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Metaplots: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Metaplots, that game setting design convention of the setting timeline moving forward and the setting changing over time in future books.

It was quite the rage in game design in the 1990's, but seems to be a little less popular now.

We've seen a pretty broad spectrum of how games act with regard to metaplot.

At one end, we have Eberron. . .absolutely no metaplot, the published game setting is intentionally fixed at one specific point in time and even 16 years (and 2 D&D editions) later it hasn't budged. New World of Darkness seemed to go far out of its way to avoid any kind of metaplot as well.

On the other end, we have the Old World of Darkness or Forgotten Realms, where the world changes every few years in some huge sweeping way. If your local gaming groups keep up with the metaplot, if you're away for a few years, it could be a whole new setting by the time you get back (or if you try to buy new books, only to find that now the whole world has irrevocably changed). Old WoD was particularly bad about introducing sweeping setting changes in seemingly innocuous books, and the only way to know what was happening would be to buy literally every book they made (I'm sure WW was making money hand-over-fist with this strategy for a while in the 90's). I remember trying to create a Mage character in an Old WoD game circa 2002 and being told that Mages just plain couldn't be from a certain city, because that city is ruled by Mummies now and that any Mage that awakened in that city would all be captured and turned into a Mummy "Yeah, that's in the new Mummy book that just came out." as I was told.

The problem with metaplot, to me, seems to be when the changes are big enough that they "break" the setting, that they change things so much that it invalidates too much of what fans know and love about the setting, and that the "feel" of things changes so much. Instead of small, incremental changes to a setting, it seemed like a desire to have huge, world-shattering changes every few years (as a gimmick to sell books, or a way to change the setting to fit a new edition or game system). Small changes over time, with a slowly advancing timeline, help a world seem more "real", that it's less a fictional construct. . .but when vast world-changing, cosmology-altering, cataclysms seem to happen repeatedly within a decade or two, that seems to stretch plausibility to say the least.

For me, I just plain stopped paying attention to new FR materials after the Spellplague. . .it was just TOO big of a world change and seemed to fly right in the face of existing rules of how the world was supposed to work, and the more I learned about it, the LESS I liked it. When I run FR, it's always before the Spellplague, the official timeline just plain ends in 1383 DR (the breaking of the Triad in 1384 was another bizarre metaplot event I just couldn't accept either). Back in college I had a lot of friends that were huge Dragonlance fans. . .that all basically gave up on Dragonlance with Dragons of Summer Flame and the similar total breaking of the setting that came with the 5th Age (I think the whole "Saga era" of DL was one of TSR's bigger blunders, all my DL friends seemed to act like DoSF was literally the last DL book ever made). My college gaming group loved Planescape. . .but we universally rejected Faction War.

What are your thoughts on the practice? Are there some metaplots you think were handled better than others? Are there some you really like, that you really dislike?
 

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Kaodi

Adventurer
I like the Lost Omens metaplot to an extent: the timeline advancing at the same rate as the real world can be a way to put everything in perspective. Though I am not familiar enough with the writing of the APs to understand how much these huge changes have affected the people in the world. I would think everyone should be on edge in the same way we are right now - what is going to happen next ? And sleepy hamlets minding their own business might not make sense in that context even though they are a staple of D&D.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I do not like metaplots, at all.

Arguably, 5e has moved away from metaplots completely by providing self-contained APs and/or campaign books that present a moment in time.

I prefer this, because (IMO) it provides both DMs and players the agency to create their own plots instead of serving in some "metaplot."
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I don't care about metaplots, but I think there's something often overlooked in the big metaplot changes: they are most often the result of edition changes, and an in-game means of explaining the resulting changes. Forgotten Realms had a big RSE going from 1e to 2e. Dragonlance didn't but shifted (or attempted to shift) focus from one continent to a new one. Then Dragonlance had a big "2nd Cataclysm" to justify the shift from 2e to the SAGA system.

Dark Sun didn't bother with the metaplot-explains-the-edition-change approach but is the exception to the rule here as far as supported settings with metaplots are concerned.

The Realms had another RSE going from 2e to 3e, and this time so did Dragonlance. And I never followed the FR novels, but Dragonlance always conveniently had a new book or series by Weis & Hickman to legitimize the edition and in-world changes.

The Realms had another RSE going form 3e to 4e IIRC.

The last couple modules for 2e at large included massive, campaign ending events that were explicitly called out as a means of "ending the world" as a clean break going from 2e to 3e.
 

macd21

Adventurer
It’s not just the big changes that make metaplots a problem. All the little changes add up, becoming a barrier to new players (or even existing players who haven’t been keeping up). While I fondly recall conversations with friends about the deep lore of the OWoD, piecing together obscure bits of metaplot into a cohesive whole, how was a new player/storyteller meant to pick all of it up? Answer: they didn’t, they went and ran DnD instead.
 

