Meta-plot is one of those concepts that you either love or hate. Basically, the term is often used in RPGs and elsewhere to describe an over-arcing plot-line or extended storyline. You can see examples of meta-plot in the media too – the Shadow War in Babylon 5, Lucifer rising in Supernatural. Game of Thrones is one huge example of epic meta-plot, with lots going on and not all of it related to specific characters.
Yet RPGs often have a problem with meta-plot. Sometimes, even the sheer weight of meta-plot material can kill a product line. This is roughly what led to the White Wolf “reboot” of the World of Darkness (Vampire, Werewolf etc.) – they had loads of supplements and source-books that had largely bled (for want of a better word) the creative opportunity for GMs. Wizards of the Coast had quite a history of doing meta-plot resets, e.g. From the Ashes and the Greyhawk Wars series that rebooted Greyhawk for A&D 2nd Ed. Sometimes it is easier to start afresh and might also generate fresh revenue and invigorate a product line I suppose!
Players only appreciate meta-plot when they are active participants to some extent. It also often assumes some prior familiarity with a setting on the part of your players – and that in itself can be hard work for someone new to a particular setting. Here’s some examples.
Babylon 5 RPG setting
Gods, where would you start with Babylon 5 for someone unfamiliar with the series? Even watching a couple of episodes wouldn’t really bring someone unfamiliar with B5 up to speed with 5 years of plot. You’d have to be really hard-core fans of the series to make it work, unless you set it before the formation of the ISA and coming of the Shadows. The sheer volume of plot and events make it inscrutable to anyone who hadn’t watched a season or more!
Cthulhutech RPG meta-plot
You could say that the whole setting of Cthulhutech is one big meta-plot. I’m eagerly awaiting Dead Gods and Burning Horizons for Cthulhutech. One is likely to be a Storybook that features meta-plot and the events of 2086, the other “splat” book for the Rapine Storm faction (a cult of Hastur that purges/scours the earth for the arrival of the Great Old Ones). The Storybooks are interesting in that it gives your players a chance to participate in some of the major events/revelations of the year as part of the CT meta-plot. However, there’s a lot going on across the globe and its unlikely that your players would be at the Fall of Juneau or Shanghai. In my own Through the Looking Glass games, I’ve hinted at what’s to come, but can’t really bounce the players across the planet (or space in the case of Burning Horizons!) to a new location every session!
Ashes of Freedom (D&D)
Contrary to popular belief at ORC, much of the meta-plot for the Ashes of Freedom D&D game at ORC did not come out of any long-term planning on my part as such. It worked as a result and I could tailor the plot toward the PCs actions. Yes, I did have a few ideas for the long-term, but fitting it around the players worked far better. Also as the world was my own creation it meant that I didn’t feel compelled to preserve it, or avoid any events. To be perfectly honest, some of the plot was derailed from the first session so I had to come up with some new ideas quickly!
To answer my original question: is meta-plot needed? No – never let it get in the way. If you want a simple dungeon bash, for instance, you might not need it. Live free, and only use meta-plot when you want to give the game some flavour, or involve the players in some new conspiracy! Kill off a significant NPC? No problem. The PCs thwart the invasion that might have led to the founding of a empire of a thousand years of peace and prosperity? Oops! The whole party gets wiped out? GMs, it’s your game: you can do what you want with it.
“It’s better to burn out than fade away!” The Kurgan, Highlander
I think there comes a time when everyone “burns out”, creatively speaking – be it storytelling, writing or GMing. I feel it every few years when I’m running RPGs, and I reckon I’m not alone in experiencing it. Creativity isn’t like a tap – you can’t turn it on or off as needed. I’ve often found myself in the position where I’m completely stumped for an idea, only to have an epiphany later on – sometimes its better to take a step back from a problem or project and just rethink things – I’m not just talking about RPGs: sometimes in IT you can create additional problems by over-thinking something (a PC may not be connecting because of a dodgy cable not a TCP/IP stack)! I’ve also found that my mental state also has some bearing – unsurprisingly, if you’re under a great deal of stress or feeling down, your problem-solving and thinking processes tend to suffer as a result. At the moment, I’m thinking of just taking my time and not rushing things: I’ve a lot on at work and it can be difficult to concentrate on some of the other stuff I need to sort out at home, gaming or otherwise.
