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.
Last year I did some work on The Secret Fire RPG for Secret Fire Games – much of the flavour text in that book is from my own twisted mind as it were – mainly the monsters, a lot of the spells, and the setting descriptions. One thing I’ve learned from the game’s release is to develop a thick skin, especially online. Any product will come under scrutiny and the anonymity of the internet allows people to be far nastier than they would be in a face-to-face conversation.
The RPG.NET forums are especially unpleasant these days. I’ve never liked them as there seems to be a a fairly nasty undercurrent to a lot of the posters there – often it seems its little more than a thinly veiled ego trip for a lot of the posters there. Coleslaw on the Cthulhutech forum (on Cthulhutech’s own site) sums it up thus:
My brief stint at RPG.net can be likened to having to use a porta-potty in August.
The other thing I’ve learnt is not to build expectations – The Secret Fire RPG had a number of problems during its creation, and I think there’s a lot that could have been done differently. I don’t think it was the game itself that raised people’s hackles, more the way it was built up and marketed. However, I’m unlikely to visit RPG.NET again – I’m a member of many other online forums and it’s no loss to me. The signal to BS ratio has pretty much made me give up on it.
Although I’ve a few misgivings about how I’m going to find the time or if indeed I can stick to the deadline, it looks increasingly likely that I’ll be responsible for a chapter on the Demon/Druid war in the first supplement. I’ll also be including some information on the Soul Reapers, TSF RPGs equivalent of Supernatural‘s Crossroad Demons. I’ve got a number of ideas for them, as well as their origin and how demons are really are the Big Bad in the world of the The Secret Fire RPG. Hell, or Infernus, as it is named by the Soul Reapers, isn’t actually the home of Demons. It’s a crossing-over point.
I’ll examine why Demons are fascinated with humans and souls – and why the Druids hate them so much. As well as the more Faustian ones I’ll also be looking at how the Soul Reaper bargains are designed so that there’s what I’ll call The Catch: it’s not just your soul they want: chaos, misery, pain, and discord will give it a far more seasoned flavour… For example, a character that wants to live forever? “No problem,” says the Soul Reaper,”of course, I’ll give you the ritual”. The Catch: the ritual requires the death of a mortal every month – and the ritual sends the soul straight to Infernus. Failure to complete the ritual, and the Soul Reaper comes to collect the forfeit…
The Paths of Damnation
If there’s space, I’ll also look at something called the Paths of Damnation: how a mortal can become a Demon Marquis and the powers they wield. I suspect that a few players would love to take this route through a campaign. Its nothing new: it was done in both Realms of Chaos volumes for WFRP and the Book of Vile Darkness for D&D (I recently read that filming of the D&D movie of the same name is currently under way in Bulgaria!). In the past supplement that have dealt with demons or their powers are often held up as examples as “proof” of the corrupting nature of RPGs.
Hopefully we’ve outgrown this. Ascension toward Demonhood (or should that be descent?) wouldn’t be an option for any PCs, but it could make for a fun campaign. The PCs are duped into procuring items for the Demon-Wannabe NPC or are running around trying to prevent their Ascension in the first place. Remember the Mayor in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer?
The Dark Edinburgh Project – Edinburgh’s Dark Side
Dark Edinburgh was originally an idea I had many years ago. At the time I was seriously considering writing a werewolf novel and compiled a huge dossier on things like the Beast of Exmoor and other crypto-zoological entities. I started drafting my vision of Edinburgh in the future (this was the mid-1990s incidentally), and wrote a few chapters before thinking that it was just getting too corny. I sometimes wonder that if I had persevered Fenris Caine might be up there with the *gag* Twilight or Sookie Stackhouse series (True Blood is half as clever as it thinks it is). My first (execrable) piece of fiction set in Dark Edinburgh can be still be downloaded, but it I only keep it here for posterity – it’s safe to say I’m no Jim Butcher or George RR Martin.
Although the “novel” never came to pass, the concept was used in a standalone game of Vampire: the Masquerade, as part of an all-nighter session. The PCs were mortals, actually playing as their own selves 20 years on, using Caine as an incentive and the group hunting down a vampire culminating in a showdown in a deserted tower block in Gilmerton! I’m not the only one to have had this world view: Edinburgh has two Vampire LARPs (Live Action Role Playing). Embraced.org.uk are one of them (don’t be put of by the website – might not be safe for work). The other is Isles of Darkness (part of Camarilla UK).
At this time it was still a germ of an idea, until I picked up Cthulhutech after hearing how it was so cool. Whether you think Cthulhutech is a good game or not, it lead to me creating the Edinburgh in the Aeon War of 2085. This is what became the Through the Looking Glass series of games (at ORC Edinburgh), a somewhat Dystopian view of life in Auld Reekie, and really marks the realisation of what the Dark Edinburgh concept is: a twisted view of Edinburgh. I let my imagination run a little wild, but I’m a little more proud of the fiction I wrote for the Cthulhutech adventure, When the Ocean Wept: Under a Heavy Rain, Corporate Ties, and Vanguard Vengeance. It is not Cthulhutech (CT) canon – that has Scotland under the control of the Migou (Fungi from Yuggoth) and everyone is holed up in Manchester. I took umbrage at this, to the extent of posting publicly on the CT forums on why it didn’t work.
For me, the scariest part of Dark Edinburgh really comes from a dream – actually, a very vivid nightmare – and essentially boiled down to my idea for Arunstoun, a Call of Cthulhu setting. I’ll likely run it at ORC Edinburgh at Halloween or thereabouts. It’s inspired by the A70 road to Lanark, known as the “Lang Whang” (see the wikipedia entry… stop sniggering!). It’s pretty desolate and occasionally there are small communities or isolated farmhouses, the fictitious Arunstoun being one of these. The fact that the road was also used by the grave-robbers, Burke and Hare, to transport cadavers adds a whole new sinister light to it as well.
So that’s Dark Edinburgh in a nutshell – as I said, they’re very loosely connected!