Is there such a thing as a good metaplot?
Tough question, and to answer it, let’s first figure out what we’re talking about. In the broadest possible terms, metaplot encompasses all elements of a setting which are important to the setting, yet not known (or knowable) to people who buy the products, but which may or may not be revealed with the purchase of additional products.
Even as I write that, I realize it’s not the definition I thought it would be. I was thinking about secret history and events unfolding, and while those are definitely types of metaplots, I really came to realize that the unifying factor is much simpler. There are three important elements that make that up:
First, it’s knowledge we don’t have but the developers (hopefully) do. Now, by the nature of fiction, this is something of a necessity. The author almost always knows more about the setting than the reader, and that’s entirely normal. It’s not unfair for game developers to be protected by the same umbrella. Hell, in many ways, this is desirable. Ed Greenwood may know what brand of tobacco Elminster likes, but I will be entirely comfortable never finding out. In large part, this lack of knowledge protects us from trivia, and that’s a good thing (except to the most enthusiastic of completists), so that seems a promising start, were it not for the second point.
Second, the knowledge is important and interesting. Now, both of these are a little subjective, so I’ll concede some fuzz around the edges, but by and large they’re easy to spot and agree on. Important information is information which changes the setting or game in an impactful way. If, for example, the metaplot is going to depower all wizards when the god of magic dies, that’s kind of important, especially if you have wizards in your game. Interesting is trickier. Interesting things are what capture our mind and make us want to know more. We’re given a set of events which are intriguing or exciting, but the last act is blacked out. This seems like an ungrateful complaint – interesting material is interesting because the writer has done his job well; does that really create an obligation to complete the story? But the reality is this interesting stuff is what makes sales. Money is changing hands, and I’ll say that yes, that does create an obligation. And that leads to the third point.
Third, you have to pay for the knowledge. Most often this means you need to buy more books, but it’s possible the knowledge may require jumping through different hoops. Whatever the structure, the lack of knowledge is being intentionally exploited to entice you, the reader, to get more into it. That enticement is what separates most game splats from, say, novels where the interest in further information may be unanticipated, but admittedly most authors make use of the teaser effect to hook you into the next book. 
Looking at these three things, I don’’ think you can make a good metaplot. The tactics behind it are just too gamer unfriendly.
BUT, I suspect you can make something like a metaplot by knocking out elements that make it problematic.
The easiest and most obvious thing you can change is to stop making people dance for the reveal. Put the answers somewhere and let people see them, and be prepared. The reality is an explained metaplot is always lamer than an imagined one. People get excited about metaplots because filling in the gaps inspires them. The good news is that by offering the reveal up front, you don’t have time for the reader to get invested in their version and thus more angry and disappointed. Rip off the band aid and just get it out there.
If you must have a release cycle, then make sure it’s something inessential. A subplot or a story that might keep the reader’s interest from book to book is ideal, especially if it deals with matters that are peripheral to the game, if it turns out people get very invested in the sidebar, then fine, roll with that, but treat it as the stroke of good luck it is.
Now, all that said, if you feel you Absolutely must have a metaplot, consider using the following guidelines:
- Remember Tone – the metaplot should have the same general tone and flavor of the rest of your game. That is, don’t go adding Chthulhu in places he’s not needed. 
- Wrap it up – stick to short arcs. A single metaplot puts all your eggs in one basket, and the longer it takes, the more likely it is to go horribly wrong.
- Don’t Undercut the Reasons to Play – Look, if magic has been lost in your setting, but a prophecy says it will be found again, do not have it found again through your metaplot. That’s a job for your players. Too much metaplot gets written as the campaign the designer _wishes_ he could play, thus depriving anyone else of ever getting the chance to do so.
- Clever Sucks – Very often, the need to introduce an idea because it is clever overrides the voice that suggests that it’s not actually any fun at all. This includes hidden wordplay, shaggy dog jokes, and obscure cameo appearances.
They may not save you, but they may at least lessen the blow.
1 – At this point, “metaplot” may make the jump to becoming “transmedia” if the answers are out there and freely available, but scattered across multiple sources that you must engage with. This is less bad than charging money, but it’s still a tricky line to walk.
2- And I’m ok with that, which lead to me questioning my own perception. I’m opposed to the practice in RPGs but forgiving in novels and movies: why? I think it comes back to #2, importance. When an author teases us, it’s part of the implicit agreement. In contrast, when I buy an RPG, the implicit agreement is that I have what I need to play the game. By excluding things that are key to my playing (important) or which are part of the reason I’m excited about the game (interesting), it feels like the agreement has been broken.
3 – Like swashbuckling. But, really, anywhere. Chthulhu is pretty much the least interesting ingredient you can add to any game at this point. It’s done to death. Exception made if, of course, you’re actually playing Chthulhu.
