Metaplot achieves nothing good and does damage doing it

Temporarily immobilised by the need to elevate a gouty foot, I have passed some time recently in listening to old episodes of IRTWD. Most recently I heard the episode of September 2013 — approximately #9 —, which is titled Mostly by Blowing Them Up, and which features discussion of Feng Shui, of metaplot, and of the revival of one of Professor Mike’s old campaigns. Metaplot is an abiding bugbear of mine, and one of my many problems with it is related to my dislike of Feng Shui. So I’ll start there.

I think that one of the traps that RP designers, GMs and so forth fall into repeatedly is to try to make things too important. Very high stakes sound grand, but they are actually bad. They narrow the range of suitable PCs, reduce PCs’ room to manœuvre, reduce uncertainty and suspense, and introduce a continual threat of the issues being taken out of PCs hands and diffused among a collection of important officials. In my opinion, an adventure that is about rescuing an underprivileged kidnap victim from the dreadful fate that awaits him in human trafficking has more possibilities and more interest than rescuing the prophesied victim from a human sacrifice that will end the world. The suspenseful interest of an adventure is at a maximum when the stakes are such that a bad person will kill but a good person hesitates to do so. Any increase in the stakes past that point purchases grandiloquence at the price of interest and uncertainty. large stakes draw more characters into the conflict (generally a bad thing) but they make each character less conflicted. Large stakes produce powerful motives that utterly overwhelm opposing inclinations.

Believing that, I never run adventures that are about changing the universe. A detective adventure in late-Victorian London ought to be about a stolen pearl or a murdered plumber, not about the attempted mass assassination of the entire House of Lords. If I set an adventure in the 1930s it’s about defeating one gang boss, not about halting the tide of international fascism. If I set an adventure in 1970, the PCs have to stop a serial killer, not the Vietnam War. The contemporary adventures that I ran in 1988 were never about bringing down international communism. Given a interstellar setting with an unspecified multitude of very various worlds, I find Kirth Gersen a lot more interesting than Kimball Kinnison. For one thing, retiring to a quiet life with Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay and 10 billion SVU is a reasonable thing for Gerson to consider, whereas Clarissa McDougal would be mad even to suggest that Kinnison lie back and let them both be killed in the destruction of the multiverse. When everything is at stake you have no choices.

In my view, the biggest problem with Feng Shui was that it mashed a bunch of movies, each of which stood alone with a conflict of mostly appropriate scale, into a huge struggle that made everything less interesting because it increased the stakes. Police Story was a good movie because (a) Jackie Chan was fabulous and (b) it was about getting a witness safely into court on trial day. Dial the stakes up to saving the world and you have to make nearly everyone in it either ignorant, malevolent, or stupid.

Result of that position: metaplot contributes nothing to a setting that is any use to me. It just makes the players feel that their adventures are trivial.

Point the Second.

In their discussion of metaplot, the Great Sages (equals of Heaven) considered only playing along in serials mode, the GM and players keeping abreast of the metaplot as it comes out. The introduction to the setting was correct when the players read it, the GM recalls how things have changed from the state of affairs described in the well-organised and well-indexed reference material, and can figure how to adjust the facts he or she looks up.

What this leaves out is the predicament of the player who is joining a campaign or the GM who is taking up a setting after metaplot has put the introductory and reference materials out of date. Such a player or GM reads and believes clear and explicit statements in the official introduction and the official guide to the setting that are now just plain wrong, because the publication of ill-organised and un-indexed reference material has pointlessly scrambled the fundamentals of the setting.

This was one of my beefs with the revived Doctor Who. Another problem: in an ongoing campaign, how do you keep raising the stakes? In that show, it went from “Earth will be destroyed” via “the entire universe will be destroyed” to “all of the parallel universes will also be destroyed”… and it felt bathetic and perversely small that such a huge problem would have only a few scrappy heroes doing anything about it.

