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The Contract

Infanticide, or I never meta-plot I didn't like

by J.S. Majer (editor, Drew Meger)
February 26, 2002  

I eat children. Alive preferably, but dead will do in a pinch. There's nothing like the tender snap of undeveloped bone, full of marrowy goodness to stir the senses and whet the appetite. The previous statement, as you may have guessed, is a lie, but I have learned that it is easier to ease into a shocking statement by means of a ridiculously shocking statement. The shocking statement is that I like meta-plots and as far as I can tell, this puts me in a club of one.

Meta-plot is easy to define as a term, but hard to define as a concept. That is to say (and if you take one thing from all these articles that I write let this be it) the actual meaning of the term has a slim relation to the use of the term in common parlance, an issue that plagues the world of RPGs. Let us begin by breaking the word into its component parts, and see if we can see how they would be joined.

Plot is, in itself, hard to explain. The plot of any story is the action of the story. It is what happens, and the act of things happening. The plot is the storyline, or a storyline, as it is developing. Plot is what happens to exposition to make it resolution. It is not the way it happens (that is more narrative, and next month's topic), it is the happening itself. Meta is a preposition in Ancient Greek that means with or after. What it means in Greek has little to do with the way that we use the word.

We use the word the way we do because of those wacky peripatetics. First, remember that the Aristotelian corpus is, in traditional interpretations, lecture notes. Most of the time titling the notes was fairly easy. What was he talking about today? Animals? I'll call this chapter "Study of Animals," and thus Zoology. Today he just asked strange questions. Well, I'll just call this one "The Questions."

However, the lecture on god, the meaning behind the universe, and the nature of reality ended up slightly different. It was titled "Metaphysics," that is to say "After the Way Things Work," seeing as how it was after the Physics. Thus, a new word was born. Metaphysics came to mean, well, metaphysics, the study of the big questions. This odd verbal juxtaposition could be wholly intentional: after all, metaphysics is a discussion of the underlying reality to the reality that physics represents, the real way things work.

At some point "meta" became slang. The slang took its cues from the use of the word metaphysics. As metaphysics was seen to be discussing physics from a superior, more all encompassing perspective, meta as a general prefix in English had the same "raised level of consciousness" quality. (1)

Meta is the term for discussing the act itself. For instance, were I to write a meta-column, it would be a column about writing columns. Meta-psychology is the psychology of doing psychology. Meta-music is music composed to express music. Meta describes the act as the act, the real essence of the deal.

So when we accuse someone of meta-gaming, we accuse him of playing a game for the game as opposed to the other nice qualities of the game we would like to believe in. If we discuss the meta-game qualities of a game, we are discussing the way the mechanics of the game play themselves out, the game-ness of the game.

So, meta-plot: the goings on of a story behind the goings on of a story, the story that makes the other stories sensible. Does that definition have anything to do with what people talk about when they talk about (meta-talk) a meta-plot?

It depends, but to explain what it depends on requires a retake of the question. What is a meta-plot in a conventional wisdom sense? A meta-plot is a plot that encompasses and alters the entire game world, a plot put into the material published by the game's designers. To that extent, a meta-plot is one more facet of the setting, as published by the designers.

Most games have settings. Most games need settings. There is nothing inherently wrong with generic systems, but different sorts of rules lead to different sorts of games. Different genres require different ways for reality to work. (2) Besides, tradition has led to us considering a setting/rule package as part of the deal. As most games have settings, most settings have conflicts.

Like a story needs a conflict for there to be a reason to have the story, a setting needs conflict for mostly the same reasons. If the land was idyllic and perfect, what would the adventure come from? Sometimes the conflict is more implicit than explicit, but it is always there. The most popular is the divided kingdom/empire/state/sphere of human existence/galaxy, which has fallen from its golden age only to be divided up between squabbling lords/dukes/barons/houses/federations, with the promise of one reuniting the land, though under threat from the evil, external barbarians/aliens/Mac users/other bunch of federations.

Coincidence? Well, Campbell might... eh, you know.

Most of the adventures will derive themselves from this principle conflict. If they do not, the conflict will temper the mood of the game. The characters need not be involved, but the fact should show. The conflict is as much the setting as any other descriptive detail.

The problem with conflicts is they tend to resolve. Wars get won and lost. Empires rise and descend. People make amends. Dark plots reach fruition, or are foiled dramatically. There is motion in the conflict. In a story, this motion is the plot, and in a setting this motion is the meta-plot. Because the conflict is the meta-conflict for the game, the conflict that all the individual conflicts in any one game are part of, it makes sense to call the plot that follows from that conflict the meta-plot.

