There are many, many RPG settings that have rich and interesting stories that have evolved over the course of several years. Settings like Planescape, The Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, The Iron Kingdoms, Azeroth (the setting of World of Warcraft), the World of Darkness and others have come out of a collective, long-term effort over a number of years.
In some cases, such as Forgotten Realms and other Dungeons & Dragons settings, there are compelling stories, told in shared, familiar places, but the setting is ultimately relatively static.
Oh, sure, there are supplements here and there that might tell impactful stories and there are a few media tie-ins, such as video games, that might give an alternative timeline, but ultimately the setting stays still. In miniature games, the same was true of Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 settings, until the End Times event rapidly advanced the Warhammer storyline and recent developments have moved the Warhammer 40,000 story on for the first time in many years.
This can be contrasted with games that have significant meta-plots. These big, over-arching stories steer the lore and the direction that development might take. The World of Darkness setting is a great example of one that employs significant meta-plots. Each of the games in the line had their own sprawling plot, established across a huge number of rulebooks, sourcebooks and other supplements. Two extreme examples of this are Vampire: The Masquerade and Orpheus.
The meta-plot of Vampire: The Masquerade is extensive, consisting of events across the world and throughout history, all the way to prehistory. These stories were engaging to the reader and shaped the development of some aspects of the game, such as having the Gangrel clan become an independent clan once they left the umbrella of the Camarilla, and the almost complete destruction of the Ravnos clan.
Now, whereas the Vampire range was vast, the Orpheus range consisted of only 6 books, with each of these books directly advancing the story. This series was limited by design and told a complete story within the game setting it described.
So what’s the problem with this sort of storytelling? Surely it just creates a more immersive, detailed world for your players to explore? Well, yeah, but like, also, maybe no?
The sprawling plot of Vampire, along with Mage, Werewolf and other ranges to a lesser extent, is probably what led to the development of what is now known as the Chronicles of Darkness, a new setting with less of a focus on metaplot in favour of a reasonably detailed world in which to tell your own stories. These big metaplots added flavour, but could also be stifling. Where do you go with your story that doesn’t run into one of the tendrils of the official canon? If your players contradict the official story, do you allow it? I’d say yes, go for it, but I’m aware that many of the people who really care about these worlds find it difficult to selectively disconnect like this.
This is where licensed properties come in. RPGs based on licensed properties sell copies on the affection that people have for the licensed setting. People who love Firefly will purchase that RPG. People who love The Lord of the Rings will buy that RPG. People who love World of Warcraft will buy that RPG.
The universes of these games are fleshed out to various degrees. Firefly gives the player a universe to play in, but relatively little by way of active events. There’s the film and the TV show, but that’s really limited to one crew of one ship, leaving the rest of the galaxy to explore in the same tone as the show. It’s not limiting or stifling. World of Warcraft is a bit different.
World of Warcraft and the land of Azeroth have a rich and long history. The Warcraft setting was first created in 1994. The story of the original Warcraft forms the basis of the setting, with 2002’s Warcraft III fleshing it out significantly. World of Warcraft was released in 2004 and has been regularly expanded, adding new locations, characters, and stories to the game. With this glut of stories, the game can run into the same issues as Vampire: The Masquerade, with the larger metaplot getting in the way of telling your own stories.
That’s not the only problem with the metaplot, of course. Rather, my biggest issue is the disconnect between the tabletop and video game versions. The video game has moved on, grown, changed. The tabletop version has not. Whilst the video game version has seen several expansions, exploring new continents, introducing new classes and races, this is simply not the case with the relatively short-lived RPG. It’s been a long time since this game was supported and the content is no longer entirely reflective of the setting as it stands today.
Of course, a good GM will make his own changes and adaptations to suit his needs, updating his own game to reflect the era in which his game is played. But which era? So much has happened to Azeroth over the course of the last few years. Would you rather use the pre-Cataclysm world, or the more recent, ravaged world? Pre- or post-Lich King? Who is the warchief of the Horde at this point? Thrall? Garrosh? Vol’Jin? Sylvanas? How much knowledge does your character have about the world and were they involved with previous campaigns in Northrend or the Firelands?
Most importantly, is this a bespoke adventure or does it fit into a storyline from the video game? If it’s bespoke, are you fitting it in between bits of the video game or ignoring elements of the story? If so, which bits? It’s the same problem as Vampire: The Masquerade all over again and it really comes down to personal preference.
These challenges are common to many games with big, established, well-developed settings like Star Wars and Middle Earth. Myself, the only game with an extensive plot that I have spent much time with is Vampire: The Masquerade. I chose the time setting of my game based on story elements I wanted to incorporate (the destruction of clan Ravnos), but ignored many others that were not helpful to my story. I think that’s the only approach you can really take – using that which helps and cutting anything that would be an obstruction. If you’ve had experience with these kinds of settings and have either found them restrictive or have had to incorporate workarounds, I’d be interested to hear about it in the comments below.
It’s an interesting quandry, no doubt.