Telling Stories: The metaplot
If you’re playing Final Fantasy XIV, your world got rocked pretty thoroughly a couple weeks back. The conclusion to the game’s big storyline hit, and it has pretty staggering implications for the game as a whole and the setting that you’re roleplaying in. It is, in short, a big deal.
But even though you have to go through all of the quests leading through these events with your character, it by all rights should not be a story that happens to your character.
I don’t mean that in the sense that the events don’t make sense for your character; it’s quite possible that they do. But you cannot reasonably claim to be the most super-important person in all of Eorzea, and even if you do there’s the realize that what happened would make you persona non grata across much of the world. So it’s undeniable that these big events happened, and you need to react to them, but you cannot have been at the heart of them. So how do you react?
This isn’t a problem unique to FFXIV, of course; by rights, the player is at the heart of a lot of iconic events in pretty much every game. (The games wherein this is not the case, like EVE Online, make iconic events the province of people with more time than care for lore and are usually centered around groups of enormous dicks, so it’s not exactly better.) At the same time, you can’t be at the heart of those events, which is an issue that’s been discussed many times in the past. More relevant, today, is the fact that the events in question did in fact happen.
Someone took down Darth Malgus in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Someone was there when Mordremoth’s influence over the Sylvari was made clear in Guild Wars 2. These events did not take place in a dark pit somewhere, and they have far-reaching impacts on the world you play in. So how do you react to it?
First and foremost, really, is figuring out what’s going to change on the ground. I’m not even talking yet about how much of the story the average person is going to know; just figuring out what actual effects this will have on day-to-day life is important. The first Men in Black movie serves as a reminder, in places, that if there’s a struggle for the survival of humanity you aren’t aware of, nothing changes for you until the struggle is concluded.
In the case of Darth Malgus, for instance, having him out of power isn’t really going to change much of anything below the top levels of government, just because of how the Sith run things. The Sylvari, on the other hand, are going to become much more widely distrusted and will be forced to do quite a bit of inward soul-searching. The ending of Final Fantasy XIV‘s 2.0 storyline will have some smaller effects on the ground, but there are still major changes there.
Then you have to start establishing what your character knows and what the average person knows. In many cases, that’s not going to be very different. Government upheavals will have an official line that’s being taken, and that’s what the people in the street know. If your character is a bit better-connected, they might know more than normal, but they probably still won’t have the whole story. They weren’t there, after all.
But then, that’s a valid question, too – how involved were they? It’s all well and good to say that your character was just an outside observer, but sometimes it also makes sense to have your character involved, if not as the most important part of the equation. I’m fairly certain that my own main in Final Fantasy XIV was involved in the final upheaval, albeit not on the side that the players are meant to root for and not as thoroughly as the quests would imply. (She was involved, but mopping up the edges, in essence.)
And who was at the heart? Not important. The NPCs, usually, since they’re the ones who get most of the agency. You probably don’t actually know them.
One of the concepts from tabletop RPGs that isn’t usually brought over to online games is that of the metaplot, events related via official sourcebooks and various other media, the plot of the world at large going on with or without the interference of player characters. It’s the story of the setting, and player characters can work with or against the various events – or, in many cases, be caught up in them and react to some of the threats contained therein. You know, much like the overriding plot of most MMOs.
Seriously, most of the first big Legend of the Five Rings metaplot sounds like the setup for a bunch of quests and dungeons in Rokugan, culminating in a big fight against Fu Leng at the end. The players are there to watch it happen and take part only as side participants.
Understanding the metaplot idea is useful for roleplaying online simply because, well, it is the same idea, but also because it posits the idea that you can experience storylines without being a part of them yourself. That these things are still happening, events still turn, and the world keeps humming along just fine with or without your long-term involvement. Gandalf says during The Hobbit that as nice a guy as Bilbo is, he’s still just one small man in a big world. It’s important to remember that for your characters in roleplaying, too.
The world changes around you, some of it you only know in bits and pieces, and you react as best you can. That’s how you handle the big moments – you let them be big and you move around.
Next time around I’d like to chatter on about the importance of being able to stop a scene when you need to and the importance of having stopping points at all. The time after that, let’s look at some important times to put immersion on the back burner.
About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
- Wisdom of Nym: Just before patch 5.3 for Final Fantasy XIV 08/10/2020
- For Science: Meta-analysis of aggression studies shows no link between aggression and video games 08/04/2020
- Final Fantasy XIV will be down for 24 hours for patch 5.3 maintenance 08/04/2020
- Phantasy Star Online Director on working on the original: ‘The pressure was intense’ 08/04/2020
- Final Fantasy XI: The Voracious Resurgence gets its own teaser site 08/03/2020