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.