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Lacking a more definitive source, I'm working from the metaplot article on Wikipedia, which says, in part, that

The metaplot is the overarching storyline that binds together events in the official continuity of a published role-playing game campaign setting. Major official 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.… Because of [some unpopular] events…, many gaming groups choose to ignore the metaplot for a game entirely.

Metaplot information is usually included within gaming products such as rule books and modules as they are released. Major events in the metaplot are often used to explain changes in the rules in between versions of the games….

(I've used the Wikipedia definition here because it was concise, if limited in its application. The TV Tropes's definition is better but more loquacious.)

What I'm struggling with is seeing any upside to a metaplot. By that I mean it seems like a role-playing game's setting will typically be defined by the game's initial release, and if that setting is later altered by the metaplot, future expansions must either accommodate and perhaps (because of previously established expectations) advance that metaplot to satisfy those who are familiar with the now-changed setting and potentially alienate newcomers or ignore the metaplot, leaving fans of the metaplot bereft but making the game easier to grok for newcomers. This sounds to me like a metaplot is a lose-lose proposition.

In short, then, besides disguising mechanical changes behind a narrative façade, why do roleplaying games have metaplots? Has an author or publisher revealed his or its motivation for the inclusion of a metaplot?

I am looking for a definitive answer like As the author of a role-playing game, I opted to include with my game a metaplot because and As a roleplaying game publisher, I prefer my company publish roleplaying games with a metaplot because and similar answers derived from insider knowledge rather than speculation. However, such insider knowledge can be shared by those far distant from how the sausage is made or by those outsiders who are otherwise somehow extremely well informed.


Note: I was considering work once again on my homebrew science-fantasy heartbreaker and was considering a metaplot, but then I realized I had never heard anyone say Wow, the awesome metaplot really ties the setting together! or, pretty much, anything good about a game's metaplot. However, the metaplot concept is so ingrained within the roleplaying game medium—so much so that I was considering it for my own work—, yet, given a metaplot's controversial nature, I don't know why.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have reopened this question. I have also deleted all the answers; if the writers would like to edit them to meet Good Subjective criteria and flag for undeletion they can be. All answers to this question should not be your supposition (or related opinion on whether it's good or not), it should be something proving why publishers use metaplots. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 26 '17 at 1:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would imagine the Shadowrun developers would have a really good answer to this-- I have heard people on multiple different occasions go "wow, this meta-plot here really makes the setting come to life" (or similar) with regards to that game. It even ties directly into mechanics in some ways-- deckers going obsolete what with wifi and all that. Unfortunately I can't find anything written :( They're the people to ask though. Would my personal experience and experience using the Shadowrun metaplot to motivate people to play work for an answer or do you need dev com? \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Mar 26 '17 at 7:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am afraid not - "This is what I personally get out of metaplots" is a disjoint set with "Why do publishers write them into their games." \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Mar 26 '17 at 13:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Serendipitously, this 2010 blog post came up in a recent Web search. My hope is that it may inform future answers. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 7 at 16:34
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Deadlands: A Case Study in Metaplot

Deadlands is a "weird west" roleplaying game that started in 1996 and has had a pretty extensive metaplot, so it's a good case study as to why a metaplot exists. There are two major versions of it: the original Deadlands (often referred to as Deadlands Classic) and the Savage Worlds version Deadlands Reloaded.

To tell the story the author wants to tell

Sometimes, why a metaplot exists is as simple as "beacuse the author wants there to be one". There are a number of instances of this, but a pretty simple one is that Shane Lacy Hensley originally wanted to have a cataclysmic end to the Deadlands setting. When the game became unexpectedly popular, he created "a pretty cool story" to explain how it could still have that ending, yet keep going.

At first we were told that Westerns don’t sell, so we planned on a small print run, then we’d blow the world up and let the bad guys win—a story that would be told in the post-apocalyptic sequel, Hell on Earth. We did that, but as Deadlands proved successful we made it official that the Reckoners cheated…Hell on Earth wasn’t inevitable. Exactly how that works is best left to the books themselves, but we think it’s a pretty cool story. Short version? The Reckoners do lose and Hell on Earth is avoided—but then they cheat. At least in the official timeline.