It seems to me that one way to put your motivation point is that increasing the stakes simplifies the question from “will they do it” to “can they do it”. Part of the answer to the Liberty Valance problem [i.e. that the violent man is sometimes necessary but otherwise has no place in society] is that repeated trope of the hero living in retirement, or at least happily, who has to choose whether to leave his home and family and be the violent hero again or stick with the happiness that he’s found. (Lesser writers burn down the home and murder the family, meaning that he has no choice after all.)

However, I don’t think metaplot necessarily means that all adventures are tied up as part of a Grand Scheme. In 7th Sea there was the Montaigne Revolution plot: its not-France had a not-French-Revolution. But this didn’t mean that every adventure published during that time was about things that influenced the revolution; some of them had nothing to do with it, some of them used it as background. What it did mean was that descriptions of Montaigne from earlier books had become largely obsolete.

On the few occasions I’ve played Feng Shui, the overarching conflict has come in only in the sense that it provides convenient opposition; there hasn’t been time-jumping by the PCs, just “hang on, we modern people seem to be going up against a sorcerer”, Big Trouble in Little China style.

My only experience with delayed access to metaplot is in the GURPS Torg campaign I ran a few years ago, and in that I was deliberately starting from the beginning and changing things as they went along – not that we really got that far, because I found myself profoundly frustrated with the quality of the adventures. All right, Wu Han did get killed (by the party in an invoked reality storm), but that just meant I could bring in his Beautiful but Evil Daughter™, Wu Lin Tang. (Who had all of her father’s liking for the simple pleasures in life, like doomsday machines and scorpion pits, but tried to be a bit smarter with it. Like not personally turning up to oversee things if an expendable minion can do the job instead.)

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I stipulate that difference, but the kind of thing you describe is in fact the thing I most object to in metaplot.

Let’s take, for example, Mage: The Ascension. I’ve run two campaigns in it, taking off from the conflict of paradigms and making use of the freeform treatment of magic. In each, I would start with the described state of things at a certain time, and work out how things would progress and how the PCs might influence that progress. And so then WW comes along and says, “Events taking place offstage that the PCs can’t control have changed the balance of power and have done away with the wild and crazy magic [that is, have taken away the biggest appeal of the game].” Or even more extremely, those events have destroyed the entire game world, and my campaign with it.

Why on Earth should I let the publisher do that to my campaign? Once I start running a campaign in the world, it’s MY world. I’m the author, and I decide what happens in it (subject to the influence of PC actions). They created a situation I could work with, yes, but that doesn’t mean the creative use I make of it has to be constrained by their ideas about how the situation would develop. The fact that they provided me with a resource for art doesn’t mean that they get to interfere in the art.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the campaign setting is the property of the GM. They may take it from a game book, or from a published work of fiction (see GURPS Adaptations), or create an original setting from first principles; but it’s their setting. The players should never be able to say, “But this book that someone else wrote says that this thing happened.” And the publisher certainly shouldn’t be able to compel them to change the setting, so it’s at best a waste of effort for them to do stuff that attempts to impose such changes.


I’m inclined to agree. I don’t think I’ve ever run a game in a setting that was being actively changed in this way, though I came close with Dark Conspiracy; I effectively built my own campaign setting out of the core book and some of the rules supplements, and when I later got hold of some of the adventures and they weren’t consistent with my worldbuilding, the adventures had to give way.

If the scope of the campaign is very different from the scope of the metaplot (e.g. the campaign is about running about being a pirate, while the metaplot is about the revolution) then it doesn’t need to generate incompatibilities, but at the same time it doesn’t have much to offer: why should the PCs care about it if it doesn’t affect them?

Torg’s metaplot included “a new invading realm has just taken over Los Angeles”. If your PCs had a home base there, that would be a campaign-dislocating event. But if they didn’t (and the adventures are pretty globe-spanning, so it seems to me that PCs are encouraged to be fairly rootless) then it was just another enjoyable place to go and play in.

That, it seems to me, is why you might let the publisher do that to your campaign: because there’s enjoyable new Stuff to play with (locations, hardware, character powers, whatever) and that’s a way of getting it into the campaign without restarting from scratch.

