Please describe your experience (players) or management (GMs) of a perfectly executed metaplot...

merwins

Villager
I don't want to spill any details of my campaign, but suffice to say that I've been running for the better part of four years (IRL) now.

In year one, I introduced several themes, concepts and NPCs. There was a hidden overarching theme which many characters began to suspect in year two, and validate in year three.

Now, finally, in year four, there is a hint that I can swivel perception to loop back to some of those beginning characters and concepts again. Things will make sense, and in an "oh wow" kind of way.

It's possible that the PCs could have sidestepped everything and stayed ignorant of the larger picture. In fact, may of their activities so far have been "stirring the pot" in a clueless (lacking connective information) way.

But things are just about to make sense in an Oldboy or Usual Suspects kind of way and THEN the PCs are going to have to go on. It's not a twist for the sake of a twist. It's the seed of a metaplot that germinated and grew as we played. I've been busy running day-to-day, and just realized, "Hey, a plant grew up there."

I'm not talking about reaching the end of an adventure module. We've had loads of adventures. The campaign isn't over, which is why I'm withholding detail.

It's that the STORY is finally developing in a recognizable way. I hope that makes sense.

If I had pushed this story, I guarantee you, the impact that I am anticipating would not be possible. It's the meandering, the drifting events that will ultimately make it more impactful.

When the campaign ends, could I run more adventures in the world? Sure, but the frame for the metaplot will be gone, Stories could still be powerful, but that huge revelation probably won't exist. I'd have to make something else.

Has anyone created or gone through a similar experience in their game? How long did it take for the wraparound, for things to really connect? How did everyone (individually) view the payoff, both from the perspective of player and as a character?

Edit: And, perhaps most importantly, if it has gone poorly, why did that happen, and could it have been corrected?

Edit 2: I should add that this would likely have not been possible if I didn't have one character that has survived through it all. Without that continuity, the metaplot would likely be lost. Some PCs have died, some are abandoned by their players (for various reasons).

I will add that in my world, character death is always a player choice.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Since I know none of my players visit ENworld, I can speak pretty openly of my game’s overarching plot.

So, I’m currently running Tales From The Yawning Portal. The premise I’m using to weave the dungeons together is that the PCs are all retired adventures, who have been on many adventures together over the past 30 years or so. Now, they get together at the Yawning Portal every other week to share a meal, a few drinks, and reminisce about their glory days. The dungeons we play through are flashbacks to the characters’ previous adventures together. If anyone dies, it’s assumed they got resurrected at some point, otherwise how would they be at the Yawning Portal with the others in the present (of course there was inevitably a joke about them all having died, and the Yawning Portal being purgatory, but that’s not the route I’m going). Credit where it’s due, I straight ripped this idea off someone here on the forums, I want to say iserith, but I don’t remember for sure.

Anyway, I’m trying to weave the various adventures together. In the Sunless Citadel, they found the note about the hidden redoubt at Khundrkhar which lead to Forge of Fury. I’m making Whelm one of the artifacts forged by Durgheddin and his clan, which will be conspicuously missing, to foreshadow White Plume Mountain. The Red Wizards in Dead In Thay are going to be followers of Acererak to lead into Tomb of Horrors, etc. I’m actually trying to weave Acererak’s influence throughout all the adventures in some small way, because he’s undoubtedly the campaign’s BBEG.

Anyway, once we finish Yawning Portal, all of the characters who died at any point during Yawning Portal (which I expect will be most if not all of them, given the difficulty of Tomb of Horrors) will start to feel their vitality draining away, as the Death Curse takes effect. Then we’ll run Tomb of Annihilation as the last hurrah of this band of adventurers, and the first time in the campaign that death will be permanent (and irreversible thanks to the death curse). Of course, the party will be well over-leveled for ToA by that time, but I anticipate that will help compensate for the fact that most or all of them will be losing HP via the Death Curse from the beginning, but if need be I can adjust the encounter difficulty. But I’m hoping this will bring the story full circle by making their deaths come back to haunt them and give them the opportunity to kill Acererak.
 
