Saturday, March 14, 2015

Can the Players Kill Luke Skywalker? Or The Evils of Metaplot

Tap for pain!
Metaplot.  Does any word draw more condemnation and frustration from the players of World of Darkness games than “metaplot?”  The mere mention of some of the metaplot from the Classic World of Darkness game line draws bile laced gagging from even the most fanatical of fans.  Decreed from on high by the almighty writers and developers of the system, metaplot is the unchangeable grand plot that infiltrates every book, every argument, and every game.  It is immutable, it is sacrosanct, and it is despised.  But why?  Both Star Wars and The Forgotten Realms campaign setting have an existing metaplot that does not bedevil gamers like the metaplot of Vampire:  The Masquerade or Werewolf:  The Apocalypse.  Is there something to be learned from those worlds, where metaplot is known as canon which can be applied to the World of Darkness?  More importantly, is having a metaplot anathema to a good game?  Is the metaplot only a hindrance to Storytellers and players or can it be used to add more depth to a game? 

            What is Metaplot?  A working definition of metaplot might be “the ongoing story in the published materials of a role playing game that creates and moves forward a story that changes elements of the setting and system or explains changes in the mechanics of the game.”  On its face, that definition is neutral, but the first issue of metaplot is that it lacks player agency.  The changes occur regardless of the efforts of the players and perhaps even happen despite the players’ efforts to change those events.  The metaplot is the “Word of God” demanding changes that may or may not be asked for by the players.  The metaplot explains changes to the setting, the inclusion of new options, the removal of other options, changes to well-known and loved character types and updates to the game system.  
            Critics and fans of Vampire:  The Masquerade often regard it as the biggest offender in terms of metaplot interference.  When Vampire:  The Masquerade changed from Second Edition to Revised Edition, a number of changes occurred.  Most notably an Assamite Methuselah, Ur-Shulgi, awakened from Topor and removed the curse that Tremere had afflicted upon the Children of Haqim.  Ur-Shulgi also decreed that Assamites must give up their devotion to other gods and worship only Haqim.  Long associated with the Middle East and Islam, Ur-Shulgi’s decree shocked many Assamites and created a rift in the clan.  Those loyal to Haqim and Ur-Shulgi killed those who refused to set aside their religious beliefs whether Islamic, Christian, or other.  Those who survived the purge fled to Europe and the Americas.  As Gehenna approached, the fleeing Assamites attempted to make peace with Camarilla and join its ranks.         
            The Tremere are at the heart of another metaplot change.  Tremere-antitribu, who had left behind their clan to join the Sabbat, were all inexplicably destroyed one evening.  During a ritual in which nearly every member of the Sabbat Tremere were in attendance, some force destroyed them all.  No one is sure exactly what happened, only that no more Tremere-antitribu exist.  That event must have been a shock to Tremere-antitribu players at the time.  Suddenly, their characters were gone and nothing could be done about it. 
            The most egregious metaplot changes came from Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand which described another faction of vampires known as the Tal’mahe’Ra or True Hand.  Suddenly the Tzimisce discipline Vicissitude was an extraplanar disease that infected the entire clan and slowly took over the bodies of the Tzimisice and other users of Vicissitude.  The True Hand was dedicated to defeating this other worldly menace and save the world.  Vicissitude no longer worked like other Disciplines and now had special rules that changed not only the cost for learning the Discipline but threatened players with the loss of their characters if they progressed in the Discipline. 
            Metaplot in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Many of the best RPGs have a metaplot to some degree.  Star Wars undoubtedly has the strictest metaplot.  Better known as the canon and released in a series of RPG supplements, books, movies, and TV shows, the Star Wars canon (or Extended Universe) sought to fill in every space of that distant galaxy.  West End Games, Marvel Comics, Dark Horse Comics and dozens of writers have sought to define every aspect of Star Wars for good and ill.  Simple mistakes in the wording of a script have turned into entire novels, such as when Han states that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.  Rather than letting a simple screw up slip by, writers defined the Kessel Run as a trip near a group of black holes known as the Maw Cluster.  Traveling closer to the Maw Cluster would decrease the travel time of a ship from Kessel to its destination but with the added risk of the starship becoming trapped in the gravitational pull of the black holes and being destroyed.  Later readers would learn that the Maw Cluster hid an Imperial Research installation where the engineers built and tested a prototype of the Death Star.  Later, some of these elements were retconned by the Prequels.  Role playing supplements had to offer stats and information on these regions or create new regions themselves such as the Corporate Sector which started as an element of a novel, “Han Solo at Star’s End,” which led to a West End Games supplement entitled “Han Solo and the Corporate Sector Sourcebook” that built on the information from the novel. 
Heroes of the Realms
            The Forgotten Realms has undergone a variety of changes as Dungeons & Dragons has changed editions.  Unlike Vampire:  The Masquerade, the change in edition created a change in the setting.  When Dungeons & Dragons transitioned from 3.5 to 4th Edition, the developers changed the magic system and included both Dragonborn and Tieflings as player races in the Player’s Handbook.   Although Forgotten Realms was not the core campaign setting of 4th Edition, it was the campaign setting for Organized Play requiring the developers to explain how the magic system changed and the introduction of two new races into the setting.  Dragonborn were an incredibly popular race from the Eberron campaign setting, and due to their popularity and the popularity of Eberron, they were included in the Player’s Handbook (Update:  Dragonborn orignally appeared in Race of the Dragon and later were included in Eberron  I need to learn more about Eberron).  Introducing them into the Forgotten Realms required a bit more work though, The Spell Plague.   The Spell Plague and the death of Mystra reshaped the Weave, the source of magic in the Realms, and the merging of Abeir, Toril’s twin planet and Toril (Toril is the name of the planet on which Faerun is located.  Fareurn is the continent which is the primary setting for the Forgotten Realms.) brought with it the Dragonborn.  The Spell Plague changed entire regions, made magic items non functional, and brought the Dragonborn whose kingdom replaced the kingdom of Unther. 