Having been watching Good Omens on the telly, I can say that a lot of my attitude to RPG metaplot is rather akin to Crowley and Aziraphale’s attitude to the Apocalypse: Hey, why do you want to destroy this fun thing we were enjoying a lot? However, Crowley and Aziraphale have a lot more agency than most PCs do when it comes to stopping the metaplot in its tracks.

Metaplot is the ultimate railroad.

And I’d much rather play The Magnificent Seven saving the village from the bandits, than the Avengers saving the universe from ultimate eeeeevil yet again.


There are several issues/topics being discussed.

  • Epic, world/universe changing plots with huge stakes are a viable option for an rpg campaign. Sometimes that’s what players and GMs want.
  • If a campaign that starts with small stakes can grow into an epic as the PCs peel away the layers of the onion and delve deeper into the world and the powers that move it. This can be good or bad depending on the preferences of the players and the quality of the execution.
  • A published campaign can be a good and useful tool to fuel many sessions and provide a platform upon which the GM can build. Or it could just be an on-the-rails series of adventures with little player agency. In either case, the world changes based on the PCs’ actions (whether “the world” is a city, a modestly-sized region of the globe, or the entire universe).
  • A metaplot is a published campaign that causes changes that affect not just the game world, but the game itself. That’s the meta part. And they can be really annoying, especially if they take away GM agency (assuming the GM follows a metaplot in the same way players might follow a railroaded plot).
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Ah, a difference in terminology. To me a metaplot entity is something that is intended to cause changes to all instances of a campaign, and that is the “meta” part. There were no classic D&D adventures that said “all future adventures published for this world will assume that the events in this adventure have happened”, not even the one that involved killing a god; they were intended to be wedged into people’s existing campaigns.

The soft boundary for me is with something like Transhuman Space, where Toxic Memes would have changed quite a bit about Fifth Wave living, but the idea is that things were like this all along, not “here’s a world-changing new development”.

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I see your point. One thing that metaplots do is blur the boundary between the campaign and the game itself, so we both could be referring to the same thing from different angles.

Also, a living campaign is another type of campaign which incorporates changes introduced by events in other campaigns. You see these in organized play.

Many small, indie games do the same, but they are designed to be run as one-shots or at least self-contained mini-campaigns. The game is the adventure and the adventure is the game. But they are not long enough to have a metaplot or be a living campaign.

What does “organized play” mean in this context? Is this some sort of setup where a whole bunch of GMs are running different campaigns not merely in the same world, but in the same continuity, so that what one GM does changes the world for the other GMs? That seems like it would be really hard to keep coherent; how do you exercise enough control so that one GM’s decisions don’t trash the world for other GMs? Or is it something quite different from this?

As I understand it, the idea is something like the old RPGA. There are a bunch of GMs who run “official” adventures, sometimes to some kind of schedule, sometimes at conventions. You register a character, which you keep from one adventure to the next, but you don’t have to play with the same GM each time, and you can carry over treasure and other benefits. (Eventually you have to retire the character.)

In other words the individual GM’s decisions are heavily circumscribed, but in return they get a lot of adventure material to run at (as I understand it) a decent price, as well as the ability to attract players by running official organised-play events.

So yes they’re all running in the same continuity, but they’re probably also running the same actual adventures; certainly the people I’ve heard talking about this stuff have never mentioned making up their own material.

Here’s the Pathfinder Society guide, which is probably one of the biggest organised-play systems:

I think I’ve seen the initials RPGA before, but I really know nothing about them.

Of course there’s a problem with that definition of “continuity,” in that I might bring Fred the Barbarian to a session, and have his history include going through the Lair of Loathsomeness, and find that session attended by Diana the Priestess, who also went through the Lair of Loathsomeness, but certainly did not do so with Fred. You couldn’t get away with that in writing a series of novels or stories or television scripts. But perhaps I’m peculiar in aspiring to have my campaigns have some of the attributes of composed fiction.