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robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
[MENTION=6779196]Charlaquin[/MENTION], that sounds cool - though back-to-back Tombs of Horrors might be a bit "overkill" so to speak ;) ?
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
@Charlaquin, that sounds cool - though back-to-back Tombs of Horrors might be a bit "overkill" so to speak ;) ?
Thanks! Yeah, it’s definitely going to be pretty brutal. But I’m hoping Tomb of Horrors will be mitigated by the impermanence of death in the flashbacks, and that Tomb of Annihilation will be mitigated by the player’s being well over-leveled for it. Plus, there will be a decently sized break between the two tombs, for some good ol’ fashioned hex crawling in Chult and the stuff in Nyanzaru and Oomu.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
The problem with running a long meta-plot campaign is how easy it is to get lost in it. Players often have short term memories, and unless there is a heavy note taker in your group, by the time the big reveal happens... most of the players have totally forgotten the early setup and foreshadowing you've done.

The best meta-plot I've experienced was a FR campaign with 2 major foes: the daemonfey and the shadowvar. My character was an elf mage who's brother and sister betrayed Evermeet and my brother (at least) joined with the daemonfey. Another player was a ranger of Miliki whose homeland was about to be taken by the newly revealed shadowvar. He was destined to destroy them, while I was destined to defeat the daemonfey. However, the shadowvar heard of my plight, and that I was an ally of the other PC. They offered me access to their power in addition to my own so that I could destroy the daemonfey. It was the first time I'd ever actually been tempted by a known evil that I truly considered, but in the end I refused, knowing I'd be their enemy just as my ally was. I found out after the campaign that the DM had the daemonfey make a similar offer to the other PC! The DM told us that if either of us had taken the offer, our personal goals would be assured, but the other would end in misery and death. If we both took the offer, we would both have failed and died. Instead we both refused, and while it made the campaign harder for our characters, in the end we both succeeded.
 

S'mon

Legend
I do like planting seeds that germinate months or years later ...and if I'm lucky, one player notices. :D
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
I've never run a game that lasted 4 years, but my last D&D campaign lasted one year and had two different plot threads:

1. Under the city was a piece of Tharzdu'un's prison, and his cultists were planning to kill everyone and harvest their souls in order to open the prison. Over the course of the adventure, the cult gradually became more active, and the PCs discovered that one of the city's leaders had built a machine for harvesting souls (a soul-monger -- stolen from ToA) and turned out to be secretly part of the cult. The PCs were inadvertently helping the cult by eliminating the other city leaders (they were all evil, except one). The players didn't put it all together until they reached the lair of the final boss and made a few successful Arcana/Religion checks. This new knowledge, combined with the impending battle in the city above (which would provide plenty of fresh souls), created a nice sense of urgency in the final battle. Of course, divine intervention turned a really difficult battle into something totally doable.

For this plot, I knew from the beginning of the campaign about the piece of the prison and the cult, but I didn't know what their exact plan was, or even how active they'd be. For example, the idea of the city leader, the soul-monger, and the battle providing souls, was all stuff that kind of made sense in retrospect so I added that to the plot.

2. A powerful cambion warlord had been trying to destabilize the city to take over, and his followers had helped the PCs to kill the evil city leaders. This tied in to the above plot, as he led the army that was battling above the city. When the PCs couldn't destroy the soul-monger, he stole it, and planned to use the souls to ascend to godhood. Of course, the party ganked him first.

This plot came from a PC's backstory -- the cambion was his warlock patron! The character was a bloodhunter (a kind of half-caster warlock) who hated demons and wanted to slay demons, especially his cambion patron. The cambion hat sent him to the city for reasons unknown. This was fantastic plot fertilizer, from which grew several NPCs, including an enemy tiefling warlock who the bloodhunter hated. But during a holiday in which no violence was allowed, they slept together -- and during the final encounter, the cambion had as a hostage the tiefling and her unborn child! The bloodhunter slew the cambion in single combat, and it was epic.