            When Dungeons & Dragons changed editions once again, once more the Realms changed.  This event known as The Sundering explained how the magic system changed once again and of course, kept the popular Dragonborn in the setting.  A series of novels about the Realms explained the events of The Sundering in detail, much like previous shifts in editions, such as the Time of Troubles. 
            Another example of the developers pushed forward a metaplot can be found in D&D 3.0 and the novel series, The War of the Spider Queen and its accompanying adventure.  In this series of novels, Lolth, Goddess of the Drow, has effectively disappeared and her clerics, the leaders of the chaotic and evil Drow society, no longer receive spells from her.  Seeking answers to this dilemma and hoping to solve it before an uprising overthrows the priestess who lead the city, a group of Drow travel the Underdark, to the surface world, and eventually to the Demon Web Pits hoping to uncover the mystery behind Lolth’s disappearance.  Lolth has attained enough power finally to create her own realm separate from the Abyss, and she has cocooned herself at the center of the Demon Web Pits to complete her transformation not caring that her worshippers and priestesses suffer in her absence.  In the end, Lolth completes her transformation and creates her own plane which changes the cosmology of the Forgotten Realms.  
Cover to Dissolution from the War of the Spider Queen novel series
            If that whirl of information has left any readers confused, then the biggest problem with metaplot has become apparent:  information overload.  Only the most dedicated fans of a setting would be able to track the minutiae of those changes.  These game lines and settings have been growing and expanding for decades.  Star Wars released in 1977, for example, and novels began pouring out soon after and the damn finally broke in the 1990s with the release of “Heir to the Empire.”  Systems and universes soon bloated with all this material.  And when Vampire:  The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition released, the developers promised a metaplot neutral game, meaning that players could pick and choose which elements of the metaplot they wanted to use and could ignore the rest. 
            Most experienced roleplayers already realize that the best way to deal with elements of a system or supplement that they don’t like is to modify it or ignore it.  That’s the solution that the developers of Vampire:  The Masquerade concluded as they revamped the game for its new release.  Of course, ignoring the metaplot was a pre-requisite for publishing the new edition as White Wolf had decreed that the entire Classic World of Darkness game line had ended with the publication of their end of the world books, Gehenna, the Apocalypse, etc.   
            Can a metaplot be completely ignored?  Or more specifically, can the players kill Luke Skywalker?  It’s an evocative question, and the kneejerk reaction of most players is going to be “No, absolutely not!”  Luke Skywalker is the lynchpin of Star Wars canon.  He destroyed the Death Star.  He redeemed Darth Vader and brought about the downfall of the Empire.  He brought back the Jedi Order. Luke Skywalker is Star Wars.   He has plot armor that no player character should be able to penetrate; yet, by acknowledging Luke Skywalker’s importance in the events of the original trilogy and the Extended Universe, the game master has decided that a metaplot exists and that players lack any agency in interacting with that storyline. 
Father/son elevator rides don't get more awkward!
            Luke Skywalker and his exploits are the reason why most Star Wars roleplaying games take place in distant corners of the galaxy.  The game master pushes the events of the original trilogy into the background and lays out new storylines that run tangentially to canonical events.  Player characters may interact with important figures like Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, or Leia Organa.  They are much more likely to be given their orders by secondary figures like Mon Mothma and Admiral Piett.  Nevertheless, the players are hamstrung from the outset of the campaign because they are not the most important figures in the greater plot of Star Wars.  Luke Skywalker and his father Anakin are. 
            With that in mind, can players kill Drizzit Do’Urden?  Elminster Chosen of Mystra?  Can players stop the Spell Plague?  Do Dragonborn exist in Forgotten Realms?  Are the Assamites knocking at the doors of the Ivory Tower begging admittance to the Camarilla?   Each of these questions carries the same weight of metaplot as “Can the players kill Luke Skywalker?”  How many times have game masters, dungeon masters, and storytellers defended the metaplot from the brilliant and cunning plans of players? 
            My own experiences are entirely anecdotal, and I cannot speak for all roleplayers.  I have found that players enjoy re-writing the metaplot, making their own mark on a story considered inviolate.  It was a hard learned lesson and left many players completely disenchanted with me as game master.   I heard their criticism, but wasn’t preserving the story of Luke Skywalker more important?  I started roleplaying by running West End Games Star Wars Revised system and immediately railroaded players through events during the Battle of Hoth.  I couldn’t imagine a scenario where the players could actually affect the outcome of that momentous battle.  Just taking part in the battle should be exciting enough for the players, right? 
Who wouldn't want Leia in Cmdr. Shepherd's armor?
            Fast forward over a decade and I’m still running Star Wars although at this point it’s Wizards of the Coast’s Star Wars Saga Edition.   I finally learned my lesson in the last session of the campaign.  The players had been chasing after a rogue Jedi named Kensa Starwind who had become a kind of Old Republic Colonel Kurtz and saw through the false veneer of the Clone War.  She had realized that everything was the doings of Chancellor Palaptine, but the Jedi Council had sent the players to stop her.   My original idea was that the player characters would confront Kensa Starwind and stop her from murdering the “innocent” Chancellor only to be double-crossed by him.  Of course, that meant the players would have to put aside all out of character knowledge.  Instead of fighting Kensa, the player characters talked to her and believed her!  Together with Kensa, the players defeated Palpatine and Anakin/Darth Vader in an epic battle in the Chancellor’s office forever changing galactic history.  I don’t think that I have ever seen players happier or feeling more triumphant than when they thought they had saved the galaxy from the evils of the Empire.
            As the session ended, I added a quick epilogue for each character that showed how they had changed the universe.  It was altogether bleak.  Rather than transforming into the Empire, the Old Republic fractured into a myriad of small and warring states.  The remaining Jedi fought to maintain peace and bring the parts back together.  One of the players whose character had fallen to the Dark Side became a warlord of a region only to be double crossed by his apprentice.   Others had equally dark or heroic outcomes depending on their individual characters.  And this epilogue should have become the prologue for the next campaign that I ran! 