Because fans enjoy it

Deadlands has a lot of characters and a number of stories. In Deadlands Design Diary #2, author Matthew Cutter described one of his missteps was killing off a number of beloved characters in the metaplot and underestimating fan love.

It wasn’t so much that they died. After all, Hell on Earth describes how Ronan Lynch’s skull ends up in future Lost Angels, so we know he had to go at some point. No, the problem was that they died off-camera, in a sidebar. Their deaths had no meaning or resonance. And in the end, my lack of history with Classic came back to bite me in the ass; I’d sorely underestimated the sheer amount of love for these characters.

He goes on to say that this was undone in errata, and that this lesson about how much fans cared about the metaplot heavily influenced writing the next major campaign.

Best of all, the fans taught me a very valuable lesson I could put to use on the next and final Servitor Plot Point.

To encourage players to buy more books

While I haven't seen a developer outright say that this was a reason, the books often encourage players to buy more books to learn about the "long story" overarching the Deadlands universe. The Deadlands: Player's Guide for Deadlands Classic started off the Chapter 1: Basics telling you that the game was linked by a metaplot spanning three separate RPGs, ending with encouragement to pick them up.

Welcome to the Weird West, amigo! This is one part of a long story told through three different roleplaying games. It all begins here, in the Weird West, where some say strange creatures called the Reckoners have begun “terrorforming” the world in fear.

The tale continues in Deadlands: Hell on Earth, a possible future where the bad guys have won. The villains’ efforts and the devastation of a supernatural nuclear war have turned the earth into a ravaged wasteland populated with horrible monsters and rugged survivors.

Deadlands: Lost Colony explores the outer space colonies left behind by the pre-holocaust humans of Hell on Earth. Isolated in the desolate and savage Faraway system, the colonists must contend with other desperate survivors and an incredible invasion of beings bent on their destruction.

All of these games are completely compatible, and should be available wherever you found this book (Deadlands: Lost Colony debuts in August 2000).

Some of the Deadlands Classic books were more blatant about it and said stuff like "such and such is a mystery, which we will reveal in Supplement Book X". I'll see if I can find one of these books.

To generate excitement for new products

In 2015, Pinnacle ran a Kickstarter for two products: the Stone and a Hard Place plot point campaign, and The Cackler graphic novel. The description for The Cackler especially highlighted the fact that it would change the Weird West forever.

Stone stalks the High Plains seeking heroes to kill. The Cackler hunts the Weird West in search of a mysterious girl called Rachel. Both of these killers are stone-cold dead...Harrowed...and what they're about to do kicks off the next era in the story of Deadlands!

The Cackler is an ancient Harrowed in search of a very particular blood relative for a nefarious and mysterious ritual that could change the world of Deadlands forever!

To reward longtime fans

That Kickstarter page for The Cackler challenged longtime fans to guess the secret identity based on clues from previous products.

Think you can figure out the Cackler's secret identity before you get to the end of the tale? We've been putting the clues out there for 20 years, amigo! (The most concise clues are in The Black Circle book for the original Deadlands Classic, by the way, but everything is retold right here in the graphic novel as well.)

To provide a story reason for a mechanical change

In Deadlands Reloaded, the Blessed, and their Voodooist variant, were an Arcane Background that worked pretty differently than any other Arcane Background. Pinnacle said in a rules update that they wanted to bring them more in line with the Deadlands spinoff settings and the core Savage Worlds.

As part of our ongoing effort to bring all the Deadlands settings’ rules in line with each other—and to better align them with Savage Worlds—here we introduce a few changes to the Weird West.

While they could have just changed them mechanically by fiat, they decided that the metaplot event "The Cackler" would be a good way to incorporate a story reason to explain these mechanical changes. This-out of-universe explanation was immediately followed by a header and an in-universe reason.

It’s tough to predict all the ways the West will change “After the Cackler”...but you can incorporate these two new Arcane Backgrounds and a Weird Edge into your campaign right away, Marshal.

Fans familiar with Deadlands Noir will notice these rules are similar to those of that setting. Read carefully though, as there are some differences. Even the Cackler can’t make the Weird West as bad as the Great Depression!

