Category Archives: setting


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[1]. 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. [2]

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:

  1. 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. [3]
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Good Intentions in Design

Ok, so yesterday I talked up all the good things that can come out of building a game with a strong tie to the setting from the ground up. Legend of the Five Rings managed to pull this off in a way that has lead to the game going into a fourth edition, which is a pretty good sign of how robust the idea of it is.

The temptation, then, is to try to do something similar – to create a game that has that tight a tie into the setting from the getgo. And it’s a good instinct – if you can pull it off, it would be pretty awesome. And Alderac clearly thought so too, since that’s exactly what they tried to do with their swashbuckling game, 7th Sea and it’s setting of Theah.

I have a pretty serious love/hate relationship with 7th Sea. The parts I like, I’m nuts for, but the parts that are bad are really and truly so bad that they make me angry and a little bit sad. I should also add that I think 7th Sea is past its expiration date on spoilers, so I’m not going to pull any punches there. If for some ungodly reason that’s an issue, I apologize.

Ok, so 7th Sea pretty much did to Europe what L5R did to Japan, and in some ways this was spectacular, as it was more or less “European History: the Good Parts Version”. England was Elizabethan + Arthurian. France was a mash up of the musketeers and Napoleon. The Dutch were also Vikings. You get the idea. It was shameless in its blatant coolhunting and that was a good thing. Yes, some history nerds might take offense at the abuse to history, but since there was no attempt to hide this, I’d call that kind of objection a party foul.

Yet despite this, 7th Sea has not had anywhere near the kind of robustness in the mind as L5R. So what went wrong?

First and foremost, there’s a good chance that a big part of it was that it had a very deep metaplot which was, to put it bluntly, pretty stupid. There were a lot of crazy details to it, but the big thing is that Europe was surrounded by a giant forcefield designed to make geography utterly nonsensical. The whole world was ALSO surrounded by a giant forcefield. That was keeping out Cthulhu. Some sorcery weakened the latter forcefield. Other magics came from other Cthulhu Lite Guys who hate big Cthulhu.

I realize that in summing it up in this fashion, it is merely preposterous sounding, so bear in mind that you need to read a great many books to get all of this revealed in what I can only describe as a thoroughly 90’s fashion.

So there’s the first really painful bit: a terrible metaplot, complicated, fiddly and not particularly contributing to the tone of the game. This is another area where L5R’s CCG roots ended up providing an unexpected benefit. It also had a metaplot, but there were a couple explicit limitations on it. They were using their tournaments to determine the direction events in the empire went, so they could not plan that too far ahead. Also, they needed to make sure that they could bring in new card sets, which meant new elements needed to follow some of the same rules that made the initial elements work (simple, understandable, but with potential depth). 7th Sea had a CCG but, like the RPG, it was never as big as L5R and it didn’t provide as much of a set of constraints (or at least so it appears from the outside).

The second problem was that Theah was much closer to a kitchen sink design than L5R. Some corner of Theah probably had whatever you wanted out of a game, but that meant the rest of it probably doesn’t work out so well. The obvious split was between pirates and musketeers, but there are dozens more thematic splits throughout the setting. Contrast that with the focus of L5R[1] and you find yourself facing one of the hardest questions in RPGs “Ok. But what do we do now?”

Now, yes, obviously, any specific campaign can answer that question, but that’s not the same as having the setting answer it for you. It establishes a baseline which you can choose to deviate from, but which gives you what you need.

The third problem was one that you could also find in a lot of 90’s designs – It was the NPCs game. At first glance it did not seem like this was the case. There was a lot of talk about how pivotal the PCs were in the rulebook, and the setting took the novel step of freezing the timeline, so that all the supplements that came out were from a single snapshot moment in time. In theory, this meant that there would be no unexpected metaplot events that changed the game.

