Years ago, I wrote about canon as it applies to tabletop RPG settings. I still believe what I wrote back then. Canon serves as a framework for a setting, but after that, strict adherence to and advancement of canon along an official timeline is harmful to the setting and its audience. This latter specific type of canon is called a metaplot, an overarching story line imposed by the designers of a setting, creating official events in the setting up to and even drawing the setting’s timeline to a close. Because of recent experiences I’ve had, talking with some interesting folks and applying to be White Wolf Publishing’s new Editor (1), I’ve been thinking about metaplot a lot.
When it comes to expressing intellectual property (IP) in media, metaplot can be a complicated issue. For tabletop RPG settings, metaplot, as canon, is useful only insofar as it underpins players’ starting point and furthers adventures (story-based products that the players experience through sequential play). Beyond that, metaplot can be damaging to an RPG setting. However, if the intent is to focus on wider transmedia storytelling, the rules change. Then, a coherent metaplot, which is really a plan for a shared audience experience over time, is vital (although not for a related tabletop RPG setting).
With tabletop RPG settings, such as Forgotten Realms or World of Darkness, the necessary part of the metaplot is that which forms the myth and history of the setting. From the place defined by this initial canon, a setting becomes unique over time for each group that uses it. The publisher can continue to use metaplot in adventures, because adventures, unlike any other game supplement, are an experience of time’s forward arrow for the players. The current Dungeons & Dragons brand strategy uses this approach with adventures that describe the ongoing, player-centered drama in the Forgotten Realms. (According to Chris Perkins, the core intent for products that occur outside the Realms, such as Curse of Strahd, is to showcase the wider D&D multiverse.)
For tabletop settings, however, metaplot becomes detrimental when ongoing official stories create a future for but not about the player characters. When the focus of the IP is an RPG game setting, secondary products such as novels should not be treated as setting canon (2). Mechanical changes for new editions should not be explained via metaplot. That’s how you end up with the Time of Troubles and the Spellplague, both unpopular, in the Forgotten Realms. It’s how you end up with a pile of setting “history” that intimidates new players and frustrates invested ones. Even the classic World of Darkness failed to withstand its own metaplot as sales dwindled toward the end of the line’s lifespan.
Tabletop RPG players resist metaplot because they want their story to be central. Without knowing agreement from those players, metaplot feels like and is an intrusion. The damage is double if the metaplot has nonplayer characters doing the coolest stuff in the setting. A lot of readers of Dark Sun’s Prism Pentad novel series liked the story just fine. Almost none of those people liked the way that story collided with the early adventures in the Dark Sun RPG line, or the way the Prism Pentad precipitated a second edition of the campaign setting (3). Similarly, a lot of fans found the classic World of Darkness metaplot to be interesting fiction. However, trying to keep any of that canon true in an ongoing roleplaying campaign was tedious at best. Therefore, a lot of World of Darkness books were probably read more than played.
The story might have been different if the World of Darkness metaplot had been used to build more lines of killer adventures, rather than to push White Wolf’s official story on a largely unwilling RPG supplement audience. The published adventure is how you can acquire that essential buy-in from the players. A good adventure’s plot makes the player characters the protagonists, the same way a good video game or movie centers the story on the most important characters. Even so, the common wisdom, based on how published adventures sell (often poorly), is that tabletop RPG players are reticent to offer up even this small amount of commitment. Gaming groups are happy to use a published setting mostly as a basis for their homemade stories. Perhaps the multiple-choice solution for White Wolf’s Time of Judgment books showed an awareness of the audience’s desires, although if so, the books did so somewhat ironically. Time of Judgment assumes that you were ending your World of Darkness campaign, hopefully to make room for that new World of Darkness line. (Maybe it’s a fair assumption, since you bought the supplement, but I digress.)
It’s different if the storytelling for an IP isn’t just through an RPG setting, or if the RPG is an offshoot of an established story IP, such as The Lord of the Rings (4). When an IP is transmedia, with connected elements such as movies, comics, and video games, a metaplot can be essential. When a consumer lays down cash for a movie or video game, or the like that payout is buy-in to a preconstructed story. Further, consumers choose to interact with favorite story lines in various media because they come to rely on the consistency of those stories and their setting. Many fans enjoy the knowledge they build over time about the IP’s imaginary space (5). That sort of stability comes from a coherent metaplot.