This is slightly out of tune with the conventional wisdom conception. Conventional Wisdom tends to emphasize the "plot from above" quality. Don't tread on me, man! It's my game, not yours! I don't want to keep buying your stupid books just to know what's going on in my game. Role playing games are entirely about freedom. The high degree of freedom is why we keep playing. It is interactive, like a video game, but even the most maim 'n take role playing game has freedoms the video game can never actually have. If you shoot a rocket at a wall in an RPG, the wall will blow up.

We treasure those freedoms like nothing else. They are part of why we play role playing games as opposed to other sorts of games. There are published adventures that I have ran upwards of ten times, and not only has each resolved itself differently, but each has had different tones and atmospheres. That I know it will happen is one of the reasons I keep doing it. On the other hand, meta-plot establishes canon, events and facts that are irrefutable. Oftentimes those events will not mesh with the way that a Referee or group of players will want the event to work out.

A nod must be made to Traveller players, who possess a fanaticism about what is canon met only by certain Syrian clerics during the great Christological debates or some of the most fanatical members of the Great Books lobby, who think that a text needs to age like a fine wine and who don't want the children of the world looking at any words that postdate the Gilded Age. I'm surprised there aren't players following Marc Miller around in the attempt to compose the T-hadith. Just in case.

But it makes perfect sense to think that Traveller would have such issues. The game some two decades old, is setting driven, has strong meta-plots and is science fiction, so just what is in or out technologically speaking is vital.

Wait a minute - Traveller, a game that most likely predates a good number of you reading this, has a meta-plot? I thought they were new! In the course of the history of Traveller events have transpired, and conflicts of the setting created, resolved, and created again. In fact, the soon to come appearance of T20 (shudder) will further evolve elements of the meta-plot. In fact, it is almost hard to note a RPG that does not have a meta-plot, though I imagine Call of Cthulhu would count.

The notion that meta-plots are somehow wrong and destructive for role playing games has one strong piece of contrary evidence: Star Wars. Star Wars is nothing but meta-plot. I am assuming that few people ran games where the players took over the roles of the main characters from the movies. The movies are the meta-plot for Star Wars. They are unalterable canonical fact. Any game of Star Wars takes place in co ordinance with, and separate from, what happens in the movies. Chances are the plot in the game reflects or relates to the plot in the movies. The temptation is there, whether taken up or not, to show the changes as per the movies somehow affecting the campaign.

So what happened? What caused meta-plots to get a bad name? Bad meta-plots of course.

There are issues of freedom involved in meta-plots, but I do not believe that most people conceive of these issues in the proper way. I hear complaints that people do not like to be told what to do, that they do not want to learn what happened in their game. They want freedom, and meta-plot impinges on that freedom. But their flaw is not that a meta-plot impinges on freedom. Frankly, game designers do a lot to keep freedoms down to a manageable level; that's just game balance. No, the point is not that us players of RPGs do not want to learn what happened next, but that we do not want our own plots to be violated.

Who owns a game? Does a game belong in the hands of the Referee or in the hands of the players? In the hands of all the players or the Referees, or in those of the design company? In hands of the company or in the line designer? Such questions are not only academic issues of intellectual property. Why? Because answer that and you will answer who controls the meta-plot.

See, the advantage that Star Wars has is that the plot is known, but more importantly emulated. It is why people get involved in the game. On the other hand, in a conventional role playing game people are creating the stories they want to based on the conflict as set out by the original product. It is possible, wholly possible, that the people who play the game end up with a much different conception of where the plot is supposed to go than the people who designed it. This is the beginning of all manner of trouble.

The proletariat has spoken, and they want things to go in one direction. If the upper classes do not demur and swerve the meta-plot to approximate what is going on in people's actual play, the discord between product and play will show. People will stop being able to understand what is going on in the games. Which is, I suppose, a lesson in democracy, if nothing else. Validate whomever you want. The designers are being prick artists, while the actual players... well, I'll be the first to admit, and they don't always know what's right. One cannot deny the drift to the lowest common, nor the ability of one person to have a much better idea than a hundred people put together.

Which is the right way to play? The way that the designers intended or the way that people actually are? It is a hard question to answer. The point is that if the two are in enough agreement, a meta-plot will not only work, but also be sublime. Is it a desirable goal? Meta-plots serve a purpose of preventing a gameworld from becoming dull. If executed properly, they should make a game more interesting. The devil, as always, is in the details.

1 - And a prize, a real, live prize, worth money, will go out to the first person able to use the phrase: "the meta-heuristics of the Gygax/Wick episteme stands in contrast to" coherently, in a sentence that could make sense.

2 - Skarka's Law, or so I call it. Arbitrarily, but he is the first one I ever heard persuasively and coherently express it. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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