I'm also running a Mutant: Year Zero game, straight outta the book, and that game comes with a really strong metaplot. The backstory of the mutants is a mystery, and it's uncovered gradually via artifacts that serve as clues. Eventually the PCs can locate a surviving civilization and escape their post-apocalyptic world -- but by that point, the PCs have done a lot of work to build up their community to be less post-apocalyptic. So that gives them an interesting dilemma.


My advice for plots is generally this:

Create the conditions for a plot to arise; don't create a plot itself. This means accepting the fact that the PCs might go off in a totally different direction than you expected and "ruin" your plot; it's kind of the opposite of railroading.

On the other hand, don't just do a pure sandbox; instead, create a lot of plot elements and events that MIGHT come together to form a story later. In screenwriting there is a concept called "laying pipe" which means having a scene or part of a scene early in a movie or show, which seems meaningless, but turns out to be significant later. Chekhov's gun is a famous example. I got this idea from Robin Laws who has a lot more examples on his blog. The thing about RPGs is, you can introduce all sorts of happenings and then later decide which of those was meaningful.

Here are some of the best ways I know to lay pipe:

1. Secretive factions. As the DM, you should know the faction's methodologies and its immediate goals -- but you can decide their long-term goals later. It's very common for factions to hold their cards close to their chest so the players will probably expect some secrecy. And many factions try to gain power. But you don't have to decide right away why they want the power, or how far they are willing to go in order to get it.

2. Recurring NPCs that the party can't or won't kill because they don't want to. Ambiguously evil/helpful NPCs are great for this. So are bosses who have underlings you can kill, and so are characters with diplomatic immunity (maybe an evil NPC is under the protection of a good one). Also some players will respond to the threat of consequences -- "you can't kill this guy without cause or you'll get thrown in jail" -- but some aren't.

3. Unique resources that the factions and NPCs can fight over. Magical doodads are good for this, but political positions or territory can be good too.

4. Clues that point towards the unknown. The best example is the classic treasure map; another good one is when the party finds a key but doesn't know what door it opens. I had fun in one campaign by allowing the PCs to intercept messages from "N" to his henchpeople (usually the PCs would take these off of henchperson corpses); they spent a lot of time trying to thwart "N" without knowing who he/she was or what exactly they were thwarting.

5. Big red buttons, the kind that say "do not push" but every player who sees it just really really wants to push it. Treasure maps etc. can count for this, but so can tempting targets, like if an enemy faction has a cool magic item that might be stolen, or an enemy NPC is briefly vulnerable. A setting with strictures is good for this too -- "Never enter the doors beneath the temple" or "Don't try to cheat the boat-people out of their payment" -- what happens when somebody violates those?


A phrase I like which encapsulates this approach is "Do a lot of preparation, but zero planning." In other words, have a strong idea of what may happen, but don't actually count on anything happening. Those possibilities that become real, become your plot.
 
The DM told us that if either of us had taken the offer, our personal goals would be assured, but the other would end in misery and death. If we both took the offer, we would both have failed and died. Instead we both refused, and while it made the campaign harder for our characters, in the end we both succeeded.
Nice! A prisoner's dilemma. Game theory buried within a game!
 

Sabathius42

Explorer
The basic backbone of my campaign was "What if you mapped all the DnD races to countries in WWII and started the game after the Germans surrendered (hobgoblins) but while the Allies are still moppo g up the Japanese (orcs).

The PCs found themselves in the hobgoblin capital where their leader and his higher ups were in an official surrender ceremony with some allied higher ups. While the room the surrender was taking place in was sealed from the public, a massive crowd was gathered around the plaza to be there for it, including the PCs who wanted to sneak in but we're outclassed by security.

Suddenly the crowd errupted in chaos as an assassination attempt slaughtered all the hobgoblins in the ceremony. The PCs tried to investigate but found few leads. Nobody was arrested or caught.

