Thursday, March 15, 2012

Resetting the Universe

In entertinament (literature and movies and video games), the settings for stories typically grow and change along with the characters- sometimes in very radical ways. In most adventure-type stories, this is particularly true. We usually come into such settings when they are in the midst of, or on the cusp of, some great upheaval. Star Wars, for instance, brings us in on the first real victory of the Rebellion and carries us through to the fall of the Emperor. This will bring great change to the Star Wars universe as a setting.

In many role-playing games, however, the setting presented (at least by the gaming companies who publish works for it) is usually relatively static. The World of Greyhawk, for instance, was presented for quite a few years as a ‘static’ setting. This allowed gaming groups to make their own story with their individual campaigns. In the late 80s, this began to change. The first ‘metaplots’ began to emerge- published works that pushed forward the timeline of various settings. This was especially true of the Forgotten Realms game, where events from various novel series were incorporated into the cannon of the setting. The venerable Greyhawk setting also experienced change- with the “Greyhawk Wars” and “From the Ashes” re-writing the map and setting in many cases.

While I generally don't mind metaplots such as these, they can (if mishandled) take away the feeling of ‘ownership’ of a campaign that players should feel. I don’t mind ‘world shaking’ events, but the players should have some ability to interact with them, not just be ‘witnesses’ to changing times. A campaign world should be influenced by the actions of the players in it- in a degree commensurate to their ‘power’ within that world.

Running a Star Wars campaign set during any of the now established ‘eras’ is, by its nature, running within a ‘metaplot’. As a GM, you need to strive to find a balance between following the movies and allowing your campaign to grow organically. It can be tricky, and for some people, too confining.

But whatever the problems with metaplots, for me, the alternative is much worse. And unfortunately, it seems to happen in a lot of ‘official’ settings. Star Wars, for instance. The Expanded Universe of Star Wars seems to be a constant effort to prolong the whole ‘galactic warfare’ thing to ridiculous lengths. I’ve railed against this before, but will do so here again. According to the canon established in the various novels, the Star Wars galaxy is constantly in the throes of galaxy-shaking conflicts. For hundreds of years, it seems. And for me, it all begins to run together. First it's the Ssi’Ruk, then Thrawn, then the Resurrected Emperor, then the Yevethans, then the Vong, then the Killiks, then the Sith Empire of Darth Kraynt, etc., Etc.. Every successive war tries to upstage the one before it. But in the end, it just proves the old adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same. And that, unfortunately, is a problem for me. Star Wars seems to be constantly ‘resetting’ itself. And in the end, for all its upheavals, it just remains ‘static’.

Another great example of this is the BattleTech universe. Initially presented, the setting was ‘static’, with five reasonably well-matched powers vying for control of known space. But as novels came out, things began to change. First with the alliance of two great powers that almost resulted in a reunification of the old Star League. But before this could happen, an invasion took place by forces calling themselves the ‘clans’. This added yet another dynamic and set the stage for some really BIG changes. Instead, as the metaplot progressed, events occurred that essentially broke up what had happened before and set everything back almost to the way it had been, with various, equally matched entities all squaring off once more. The universe just ‘reset’ itself and all the big events seemed to be for naught. From a purely ‘gamist’ point of view, I can understand this. The whole game was based on this premise of continual warfare. So they just set up instances that would allow this to go on and on. But in the end, that really just killed my interest in the setting.

In this latter instance, I would have preferred more source material and less plot material in my gaming supplements. I would have preferred they continue to expound upon the details of a ‘static’ universe and allow gaming groups to shape it as they would. As it stands, they set up a universe where you have NO say whatsoever in what goes on- even to the point of releasing books that detail EVERY battle that happened in a particular war- thus seeming to discourage such things from being fought out by characters or risk stepping on the toes of ‘canon’.

In any case, I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll sum up. Metaplots are fine and well, but shouldn’t be so detailed as to destroy player involvement or influence. In fact, after a point, I would prefer that developers did NOT keep driving changes in the world. I would also warn against the tendency to constantly return things to the way they used to be- to give the illusion of change but really just keep things static.

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