In practice, it did not quite shake out that way. Rather than advance the timeline, the various books started changing the underpinnings of the game, initially with mild reveals but eventually with information that flew in the face of earlier material. The metaplot unfolded in a fashion that introduced a lot of tonal clash and made it clear the things that were important in the game are not the things the players were aware of when they made their characters.[2]

With all that in mind, I’m not looking to bust on 7th Sea so much as say that the lessons I would take from it are somewhat cautionary. As much as it might seem like reskinning history with extra awesome is an easy formula for success, there’s clearly more to it than that.

If I want to follow this particular model (and I might) the trick will be (as it seems it so often is) all about embracing the limitations. Narrowing in on a specific slice of a setting that creates strong context for players is much better than something broad which might give me, as a creator, more leeway to do stuff I think is cool. It’s a slightly brutal tradeoff, but probably a smart one.

1 – And especially the fact that this focus gave characters an implicit role. In L5R, you start with a duty of some stripe – it’s a necessity.

2 – Not that it mattered much because the NPCs were all statted out to make it clear that there was a tier of awesome that you could simply never aspire too

Cultural Game Design

Someone, and I feel like a heel for not remembering who, just did a very nice review of Legend of the Five Rings, 4th edition. I have a lot of conceptual love for L5R, though most of that love was fiercely beaten out of me by Second edition. Third edition looked very pretty, but was sufficiently errata-laden that I never made the leap to picking it up. 4e sounds a lot like a cleanup of 3e, and that’s an admirable thing, but I genuinely don’t know if the spark is still there.

But it might be. L5R has left a fairly profound footprint in my mind despite the fact that I never really considered myself a fan.[1] At first blush it might seem like it’s all about the Samurai. After all, while there have been a few other Samurai games, none of them have been nearly as successful (in large part because L5R is _not_ a historical game) so it clearly stands out in that light. But really? Not so much. I mean, I enjoy getting my Yojimbo on as much as the next guy but it’s not a genre that grabs me the way that some others do.

No, what sticks with me is the fact that L5R is such a fantastically structured cultural game.

That’s a big and somewhat unclear statement, so let me zero in on the pieces that make it up.
First and foremost, the system is strongly integrated into the setting yet still robust. You can re-use parts of it for other games if you want. You could even use if for another samurai game and it would work ok. But it works at its absolute best in Rokugan. This shows up in many places, from the application of specific skills for things like the Rokugan Tea Ceremony to character creation, where the character’s house (with the specific social contexts that implies) serves where other fantasy games would use race, and is much better designed.

That leads to the next point: when you finish chargen, your character has a place in the world, even if it’s as a context. You have a lord, You have family. You have the relationships between the clans to serve as a baseline which you may then personally proceed to deviate from.[2] It’s a small thing, but it goes a long way. In other games like FATE or Smallville, entire sessions are dedicated to creating that sense of connection, but in L5R, it came baked right in.

That was possible because of the third (and possibly most contentious) points. The setting really carries weight.

Setting in RPGs is a serious business, and by no means am I asserting that L5R had the best (or even most gameable[3]) setting of any game ever. Many games had vastly richer settings, from Tekumel to Talislantia to Stafford’s Shamanic babies. Some of those settings are deep, crazy deep, with the kind of cultural consistency that can only come of a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

But they take some work to get into. And by some, I may actually mean “A Lot”. The very things that makes them such compelling and rich setting also demand such an investment in lore that they’re not necessarily friendly to step into. In contrast, Rokugan shamelessly steals from bad history to create enough identifiable elements that it’s very easy to grasp.[4]

Rokugan managed to strike an interesting balance between various directions of setting design. As noted, it did not have so much depth that it created a barrier of entry, but neither was it a simple disposable shell of “just enough setting to get you started” (like the default setting of 4e). In shamelessly treating history as something to abuse and plunder, it kept itself from being bogged down in details (Something which, I think, kept Sengoku from getting the love it deserved) while still being recognizable. It also had a fairly narrow focus, so there was no danger of it being a Kitchen Sink setting like the Forgotten Realms.[5]

All of which combines to explain my initial assertion – it was probably the strongest example I’ve seen of a cultural game. A game where setting and system (and, to be honest, some of the elements of physical design) combined to create a complete cultural game.
This is on my mind as I think about the heartbreaker. Having that kind of context as a part of setup is pretty powerful. But that’s easier said than done. There are ways for it to go impressively wrong, something I’ll chew on tomorrow.

