Adventures and settings, whether they are plot-point, sandbox, or linear, have the option of having a metaplot move along with the characters as they grow and act in the gaming environment. To start things off, here’s the definition of metaplot as taken from Wikipedia:
The metaplot is the overarching storyline that binds together events in a role-playing game. Major story events that change the world, or simply move important non-player characters from one place to another, are part of the metaplot for a game.
I’m not a huge fan of using Wiki for research purposes, but that definition seems pretty solid. Basically what it means is that things are going to happen in the plot whether the players drive them or not. That can give a sense of predetermination to the game, which can make some players groan and roll their eyes. For others, the metaplot can make the setting take on a life of its own, and they very much enjoy that experience. However the players look at it through the eyes of their characters, the simple fact is this: the metaplot not only ultimately drives the actions of the players, but it establishes that nothing they can do will stop the metaplot from unfolding.
In effect, there are two plots running in a metaplot campaign or story-arc. The first plot is the metaplot. It drives the characters to action but ultimately it is unaffected by their actions. The second plot is what is happening around the characters and how they change and react the immediate environment. There are, however, multiple types of metaplots that can take place, and to varying effect.
All aboard! This train doesn’t slow down. It doesn’t change tracks. It doesn’t stop at stations. The doors and windows are unbreakable with unbreakable locks. Once it starts moving, the characters are almost literally powerless to do anything but move on to the next objective. The metaplot forces the characters to death march forward with little regard for their own actions. A talented Game Master might figure out ways to get previous encounters and newly minted allies and enemies into the plot a little deeper, but in the end, the train comes to a complete and sudden stop and the PCs either live or die.
Many adventures are written this way. That’s not to say that they’re bad adventures, but they have very definite beginnings and endings, and those and some major plot details are completely independent of what the PCs do during the adventure. Scenarios and story-arcs like this are best utilized in zombie/survivor horror adventures and settings. Ultimately, the world keeps turning and the PCs aren’t going to do enough damage or have enough progress in their lifetimes to stop the ensuing end of days.
The Bus is more subtle about what’s going on than the railroad. It speeds up, it slows down, there are other stops that the bus makes, but the PCs can’t get off until their stop. There are a cadre of other characters in the bus with them; some are more colorful than others, and they can all see what’s going on in the outside world. They can take control of the bus even and change its course through its route. But, in this hypothetical bus, the hypothetical police will show up and ultimately, it will end up at a pre-determined course. In short, the PCs have control over how the bus is going to get to the end, but it will get to where it needs to go, one way or another.
This is how a lot of metaplots address PC interaction. The PCs can change things and their actions can either speed up or slow down the progress of the plot, but ultimately, there will be a pre-set chain of events that lead up to the end of the campaign, and the PCs are powerless to stop it. This way of dealing with it does put a great deal of control (or the illusion of control) into the PCs hands, but the players know that at some point, A, B, and C are going to happen and they will have to deal with that. It’s easier for the GM to have the PCs be able to tweak major plot elements, but again, ultimately, there are plot elements that must remain completely intact.
The Fire Escape
Imagine a sky scraper one hundred stories tall. Imagine that it’s on fire and that certain floors are okay, but there’s a lot of fires and it’s growing fast. Now imagine that the PCs are on the roof and they can fight some, but not all of the fires, but the only way down is a fire escape on the outside of the building. (Yes, I know, that’s not how sky scrapers work, but follow me here).
They have one goal, and that is to get to the bottom in one piece. It doesn’t matter how they do it, but there are things that are happening around them that they can’t fix or change, but they can make them better. Maybe they can save a few people on the way down. Maybe they can even manage to put out big chunks of the fire, but they certainly don’t have to. They can watch the world burn around them, or they can try to fight it. Maybe they can save enough of the building and enough people that the fire department can clean up the rest, maybe they don’t care enough to do that. But even in all of that, there’s a caveat. The players can leave the fire escape and try to cut their way down through the building. They can find another way other than the obvious to hit the problem, and then the building becomes not only the vehicle of their demise, but also their playground.
The PCs control the path of their travel to the ground, they control the major elements in the story, save for two. First, the building is still on fire, and they can’t put it out with the equipment that they have or have access to, and that still makes the meta plot this raging inferno around them. The GM can use that to speed up, slow down, or redirect the story if needed. The second major element is that no matter what, the whole point of the fire escape is to get the people to safety. It has a definite ending, that being the ground, and the point is to get out alive.
Ultimately, if you chose to have a metaplot wrapping through the setting, it is up to the GM how it is approached, and up to the players how their characters react to it, as well as how to react to the GM that is trying to force this situation upon them. On word count alone, you can see that I feel the most strongly about using the Fire Escape method. I like to give players a wide degree of latitude to solve a problem or advance the story. I like to give players the perception that they are interacting with the metaplot, not getting beat over the head with it. But those are my choices.
Like any situation, plot or literary device, or any other caveat, the GM must find a way to run a game that the GM enjoys as well as her players. Some groups may react more positively to the Railroad than the Bus or Fire Escape. Some may prefer the Bus. There are a lot of factors that go into that preference, and some has to do with that maturity of the players in general or their maturity as gamers. As a general rule, veterans of gaming may want more choices than what the Railroad or Bus can provide. Rookie gamers may need a little more push and guidance.
The Take Away
Not every adventure needs a metaplot. Sometimes things take place in a world where the PCs actions ultimately mean nothing, sometimes the PCs literally change the world. At the end of the day, when the dice are picked up and the character sheets and books are packed away, the GM must be constantly evaluating on whether or not to use a metaplot, and if so, how much to use it to guide the characters.
Remember too, that the whole point of gaming is to have fun. If the GM isn’t having fun, then something needs to change. If the players aren’t having fun, then something is going horribly wrong. The GM needs to evaluate whether the metaplot, their central and core plot to the campaign, is causing the friction and whether or not she needs to be more or less heavy handed to correct that.
Not every adventure needs to have a metaplot. Even in a campaign, some adventures can break continuity or give the characters (and their players) a chance to breathe and relax for a session or two before plunging back into trying to stop the train, re-route the bus, or escape the burning building.
That’s it for this week. Last one out, hit the lights.