But more basically, I’m just baffled at the idea that “a lot of adventure material to run” is a big attraction. I have run one campaign in a published setting (Griffin Mountain), and one adventure in another campaign (Midnight Circus, which I adapted to DC Heroes). But those were very much exceptions. Really I’m still very much the young gamer who saw Blackmoor and couldn’t understand why the “Temple of the Frog” was even in it; it was giving me a frog but not teaching me to catch frogs, so to speak!

Roger described what I was thinking of when I used the term “living campaign.” They might not be my thing, but I can’t begrudge people who like it. Like opera. Or basketball.

If you wish, you can think of them as parallel, alternative realities whose superposition collapses into a single “truth” when the game publisher makes the next installment in the campaign.

Similarly here. I don’t find them appealing – but after all there are a lot more D&Ders than there are people who like the sort of game I do, and presumably there must be something they enjoy there.

(I also tend to have a visceral revulsion against anything which leaves my enjoyment contingent on a company continuing to supply material – if SJGames stopped producing GURPS books tomorrow, it wouldn’t make a huge difference to what I do with it, but if a living campaign stops producing new material, that game is effectively dead, because the model has been “I get the adventure, I run the adventure” rather than “I make up my own stuff”.)

However I have to concede that the GM of pre-written material – that is written to be part of a specific campaign – has a whole lot less preparation to do, and for some people that matters a lot.

What I’m really trying to say is that for me, the preparation is a feature and not a bug.


I love doing it, sometimes more than I enjoy running the game. But I can see that people with limited time for game-related activities might feel differently.


I think your statement “I love doing it, sometimes more than I enjoy running the game” ought to be given more weight here—because that’s exactly how I feel. I’ve said more than once that when the first session starts the best part is over. I suspect that there are other people who feel that way—and that we make up a disproportionate share of the audience for GURPS.

Eighteen years ago, when my corporate job was outsourced, I was sent to a job search training program at my former employers’ expense. One of the things they talked about was “career anchors,” or the things different people look for in a job. One of the eight was Managerial Competence, or the opportunity to manage people as a key payoff from work. Another was Technical Competence, or the ability to do skilled work oneself as a key payoff from work. Technical Competence people could manage, and often had to, but for them, managing wasn’t a payoff: It was drudgery they had to get through to make time for real, interesting work. And I was (you’ll never guess!) very much a Technical Competence person—and the work I do now gratifies precisely that drive.

I think there may be GMs for whom design is a big payoff in its own right, and other GMs for whom it’s tedious labor that needs to be minimized to let them do the real work of running game sessions for players. And the two will have different priorities. I don’t think it’s a matter of “limited time.” If you really love something like that, you will make time, even if it means staying up late or pushing aside some other activity or task.

And this is largely a question of taste, of which there is nothing to be said, except, as the old joke has it, “I’m so glad I don’t like prunes—because if I liked them, I would eat them, and I HATE them!” But one effect of my particular tastes is that I can and do run what I call “bespoke” campaigns, where adventures are not bought off the shelf, but customized for the individual characters and the past events of the campaign. And that in itself may attract players of a different sort, and in my experience can produce intense loyalty in such players.

If there were more of a market for campaign settings, as distinct from adventures or crunch books, I’d certainly write more. I love the bit of a space game where I’m deciding what sort of drives are available, and how that sorts out travel times and the sort of adventures you can have (“Colony X-4 is calling for help!” “I hope they can hold out for a year”). Or the bit of a historical fantasy game where I’m working out how weird powers are coming into the world and who is doing what with them. (As I mentioned in the latest Path of Cunning, one of the things I’m trying to do in my occult WWII game is to portray what, e.g., Himmler, Churchill, etc., might have done if suddenly presented with actual working but low-power magic.)

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Very much so. I also admire sang froid much more than strident passion — I consider “Would you like a jelly baby?” to be a much better line that “We’re in a library; look me up”, but that’s probably snobbishness.

That I see as more a side-effect of the transition from “he’s just this guy (with a lot of knowledge)” to “he’s the Most Important Guy Ever”. Which is similarly not to my taste.

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I did not like that transition itself, and I would not have liked it even if the Doctor had not also become shouty.

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