Many an IP has an extensive metaplot. Star Wars is one example. Audience engagement with the Star Wars metaplot is why some fans were less than happy when Disney decided to sideline the Expanded Universe (now Star Wars Legends). It’s similar with the Forgotten Realms novel metaplot and its treatment as RPG canon. Catastrophic events in the Realms fictional timeline, usually due to RPG needs, created system damage in both lines. Further, that harm diminished the perceived value of canonical expertise important to highly invested fans. A heavy-handed metaplot dealt similar injury to the classic World of Darkness line. These sorts of damage could have been mitigated with better IP management, acknowledging the needs of each fan base (fiction vs. RPG) were different.
I’m not saying that metaplot for an IP that has multiple expressions, such as an RPG setting and novels and comics, can’t influence the RPG setting. However, careful management and acknowledgement of what the fans actually want has to occur, preferably in a data-driven manner. Novels and comics can be treated as what-if scenarios rather than canon (see 2 again). If the media outside the RPG setting has to be canonical and push a metaplot, then the RPG setting can be informed with those fictional elements through optional supplements that show how to use the metaplot in the game and, again, adventures as literal time-movers in RPG play. The setting can still be fixed and personal, completely customizable from its inception point on. I’ve heard a lot of fans say they’d rather have seen a reset to the gray box for fourth edition’s Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting than the Spellplague metaplot (6).
However, when the aim with an IP is a series of transmedia presentations intended to create a communal experience across a wider audience, a carefully constructed metaplot needs to exist and work to reinforce aspects of a setting and story. The assumption has to be that potential fans can and will engage with discreet pieces of the IP’s available media. The metaplot then ensures the comic reader has common ground with the gamer and moviegoer, forming a community of folks who enjoy the IP from different entry points. That community also creates vectors for a consumer of one aspect of the IP to become interested in exploring the IP’s other modes. Fan investment can grow as much as the fan desires, and simultaneously increase the success of the IP.
Past Plotting Future
I reiterate, though, that an RPG setting is a static starting point for private storytelling (even if you stream it to an audience), and that private storytelling can be thoughtfully informed by metaplot but should not be made beholden to it. Few RPG IPs started as prepackaged stories, unlike Star Wars and Star Trek and Marvel superheroes. That fact is one reason it has been a struggle for RPG IPs (and those of other games) to expand into the transmedia space. Most RPGs started as deeply personal storytelling tools, lacking the characters and coherent story arc to support transmedia presentations. Even when a metaplot existed, as it did with the old World of Darkness, the canon wasn’t carefully used to inform new media. Take the Kindred: The Embraced television show, which could have heavily utilized existing metaplot but didn’t, yet still managed to be too complex for viewers outside the RPG fan base to easily comprehend. The Vampire: The Masquerade video games Redemption and Bloodlines are similarly lacking in direct metaplot tie-ins, with the cult classic Bloodlines informing White Wolf’s Time of Judgment more than the World of Darkness metaplot really informed the video game.
As more existing IPs aim at transmedia implementation, from Wizards’ D&D to Paradox’s (White Wolf’s) One World of Darkness, carefully constructed metaplots (and associated characters) become more important to those properties. As I’ve said, a good metaplot is the method to expand into media beyond the games, grab a larger audience and bigger income, and morph into an entertainment brand. Those managing the transition need only recognize the differing needs of their diverse audience. The RPG folks need their platform to tell personal stories, and the wider fandom needs a superior narrative arc filled with remarkable characters to keep good stories rolling. As I illustrated earlier, the streams can cross in ways that increase the audience’s enjoyment and ability to interact with a beloved IP.
