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Metaplot
A Metaplot, broadly speaking, happens when there are multiple independent works coexisting in The Verse that aren't just sequels and prequels or supplementary expansions of a single primary story, and there exists a Story Arc for The Verse itself that impacts the plots of those separate works.

The term originates from Tabletop RPGs, where it refers to the tendency popular in the 1990s for RPG companies to insert an overarching story incrementally advancing the timeline of the setting into the supplements for the RPG, with the aim of encouraging people to buy every supplement to follow along. In this case, it is the campaigns of individual Game Masters that are the "independent works." This idea was popular for a time, but caused a number of problems that made metaplots as controversial as they are (though despite fan outcry, many of the biggest games still have active metaplots).

First, Game Masters might not want to incorporate the plot twists, revelations and events of the metaplot into their campaigns. Suppose a GM was using Baron von Skullfist, head of Murder, Inc., as the Big Bad of his campaign, but Murder Incorporated: The Complete Guide had the Baron make a Heel-Face Turn and be replaced by his subordinate, Captain Killfoot, who in the GM's campaign had already been revealed as a Reverse Mole. Obviously, this new supplement couldn't be used as is, and the GM would have to declare his campaign world an Alternate Universe and do additional work to adapt the supplement's material to the campaign. Worse, as the metaplot continued, each future supplement from the point where the GM's campaign diverged would progressively become less and less useful to that campaign.

Second, the metaplot and its characters, often featured in the setting's tie-in novels, would tend to overshadow the player characters, particularly in the hands of a bad GM who would use the metaplot characters as deus ex machinas and refused to contemplate allowing the players to change the course of the metaplot. This got so bad in some cases that more than one game released adventure modules that primarily consisted of the players watching the non-player characters advance or resolve the metaplot.

Third, the use of metaplot encouraged metagaming. If the GM utilized the metaplot - as some GMs and players felt was desirable or even required to play the game "correctly" - players could become aware of the future course of the campaign and much theoretically "secret" knowledge just by reading the supplements, possibly even unintentionally if a supplement on their character type happens to be set late in the metaplot.

These issues are fairly unique to Tabletop RPGs, where the "independent works" are indeed completely independent and not subject to any editorial control.

There's a final problem with metaplots, though, that crops up even outside of games: A lengthy metaplot can become a barrier to entry for new readers. Although early on it encourages players to buy every book in order to keep up with what's happening in the setting, if someone tries to pick it up later on they can find themselves faced with Archive Panic just to catch up, compounded by the fact that early books may even be out of print. The combined weight of all this metaplot can also end up seeming silly or irrelevant to new players or readers when consumed all at once rather than bit-by-bit, especially in serial works where the Fleeting Demographic Rule or some degree of Status Quo Is God are in effect — these can result in a silly-seeming metaplot consisting of nearly-identical events occurring over and over or with things constantly happening and then getting undone by a later Retcon. In extreme cases, this can require a Continuity Reboot to let new readers join in without having to read huge amounts of convoluted backstory.

Not to be confused with Medabots.

See also Red Skies Crossover.

Examples

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    Anime and Manga 

  • In-universe example in Sword Art Online. While we don't get too much detail, it seems that there was a metaplot intended for the game, with one player (chosen due to having the fastest reaction times and marked by the Dual Swords skill) acting as The Hero, who will eventually defeat the Demon King on the 100th floor, played by the man who designed the death trap in the first place, Kayaba Akihiko himself. This got derailed when The Hero realized who Kayaba was 25 floors early.
  • Also an In-Universe example in Log Horizon, though this is something only few character are aware of. In Kanami's spinoff, it's revealed that there are the Ancients, powerful Heroic NPCs of the Elder Tale. However, they have been sealed by Genius, extremely powerful monsters and borderline-Eldritch Abomination, which are aware of the MMORPG nature of Elder Tale. Kanami manages to free one of the sealed Ancient, Elias Hackblade.

     Comic Books  

  • Both major Comic Book publishers currently have a metaplot in their universes: The DCU, with the run-up to Final Crisis, and the Marvel Universe, with the new status quo after Civil War and the buildup toward a Skrull Secret Invasion.
    • DC followed Final Crisis with Blackest Night / Brightest Day then rebooting with Flashpoint and the The New 52. On the other hand, Marvel's Secret Invasion has led directly into World War Hulk, then the Dark Reign plot, followed by Siege, Fear Itself, Avengers Vs. X-Men, Age of Ultron, and Infinity.