To be honest, RPGs are a good way to relieve stress. In the past I’ve had what one of my friends calls “Black Moods”, where I feel pretty rotten, and depressed. That’s depression with a small D: clinical Depression is no joke – however I think it is too often abused as an excuse (often misdiagnosed and drugs are over-prescribed by GPs who can’t be bothered). I’m not denying that at some point I may have been Clinically Depressed, but that was a long time ago. Sometimes these moods hit me (not for a few years though) but I’ve learned to ride them out – if you look back through my blog entries you’ll spot some of the times when they hit me! RPGs and the creative process help considerably with these moods I’m not one of these people who post their mental status on social networking sites (at least I hope I’m not!), seeking validation through cryptic comments; or playing for sympathy, so that everyone is compelled to ask what’s wrong.
Enough of my psychobabble! The main focus of this RPG article is the phenomenon known as GM Burnout. I’ve been an occasional victim of this, as mentioned above.
Recognising GM (and player!) burnout
Once you reach a certain age, or level of experience as a GM, it becomes difficult to find the time to either create new adventures or settings. Certain game systems become too advanced, or too simplistic. You just go through the motions sometimes.This is what happened with me and D&D: I don’t like 4th edition as it’s just somewhat basic and seems geared towards using a battle map and miniatures. 3.5 is too munchkin now: there’s very little “role” involved in what is essentially a paper version of a PC game (feats, etc.).
As a GM, you’ll spot the signs of burn-out in yourself by these:
- You’re having trouble coming up with new ideas.
- You regard the game as a chore rather than a leisure activity.
- You’ve lost your enthusiasm for the game.
- You become annoyed at the slightest thing during your games.
- Player/PC antics no longer amuse you.
- You find yourself cancelling games as you have other things to do.
- You want to run another game but don’t know which one.
- You have to regularly cancel games because players can’t make it.
- You’re running multiple games and are finding it difficult to concentrate.
- The game just doesn’t work for you.
You can usually notice it in players too, with much of the same “symptoms”, for want of a better word. Often they’re committed to two or more games – possibly as a GM too.
Here are some of my own cases of burnout, or other failures (and what went wrong!).
Against the Odds: I used D&D 4e for this. Looking back upon it this was a mistake – I didn’t think about how the game would pan out using a system that focuses heavily on combat, rather than investigation or intrigue. Consequently I got frustrated and ditched it.
Ashes of Freedom: again D&D, but 3.5&4e this time. However, the first time I ran AoF (when 4e came out), I got a bit sick of the system (and one of the players threw a bit of a hissy fit too when he couldn’t get his own way), plus I had two groups and one lot changed nearly every week. However a little later I returned to AoF using D&D3.5. I did overcommit myself to creating a 3.6 version as well, but it WAS a popular game. It reached a natural end, with some pretty good action sequences, and I was needing a break anyway – I realised I was getting close to burnout.
Babylon 5: great idea, crap implementation, rotten PR. The d20 edition of the Babylon 5 RPG doesn’t work as it stands. Unfortunately, I thought I could craft this great campaign, with a story arc that could match JMS. Unfortunately it was not to be: other popular games were on that day; the setting required too much metagame knowledge/series background; and the system was pretty poor and didn’t really run well. Looking back, I could have done something with it I guess, but I was feeling a little restless: wanting to run an RPG, something other than D&D. I think I was definitely burned out as a GM at this point.
The New World: despite this setting being incredibly popular since, the first outing proved to be an unmitigated failure. In its first incarnation, it was designed to be an ORC shared campaign. A group of DMs worked over several months to hammer out a setting and plot line, and on D&D day we had three different DMs running a game. Then the other GMs lost interest (or couldn’t be bothered), and I was left carrying the game – I got pretty sick of that so the New World was put on ice for a few years – it’s still used frequently by other DMs at ORC and elsewhere (including some of my ideas so its not a total loss. After this event I didn’t run anything for a while, as I was pretty hacked off. I felt vastly disappointed. It was a game where there were plenty of folk wanting to play, but few willing to run.