1 – And, despite investing a little in the cards, never got into the CCG either.

2 – Now, this may not seem like a big deal as virtually every 90’s game had organizations with strong opinions of one another, and that’s a fair cop, but L5R lifted itself above the pack by the fact that those relationships did not feel tacked on. To pick on Vampire, each clan was geographically and culturally diverse, and the idea that its membership could agree on what to have for breakfast was a stretch, to say nothing of having a unified view of another equally diverse group. The sterotypes made a nice shorthand, but they didn’t have a lot of power to them. In contrast, the houses were an important part of the setting, with concrete locations and people of importance, and the perceptions of the other clans were an extension of the clan’s dealings with one another. That is to say, they had real weight within the setting.

3 – That prize goes to Feng Shui

4 – Some of this is a function of good design, but some of it is – I suspect – a pleasant side effect of having a CCG as a foundation. A CCG needs clear, iconic, easily expressed ideas and groups which can be revealed to have depth over time. The clans work so well because they’re designed to work well in a CCG, and they’re really the foundation of the setting as a whole. Tellingly, I can remember exactly one piece of geography in Rokugan (the Wall) but I can easily recall the clans.

5 – Is that an unfair comparison? After all, the Forgotten Realms (and Eberron) are both quite successful and popular. Why not emulate that?

There are a couple answers, but the first is that it’s a hard way to sell a game. D&D is a fairly open-ended game, and as a result it needs settings that can encompass the range of possibilities it suggests. This results in setting which are on one hand wonderfully diverse but lacking in focus. Most fans of these settings are actually fans of narrow slices of them. For example, I really dig Waterdeep, and I have a legacy fondness for Phlan, but I am mostly uninterested in other parts of the setting, except out of a sort of academic curiosity. When you’re trying to cast a wide net over an existing group of players, you want the net to cover as wide a range as possible so that every prospective customer (and novel/tie-in buyer) can see something they like and get excited about.

If you don’t already have an audience, that’s a less compelling practice because you have no initial buy in. Even if you put something for everyone in your setting, you have no guarantee that they’ll look to try to find it in the first place. To create an audience, you need to wear your selling point on your sleeve, so to speak. You want a setting that’s about something that you can quickly and easily express. L5R was absolutely that.

The Subtle Hand of Awesome

(Posting this in a couple of places, just to see how different platforms handle it)

I’m a big fan of the Birthright setting that TSR put out back in the day. It hit a lot of notes I really liked – the world felt populated, politics had a powerful role, monsters felt mythic – it just rocked. But one subtle note always impressed me. In one of the nations of the game, the default one detailed in the core book, the High King’s throne is empty. The main thrust of events revolves around the nobles and rulers jockeying to either seize it or to keep someone else from seizing it. There are several contenders, but no obvious winner. It turns out that was intentional – as the designer put it, the person they assumed would win the war for the throne would be one of the PCs.

I was reading through the recent Eberron Player’s Guide and came across something that I found similarly appealing. One of the epic destinies in the book is the cleanser of the Mournlands (A nation destroyed by magic and now hidden under an unending shroud of magical fog). It explicitly lays out the character;s exit point from the game; the day they walk into the Mournlands and sacrifice their own life to lift the curse on it.

Now, there are other ways that curse might be lifted in a game – you could have a whole campaign about it – but that assumption that the solution is going to come from a PC is one that I find incredibly powerful, and is exactly what I like to see in a setting. Contrast this to the Forgotten Realms model, where we would know the name, race and class of the SUPER COOL NPC whose destiny it is to walk into the Mournlands and purify them, and if your PCs arereally lucky, you might be able to watch, or maybe even help a little.

I realize there’s an appetite for both of these approaches in gaming. Some players would rather be the audience to the world than the main stage, and that’s fine, but I think they have historically been overrepresented in published settings, and it’s always nice to see a little strike against that approach