Voadam

Hero
I was very annoyed by Dark Sun's 2e metaplot. I liked the cool oppressive Sorcerer-King city state set up from the original boxed set and literally the first novel series kills them off as the protagonists' big quest that you are not a part of.

The revised edition boxed set took the effects of the novels as the new baseline, and threw in a new psionics system revision as well.

In contrast Greyhawk's metaplot setting resets did not bother me. I was a fan of each of the different tones provided in the 1e boxed set, the dark 2e From the Ashes reset after the Grehawk Wars, and the 2e WotC Greyhawk reset.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Mostly the one I have seen is Traveller's, and it was neat at first, then it grew to being annoying, then jumped the shark with big rules changes, so that I ignored the whole thing, stopped buying Traveller material in that time.
 

ardoughter

Adventurer
Supporter
Metaplot is too much work for the DM, either from the get go or eventually. Especially if there are novels driving it. Even if the pace of the metaplot is ok real live will interfere and the metaplot then becomes a barrier to entry unless ignored.
If one is ignoring it then why have it.
 

aco175

Hero
I do not mind it that much. I find it lends to a 'living, breathing' world. I am still free to use only what I want and my players do not follow on that much. I'm about to start my 4th campaign around Phandalin and found that I needed to update the region some to make for the metaplot of my last 3 games and the Essentials box set. I like that Wizards did not force a time gap on the 2 box sets, but found that I would have liked to see some update on the town from LMoP to the new box. I found the town description and just recycling the old map was poor on their part, but was fine at the price point they are selling for.

I find that FR did some things to explain the differences in editions. Instead of saying, "surprise", dragonborn always existed, they found a way to shoehorn them in. Same with most things over the editions. I'm not sure the problem is the 3e to 4e break and then back with 5e that leaves a poor taste with that world. Maybe if they made a new world book rather than just Sword Coast.
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
It’s far too late now, but these meta-plots should occur in distinct eras or epochs.

I’ve always been a fan of the X-men, but man, some of that stuff doesn’t age properly. Magneto as a survivor of WWII has a shelf life. But instead of moving on, they de-age him or some crap. The result is that these characters are effectively immortal! It would’ve been better to just cover a decade’s worth of stories and have a clean end than an undead lingering. Like have the original X-men in the 60s up against Magneto, they age into X-factor in the 70s, and they teach the new X-men in the 80s. So on and so on.

The settings should work the same way. Have your realm-shattering narratives. Make your changes. But silo that stuff in its own epoch such that you can complete a solid story and then be able to move on from it.

Some settings get around this issue by using geographical silos. Ravenloft’s various domains, for example, permit self-contained narratives. And arguably a post-Strahd Barovia isn’t (yet) interesting. So instead you move over to Darkon or wherever and have a new thing to do that doesn’t muck up your original experience.

Anyway. Clear divisions between meta-plots. Either by region or epoch.
 

It’s never a problem as long as it’s all just treated as a suggestion for gaming groups to use however they see fit.
 

Azuresun

Explorer
I do not mind it that much. I find it lends to a 'living, breathing' world.
Surely making a world living and breathing is the job of the players? That's my main gripe with metaplot--since it can't take the actions of player groups into account, it's usually "one of our NPC's made a big change in the setting--if your PC's were lucky, they got to watch and clap in a railroaded module". It seems to encourage an unhealthy attitude where the writers are just producing fanfic about their pet NPC's rather than making the world a place where actual player characters can and should be doing those sorts of things for themselves.

I burned out on metaplot pretty hard after being a big World of Darkness fan. For those who remember, Mage: The Ascension in second and Revised edition was like watching a slow-motion wiki edit war between authors that blew up the setting, undid the blowing up to the point where it might as well have not happened, gave us three different versions of the Technocracy, and had at least a half dozen "listen up, here's what this game's REALLY about" editorials.

I think metaplot is something for people who enjoy talking about a setting and figuring out "the truth" about it, vs actually running / playing RPG's there.
 

Eltab

Hero
Metaplot should not crash into the fundamental rules of the setting.

Dark Sun taking out the Sorcerer-Kings was a mistake, but starting a trade war between two of the big Houses (and bad political relations between the respective home cities) would work.
 

ccs

40th lv DM
I've never been a huge fan of meta-plots & don't really use them. Oftentimes flat out denying them in games I run.
To me they're just the tales of how someones campaign is progressing, but not mine.....
 


aramis erak

Adventurer
I almost liked the metaplot for CT and MT - entirely ignorable, but there if one wants it, in the pages of JTAS, TD, and MTJ, and the sidebars of MT.