            The lesson that I learned from this campaign was not that I should allow players to do whatever they wanted.  Instead, I finally understood the purpose of metaplot.  Metaplot is not something that must be adhered to with the religious fervor of an extremist or ignored and discarded like an empty soda can.  Metaplot is a river that once the game begins players redirect its course by adding and subtracting elements.   The players’ influence can be subtle or dramatic depending on how their actions in the course of a campaign.  The challenge to storytellers is not to allow players to alter the course of the story to create a utopian state.  Change requires sacrifice and not all change is positive.  Those with the best intentions, such as the group that killed the Palpatine and stopped the rise of the Empire, may not create the best outcomes.  The unforeseen consequences of the players’ changes should lead to new opportunities for adventures and new stories.   Players, as well, must keep out of character knowledge separate and distinct otherwise roleplaying games can devolve into an endless series of killing off the key figures of a setting or random acts for the sake of being random. 
            Turning back to Vampire:  The Masquerade, many roleplayers have lamented the plots and setting updates that players cannot change.  The events happen in distant lands and involve powerful beings that the average player character just cannot fight against.  What can a Neonate in Atlanta do to stop Ur-Shulgi?  What can a San Francisco Anarch do to stop the destruction of the Tremere-antitribu?  Yet, the rise of Ur-Shulgi and the Assamite schism offers players a chance to affect the metaplot in new and vital ways.  Camarilla players can offer their voices in support of the Assamites joining the Camarilla or turn away the dangerous assassins.  Anarchs and Sabbat players can offer other options to those Assamite fleeing Ur-Shulgi.   Certainly, the Assamite-antitribu will be happy to welcome their old brothers into the Sabbat.  And who is to say that Ur-Shulgi actually speaks for Haqim or that this Methuselah cannot be killed?  
Paint a target on that guy's head!
            As for the Tremere-antitribu, why should the metaplot stand in the way of a player’s fun?  A surviving Tremere-antitribu is no less farfetched than surviving Salubri or Cappodoccians and offers many more story opportunities for both the player and storyteller.  As the last remaining member of his or her clan, the Tremere-antitribu would be desperate to hide from whatever power destroyed their clan and simultaneously seek to re-establish that clan by Embracing new members.  The Tremere-antitribu survivor is now the leader of that clan with new and potentially overwhelming responsibilities. 
            Both of these hypothetical scenarios assume that the storyteller and players agree to use the metaplot as written.  That doesn’t have to be the case either.  Ur-Shulgi does not have to rise from Torpor.  The Tremere-antitribu don’t have to be destroyed.   And none of the material in Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand needs to show up in anyone’s campaign. 
            Metaplot should not be the driving force of anyone’s campaign.  Rather, it is one more tool in a storyteller’s toolbox and in the players’ toolboxes to help them create the stories that they want to tell together.  And that book with the terrible metaplot about Tzimisce diseases and vampires traveling to the Deep Umbra is not the final arbiter of whether or not that information should appear in your campaign.  It is your book!  And like John Wick says, you can tear out pages and take a black sharpie to the pages and passages you hate and delete them forever.  It’s your book.   You bought it.  Use it how you like!             
            So, can your player characters kill Luke Skywalker?