The Blessed

The forces of good lose a great deal of influence in the world After the Cackler, with their chosen no longer able to call down miracles like they were goin’ out of style. That being said, good’s chosen warriors aren’t without their particular advantages. [...]

Voodooists

As faith begins to wane After the Cackler, those voodooists who rely on the traditional, ritualistic practices find their magic still works. Traditional voodoo rituals, like those of Indian shamans, appease the spirits, allowing houngans and mambos to draw power from the Hunting Grounds. Other voodoo practitioners aren’t so lucky... [...]

Note that this rules update also contained mechanical changes to the "Harrowed" archetype, but there was no story reason incorporated with those changes.

To tie in with developments with spinoff materials

In the late 1990s, Pinnacle Entertianment Group created a partnership with AEG in which they would create several spinoff games for the Deadlands RPG. The most notable of these was the trading card game Deadlands: Doomtown, which centered on the town of Gomorra (nicknamed "Doomtown").

The RPG fully embraced this with supplement books Doomtown or Bust! and The Collegium. Since that game had its own metaplot, the main RPG metaplot incorporated it.

Compare with: Forgotten Realms novels, Shadowrun video games

To deal with real-world legal issues

AEG and Pinnacle eventually parted ways, and this led to an awkward situation. Pinnacle owned the rights to Deadlands, but Gomorra started in the card game and AEG owned the rights to it and the characters within. Since it was already integrated with the RPG, Pinnacle had to do something to explain its absence. So they said that an unexplained event blew up the town and nobody knew what really happened. The end.

Eventually, the two companies were able to work things out (likely as a result of the partnership from the sequel card game Doomtown: Reloaded), so a new adventure Sawed 'em in Gomorra was created to provide a more satisfactory metaplot resolution.

To make players feel like their actions have long-term consequences

Say that you are playing a Dungeons & Dragons scenario in something like Greyhawk. You kill a big, bad evil wizard who is threatening to destroy the world, but ultimately, your actions are inconsequential. Whether you win or lose, Greyhawk is exactly the same as it was before.

Some settings, such as Torg, Deadlands, and Spycraft have had adventures that had the potential to make a major change in the setting. For instance, Deadlands had an adventure called "Ghost Busters" where a major NPC in the setting was possessed and the players ultimately had to make the decision to kill him, or try to free him. The scenario had a card in the back of the book that you could tear off, where you marked what the fate of that character was and then mailed it in. After a certain date, all of the mailed in responses were tallied and the majority response became "official". The particular fate of that character has been referenced in future settings.

See Has "write in to impact the metaplot" been tried since the 90s? for more information

Deadlands Reloaded has done something similar. They have created four "Plot Point Campaigns" centering around four of the major NPCs in the Weird West, with the promise that each campaign will have a lasting impact on the setting. For instance, the first one The Flood ends with

The death of a major big bad in the setting at the hands of the players, which results in a major faction that has been around since the beginning collapsing.

The benefit to the players of The Flood is that they feel that their campaign had meaning.

Reasons from Other Settings

Forgotten Realms: To stay in line with changes to the core D&D rules

Fourth Edition D&D changed a number of rules systems in general, including how magic behaved and what races were more common. The metaplot for Forgotten Realms had an event called the "Spellplague", which brought the setting more in line with the default 4e setting. Unsurprisingly, the effects of the Spellplague were largely undone by the Second Sundering, which brought the setting more in line with 5e.

Shadowrun: To keep up with real-world changes

Back in the 1980s when Shadowrun was introduced, it seemed logical that the primary way to interact with computers would be to "jack in" to them. Then wi-fi became prevalent in the real world, so this seemed a little silly. While some people have preferred this archaic aesthetic (hence why Shadowrun periodically releases stuff set in the original year of 2050s), others got hung up on the future not having technology that we currently have today.

