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 HeelFace Turn and be replaced by his subordinate, Captain Killfoot, who in the GM's campaign had already been revealed as The 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.
- 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 a few characters 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 Abominations, which are aware of the MMORPG nature of Elder Tale. Kanami manages to free one of the sealed Ancients, Elias Hackblade.
- Both major Comic Book publishers almost always have a metaplot running in their universes. For example, while The DCU was in the run-up to Final Crisis, the Marvel Universe was dealing with the new status quo after Civil War and the buildup toward a Skrull Secret Invasion. After that 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, Infinity and Secret Wars (2015). With the current rate of major crossovers involving most, if not all, of the current titles, each new event basically sequences into the next one, all advancing the Metaplot.
- The Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 1 revolves around a Metaplot featuring various beings developing into superheroes with their own storylines while being recruited into SHIELD's Avengers team, culminating in The Avengers (2012). Phases 2 and 3 also have a clearly defined Metaplot regarding the Infinity Stones, eventually culminating in Avengers: Infinity War.
- The Star Wars franchise is notoriously large, with numerous stories extending beyond the main series, sometimes in directly supplementary ways, and others for just sharing the same universe. The transfer to Disney was controversial for retconning the meta-plot of the initial Expanded Universe's official novels and other materials and replacing it with a new meta-plot, rendering the majority of that material (now known as Star Wars Legends) non-canon.
- Many of Stephen King's books are heavily implied to take place in the same multiverse, although individually they have little to do with one another. The overarching plot is dealt with in The Dark Tower series, his magnum opus.
- Brandon Sanderson has stated that this is the point of The Cosmere. After seeing authors like Stephen King and Isaac Asimov retroactively tie many earlier works together in later stories, he wanted to design a Metaplot that was deliberately worked into the framework of the individual stories from the very beginning. It begun quite covertly, but by now, the connections are pretty obvious for all to see.
- First sign was a character called Hoid, who appears in every single novel, although usually only in bit roles. Currently, he shapes up to be a bigger player in The Stormlight Archive. Likewise, the author of Ars Arcanum and the map collector, who are the same for every book, but only get officially named in Mistborn: Secret History.
- Random references to cosmere (small "c"), Investiture and Cognitive Realms have been there since first Mistborn, but only recently started to gain traction as well.
- Goes full throttle with Secret History connecting four different worlds and name-dropping various Cosmere terms directly. Events at the end of The Bands of Mourning only reinforce the thought that metaplot is moving to become the main plot.
- The early books lack a metaplot.
- Possibly the first one comes when Moving Pictures features a cameo by Fred and Nobby, thereby establishing that the growth of the City Watch is not something that is confined to the Watch novels.
- From The Fifth Elephant, most of the novels reflect the Disc's "semi-industrial revolution" in one way or another; either directly or obliquely (the clacks and the newspaper don't get mentioned in A Hat Full of Sky, for example, but we've gone from the Make-Things-Bigger-Device being a new invention in Ankh-Morpork (as shown in Jingo) to a village witch casually using telescopes as a metaphor).
- The Star Trek Novelverse has an ongoing metaplot about galactic politics which affects the Star Trek: The Next Generation Relaunch, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Relaunch, Star Trek: Voyager Relaunch and Star Trek: Titan novels. Major changes in the metaplot are given their own miniseries, involving characters from more than one corner of the franchise, such as Star Trek: Typhon Pact and Star Trek: The Fall.
- 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 SG-1 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.
- 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 Chronicles 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!". 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.
- In an unfortunate example of Real Life Writes The Metaplot, City of the Damned: New Orleans is unusable as a result of Hurricane Katrina decimating the city, and the clanbooks mention that the local vampire society is in shambles. A troupe can ignore these events, of course, but that approach opens a whole new can of worms.
- Despite not really having a running plot, Chronicles of Darkness still has many of the same metaplot issues that its predecessor had. This is ironically a result of White Wolf attempting to avoid the mistakes made with the previous meta-plot by setting most of their supplements in the past, filling out the history of the setting. Unfortunately, this means that creatures, people and events only alluded to in earlier supplements often get expanded in later ones. And if you're running a game where you chose to use those allusions in a different way from what a new supplement says... Well, congratulations, that new supplement is now as useless to you as the Baron von Skullfist example above.
- 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.
- There was also an exception in Exalted: the Autochthonians, where they had a module called "The Locust War," which...well, it didn't know entirely what it wanted to be, being a combination of adventure module and metaplot for what happens when the Autochthonians breach. This particular supplement is expressly considered Canon Discontinuity, and this is part of whynote Autochthonia has canonically not penetrated Creation in Second Edition until they do that in your particular chronicle.
- 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.
