IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE
In which our heroes meet for the first time, resulting in confusion, loose tongues, startling revelations of a largely temporal nature, and a moment of abject panic…
When my players realized that they had been subjected to time-skipping amnesia, the response of Agnarr’s player was pretty straight-forward: “You son of a bitch!”
Starting a campaign with amnesia, of course, is something of a cliche. The video game industry, in particular, is completely infatuated with it because it allows the player to completely equate themselves with the character (both are ignorant of themselves and the world around them).
The conceit of “missing time”, on the other hand, offers a slightly different dynamic. Having taken the time to work up detailed character backgrounds in collaboration with each player, I was effectively stealing something from them. (And this was particularly felt by those who participated in the preludes.) The resulting sense of combined outrage and mystery serves as a great motivator and spring-board: It binds the PCs to a common purpose; gives them something to immediately pursue; and strongly motivates them to achieve it.
More generally, these kinds of “metaplot mysteries” can serve as strong backbones that can hold entire campaigns together.
At this point of course, as a GM, you need to be able to actually deliver on those promises. Unlike Chris Carter or J.J. Abrams, it will behoove you to actually put together an outline of your metaplot mystery. So channel your inner-Straczynski and get to work: You don’t have to be exhaustively detailed in this effort; you just need to provide a roadmap that will keep you on track as you and your players explore the mystery.
(In the case of the “missing memories”, I prepped a 4 page outline detailing the trust history of what had happened to each of them between their last conscious memory and awaking in Ptolus. This outline is general in parts, but gets more specific regarding the last few days before they awoke.)
Next, you’ll want to start presenting the clues the PCs will need to start piecing together the metaplot mystery. For this, of course, you’ll want to observe the Three Clue Rule. Taking Node-Based Scenario Design into account probably isn’t a bad idea, either, but you’ll probably want to consider some of the lessons I talk about in “The Two Prongs of Mystery Design“.
Specifically, the clues of a metaplot mystery are usually delivered tangentially through other scenarios. From time to time, of course, you may have “metaplot scenarios” — but the whole point of a metaplot is that it isn’t the plot. (In this sense, Buffy the Vampire Slayer often had a metaplot. 24 never had a metaplot; it just had season-long plots.)
Presenting a metaplot mystery can often be a tightrope-walk: On the one hand, there’s a strong temptation to blow your load. The metaplot is, after all, really cool — and you want to awe and amaze your players with the really cool stuff. But if you reveal too much too quickly, you can’t put the rabbit back in the hat.
On the other hand, you can’t be so stingy with the details of the metaplot mystery that it withers and dies from lack of interest and attention.
In the specific case of these missing memories, I broadly prepped several “layers” of clues: Stuff they were likely to find out immediately (by investigating their rooms and personal possessions); stuff they could find out fairly quickly (by following up those leads and/or digging deeply); and then additional leads that would come to them over the course of the campaign (or crop up in later scenarios). I also prepped several flashbacks with various trigger conditions (which would give them immediate glimpses of their lost past).
(There are also a couple of additional layers beyond that; but they constitute spoilers. So, like my players, you’ll just have to wait and see.)
Basically, the idea is that I’m treating the metaplot mystery as its own, independent scenario — or meta-scenario — that I plan out completely ahead of time and then lay over the top of the rest of the campaign as it develops.
(Actually, “meta-scenario” is probably the best way to think of this. I’m going to change the title of this post.)
Of course, your meta-scenario won’t really be completely divorced from the rest of the campaign. If you’re doing things properly, there will be a feedback loop between the meta-scenario and the specific scenarios that develop through play. Once again, it’s important to see the meta-scenario as a roadmap — not necessarily the road itself. (If that makes sense.)