Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Forward the Metaplot

A new article over at Greyhawk Grognard talks about historical analogies and the From the Ashes boxed set published for the Greyhawk world, advancing the timeline of that world a ways. It seems that, unsurprisingly, the "Old School" is not particularly fond of the concepts put forward in the boxed set. Specifically, making published, "official" changes to the setting and advancing the timeline.

Jeff Rients sums up the sentiment exceptionally well thusly:
. . . I split hairs on the difference between a published campaign setting and a living campaign in actual play. I've used some of the ideas in From the Ashes in my own Greyhawk games, but I abhor the idea that publishers should advance time lines with new canonical material.

The PCs should be the William the Conquerors of their world, or the dudes responsible for Geoff going to jotunheim in a hand basket. I much prefer the Wilderlands approach, where you get a snapshot of the world circa now and future products flesh that out more rather than push a publishing agenda by creating an unnecessary core timeline.

I have to say, I agree for the most part. After all, it is the advancement of the timeline that killed the Forgotten Realms setting. A constant flood of new official source books, each pushing forward the meta-plot in weird and obnoxious ways so that one must have purchased a dozen or more minor products just to understand what's going on in the single module you were interested in in the first place. The Dragonlance campaign setting seems to be built upon this concept, growing out of the original modules as it did.

Probably the worst offender of the lot was not Forgotten Realms (which I will regularly poke fun of here) and its 5 versions of the main campaign setting, but the various White Wolf product lines: towards the end, in order to understand what was happening in Vampire the Masquerade, it was necessary to be equally versed in the Werewolf, Mage, and Wraith product lines. Tabletop gaming should not be reduced to a "gotta catch-em-all" prospect.

Publishers of campaign settings should not be in the business of plotting out stories via game supplements. It's a foolish practice that reeks of a staff full of failed novelists. At the very least, it puts the players into the position of witnesses rather than active parts of the game. When player action and metaplot start trampling over each other, player action wins.


While one of the key elements that make for the greatness of shared worlds is that the starting point is the same for each group, at the same time, no campaign setting (published or home brew) should be permitted to lay fallow and stagnant because of the choice not to make changes to the base world. Refusing to make changes to the world leads directly to one things: a dead setting. Careful, considered changes now and then can breath new life into a setting, and that's what I think the From the Ashes box did for Greyhawk. It provided a new common starting point for groups who had either never played with the original World of Greyhawk box set or the folio edition, or who had played it out.

Personally, I find the possibilities endless. Particularly, a campaign that starts here:

and ends here:

To be fascinating.

A published, "official" change isn't someting to neccessarily fear, as long as it's reasonable, responsible, and easily excisable if one does not care for it.

Next time, I want to look briefly at possible major campaign events, world changers.


  1. Yes indeed. I think the problem with "advancing the timeline" is that the supplements produced thereafter tend to tie in with the advanced timeline, resulting in the feeling of being left behind for some. It strike me that alternate futures and timelines might be worth exploring as campaign adjuncts.

    Interestingly, the new D20/4e Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide is put together in a very "Wilderlands" sort of way. I find myself quite liking it, much to my surprise.

  2. I agree. It's one of the things, as I said, that absolutely drove me insane about Forgotten Realms. Huge, overarching changes were implemented in various modules or supplements that carried over into future books that, if you didn't follow the first, never made sense again and made a headache for the GM. It's a major part of what ruined Dark Sun for me in a way. All products after the first boxed set essentially assumed that everybody would follow the plots of the mediocre novels (to which I will admit having a fond attachment) and if you didn't care for that plot, future supplements became of less utility.

    There is one campaign setting that, in my opinion, did it all but flawlessly. Planescape. The modules, when first glanced at, looked like a standard campaign setting sequence adventures, almost painfully akin to DragonLance. It's not until you take a step back and take the time to go through everything as a whole that one realizes that the modules are not to be played sequentially, but simultaneously.

    When I realized that, my planescape campaign suddenly became MUCH more interesting as the players started taking notes and following five different threads of investigation at once, wondering how or if everything tied together. One day, they were battling Modrons and wondering what had set them off ahead of schedule, the next tracking lizards with a "beauty stealing wand" through the Outlands figuring it for a side adventure, the next dealing with a mad wizard who used Modrons in a mad cybernetic experiment on humans, and then tracking the movements of an undead deity, only realizing dimly that everything was connected, if not directly, then somehow. Major campaign setting changes happened all the time, but the PC's fingers were almost always in them, and such changes didn't smash into pre-existing campaigns with too much force if you didn't want them to.

    As for Forgotten Realms . . . well, I've pretty much given up on it. I have the original Grey Box, plus a sparing few of the 2nd edition books when I thought it might be salvagable, but in the end, I've decided it's just not for me. It always read like it was a 14 year old's home brew world which, in a way, it really was. Which is not to say it's bad. It's just not for me.

  3. I think metaplot is valuable specifically because an evolving campaign world is a dyanmic environment to play in. A World War II campaign is fairly boring if it's always stuck in December 1941.

    But, with that being said, I think this is an area where you can have your cake and eat it, too, and it amazes me that the RPG industry continues to flounder in this regard.

    More than a decade ago, Heavy Gear showed us how to do it: Establish your baseline and develop it, through supplements, as fully as you want. Meanwhile, over in this other sequence of supplements, you advance the timeline and show how that highly-detailed baseline setting is evolving and changing over time.

    GMs who want to use the metaplot can use the metaplot. Those who don't want to use it are still given a fully supported game line.

    Best of both worlds.