less and less useful as time passed in the campaign.  And, of course, the fixed-future problem is also true to some degree of any historical or timelined world.

Maybe it is mainly a matter of attitude.  i.e. Some thoughtful advice on how to adapt or vary from the metaplot would be good.  Then again, maybe not.  Thoughts?
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Valamir
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« Reply #13 on: July 29, 2003, 09:30:22 AM »

Metaplot is only a problem if:

A) you believe that all officially published material on a game world is canon...and

B) having your actual game play be canonical is a priority (or at least preferred).


My personal preference is "Wind up the setting to a critical juncture where crazy interesting intense and powerful things are on the verge of happening...then press go and let the players take it from there without another written word on the matter".
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xiombarg
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« Reply #14 on: July 29, 2003, 09:40:57 AM »

Quote from: Valamir
My personal preference is "Wind up the setting to a critical juncture where crazy interesting intense and powerful things are on the verge of happening...then press go and let the players take it from there without another written word on the matter".
That is my personal preference as well. It's sort of the point of the rant, really. I'd rather people reconsider doing metaplot supplements than do them at all. My stuff about "good metaplots" is pretty much advice on how to make them less annoying and more useful to those who aren't interested in them.

Perhaps I'm being too nice in the rant, but I wanted to include the possiblity that a metaplot can not be the annoying mess it usually is in most games that have one. And just so people don't think I'm just hitting on White Wolf, I'm thinking "Deadlands" here.

And even if you're not interested in canon a "bad" metaplot is often problematic because they often stuff in generic stuff you might actually want, like the spacecraft rules for the World of Kool.

Quote from: John Kim
Maybe it is mainly a matter of attitude. i.e. Some thoughtful advice on how to adapt or vary from the metaplot would be good.
This is exactly my point. Most metaplots aren't thoughtful at all -- it's a big railroad. Of course, you can disregard it, but then you have to tell every new player what you're NOT doing...
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love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT
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