So the metaplot was changed to include story reasons to make wireless computer access available, and why it was less common in the past.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is there any proof that a metaplot actually sells though? (I ask about this because it's generally about half the answer's focus.) I mean, I think Wizards of the Coast, for instance, during the D&D 3.5e era scaled back the release of the fluff-heavy (hence, often, metaplot heavy) (and pricey!) Forgotten Realms releases in favor of the better-selling crunch-heavy Complete books. Are even anecdotal ballpark numbers available for, like, Deadlands for differentiating between the sales of material that heavily involve the metaplot versus sales of material that don't? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 27 '17 at 19:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan No idea if metaplot actually sells. Pinnacle, like pretty much every other RPG company, doesn't share sales information. Besides, the metaplot-heavy stuff tends to be big things anyway, like major campaigns, which may be selling for their own reasons. They haven't really sold any "metaplot only" books (aside from licensed graphic novels), so we don't have a control. \$\endgroup\$ – Thunderforge Mar 27 '17 at 20:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ If I may also point out: A lot of these reasons seem based on the feelings created in a nonreluctant consumer by a metaplot's inclusion and not actually on the reasons the designers included the metaplot (except, of course, To tell the story and, as Wikipedia mentions, to explain mechanical or edition changes). I mean, for example, there's no mandate a metaplot must change the tech because the real world's taken a different tech turn: a new edition could conceivably change tech in an Orwellian fashion ("We've always been at war with wi-fi") instead of it being a metaplot evolution. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 27 '17 at 20:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ That isn't to say the answer's wholly bad, but it indicates we may need some rigour to separate "this is why you'd choose a metaplot for an RPG" from "this is just what you gotta do when you already have a metaplot". \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Mar 28 '17 at 11:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ Hey, I agree with most of this, but do you have any sources? You quote extensively to show their is a metaplot but you don't have quotes explaining why they chose to put it there (except the first part). \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Mar 28 '17 at 18:43
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I did a lot of freelance writing and some editing & development for White Wolf back in the last days of the old World of Darkness setting and I do recall discussions around the fact that a not-insubstantial fraction of our customers didn't have a gaming group but enjoyed buying the products in order to read the advancement of the metaplot.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Any idea how White Wolf gathered that information about its customers? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 28 '17 at 18:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure. I could guess: conversations at conventions, their own online forums, and other forums like RPGnet. But I don't have any hard data. \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Kiley Mar 28 '17 at 18:31
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Mike Mearls, now lead designer for D&D at Wizards of the Coast, waxes eloquent about core story and metaplot as examples of play.

A core story is the stereotypical game experience contained within an RPG.


A good metaplot … strengthens and enforces the core story. Look at the Forgotten Realms - RA Salvatore's Drizzt character has become an icon of gaming, and in doing so he created an entire new vista for the core story in Menzobaranzzen and other locales of the underdark. What was once a big dungeon became an exotic region where you could set and run entire campaigns. Despite the core changes wrought to Faerun, the setting as a whole continued to offer the core story in an intact form. Drizzt showed gamers that they could play a cool drow ranger armed with two scimitars who.... left civilization in search of adventure, battled monsters, collected loot, and sold it in town for a tidy profit.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure Mearls is using the term metaplot as its used in Wikipedia, TV Tropes, or the question. It sounds here like Mearls is taking about something like a Joseph Campbellish hero's journey and putting on top of that a specific PCs trappings. That is, while Do'Urden's actions have an impact, it's the world-changing adventures he and his friends undertake that creates some elements of a Forgotten Realms metaplot. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 27 '17 at 19:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan You're focusing on Drizzt's story instead of metaplot as an example of play. \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe Mar 28 '17 at 15:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unless I'm mistaken Mearls defines the core story as searching for adventure, battling monsters, collecting loot, and selling it then call's Do'Urden's specific story a metaplot variant of that core story in a way that I've never heard the term metaplot used in RPGs before. It's possible I'm just totally not seeing it; can you expand on what you think this means in the answer? \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 28 '17 at 18:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Oh, I read it as Drizzt was an example core story, not a variant, which he both calls a metaplot and which satisfies your definition. \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe Mar 28 '17 at 19:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think I'm reading the opposite: Mearls defines core story as the stereotypical game experience then calls the metaplot the Adventures of D. Do'Urden, Drow Ranger, but his use of metaplot also separately includes the life and times of the dwarf, the archer, the barbarian, and a dozen other hangers-on in addition to the ranger! Those non-Do'Urden core stories remain the same as the Do'Urden core story despite their Mearlsian-recoined metaplots differing. Really, if I'm just straight-up misunderstanding this, that's cool, but then I really could use this cleared up in the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Mar 29 '17 at 5:44

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