     Film  

  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe is building this up, featuring various beings developing into superheroes with their own storylines while being recruited into SHIELD's Avengers team.

     Literature  

     Live Action TV  

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel created a sort of metaplot when they ran concurrently and occasionally events in one series affected the other.
  • Stargate and Stargate Atlantis both had events which affected each program, first the search for Zero Point Modules to power the gate to Atlantis (and Earth Spaceships), then the Ori and Wraith and their attempts to invade the Milky Way.

     Tabletop Games  

  • Deadlands has an extensive metaplot as revealed in published adventures such as Fortress O' Fear and Dead Presidents. Later versions of the game publish summaries on the assumption that these stories played out exactly as planned. The three core game settings, Deadlands, Hell On Earth, and Lost Colony form a lengthy and chronological trilogy. This is part of the reason all of the major villains have Plot Armor.
    • Unlike many of these examples, however, the metaplot was designed purely to have three divergent genres in the same setting (Wild West, After the End, and Human Aliens) and featuring a handful of the same characters. Barring time travel, the three settings do not directly interact, and the metaplot serves primarily as backstory and suggested inspiration.
  • Many Dungeons & Dragons settings have had metaplots. Dragonlance in particular had a strong metaplot, and has in fact become primarily a setting for novels with an RPG attached over the years. Notably, Forgotten Realms, The Known World/Mystara, Greyhawk, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Planescape all had Crisis Crossover-style supplements that dramatically shook up the status quo of the setting (the Time of Troubles, Wrath of the Immortals, the Greyhawk Wars, the Grand Conjunction, the Prism Pentad novels and modules, and Faction War, respectively).
    • Planescape had a metaplot that was more confusing than it needed to be, particularly given that there was no way the player characters could ever learn what was really happening (something even pointed out in Faction War).
    • Birthright is possibly the only setting of its vintage that didn't have a metaplot, largely because the players were intended to be rulers of nations and therefore controlled what would normally be the metaplot.
    • Forgotten Realms got another jump forward in the metaplot—a full century—as an update to 4th Edition's "points of light" design theory.
    • While Eberron is an aversion, for a time it looked like it would fall into this trope for 4th Edition, before fan outcry brought about an Author's Saving Throw.
    • Dark Sun had a metaplot in the first series of novels that completely revised the campaign setting. This was reversed in the 4th Edition revamp.
  • The Old World of Darkness is (in)famous for its metaplot.
    • Metaplot is conspicuous in its absence, however, from the New World of Darkness. The creators were quite open about this being done to avoid the issues listed above. This did not stop many fans of the old metaplot from complaining, "Then they could just ignore the metaplot!", not fully comprehending the first reason listed above. That said, though, it isn't completely absent, just a little more subtle - the games, while modular, reference each other at times. Hunter: The Vigil in particular has a system in place for faking other supernaturals, but has a number of jump-in points for the other game lines - one of the Compacts is being manipulated by the main villains from Mage: The Awakening, Task Force: VALKYRIE captured a group of Daksha from the same game during World War II, and so forth.
    • Exalted, from the same company, has no metaplot because it's expected that the players would derail it at some point. Especially since the entire point of Solar Exalts is that they have power because they're willing to use it in spectacular, stunt-assisted fashion that would utterly dismember the metaplot for a game like Heavy Gear.
      • No longer entirely true. They did post a single scenario book detailing the events surrounding the Return of the Scarlet Empress, partly because the Infernals were the current shiny green star of the development team and the dev team wanted to do something cool with them. However, it's not necessary to be able to use the setting, and it's mostly used as an idea mine and as the source for certain Charms related to the nature of the Yozis.
    • Also from White Wolf was the Trinity Universe, which had a pretty epic metaplot covering three games along the same timeline, with the pulp Adventure!, the superhero Deconstruction Aberrant and the Cyberpunk/Space Opera Trinity. While it was good story and only had two characters that were likely to dominate the PCs, it was irritating to know that your Adventure! team was unlikely to have much effect on a world heading for the other games.
      • Aberrant was kind of a transitional phase between the metaplot-era Old World of Darkness and the completely wild Exalted. It had a metaplot, but the designers also acknowledged that the PCs were essentially guaranteed to screw it up and made sure to give plenty of examples of PC-level characters doing just that.
  • Legend of the Five Rings is notable both for still having a metaplot, and for that metaplot being partially based on the outcomes of tournaments for the collectible card game.
    • This has led to an ongoing Broken Base issue with fans who only or primarily play the RPG, as the RPG follows and is considered supplemental to the cardgame's storyline. While the recent 4th edition of the RPG attempted to avert this by not tying it to a specific timeline, it also includes the Spider Clan, a very recent addition to the TCG's storyline. The Spider's inclusion is so recent, in fact, that their role in the empire's already been rewritten once, and is still yet to be fully defined.
    • Metaplot and Executive Meddling forcing the departure of the original writer led to the untimely demise of spinoff Legend Of The Burning Sands. Originally intended to feature only cameos of L5R characters and parallels to L5R's own plotlines, LBS instead had two major L5R clans present in the setting, several L5R characters as major players, and a plot that meandered due to the Executive Meddling forcing major alterations from the original storyline. While the story eventually shaped up to be arguably better than its parent game, the above killed it so badly that it was ten years before it was resurrected as an RPG. Even then, it's still tied closely to L5R's metaplot.