I hope many of our favorite IPs make the leap to successful transmedia productions the way Marvel has. D&D has the settings, but it needs to bridge the gap with compelling characters that can appeal to a broad audience without too much exposition (8). The D&D entertainment brand can’t be just another fantasy property, it has to find something that makes it uniquely Dungeons & Dragons. (Maybe along the lines of movies such as The Gamers series or the core idea of the 80s D&D cartoon.) It also has to rise above the low-quality foibles of the past, such as the movies that tried to make D&D no more than another fantasy property and the cartoon, which was not very good beyond its central idea (7). The new White Wolf’s One World of Darkness has it a little easier, because it has an appealing array of horrors to use and many fewer lows to overcome. If anything, the World of Darkness has to rise above some aspects of popular and modern monsters-among-us fiction, some of which seems to be based in the old World of Darkness. The brand needs mature and gripping characters and situations that attract adult attention while detaching from the monsters-as-superheroes Underworld aesthetic or monsters-as-lovers Twilight aesthetic. (Part of the former is the way a lot of players chose to engage with the World of Darkness, and that is playing their monsters like superheroes.)
I hope these IPs make it into a widely successful transmedia space, because doing so helps to ensure their survival. They deserve to endure. Yet, in this world where entertainment is easy to come by and full of competition, a broad fan base is necessary for any of these IPs to continue to flourish. The good thing is that a thriving IP can afford to include parts, such as tabletop roleplaying games, that serve a small but highly invested part of the audience. So, ultimately, I’m expressing selfish hopefulness. I want these movies and comics and video games, all with consistent settings, enthralling characters, and interrelated story arcs, because all that stuff is awesome. But give me my tabletop RPGs, too, even though I have no illusions about their revenue potential.
Put another way, healthy roots need new growth.
- I didn’t get the job. That honor belongs to Kamir Muammad.
- Novels as canon creates damage in multiple ways. Damage is done to the RPG setting because moving time forward in the setting really belongs in the interactive space of play. Damage is done to the novels because they have to conform to other novels as canon, and slip-ups that create contradictions are inevitable. If the novels didn’t have to conform, each series of novels could be a what-if scenario, just as intertwining and inspiring to the RPG, but not a point of “history” someone later has to remember. I could see a specific subset of novels being treated as canon, but only for an IP that benefits as much from novels as the RPG. For the D&D game, the sad fact is that the novels were not in that category.
- The second edition of the Dark Sun setting was fine as a static picture of an Athas one could begin play in. The problem was that the setting had to conform to changes that occurred in the metaplot, so a lot of what had made Dark Sun so interesting had to be removed. That’s why the 4e setting rolls time back to before the Prism Pentad.
- The thing is, The Lord of the Rings isn’t a moving target. It’s canon is set, and the Tolkien folks seem very willing to allow “what-if” scenarios if Shadow of Mordor is any indication. (For the record, I enjoyed Shadow of Mordor.)
- I get that plenty of folks get this sort of joy from the canon of the Forgotten Realms. I assert that this sort of joy could be had without treating all novels as canon or forcing the RPG setting along a metaplot, especially to unnecessarily explain mechanical changes in the D&D game. For instance, you don’t need to tell your fans all the assassins died because the class isn’t in the game anymore. That’s malarkey. (Classes, which are mechanical constructs for playing the D&D game, are not social roles, such as priests or assassins. The two can be related but need not be the same. Put another way, not every priest is a cleric, and not every assassin needs to have levels in an assassin class. Again, I suppose I digress.)
- The damage came from wrongheaded thinking that the mechanics of the game had to be explained in the story of the setting. I objected strongly to this tactic and suggested a setting reboot, which was the path ultimately and thankfully taken with the later Dark Sun setting. That said, I like the Spellplague story, and it could have made a wonderful story line for novels and optional supplemental gaming material. The nonoptional insertion of the metaplot was the problem.
- Interesting is that Magic: The Gathering has the opposite situation. The IP has neat characters, but its setting is so fragmented as to be confusing if presented to the uninitiated without lots of potentially off-putting exposition. It’ll be interesting to see how the story team bridges the gap to make the leap to movies, as I’m sure Hasbro would like them to do.
- Drizzt, for instance, as a friend of mine on the D&D story team once pointed out, is a character that requires too much explanation to acquire wider traction with a general audience. Drizzt also journaled a lot, which is hard to translate into nonwritten media.