  1. MetaPlot should be a tool, not a straight jacket. So, yes, Luke Skywalker can die.

  2. They can try. :D

    I usually consider it a challenge to have the events of the game session play out in a way that corresponds to the already written metaplot, while maintaining the usual freedom for the players.
    This means, that I wouldn't disallow the PCs to move against Luke Skywalker and beat him in a situation where (according to canon) he must win, but I try not to give the players any incentives and/or means to do so.

    I agree that the metaplot is often problematic, and aside from information overload the biggest issue for me is when it changes the setting.
    When a group of writers in an RPG world write unchecked, they often try to out-important each other by introducing one cataclysmic event and huge revelation after another, which is not only annoying to players who had different ideas and interpretations about the setting, but after a while the "apocalypse every weekend" breaks the suspension of disbelief and undermines the original tones of the setting.

    Good metaplot in my book is the one that is
    1) relatively low-scale and does not try to be universally binding
    2) elaborates on what is already there, thereby helping readers understand the world more, not invent something new that makes previous knowledge outdated and previous ideas incompatible.

    The same is true for game sessions, If we do something that doesn't belong into that specific RPG world, it loses the magic of us having been there and having contributed to the big story.

    I would much rather have a conversation like this:
    -Do you remember when we were fleeing Bespin and you managed to disable a whole squadron of TIE Fighters?
    -Yeah, it was great! I just realized that the Falcon would surely not have escaped if not for us, how cool is that?

    ...than one like this:
    -Remember the time when I diablerized the Prince of New York, than embraced Michael Jackson and we made him the new Prince?
    -Yeah, it was funny...

  3. I like Metaplot to grant stories to the characters, and I use to colour or mix with my owns. But all depends on the timing. And... well, We can disscuss pretty much about Time Travel and changing History, or impending that. The metaplot on that point works on me about interpretation/playing on his more literal sense: You know what it is that happens, the players must do it happen, that is interpretation/roleplaying, at some extend it's similar to the alignement or Nature or something like that.
    Or the reason to bring one Asssamita with the Camarilla coterie...

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  6. Ironically, Dragonborn were already introduced in Dragons of Faerun, but one of the problems with setting information between 3rd and 4th is that designers with less experience with the Realms were used, and instead of nudging things and turning the dials that already existed, we got a setting wide event that was literally cutting and pasting generic D&D information into the Realms.

    A lot of the time, when people play in "metaplot" settings, they actually want to know that some things are facts, but "metaplot" is a problem when it curtails player agency. Many players are going to be fine taking out Moff Badguy as the main enemy, but when you put them at the Battle of Yavin, in game, that creates an expectation, and when you don't let them shoot at Vader or the exhaust port, it creates frustration.

    It's almost the opposite of Checkov's Gun in some ways. If you don't want them to influence a scene, don't put them in the scene.

  7. I have run games both ways. Star Wars is a good example, I have run games that ran parallel to the main meta plot. Also one good way to remove the players is just move to the Corporate Sector, then the metaplot runs without a lot of impact. But I have also run games that begin with the question" What if Luke misses at the Battle of Yavin?" and gone from there. I know there is a comic series out there about that but they eventually bring things back to essentially the same conclusion.

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  9. What do you think about Gehenna as an inevitable metaplot in VtM? I've had friends move from VtM to Requiem simply because..... they don't like the end point in the setting. Personally, I prefer the rich background and plot hooks of Masquerade, although Gehenna can get in the way at some point. In that regard Requiem succeeds in bringing out the personal horror element as opposed to grand plots of elders who are so far away from humanity that neonates can just.... sit and watch as it all unravels.

    Ok, you've got detailed clan history, you've got the Caine myth and the Jyhad. But do we really need to evoke the apocalypse? Is it viable to involve players in a long and detailed campaign to actually attempt to postpone or even stop the coming end? What do you think about that?