    • Metaplot however, killed its sister game - 7th Sea. The players had very few things to do, and all the important characters in the settings were effectively immortal.
      • It also was a setting full of national archetypes, most of whom pointedly did not like each other and had only limited means of mobility (ships and one nation's limited teleportation ability). Metaplot did get as far as the French Revolution, but the RPG and card game lines were canceled just before the discovery of the new world. Frustratingly, some details had already been released, such as a Moctezuma Expy as a lich.
  • Torg (no relation to Sluggy Freelance) was built around user-generated metaplot. Game Masters were asked to send in questionnaires about published adventures they ran, and to report in a general way how well their heroes were doing in various areas of the game world, and the data were compiled and processed to produce an overall state-of-the-Earth report which the authors would then use to shape their subsequent products.
  • Traveller incorporated its Fifth Frontier War metaplot into years of fiction, adventures, supplements, miniatures and even a boardgame.
    • Then they broke the base by having the Emperor assassinated and slowly burned down the campaign setting over the second edition of the game.
  • Tabletop miniatures game Warhammer 40,000 has something of a metaplot, but it is somewhat subverted in that nothing ever changes too much, for similar reasons to those listed here. However, they still like to claim that the next planned event will have a drastic effect on the game world to get players interested, but then it doesn't.
    • May be justified, or at least explained, by the scope and brutality of the setting. In most universes having a hundred billion people die would be a galaxy-wide tragedy rather than a statistical blip.
      • This is accurate up to a point: many such metaplot events are battles over places "crucial" to the Imperium and other in-game factions, but if a faction loses or wins (say, if Abaddon's Black Crusade overran and completely destroyed Cadia for instance) the factions would still be unchanged and Cadians would likely still be playable, even considering their planet had been destroyed.
  • BattleTech, on the other hand, has a metaplot that encompasses roughly a century or so of game time since the game was created, and has seen several irrevocable changes to the setting. Some people have not liked some of the changes, but their method for dealing with it is to simply not play in those time periods.
  • Subverted in Ironclaw. The first published adventure and the first tie-in novel deal with the murder of the High King and most of his family, and the search for the sole surviving heir. It became the common touchpoint for almost every campaign using the official setting — but every campaign resolved it differently, with far-reaching impact on the rest of the political situation. (It also immediately established Ironclaw as a game where beginning characters can be kingmakers.)
  • Subverted by the kooky Over the Edge—the final pages of the game's GM manual revealed that the characters in the RPG were, in fact, characters in an RPG.
  • As battles rage in the backstory of the Iron Kingdoms, borders get re-drawn and characters develop. To be given official rules in either WARMACHINE or HORDES is also to be given Plot Armor though, leaving the most active movers and shakers free to continue moving and shaking without fatal consequences.
  • Heavy Gear is very up-front about the game's metaplot. Each sourcebook has a date which indicates where in the story the book is, not to mention entire books solely dedicated to detailing the events and mysteries of the metaplot.
  • Shadowrun could be considered to have a metaplot because the game universe continually moves forward with new events, big and small. The game was generally good about never letting NPCs be the ones doing things. NPCs are often the impetus behind things happening (as is normal for the setting), but the players are almost always the one actually doing things. This is acknowledged many times when it's noted that an "anonymous group of runners" did something that greatly affected the overall story and setting.
    • Conversely, Cyberpunk 2020 played it the other way - when the metaplot was advanced, all important plot events were done by a group of chracters based on the original writing team's player chracters, and led by one who was a pretty obvious Self Insert of the game's chief writer; in essence, the NPCs were the centre of the plot, and the Player Characters were just along for the ride.
  • In licensed RPGs that draw upon "outside" works of fiction for their background and -story, the original story canon quite naturally serves as this. How much of a constraint that proves to be is largely a function of how much room said canon leaves for new original characters to shine just as much as the "official" protagonists; comicbook superhero universes like the creations of Marvel and DC are usually all but designed to allow the easy addition of new faces as desired and something like the Star Trek universe always has room for at least one more Starfleet vessel whose crew have their own episodic adventures just like those of the various Enterprises, but it's rather harder to meaningfully insert player characters into settings where the canon Chosen Ones are already supposed to be doing all the truly plot-relevant heavy lifting.
  • German RPG The Dark Eye had a Metaplot since its development. For the first 15 years, the Metaplot hasn't moved the world forward. People vanished, or found new opportunities, a few organisations perished or formed themselves. The world however didn't change fundamentally. But after 15 years something new came along: an old evil raised his head and the world didn't look the same. Now every few years, parts of the setting change, but later adventures are often playable without incorporating these changes.
  • Mage Knight used its metaplot to try to bridge players from the first version of the game to MK 2.0. It was a spectacular failure. They then used the metaplot to phase out a subfaction whose abilities were too powerful. This development was mostly ignored.

