Friday, July 28, 2006

Redeeming Metaplots

Periodically I've seen RPG theorists argue viciously against metaplots. The issue in question seems to focus on the large, overarching stories generated by gaming companies and released incrementally across several of their products.

Let's be honest here, the main goal was undoubtedly to drive sales. While part of me resents this overt manipulation, I've also heard that the total annual sales on all RPG products is less than the total sales for live opera--so I can't really blame them for trying to boost income. Game companies justified this tactic, claiming it provided both the GM and the players with a dynamic world that they could play within.

As I understand it, some feel that metaplots reduce PCs to secondary characters. They feel the main story gets resolved off-scene, and the characters end up playing Wedge Antilles to the metaplot's Luke Skywalker. Others complain that the characters must be railroaded for the story to be resolved as planned. Critics then argue that metaplots seriously harm the creation and maintenance of story in a roleplaying game (please correct me if I have any of this wrong). This argument, however, seems odd to me.

Here's the problem. Metaplots exist in other medias. They are often very successful. One of the most obvious examples is historical fiction. Take "Saving Private Ryan" or "Titanic". In both cases, we know how the meta-plot will end. The allies win; the boat sinks. This, however, does not matter. The metaplot acts as a frame--the stories themselves explore issues within that frame.

Sure, Captain Miller doesn't put a bullet in Hitler's brain, but that doesn't make him any less of a hero. It doesn't take away the meaning or emotional impact of his decisions or his death. Private Ryan is not the story of WWII, it is the story of Miller and his men--their actions, reactions and choices against an unquestionably horrible backdrop.

Admittedly, there is one difference between historical fiction and serial metaplots--the players and GM may not know how the metaplot will develop as they go along. However, I don't see this as an important difference. Whether you know the metaplot's story arc, or whether you expose it a bite at a time, its role in the story should not change. You're not telling the story of the metaplot, you're telling the character's story within the metaplot frame. The players have their own conflicts, their own goals, their own hopes and fears. These conflicts should evolve as they rub up against the metaplot, just as the conflicts would evolve from any interactions with NPCs or other PCs. But the conflicts remain, and the players still need to resolve them. In an ideal world, the metaplot deepens these conflicts by throwing additional complications in their paths. Still, the character's story--just like Captain Miller's story--must focus on the personal decisions and their results.

Arguably, some modern story-focused games (e.g. Polaris) are revolve around a single metaplot. From the reviews I've read, knowing how the story will end actually heightens the emotional content of the journey. Sure, there may have been problems with the designs of particular metalplots, or with the implementation of a metaplot in a particular game. But, clearly, we can use metaplots to improve the story content of an RPG.

Monday, July 24, 2006

I'm not dead!

Well, I said my posts might drop off a bit...but I never expected them to drop off this much. I'm so sorry that I disappeared for so long.

I haven't said much about my personal life in this blog. It just didn't seem relevant to the topics at hand. Still that personal life influences my ability to post essays, so I thought the topic might deserve a bit of attention. If this doesn't interest you, don't fret. I'll try to get a regular post out later this week; you can stop reading now.

My wife is a pediatric resident. She was working as a pediatrician in Japan when I met her (I was an English teacher--actually, I was her English teacher, but that's a story for another time). Four years ago we moved back to the US (well back for me). Since then, Mika has worked towards earning her US medical license. As part of the process, she must finish a US residency--even though she already completed one residency program in Japan.

We've been doing this for about a year, and I thought life had developed its own rhythm. Even at the best of times, a resident works 80 hours a week or so. So I am primarily responsible for taking care of the various home issues: cooking, dishes, and (most importantly) primary care of our 5-year-old daughter, Haruko. While I never asked Mika to help out, she often volunteered to do the occasional load of dishes or laundry or read the bedtime story to Haruko. But that all changed.

For the last month, Mika has worked in the ER rotation. Basically, she's either at work or asleep. I almost never get to see her; I've been totally on my own--it was an eye-opening view into what single parents must go through.

Add to that my own schedule. Two months ago I traded my flexible grad-student schedule for the more-structured 40-hour-a-week grind. At first, everything worked fine. I actually had a lot more time for my writing--since I didn't need to worry about exams or projects or studying. Then ER struck, and I couldn't do anything except hold on with my fingernails and count down the days.

OK, enough whining. There's a happy ending to this tale. While studying for her USMLE exams, Mika worked as a research post-doc. There, she found that she loved research, working with biological specimens, microscopes, staining and many other things I really don't understand (it's OK, she doesn't understand my work either). Recently, she decided that she would like to switch from pediatrics to pathology--which would let her follow the interests she developed as a post-doc. Last week, she was accepted into the pathology program (the exact transfer date is still up in the air--but it should be soon). This is good news. The pathology residency program has a much-less demanding schedule. Pathologist residents work a more-regular 40-hour week. When they're on call, they just take the pager home with them; then answer maybe one or two phone calls during the night. Now, she has to spend every fourth night at the hospital and does not get to sleep at all.

So, that part of life should soon get easier.

My summer internship also came to an end. I'm now taking a summer workshop in computational astrobiology (basically applying computer science to the study of where and how life might form in the universe--pretty much the dream science fiction job). So, I'm easing back into the student lifestyle. This should give me more time to spend on my other pursuits (like playing with my daughter and writing).

I hate to promise more frequent posts--that's just asking for trouble. But, the near future (at lest) looks brighter.

Oh, and I shaved my head. No reason.