- The reboot keeps Adventure! -> Aberrant -> Aeon note as its presumptive default timeline, but gives permission for groups in all eras to take things in a different direction, so now your Adventure! PCs can change how things turn out.
- 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 the first edition of 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's also a setting full of national archetypes, most of whom pointedly do not like each other and have only limited means of mobility (ships and one nation's limited teleportation ability). First edition 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 was compiled and processed to produce an overall state-of-the-Earth report which the authors would then use to shape their subsequent products.
- Traveller started well with its use of a metaplot, incorporating 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 burning down the campaign setting over the course of the second edition of the game, with the third edition of the game being After the End. GDW, the company that created Traveller, did not survive the third edition. Later editions (by different publishers) have been much more reluctant to make major changes to the setting, or to have a metaplot at all.
- Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 had a static metaplot for decades. Even immense worldwide campaigns like the 3rd War for Armageddon and the introduction of new factions did next to nothing to change it. Abaddon's Black Crusades always failed. The major Eldar craftworld fleets were never actually put to an end by their enemies. The Tau weren't wiped out by the Imperial crusade against their tiny new empire. The Tryanids ate a lot of planets, but none that actually meant anything. The Orks never threatened a green tide of destruction. The Imperium always lost billions of soldiers but never really lost any major worlds. The Eye of Terror where Chaos lives never expanded or retracted. The lost Primarchs and the fallen Daemon Primarchs of the Horus Heresy era remained lost or in stasis.
- Eventually the 8th edition of the tabletop game was introduced alongside some major changes to the metaplot. Primarchs came back. A new type of Space Marine was introduced. The Daemon Primarchs reigned once again. The planet Cadia was split in half, causing the Chaos Realms of the Eye Of Terror to expand to a great gash across the galaxy. It resulted in some major changes to the plot although the impact on the rules of the game itself were rather limited, but changes included the introduction of the Emperor bodyguard Custodes becoming a full army.
- Unlike Warhammer 40,000 where the change in metaplot didn't result in major changes to the game, their Warhammer Fantasy game (now named the more trademark-friendly Warhammer: Age of Sigmar) had a change to the metaplot that effectively destroyed the canon in order to allow major changes to rules & factions. The Bad Guy Wins! Incredibly major characters were killed off constantly in the build up to the end and eventually the entire world was destroyed to be rebuilt for the new "more accessible" edition of the game. Unsurprisingly this was met with a generally poor reception, especially as much of the changes were done to enable the company to get out of generic fantasy names into names they could properly trademark.
- 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. Catalyst Games, the current holder of the License, has pretty much embraced this by releasing sourcebooks with material set in previous time periods(even going back to eras that were previously just backstory in the beginning) or across multiple 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. This is a notable problem for all the Star Wars RPGs, for instance, but they have generally been popular anyway.
- German RPG The Dark Eye has had a Metaplot since its development. For the first 15 years, it didn't move 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.
- Despite never being big on continuity to begin with, West End Games tried this with Paranoia in the late eighties by releasing several adventure books with overarching storylines. First was the "Secret Society Wars," which resulted in a pre-Alpha Complex programmer being thawed out of suspended animation, whereupon he got his hands on a keyboard and caused Friend Computer to crash. WEG then took the opportunity to sell various sourcebooks and supplements set in a post-Crash complex, trying everything from parodies of post-apocalyptic wastelands ("The Crash-Course Manual") to time-travelling crossovers with other RPGs ("Alice Through the Mirrorshades," "Vulture Warriors of Dimension X"). Unfortunately, it was all very random, terribly executed, and devoid of Paranoia's unique black humor, driving away players and eventually leading to the end of WEG and the Second Edition.
- Hc Svnt Dracones has hints of a developing metaplot by referencing an upcoming attack on the Ruby Spire in the later rulebooks, and a pair of novels featuring characters from the published adventure modules.
- City of Heroes had something of a metaplot, in that the comics and its free expansions advanced 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 were, on the other hand, pretty bad about letting the players actually accomplish anything. Paragon City (where the game for heroes takes place) was subjected to repeated alien invasions, was home to a literal war zone, and had a number of areas closed off due to being very hazardous. However, no amount of player activity allowed players to prevent another alien invasion, win the war, or make a particular zone less hazardous. While Status Quo Is God lended a certain amount of futility to the overall experience of playing a hero: in-character, sure you're saving lives and that's important, but for the player, no matter what you do, nothing changes.
- 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 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.
- The Trails Series runs on this. Every sub-series (Sky, Crossbell and Cold Steel) tells its own self-contained story set in one country of Zemuria, but the Society of Oroboros are always involved, and all the events of the series are part of one big Gambit Roulette of theirs, hundreds of years in the making. For example, the events of the Crossbell and Erebonia games are all part of Ouroboros' "Phantasmal Blaze Plan".