     Video Games  

  • City of Heroes has something of a metaplot, in that the comics and its free expansions advance the timeline of the setting, changing the game world to match. In this case, the "independent works" would be the stories created by each character's experiences.
    • Most other MMORPGs can be said to have a metaplot in this sense, as well.
    • The writers of City of Heroes are, on the other hand, pretty bad about letting the players actually accomplish anything. To date, the city of Paragon (where the game for heroes takes place) has been subjected to repeated alien invasions, is home to a literal war zone, and has a number of areas currently closed off due to being very hazardous. However, no amount of player activity will allow players to prevent another alien invasion, win the war, or make a particular zone less hazardous. While Status Quo Is God, it certainly lends a certain amount of futility to the overall experience of being a hero: no matter what you do, nothing you do matters.
      • Just like the comics, then?
      • One thing you might have overlooked is the recent Faultline changes. Due to little interest in the zone they changed it from a Hazard zone to a City zone, essentially taking an area of Paragon that was very hazardous and making it less hazardous. Not any particular hero's fix, but an accomplishment from an in-universe perspective. In addition the regular invasions were fought off, leading to sporadic ones in the current edition.
  • Most of Bungie's games all seem to relate to the same underlying themes; possibly taking place in the same universe, or related universes. The ties are particularly strong between Pathways into Darkness, Marathon and Halo. It should be noted that Pathways Into Darkness and Marathon are already confirmed as taking place in a Shared Universe.
  • One interesting solution to the problem is that taken by the MMORPG The Lord of the Rings Online, where the players do important-but-offscreen tasks related to the main plotline. For example, there's a quest arc starting in Rivendell that ends with Aragorn's sword being reforged ... the book doesn't say that a piece of the sword was missing until somebody named GobblinnKilla93 recovered it, but it doesn't explicitly say that didn't happen, either. It does ruin the immersion a little bit if you play more than one character and have to keep getting that stupid gem for the hilt over and over, though.

     Web Original  

  • The Global Guardians PBEM Universe had two overarching meta-plots during its twelve year history. The first was the slow assimilation of nonhuman intelligences (aliens, sentient apes, and sentient machines) into normal human society. The second was the effects of advancing technology on normal human society.

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