Years later campaign time the PCs found themselves fighting a dragon trapped in a pocket dimension with strange time properties. When they returned to the prime material, thousands of years had passed and they got a taste of sci-fi AND a "what happens if you fail at your big overall quest" warning.

They tracked down the world's last wizard and underwent attempt #1 at returning them to their own time. They emerged right in the literal middle of the peace negotiations on the day of the assassinations. They realized the assassins were themselves, because who wouldn't love the chance to kill Hobgoblin Hitler? Eventually they returned to their correct time.
 

TheCosmicKid

Adventurer
What was originally supposed to be just a plain old plot became a metaplot as the PCs took the long-lost scepter of the ancient imperial dynasty and fled the country in session three. Now, after travels across the uncharted wilds, into the Fair Realm, and to the other end of the earth, through two wars, nine levels and four real-life years - most of this odyssey, I might add, being by way of doing a favor for a talking bee - they have, in just the past few sessions, finally set sail for home. There, they will discover that the party scoundrel who fancies himself a claimant to the vacant throne is not the only one with such ambitions, that his rival, of whom they have never even heard but who has been on page one of my notebook this whole time, has not been idle in their absence, and that they are now far behind in the race for the final piece of the imperial regalia which they did not even know they were running.

Stay tuned.
 
I don't trust my players to have a memory better than a goldfish, so I kinda rub it in. The campaign is built on 2 themes:
  1. Many mini-stories where every time the same bad-guys-organisation is involved. By now they seem to get the hint and may even soon actively start attacking the main bad guys.
  2. Players get rich and build themselves a fancy stronghold on a prime location which gets more and more impressive.


Of course, in my notebook the political landscape of the world is far more complicated but I really don't expect my players/characters to grasp that with the limited and fragmented information they have had (characters) and the lack of preparation before each session and long intervals in between sessions (players). It just helps me to write material for new sessions, and it ensures that I avoid plot holes.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
I've been running the same campaign for many years now, so I think I have quite some experience with setting up plots and plot twists that have to withstand many months before they are actually revealed. In fact, some twists have laid in wait for years now to this very day.

It is not always possible to keep your players from second guessing your story. The longer they play, the more likely they catch on. I try to take lessons from writer George RR Martin in this respect, by not changing the story just because people guessed it correctly. That would make the plot nonsensical, since all the clues pointed one way, and all of a sudden you make it into something else entirely. I also feel that it can sometimes be quite satisfying for the players to discover they were right all along.

But the easiest way to set up metaplot reveals, is to simply not flesh them out in their entirety, until the players get closed to it. This leaves you some freedom to refine the plot later, and make it all click. With a bit of trickery, the players will not even catch on that you didn't have this all figured out from session 1.

I run a sandbox game, so for a large part the plot is dictated by where the players go next. I have a lot of smaller plots tied to the current location of the players, which makes it easy for them to remember what is going on. They only ever need to worry about where they are now. But I then tie that into the main plot in some way, so that it feels like a cohesive whole. This helps the players understand the larger overarching plot, because there are callbacks to it from time to time. I also make sure to link the plot of side quests together, so one quest leads into the next, or into finding a clue regarding the metaplot.

For example, if one side quest has the players dealing with an obnoxious nobleman, I of course try my best to weave that nobleman into the metaplot and several other side quests as well. This means I have to introduce less new characters, plus it makes the players hate that character even more.
 

Coroc

Explorer
We got 2 campaigns atm. One in which I play Oota, it is very hard to miss the metaplot there.
The other I dm, it is the "ragpicker" campaign, we pref to play that when some players do not have time. In this one (Ghk) I got the main theme pcs vs iuz and his orcs and demons. I use adventure snippets which are quite independent from each other but I got some metaplot elements. So they got to find all three parts of the ashen staff (major artefact) and I got recurring mysterious R on various notes (Rary) who will intermingle later on in a drastic way. Also I got a succubus lieutenant of iuz who met the group a few times and caused them a lot of trouble.
My advice: Connect metaplot elements to items and npcs. That makes them more memorable
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Sometimes the best way to do this is not to have a plot at all, but the illusion of one because you tie up things that happen organically in such a way that it looks like you planned it all along. Usually stuff that grows organically, and stuff that the players suggest in their wildest flights of speculation are way cooler than whatever you thought you were going to do anyway.
 

