Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Defense of Metaplot: Living in a Comfortable Universe

Yesterday I saw the following thought provoking post pop up a few times in my Google+ feed:

 . . . and after having read it, even though it does not turn out to be completely negative in regards to canon and metaplot, I felt as if I had to write something on this same topic.

The first thing I wanted to point out is that I think there is a bit of a difference between the metaplot and canon of something like the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars and something more specifically game related like the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance.

While the Realms existed before D&D, it's been a D&D setting since 1987, and has been used as the flagship of D&D before.  I would argue that there are a lot of people that just want to play D&D and don't care about a setting, because the game system has it's own following.  I conjecture, and I could be wrong, that often times games like the The One Ring or Fantasy Flight's Star Wars offerings bring people in because of the setting, and then attempt to keep them because of the system.

Because of that disclaimer, I'm not going to go too much into game setting canon.  But I will argue that people want to play something like The One Ring or the Star Wars RPGs because they want to play in a setting that feels familiar to them.  What will make the setting feel familiar is going to vary, but if you aren't hitting a least a few of those notes in the game, you probably aren't scratching the itch that some of the players have when they specifically say "I want to play a game based on this existing property."

I see arguments that games with heavy metaplots don't have room for the players to be heroes.  But many of the settings that I see this complaint levied against are huge settings with a lot of room for characters to explore.  The Forgotten Realms is actually a huge setting, even larger if you go by the 1st and 2nd edition scale.  Middle-Earth is a pretty big place with decades between the big stories we have seen.  The Star Wars galaxy is . . . well . . . it's a galaxy!

Yes, in an established universe, there are some big ticket items your PCs can't do, if you are planning on sticking with canon.  They won't be blowing up the Death Star, or dropping the One Ring into Mount Doom.  But is that the only worthy thing that the players can do in that setting that will give them the feeling of that setting?

If you make a big, over the top Moff as a villain with his own shipyard full of warships that will crush the Rebellion if the shipyards aren't destroyed, and your PCs destroy the shipyards and the Moff's flagship, keeping him from helping Vader's Task Force from hammering the Alliance Fleet, is that epic enough for your PCs?

If your treasure hunter in the One Ring finds an ancient relic that draws out a barrow wight king to curse the land, is it enough for them to take that relic safely to Rivendell and confront the undead king before he can vent his hatred of the living on the settlements nearest to his grave?

Many times, it seems like the problems with metaplot heavy campaigns revolve around expectations.  If you talk about the kinds of campaigns you are looking at running before the campaign starts, this is going to fix a whole lot of problems.  If you tell your Rebels up front that they are going to try and build a cell from scratch in the Corporate Sector with all new villains, nobody is going to be upset that they don't help save Luke from the Wampa.

Another problem seems to stem from the idea that a lot of GMs try to create setting flavor by dropping characters into recognizable scenes . . . and then trying to keep them to the side of what actually happened in that scene, so they can be a witness, in real time.  This kind of setting tie-in is much better handled in backstory rather than in an active game session.  Player's in a scene expect to be able to affect that scene, and if you hand them Vader's TIE fighter or the exhaust port, you can't expect them not to take the shot.

This is not to say that people that like a setting, that want the familiar feeling of a setting, don't want to play something that might diverge from canon.  But even then, I think it's best to define what exactly is different in this version of the setting, rather than just say, "here is the setting, but anything goes from this point on."  That works, but it doesn't really create any expectations.  On the other hand, if you are running a game and you specifically define the point of divergence, that gives the players an idea of the kinds of differences they might expect.

For example, if you want to play a Star Wars game that follows Dark Horse's Infinities: Return of the Jedi, or you want to play in a Star Wars galaxy where the Dark Side ending of the Force Unleashed happened, changing the course of the movies, it's best to spell out what that actually means to the campaign, and the players can start making their plans and expressing what they want to do in that kind of setting.

I think overall, metaplot heavy settings have the same pitfalls that any campaigns may have, and the best way to avoid confusion and disappointment over what can and can't happen in the campaign, and where the action is going to take place, is to discuss what everyone wants out of the campaign and to determine the touchstones that will be present.

