Saturday, 26 November 2016

On Metaplots, And Why They Must Die


I was going to try and continue being nice for a bit longer. I wanted to try and stay positive. I wanted to just focus on models and fun backstory, but my hand has been forced. They leave me no choice. So buckle up ladies and gentlemen, because for the remainder of this post it's going to be another wave of nothing but furious venom-filled scathing ranting from an angry tabletop hobbyist. Because there's something that's been going on in the tabletop industry for a while now, a repulsive loathsome cancer that eats away at my enjoyment year by year, month by month, and quite recently it's been kicked into overdrive in the once-great land of GW. All this week I've been bombarded with glowing praise from the official statements about it, how amazing it is, how fantastic it will be, how much of a great leap forward it is.


In case you don't follow GW (and are probably better off for it), the latest big release for them have been a return of the glorious Juan Diaz early 2000s era Daemonette models that I've always loved. But the release they're really hyping up is a continuation of their new line of campaign supplements, this one called 'Wrath of Magnus'. It's accompanied by the usual swarm of garish soulless empty plastic abominations I never asked for or wanted that accompany a GW release nowdays, but the real problem, the real thing that has me literally so angry that I'm struggling to type coherently, is the book itself, and the thing that it represents the latest in a long line of. The book, you see, is a continuation of that horrifying plague known as the metaplot.

And it's destroying my enjoyment and interest in this hobby.

For those of you who don't know (and I was like that once), a metaplot is a single unifying story arc that links together across several different independent works and impacts on all of them. In other words, you have creative works X, Y and Z, each of which cover a different aspect of the same setting or internal universe. A metaplot will be a continuing narrative across all of them, with events from work X having an impact on work Y, which in turn provides revelations that affect work Z. It's most commonly associated with tabletop RPGs and wargames, where the independent works in question are sourcebooks and gamebooks for the tabletop game's fictional setting, and it became very popular in the 1990s after White Wolf achieved some success with their famous World of Darkness RPG series, starting with Vampire: The Masquerade. These RPGs were designed from the start with a central metaplot, and when they started making considerable amounts of money (by tabletop game standards at least) other manufacturers decided they wanted a piece of the action and started coming up with metaplots of their own. Today it's very common to find them in both RPGs and wargames covering fictional settings (such as Dystopian Wars, modern GW games and perhaps most famously Battletech).

Now, so far this probably sounds perfectly well and good, after all that's basically what happens in every traditional media from books to TV shows. And that's true. It's only when it's taken out of its native environment of traditional media that the metaplot becomes such a destructive invasive disease. The astronomical problem here, you see, is that tabletop games are in many ways very different to traditional media, as an audience interacts with them in very different ways.

Traditional media like books, TV shows, movies etc. is meant to be enjoyed passively. You sit down, read the book or watch the movie or TV show, and when you reach the end that's it, the story's finished. It's over. Oh sure some people theorise and discuss things and write their own stuff about it, but that's not really what the core intent is. You don't watch Star Wars to decide what you'd do if you were in charge of the Rebellion or that it really should have been Captain Phasma that stayed on to become the big badass antagonist for the new films, you watch it to watch the story of Star Wars (and then if you get really, really invested in it you can take things from there). At the heart of it, a creator is telling you a story, and you can take it or leave it.

Tabletop games, however, are a whole other thing entirely. Instead of passively consuming them, tabletop games require you, the audience, the player, the hobbyist, to enjoy them actively. You don't just sit there while a story unfolds in front of you, you actually get in there and actively engage with the setting (even if only on the absolute minimal level required). Because tabletop games require you to create something for them. Whether it's characters in an RPG or armies in a wargame, you are required to contribute something. YOU create the characters, YOU build the army, and you, yes YOU are in control of them. You effectively create your own small part of that setting, with which you can then interact with the rest of the universe. This is easily one of the greatest joys to be had in the tabletop hobby, and I'm always very disturbed and upset when I see few people pursuing it.

Unfortunately, this starts to crash and burn if the contributors are denied a sufficient amount of agency over what happens to their creations, and that's exactly what metaplots do. Because official top-down 'storyline advancing' metaplots don't affect just one part of the setting, they affect all of it, including the parts you created. Thus, an advancing metaplot forces new background material on your characters, armies and stories regardless of whether you actually wanted it or not. And because it's official and top down, there is no real way it can be effectively denied. If you don't want or agree with the new background, there is no way for your characters or army to stop it because its set in stone from on high by people who in all likelihood will never even hear about your own creations.

There's a quote on TVtropes in the examples listed under the 'Creator's Pet' trope amongst the examples found in Tabletop Wargames:

"That's the other thing: [White Wolf] hires people who want to tell stories. But, the only characters they have to tell stories about are the NPCs. So, they tell stories about the NPCs. 
Gods, I wanted to smack some of my fellow writers upside the head on some Vampire projects when they burbled on about the cool things they'd have Hardestadt do, or whoever. What were the *PCs* supposed to do?" - Dean Shomshak

Shomshak was talking about the World of Darkness and its metaplot, but the same principle applies to any tabletop game. Even the most compelling core background element of a tabletop setting is technically only ever supposed to be a backdrop for what the players are doing. As a result, if you make it all about the central metaplot and 'advancing the storyline', then I, the hobbyist and consumer of your product, can only be left saying "OK. Great. What's my army/fleet/characters supposed to do."