Legatus_Legionis

< BLAH HA Ha ha >
One of the things I love doing in my campaigns is to use retired/dead PCs from past campaigns into my current one.

And if you happen to have some players whose former PCs you use, the recollection that this is/was their's, is an instant way of getting their interest in the plot. Them wanting to learn more is natural. Them forgetting these details becomes much less, IMO.
 

Unwise

Adventurer
[MENTION=6779196]Charlaquin[/MENTION] , wow it sounds like we are running the same game :) I'd like to think my earlier mentions of that helped inspire yours. It sounds like yours has progressed better than mine though. My group stopped playing due to RL concerns before I could reveal the death curse having an effect on them.

I planned on swapping from flashback mode to real-time once the members sitting around the pub talking noticed that they were getting sicker and sicker. They were well over-leveled, which would have meant they breeze through Chuult and have a final showdown with the BBEG, which was the final moment in which we see if these old timers live or die. I'm sad we did not see that through to the conclusion.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
[MENTION=6779196]Charlaquin[/MENTION] , wow it sounds like we are running the same game :) I'd like to think my earlier mentions of that helped inspire yours. It sounds like yours has progressed better than mine though. My group stopped playing due to RL concerns before I could reveal the death curse having an effect on them.

I planned on swapping from flashback mode to real-time once the members sitting around the pub talking noticed that they were getting sicker and sicker. They were well over-leveled, which would have meant they breeze through Chuult and have a final showdown with the BBEG, which was the final moment in which we see if these old timers live or die. I'm sad we did not see that through to the conclusion.
We’re still fairly early on, about midway through Forge of Fury right now. Keeping groups together all the way through a long campaign like that can be tough. For me it helps that two of my five players live in the same house as me, two of the others also live together, and one of those two is a coworker of mine. And the fifth happens to have the same days off work as me, so it all works out pretty well, knock on wood.

How did you tie Hidden Shrine into the overarching story (or plan to do so)? I’m thinking putting it in Chult will help make it feel a little more cohesive once we get to ToA, but the segue into it from Forge seems awkward and unmotivated to me right now.
 

Unwise

Adventurer
How did you tie Hidden Shrine into the overarching story (or plan to do so)? I’m thinking putting it in Chult will help make it feel a little more cohesive once we get to ToA, but the segue into it from Forge seems awkward and unmotivated to me right now.
Hidden Shrine was still a flashback in Chuult for me. That worked well, as the idea is that they have already know the lay of the land and are friends with an airship captain in Chuult by the time we swap to real-time and they need to go destroy the soul-eating-thingy. The plan was that this would aid them in getting to the end boss quickly. They already know kickass rangers and guides, an airship captain and have maps of the place.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
In my experience, the best instances of this have grown organically with the campaign.

I've planned out intricate storyline, only to have them burnt to the ground by the PCs.

Instead, I've had more luck just focusing on a rich campaign setting to be the sandbox they play in and come up with the sessions adventure one session at a time, which allows me to think about what the results and reactions to the characters action make sense in my world and customize the adventures around that brain storming.

The most impactful instances of this have actually occurred in one-shots of narrative-heavy, improv-focused games like InSPECTREs (zany, slapstick) or Dialect (perhaps the most moving TTRPG experiences I've had).

Sometimes the most powerful plot twists are those that take the DM by surprise.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
I try to keep a few loose ends on purpose, that can then later be filled in when I have a good idea. This allows me to adapt the main plot to what the players are doing.

For example, I have a mystical pirate treasure hidden away somewhere in my campaign. But I've never stated what the treasure contains. It could be gold and jewels, but it could also be something far more important. By keeping it vague, I can change it to something a little bit more interesting later on. I don't actually have to think about what the treasure is, until the players decide to go after it.
 

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