One of the things I hated most of 90s era rpgs was the insistence of icluding a secret metaplot which would span dozens of future supplements. Few companies ever did the metaplot thing right and some were especially horrid (Brave New World, for example).
The best ways I’ve seen companies do metaplots has been in more recent times and follow certain trends. Firstly, keep the metaplot vague and explained in the main book so GMs can make of it what they want (a lot of the Savage Worlds setting fall in here). Secondly, offer multiple possibilities instead of one absolute (similar to what White Wolf’s done with their new WoD lines). Lastly, release a separate metaplot book containing all of the creator’s planned ideas (someone did this but I can’t recall who).
These seem to be the least offensive and blatantly manipulative means of using metaplots.
How would you feel if you bought an RPG, it had your basic focuses, faces, and flashpoints; but no metaplot.
But should you desire some metaplot, you could access it on the RPG’s website, lets say for free?
Can you tell I frequent your blog?
Now, I’m thinking about ways to crowdsource your metaplot. Shadowrun used to do that through its adventures; your group could generally be at the center of world-shaking events, and even write in to let the staff know how things ended up, which (theoretically) influenced the setting’s progress (I’m mainly thinking of ‘Renraku Arcology’ here, which was pretty much the setting’s Undermountain). This, of course, depends on your group wanting to go through The Big Adventure, which not everyone does.
I used to like the idea that L5R’s setting is driven by the results of the CCG, and wonder if there’s some way to adapt it for rpgs, though that’s probably something that just doesn’t translate over to rpgs very well. Still, it would be nice to have a way to encourage people to develop and share their own versions of the metaplot. The closest thing I can think of to this is probably Captain Wiki’s Atlas, for S7S.
@Alex Savage Worlds does _such_ a good job of structuring the background of their settings to come to the forefront. I don’t even play SW much, but I buy their adventures just for this.
@trevor I would totally be for that, especially if it was framed as an optional resource.
@CC There are definitely more tools for crowdsourcing now, but yeah, still not sure what that would look like.
I think you are right on about how metaplot has been handled so far. In most instances, it really serves to steal the GM and player’s thunder and in the worst instances, make people feel like extras in a movie being produced by the company that the GM and players are paying for. Maximum suck.
Still, it seems so tantilizing that metaplot could breath life into a setting because it could recognize that the setting is not a static matte paiting against which the player characters have adventures, but instead a dynamic system that exists around the players, over which they have some (and depending on the game, should have substantial) control, but which has other things going on.
How to balance making a setting a living environment instead of a static backdrop is a very tricky thing. I think S7S did a great job of providing a more dynamic backdrop, with “what’s happening now” and then working hard to build an online community through, for example, the Captain Wiki site that allows the community to, in effect, develop the dynamics of the world (other stuff going on), which can be taken from freely, without the annoying hand of God/metaplot railroading (or just plain running over and demolishing) the game. I would not say that S7S offers the only model and I would be open to some of the other suggestions, but the old model metaplot, as you aptly illustrate, just is a loser.
I forgot to mention that in theory the metaplot by community is what organized play campaigns are supposed to do. There’s questions on how certain events resolved in each Living Forgotten Realms module which shape how future storylines are supposed to go. The Pathfinder Society does a similar thing be evaluating how well players completed the faction specific goals over the adventures in a season (a year) and then stating how the balance of power shifted in the secret faction war.
Now, how well these are actually implemented vary. I know the LFR stuff isn’t apparent at all in influencing the setting. I can’t vouch for the Pathfinder as I’ve just recently gotten involved.
But either way, it is another nice option for an rpg to let their playerbase influence the setting.
Early on with Shadowforce Archer, Patrick tried some really ambitious crowdsourcing for the metaplot. It went off the rails very quickly, for a few reasons.
1) The technology wasn’t quite there yet. This was 2001/2002, before web 2.0 existed. Gathering and collating the results was tricky.
2) It turned out that when you attempted to combine the results of a hundred different reports of how a module turned out, the result is often surprisingly boring. While a lot of the individual reports were really neat, you had file off the weird results to make the final story coherent. It basically boiled down to “the module was completed as expected.” I think they managed to tweak that with Living Spycraft so that there were a set of specific metaplot questions being answered (e.g., Did the villain escape, die, or get captured? Did the doomsday device fall into enemy hands? Did you manage to keep the truth away from the press?). I never did LSpy, though, so I can’t say how that went.
3) Once you report the results of running a module, that module loses all sales value. You need to build into your business model that you are charging people for the chance to have their runs count towards the metaplot, and that after the results are posted the module should be released for free.