And using that as an aside, Engine Publishing's Odyssey is a great place to start when trying to figure out the questions you need to ask before you start a campaign, and how to get everyone on the same page before you start rolling dice.

Star Wars: A New Canon

It may come as no small surprise that I'm a Star Wars fan.

No, seriously, quit laughing at me.  I know I say obvious stuff sometimes.

Anyway, I've been keeping up with the new canon offerings from various sources, and there is a weird imbalance in the Force right now.

I'm not going to talk about Rebels.  Rebels is awesome in my book, and I can't do any analysis justice.  If you ever loved anything Star Wars, watch it, and if you loved the EU or are cynical about Disney, try and shut that off and actually watch with fresh eyes.  Unless you loved WEG EU stuff, in which case, don't even worry about fresh eyes, it will be awesome.

What I'm talking about are the novels and Marvel's comic book releases.

Up front I'll say this:  Nothing, not even the good stuff, is "must read" right now.  We are in the era where nobody is going to make waves until we get closer to the Force Awakens, and nobody has security clearance to hint at what happened between ROTJ and the new movie.

But there is a difference between a "non-must read" that tells a compelling story and does something, and a "non-must read" story that repackages exactly what you have seen before, in slightly different form, in order to just try and push a Star Wars product.

In my opinion, the Star Wars novels have been in the former category, and the Star Wars comics from Marvel have been in the latter category.

So, since I know I have about 3.7 regular readers, .34 of my readers will be worried about spoilers, so at this point, let me say I'll probably drop a few spoilers from the Star Wars new canon novels and the Marvel series up to this point from here on out . . .

Spoilers Potentially Begin!

A New Dawn is probably the novel that does the least amount of "work" of all of the novels.  It doesn't so much do something new, or do something utilitarian for the new canon, so much as it introduced characters that debut in the Rebels series  (outside of this novel).

Despite that disclaimer, the worthwhile in this novel is pretty great, in that not only are you getting to read about characters that you haven't read about before, and said characters are interesting, and you will get to see them again . . . John Jackson Miller does a great job of creating what a lot of Star Wars authors have missed in the past.

The bad guy is very much larger than life, and in the traditional mold of Star Wars villains, while also new in several different ways.  Oh, and since this is new canon, after this novel, we now know that cortosis exists in the Star Wars galaxy, officially.

Tarkin is a little odd, because we get lots of information on a villain that dies in the first Star Wars movie that ever came out.  That said, getting that back story definitely makes you feel as if there is more going on in the Star Wars galaxy than just the stuff you have seen on the screen.  In the grand scheme of things, adding more weight to Tarkin's legacy isn't a bad thing, especially since he shows up in both the Clone Wars and Rebels.

Tarkin also establishes that there are rebel groups that aren't coordinated, may not be as morally sound as the Rebel Alliance, and aren't as organized, but they exist.  This is pretty important for the developments we see in the Rebels series, which appears to be showing that transition from local rebel cells with varying degrees of morality to a Rebel Alliance filled with heroes.

Tarkin is also a huge "utility" novel, and by that I mean that the novel reintroduces, as canon, a lot of the "infrastructure" of the galaxy that we don't know for sure until it's been referenced by the new canon.  The galaxy seems to largely have the same components (Deep Core, Core, Inner Rim, Mid Rim, Outer Rim, Unknown Regions, Oversector Outer, etc).  The Empire has a lot of familiar components  (the ISB, Imperial Intelligence).  There are even some familiar EU faces  (Armand Isard exists, for example).  I almost get the feeling that part of the point of this novel was to tell EU fans "hey, if you knew what they galaxy looked like around the Rebellion Era before, this doesn't look nearly as different as you might think."

I really thought Heir to the Jedi was going to be a filler novel that intentionally didn't connect to anything, anywhere, and Luke strikes me as one of the least exciting characters to have a stand alone story without any connection to anything else.  Keven Hearne did a great job of making Luke both familiar and likable.