T:TNE... burned into the mechanics, hard to excise from them, as key elements of the classic setting aren't supported in the char gen. Whole different drives paradigm, too. Plus the new edition... Mechanics decent, but... hate the setting changes.

Vampire? Paid no mind to the metaplot.

Dragonlance? I prefer 5th age — both rules and setting — to AD&D DLA.

Jovian Chronicles claimed to have one, but I never got it.

Pendragon, the metaplot is as much a part of the game as the adventures. It's what makes it great.
 

I'm of two minds about meta-plots. In FR, there used to be a lot of minor changes made due to the novels, but then they'd throw in a world-shattering event every few game years, making the world a very unstable place! The original Greyhawk wasn't supposed to age, with every campaign starting at 576 CY and making the future based on the DM and players (TSR changed this due to the popularity of the FR meta-plot).

Rokugan was an interesting setting with a meta-plot that was done fairly well in the 4th edition of the game. There was an official timeline broken down into various eras, with the most recent ones based on the events of the CCG. The GM would choose an era to run, and then decide if they wanted to keep to canon or go their own way. I always tried to keep to canon, feeling that GMs that wildly broke canon were silly, but after years of gaming I realized how easier it was.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
At one end, we have Eberron. . .absolutely no metaplot, the published game setting is intentionally fixed at one specific point in time and even 16 years (and 2 D&D editions) later it hasn't budged. New World of Darkness seemed to go far out of its way to avoid any kind of metaplot as well.
This is my ideal: a fantasy setting totally frozen in time, where it's up to the gaming groups to write the story.

Despite being one of my favourite published settings, I hate Forgotten Realm's metaplot, particularly the idea of "updating" the world every time there is a rules edition change. I always found it very lame and ridiculous that a world-scale apocalypse must occur to explain why a weapon's dice damage or character class' abilities have changed. I don't even like the idea that a fantasy setting must be associated with a particular ruleset. I'd much prefer to keep them separate, so that you can choose and combine your favourite fantasy setting with your favourite ruleset.
 

I always found it very lame and ridiculous that a world-scale apocalypse must occur to explain why a weapon's dice damage or character class' abilities have changed.
For the record, there was no big "Realms Shaking Event" for the transition between 2e and 3e.

They had a few minor events to explain some things, like the Red Wizards of Thay giving up on attempts at conquering the world and going for a more economic hegemony, and starting to openly sell their spellcasting services and create magic and sell magic items for hire. . .to explain 3e's magic item economy. . .and the generation of the Thunder Blessing coming of age, to explain why Dwarves can now use arcane magic when it had previously been a strict AD&D rule that Dwarves just plain couldn't use arcane magic at all.

That was also the time that the Shadovar returned from the Plane of Shadow and became a new menace, but that wasn't tied to a rules change.

There was no huge cataclysm like the Time of Troubles (1e to 2e), the Spellplague (3e to 4e) or the Second Sundering (4e to 5e) to explain it though, just a few relatively minor events to explain a few things.
 

I burned out on metaplot pretty hard after being a big World of Darkness fan. For those who remember, Mage: The Ascension in second and Revised edition was like watching a slow-motion wiki edit war between authors that blew up the setting, undid the blowing up to the point where it might as well have not happened, gave us three different versions of the Technocracy, and had at least a half dozen "listen up, here's what this game's REALLY about" editorials.
White Wolf was particularly bad about that. I have no idea how their internal editorial process worked, but I quickly realized that either there was nobody trying to coordinate plotlines and canons and various authors were just trying to do it informally on their own, or that the efforts that were being made had a lot of stuff slipping through.

Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand was one big example. It introduced into WoD metaplot a faction of vampires, the True Black Hand, that seemed to know an awful lot about other supernatural groups that keep things secret, AND introduced a HUGE retcon about the nature of vampires and vampiric disciplines, trying to say that some disciplines were actually infections by Lovecraftian abominations from the Deep Umbra, and that many vampires are actually not creatures of infernal damnation, but beings of cosmic horror, and only they know this truth and are trying to save the world, or at least themselves, from various extradimensional horrors that destroy minds and souls.

(I love how the White Wolf wiki describes that book as essentially being the peak of the "Superheroes with Fangs" game style that became really common in White Wolf, it really was the book for "Vampire Superheroes" as it turned Vampire: The Masquerade into a Call of Cthulhu game with vampire PC's)

. . .then cue later Vampire works going out of their way to say that the True Black Hand was completely wrong about pretty much everything, and they're all wiped out and dead and nobody knows anything about any of the things they were totally wrong about or pretty much anything else they knew.

THAT seemed like a wiki edit war.
 

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