4) Writing a module a month is hard work. Especially when also writing a sourcebook every two months and trying to build and maintain a strong user community. If you produce modules less frequently, it is hard to maintain momentum. If you farm out the modules to freelancers, you risk your metaplot losing focus.
5) Individual campaigns still get screwed up, when the way they ran the module doesn’t jive with the official results.
You can probably get much better bang for your buck by running the interactive metaplot through polls (q.v., Eddy Webb’s Whitechapel project, Tempts Fate). But, clicking on a poll is generally less satisfying for the players than going through a module.
The S7S Wiki is a really great option for setting-building. I’m not so sure how well it would work for metaplot, in which there are actual actions that have consequences.
Point #3 is a really interesting and obvious when you say it, but may be the most important. hmm. Must think.
This seems to me to be a strong argument for setting as tone instead of setting as fiction.
Precious few licensed setting games have done much for me or lasted very long for my gaming groups. Even when you aren’t using a licensed setting, adhering strictly to the by-the-book fiction usually ends up feeling wrong.
In my experience, the best pre-packaged setting is the one that is rich with POTENTIAL, but does not demand that you tap any particular part of that potential. I’d much rather have the fictional setting come loaded with lots of opposing ideologies and tension instead of an actual war. That way, the players get to decide how those conflicts blossom or are flipped and go against the grain. Making a guided-but-unique setting and plot is no more involved than going down a list of potential conflicts, checking off the ones you want to feature, and flipping a couple into unexpected alliances or discoveries.
Normal pre-packaged plots suck, so it’s going to be twice as bad for metaplots.
Now, if you’re talking about your own metaplot that you’ve cooked up for a game you’re running, it’s a different issue and has too many nuances and exceptions to mention here. However, I will say that’s one of the best ways to tie together players who are separated, getting them excited for what else is going on in the world, even though their character isn’t present.
For example: I’m currently running a game in which one of my players is undercover in a hostile city, gathering information on a prison camp, where a friendly NPC is being held. In-game, the other players are on the other side of the world and know nothing about this. We took a couple month break and the players got to author their actions during the downtime. Another player’s character discovered a huge piece of information about other events on the island where this prison camp is located, but still doesn’t know anything about the prison or what the other player is doing.
The player can see the potential converging plots, so he has something to be excited about and consider during our break, keeping him hooked so that the game does not lose momentum. Even though these are plots in which the two players are involved, for each other, they are metaplots until they converge.
I felt really bad after reading this, because there’s a Cthulhu in my game. But then I realized that you’re mostly writing for game writers, not for hack GMs.
I see an interesting parallel to the problems of “adventure paths,” or long form modules/adventures published serially. Not having everything in advance, it’s much easier for the needs of the local group to create in-game facts that don’t jive with later chapter. Perhaps the GM replaced a villain to reuse an old enemy the players love to hate, but a later chapter needs something unique about the original villain not present in the old enemy. Or perhaps the players express an interest in exploring something that seems to be background color. The GM might flesh it out, only to discover that it’s integral and different in later chapters. Sure, you can usually work around these problems, but it’s a lot more work when you’re getting chapters piecemeal instead of all at once. You can abandon the adventure path and wing it, but where is the benefit of the adventure path in the first place? It’s a bit on an expensive way to acquire an interesting starting point and perhaps inspiration.
AEG has done it both “right” and “wrong”.
First edition L5R did it right because the metaplot was set seven years after game start. So, even though metaplot was generated by L5R CCG tournaments, anyone could go online and find out what the future history was, decide how much to buy into it, and go from there. It opened options, rather than closing them, and, depending on how you look at it, the metaplot was either free or try-before-you-buy.
7th Sea was a direct contrast to this. Okay, forget the CCG component, as that wasn’t my beef. The first adventure available to GMs was part one of a trilogy. It ended with what looked like an interesting range of options — but if one actually took the more interesting ones, things were off the rails. The other two parts of the trilogy became impossible to run, and the future history over the next year or so didn’t really click with at least one really nifty option.
Then, the Montaigne source book came out. Montaigne, as you may already know, was pretty much France about to be hit by the Revolution.
The source book was, on the whole, quite good. There were new rules for social interactions, new swordsman schools, new magic, all the lovely crunchy bits. There were interesting NPCs of all social stations.
And then, there was this one NPC, a simple peasant. He was statted out and all, and GMs were told not to let him get killed, because in two weeks time, he would set off events leading to the Revolution.
Whoa. So, I can’t progress my game more than two weeks if I want to buy in to the metaplot until the information is available, which, as I recall, it wasn’t, for several months? And, like, you could totally have substituted another peasant.
It was the combination of paying for the installments and then not being able to run your game until you had full information that really annoyed me.