Not only that, but the novel did some things I wasn't expecting.  Since it's only been two decades or so, even wonder if Luke ever heard anything about the Jedi from regular folks that were alive back then?  Did anyone ever talk to Luke about the fact that his father probably shouldn't have had a son if he was a Jedi?  How much do people discuss what happened in the Clone Wars in the present day?  These were some interesting things that were tackled in the book, although in some cases just lightly.

Did we get anything from the EU back in this novel?  I'm sure I forgot a few things, but we do know that lightsabers seem to work pretty much the same way they were described in the EU days.

And now, the Dark Side of New Canon . . .

Ah, Marvel Star Wars.  Have you ever wanted to see scenes from the movies cut and pasted in a different order, with some dialogue to make is seem like a new, but pretty much similar story that you have seen before? 

Nearly every scene, every panel, to me, feels like the cut and pasted an image from somewhere in the saga into a slightly different way.  How do we make Luke running troopers into things on speeder bikes look new and different?  We'll have Luke wearing his ceremony outfit, and for some reason there are just normal Stormtroopers everywhere instead of scout troopers.

Han references the only crime lord that shows up in the movies, even though even the imperials in this book know he's on the outs with Jabba, because the references have to be from the movies.  Want to see 3PO get blown up and fall to pieces?  The hyperdrive on the Falcon almost let the party down? 

Is there anything original?  Well, we get a planet no one has ever heard of in the Corellian "zone," that is apparently a major weapons manufacturing plant with the worst security ever, had Vader not accidentally shown up when the heroes made their assault.

Anything good?  One moment of Vader being a bad ass in issue #2.  That's about it.  Oh yeah, if there was any tension about what happened in this story arc, which there isn't really, there wouldn't be, because they step on what happens in the Darth Vader comic.

A shining example of something that doesn't touch anything outside of movie references, and could be summed up "watch your favorite Star Wars characters shoot Stormtroopers and run from Vader . . . and that's pretty much it."

So far, it seems like Vader is the strongest title of Marvel's line so far, and that's not saying much.  Issue #1 is Vader getting chewed out by Palpatine and spoiling the end of the Star Wars opening story arc.  Also, Vader hires bounty hunters, which has to include Fett, but also includes a new guy, who might get killed off screen, unless this series does differently than the rest of Marvel's line.

I personally liked a development in the second issue, where Vader didn't just do the "force of nature" bad ass thing, but rather, we saw Vader actually outsmart and outmaneuver someone working against him, which is really what I want to see more of in Vader comics. 

Anything reintroduced from the EU into new canon?  Not really, unless you count that "Grand General" is a rank now, in a similar manner to canon Grand Moff and EU Grand Admiral.

This was the Marvel title that I was most excited for.  A Leia series, written by Mark Waid, drawn by Terry Dodson.  I like the theme and the creators!  This should be great.  Or not.

Sort of minor complaint, but apparently everyone from Alderaan, even when evacuating a base, has elaborate hairstyles and makeup ready at all times.  

Do we get Leia on a diplomatic mission critical to the Rebellion?  Nope.  Do we get Leia, leading a commando team on a mission to rescue political prisoners?  Nope.

Leia is apparently too precious to be allowed to be in danger, so she is told she can't do anything but wait for Yavin IV to be evacuated, and by the way, the Empire has decided to kill every single person from Alderaan that survived because . . . well, that seems like a Leia related plot, right?

I'm not sure why, but it just rubs me the wrong way that Empire has decided to kill off every single Alderaanian they missed when they blew up the planet.  I'm not sure what this mass killing serves, other than to come up with some artificial angst for Leia.  Wasn't some of the point of the Death Star that without the hammer of the Death Star, the Empire still had to at least try and look less tyrannical to avoid open rebellion in even more of the galaxy?  "Every single Alderaanian that survived has to die, because they are all guilty by association, but don't worry, we're still providing you a nice, orderly galaxy.  Thanks!"

But beyond that, Leia acts like a spoiled princess, endangers the evacuation of Yavin IV in order to, um, save Alderaanians?  I guess?  Somehow?  By going to Naboo?  It's pretty convoluted, but hey, Leia has a new BFF!

It's only been one issue, so maybe this one will get better.  Maybe it will make more sense.  I hope.