Cortexifying the Tribe 8 Metaplot

If you’re not familiar, Tribe 8 had a lot to love and hate about it. It was a golden example of a 90s RPG. It had a dense setting, splatbooks, and a multi-volume metaplot. The metaplot was as much a work of fiction as a campaign, with its secrets and direction revealed incrementally with each new release – including those GMing it. Even sourcebooks covering basic setting information, such as books about the Tribes, contained metaplot information or were written from the perspective of metaplot events having already occurred. Many a Tribe 8 GM had to deal with having grenades chucked into their game as a result of this “no spoilers, even for GMs” approach, or having to warn off players from reading sourcebooks because they contained metaplot secrets.

By the end of the Aughts heavy metaplots like Tribe 8’s had largely fallen out of favor, particularly in more narrative or story game circles. There was a flood of narrative-based rpgs with new concepts (or refined versions of existing concepts) – fiction first, fail forward, success at a cost, “play to find out what happens”, emergent play, etc. While Tribe 8’s system was steadfastly traditional, with few narrative structures (some rules on social conflict and a kind of metacurrency were added in the second edition), Tribe 8’s themes fit the newish crop of narrative games better – Fate, Cortex, Forged in the Dark, Powered by the Apocalypse, etc. And in practice, at least for me, that has proven to be true on multiple occasions.

Of course, Tribe 8’s setting and themes are certainly rich enough to not need the metaplot. It’s one of the biggest draws of the setting. I’ve run lengthy games – one was over 20 sessions – without touching the metaplot at all. Yet when I think about starting a new Tribe 8 game, my first thought is always about returning to the it, and what can be done to make it work better. From Children of Lilith all the way to Vimary Burns, the metaplot just has good bones. But it’s also a big, delicately balanced, complicated beast, begging for some way of better keeping track of all of its parts.

This is where a technique called Circle Theory to help put some higher order to it. Developed by the game developer DC, it’s a deceptively simple way of breaking down and looking at how narrative interacts with the setting and the PCs. At its simplest, Circle Theory places the elements of the game into concentric circles, with the larger elements in the outermost and the PCs at the center. There’s a lot of nuance and flexibility to it – Erick, the designer of Brinkwood, broke down his setting elements using it and provided a lot of insight into his process.

My idea is a riff on it involving “ripples” or “waves”. The setting is represented as a series of concentric circles that correspond to roughly the local environment, the world, and the universe. So far, that’s pretty similar to Circle Theory. When an event – or events – happen they create a ripple or wave in the setting, like a rock dropped in a pond. The bigger the event, the farther the wave goes, the more layers it affects. The result this wave has on the setting – and thus the game – is represented by one or more milestones. The milestone encapsulates some mechanic that goes into effect.

The Circle Theory approach is great for visualizing where the events and milestones fall. The end goal is a framework – designed for use with Cortex, but likely applicable to other games – that provides a roadmap for the GM. In my head, I have a kind of kanban board-style layout envisioned, with “lanes” for each milestone. Events are moved along the lane to track progress toward the milestone. The events themselves I plan on structuring as triggers of a sort – “If XYZ Thing is created at X Rating“, most likely with a plot point award for doing so. These rewards are outside of whatever the players might have on their character sheets. Once a milestone is reached, some game mechanic goes into effect appropriate to the circle the milestone is in. Milestones closer to the PCs might be some asset or resource becoming available (or a complication or scene distinction); farther out towards the “world” level might be new abilities, changes to the doom pool, “setting distinctions” that are pretty much always on, etc.

The actual flow of the milestones will follow how Tribe 8’s metaplot was originally structured. I’ve been looking into Dungeon World’s fronts for inspiration, with the idea of mapping out Cycles (the original metaplot adventure books) in a similar fashion. Sly Flourish has a couple great posts on the using Dungeon World’s fronts outside of Dungeon World. I’m also looking at Dave Chalker’s 5×5 method for some additional ideas. Going back to the kanban-style lanes, there might be some interdependencies between them, such as the ability for events to “jump” lanes, affect event movement in other lanes (a “blocker”), etc.

My prototype for this is going to be the “prelude” scenario, Enemy of My Enemy, from the Tribe 8 Weaver’s Screen. It was a pretty heavily plotted scenario, with a lot of fragility in terms of the PCs needing to be in the right place at the right time, making the correct decisions, taking things at face value. I think if I can make this work for that scenario, I can likely do it for the remainder of the metaplot books – and in the end have another tool for helping structure narrative elements.