Monday, April 15, 2013

Metaplot


As I start to wind down writing the rules for Fate of Vimary and begin to turn my eye toward actually playing, I'm going to have to confront the elephant in the room for any Tribe 8 game: the metaplot.

Now to make sure this discussion gets off on the proper foot: I'm for metaplot. Not all metaplots everywhere - while I've not played through, for example, the metaplots in the Old World of Darkness, or Torg, or 7th Sea, I understand they had quite a few problems. Heavy Gear's metaplot I am familiar with and I thought it was remarkably well done. Tribe 8's metaplot I have always liked in principle and in the direction the story took, but not always in execution. Children of Lilith is one of the best of the Tribe 8 metaplot books - it starts it off with a bang and overall has some great sections - but it still had some warts (particularly in the railroady category).

Of course, there's no need for a Tribe 8 game to follow the metaplot. The setting is rich enough in story opportunities to touch nary a portion of the metaplot if the group so desires. Aside from any number of ideas I have for non-metaplot campaigns (one of them can be seen in Saturday's blog post, Fate of L'san), it's always been my desire to see the entire thing through.

Luckily the metaplot itself isn't as large of a problem as it might seem. Fate Core has the perfect advice for how to handle it:

You don’t need to have everything planned out (in fact,  you probably shouldn’t  given that no meticulously planned story ever survives contact with the players), but you need to have an idea of where things begin and end, and what might happen in the middle.

Without giving away too many spoilers (at least I would hope, it's the name of the book) the first chapter in Children of Lilith involves the player characters finding Lilith. There are some bits in the middle that could happen, but they're not as important. The beginning...I see as one way that the metaplot could begin, but honestly this needs to be the most flexible part, dependant on the PC's motivations and goals. That much should be child's play for virtually any GM.

The bigger thing to deal with, especially in a game like Fate Core where the players have much more authorial power than other games, is NPCs and what can be done to them without totally hosing everything. Most metaplots have NPCs that are intended to be important to the story as a whole. It shouldn't be  in terms of how important the PCs are (although poor metaplots sometimes fall into this trap), but because they've been worked into various levels of the plot. Some of the best I've seen weave these NPCs in early on, often with little or no indication of their ultimate importance. If the players establish the wrong detail about one of these characters (including their death) can cause the GM to scramble more than the players generally frakking around with the plot. "You decided you didn't want to do anything that I had set up...fine, I can handle that. But then you killed Marisol McSue! What the hell am I supposed to do now?"

Or just get fed up and end the whole thing.

There are a number of ways to mitigate the impact of player action when it comes to NPCs. First the NPC roles in the metaplot need to be as vaguely defined as possible. If an NPC's role is too specific, something is guaranteed not to go as planned. Second, there should be at least one or other NPC that takes a similar enough position to be able to step in. Now this can become complicated if one of the main drivers of the metaplot is like the King of Gondor or something, but that's why you have a Steward to back him up (and perhaps a way to shift gears in how things develop from point A to point C). These are things that a GM can do in any game, pretty much regardless of whether or not the players have the ability to modify parts of the setting or change the course of the plot.

Heavy Gear had a "chess piece" system that designated how significant the NPC was to the metaplot. Tribe 8 never had it, but it's not hard (now) to figure out which NPCs are important or not. Aligning these characters to the classifications of NPCs in Fate Core is the first step in figuring out whether the players should be able to muddle around with an NPC. If the NPC is important, the GM can simply veto anything the players try to establish that doesn't fit. This is something that GMs do anyway, so it's not a huge stretch. It will be a dead giveaway that the NPC is essential to the plot as a whole, but I see this a feature and not a bug. An NPC's importance shouldn't be a mystery to the players anyway - it's what that NPC is going to do that should be the surprise.

Of course, NPCs can easily be the subject of an entire post on their own - which is exactly what I have planned for tomorrow.