PBM games: I definitely suffered GM burnout with these. Shadows Lengthen took so much of my time that despite the fact that it made some small amount of money that I just got tired of running it. Ties of Blood looked really good on paper, but failed to garner enough interest. I just gave up on it as a result.
What to do
The best thing to do is take a break – the time involved depends upon the individual. If you’re running an existing game, tell your players that you want to take a break for a while. Maybe let someone else run, and you can relax and actually be a player for a while.
Try running a different game and keep it to a short series i.e. a mini campaign. If you’re short of ideas, it can be a good idea to carry a small A5 or smaller notebook everywhere. You’d be surprised when (and where) you can find inspiration!
If the game itself isn’t working, that’s more difficult: it’s best to give some serious thought to if you can see it continuing in its current form. If you can’t, give your players an ending to remember! If there’s no way you can see the game going on, be as dramatic as possible in the game’s conclusion – all the gloves are off: PCs die, NPCs change loyalty, the villain(s) die(s), the world ends, etc. Aim for a whammy!
NOTE: I know this is kinda written like a medical crib sheet, but I thought it might be fun to write it like that. Obviously RPGs are a leisure hobby – treat it that way!
Seriously, that’s what its starting feel like.
We’re continually bombarded with information on the news with absolutely no way of checking the veracity. Nowadays all that is important are rumours and speculation; instead of informed and objective reporting. Often on the news there are “people on the ground” or “as it happens” who are asked for their opinions of what is happening when it is obvious that they have no idea. It seems there are no correspondents any more, instead the media rely on Joe Public to send in barely articulate emails or resort to talking heads about what is going on.
At the moment, we can see this happening with the nuclear debate. The media have whipped up a frenzy about the problems in Japan – they were screaming earlier that staff had been evacuated from the plant for instance. That’d be a bloody good idea if, oh, there were explosions going on? Then there’s the whole business about it being safe: these problems were caused by an earthquake and a tsunami. There’s an element of risk in everything: you could fall out of your bed while you were asleep or trip over the kerb – this was a unique combination of circumstances. Out of this scaremongering comes demands for nuclear power to be written off as an answer to the energy needs of an increasingly tech-based society.
To me, that’s part of the problem: we’re becoming so reliant on technology that we cannot function without it. We’re becoming tech-addicts, looking for the next “fix”.Mobile phones intrude on our lives daily – I wonder how many people could function for a week without one – both in our personal and work lives. Social networking has become a social problem of its own with cyber-bullying and relationships destroyed. Wikipedia is used to support facts – although these facts can easily be distorted and may be subject to whatever prejudices there are at the time. New items are reduced to factoids and talking heads. We’re pushing the boundaries of ethics with the genetic code but haven’t found an answer to poverty and hunger. We can map the stars but no human has left Earth orbit.
To me, we’re starting to reek of cultural stagnation. We’re told of new drugs that allow improved cognitive functions for those suffering dementia, only for them to be used by students to improve their memory. Even the language we use to talk to one another has changed to such an extent that grown adults are reduced to talking in child-speak or the broken English in texts or emails. No one pays much attention to the consequences of their actions. Considering the imminent shortage of fuel and power, I wonder how many more luxury items like games consoles and TVs will sell. Given the choice between keeping warm and eating, or the latest Halo game, I know which I would choose.
Games like Eclipse Phase and modern pop culture talk about Transhumanism: the truth is we’ll not be ready until we figure out where the hell we are, who we are, and what we should be doing as a species, not an individual or group.
I’ll leave off with a little snippet from Babylon 5, that pretty much describes how an advanced culture (the Vorlons) would view a race on the verge of acquiring an anti-agathic drug (i.e. once that prolongs life, and eliminates disease).
You are not ready for immortality
- Kosh Ngranek, Babylon 5 episode Deathwalker
Imagine if we had one today: an overcrowded world with limited resources.
Anyway: enough ranting. I’m off to prepare a handwritten summary of my notes from a Windows 7 implementation meeting.