Let's look at some examples under the microscope shall we? Perhaps the biggest illustration of why this whole metaplot thing just does not work is the infamous 'End Times' series by GW (henceforth referred to as the ET series like it is almost everywhere else on this blog, for it does not deserve to be recognised by its full name). The ET series, as has been discussed on here before, was a series of narrative campaign books GW published for Warhammer Fantasy, and they ended up literally destroying the setting. Kislev, Bretonnia, Tilea, Estallia and several other factions were supposedly wiped out off-hand in single paragraphs, the Elves were thrown together in a fit of what certainly felt like blatant Dark Elf pandering and the forces of evil generally rampage across the entire Warhammer World. And if you wanted to stop any of this from happening? Y'know, like fantasy heroes are supposed to do? Well too bad! Instead you get to sit on the sidelines while the official named characters do everything because apparently they're the only ones that matter and the only ones allowed to have any interaction with the setting.

OK. Great. What are my armies and characters supposed to do?

A more recent GW example comes from the last two Warzone Damocles books, in which Aun'va supposedly died and the Damocles Gulf was allegedly set on fire. Ignoring the glaring contradictions of basic laws of physics that are horrendous even by 40k's standards. you really shouldn't be making those kinds of big sweeping changes in a way that leaves the hobbyists no room around them. I have a very sizeable Tau fleet (just over 2,500 pts by my estimate), some of which I've documented on this very blog. The backstory behind them has them around the Damocles Gulf right at the point when that event supposedly happens, and also has them fighting against the Imperium (mostly). And yet now it doesn't matter how many games of Battlefleet Gothic I play or how well I play them or how many Adeptus Mechanicus fleets I defeat or how many victory points I defeat them by, the Damocles Gulf is still always going to be ignited in GW's crazy made-up world. Which wouldn't be a problem if that world was the piece of silly fanfiction I'm making it out to be here, but it's the official company line, which means the bulk of the community will likely end up swallowing it. So according to GW, the Tau can't stop the Damocles Gulf from being blown up, no matter how many Exterminatus! scenarios I win against Imperial fleets. None of the official named characters did anything about it, so it happens, and that's that.

OK. Great. What are my fleets and characters supposed to do?

Also, what are my armies and characters supposed to do? I do play 40k too (well in theory at least).

And it's not just my armies. The new book GW's just released has a whole bunch of stuff happening between the Dark Angels, Space Wolves and Thousand Sons, and if you want to try and stop any of that? Too bad, as it has been written, so shall it be.

OK. Great. What are the armies and characters of the Space Wolves, Dark Angels and Thousand Sons players supposed to do?

GW isn't the only manufacturer that's guilty of this either. For a long time I flirted with getting into Dystopian Wars, a 15mm steampunk wargame produced by Spartan Games. But when I went to check up on where it was at I was put right off ever wanting to start into it, because any remaining models in the range that I do like would be thoroughly eclipsed by 'progressing storyline' that's taken the setting beyond it's starting point. Oh, you wanted to conquer the carribean or invade Russia (though you probably don't know much about world conquest if you did the latter)? Well fuck you! We've written about the official events in these fancy new books! Go and slavishly devote yourself to just passively eating up whatever we spoon feed you, your creations don't matter to us*! Heck, the enormous metaplot in Battletech is the single biggest factor AGAINST me getting into that system.

And that's another problem, developers just don't stop at one addition, they keep driving the metaplot until everywhere is covered. So it doesn't matter that your army and its related background happens thousands of light-years away from the events in a given GW campaign book, or a continent away from the latest Dystopian Wars metaplot antics, because that won't keep you safe forever. All it takes is one campaign book, one new piece of background material, one 'advancement to the storyline' to render all your carefully thought-out background effectively null and void in the wider community. And frankly, if that's what's going to happen, then why should I even bother with building my own army in the first place? And if the answer to that is 'you shouldn't' then what's the point of the tabletop hobby, and why should I care about it?

This isn't a new problem, but it wasn't this bad before. GW's global Eye of Terror global campaign promised big shakeups to the status quo, and while glorious it was almost certainly a mistake. But it at least allowed hobbyists to have some level of agency over the changes by allowing them to interact with the process - if you don't want side X to win at location Y, then you'd just have to win enough games and report those wins in to stop them there (well that's the basic concept at least. The actual system was somewhat more complicated). With these new campaign books? None of that. The things happen, rocks fall, everyone dies, and there's nothing you can do about it. And at the risk of sounding like an 80s action film character, I didn't sign on for that.

And it's a trivially easy thing to fix. All manufacturers would have to do is write in a little 1-page introduction piece at the start of every campaign book that clearly and explicitly states that all the background material contained within is just a hypothetical 'What if?' scenario and is only one potential outcome out of many, and encourages players to come up with whatever outcome suits them the best, and reinforce that message in every official statement about the campaign books, and there'd be no problem because then everyone would be free to decide for themselves whether to include the new background or not. And if they want to do a massive global campaign event, then they just have to think smaller. One planet, one city, one thing that's inconsequential in the grander scheme of things. Things like the Medusa V campaign or Imperial Armour Volume III: The Taros Campaign are the right idea, because even if you don't agree with the outcome it's just one small place that you can avoid. The Tau conquered Taros? That's OK, your army is light-years away engaged in its own equally important conflict, and who knows maybe it'll go there someday to try and retake it. Maybe it will, maybe it won't but it's up to you. And that's the important part that's missing at the moment. If it is there, then I don't think it's being rammed down the community's throat nearly enough.

All official background in a tabletop game is ever meant to do is be a starting point, something to give your games and characters and armies context. It should never be a prime mover - that's the job of YOU, the player and hobbyist.

All the official background should ever do is set the stage and provide some props and costumes. It should then be up to you to cast some actors, write a script and perform it. And the sooner manufacturers remember that, the better.

Right then. I fell better now that I've gotten that out of my system. My apologies you had to see me in that state, but I just couldn't take it any longer. I'll try and talk about something more positive next time, although for now I will state again just how delighted I am to see the 2000s era Juan Diaz Daemonette models come back, if only briefly.

*That may not be the intention they have, but it certainly feels like that to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment