The Gassy Gnoll: Micro, Macro, Meta

Recently I had a chance to see The Bourne Legacy at the theater (great flick if you haven’t seen it yet). In it, our protagonist Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner, The Avengers, The Hurt Locker) spent the majority of the film trying to stay alive. But woven through his story was how a group of high-ranking intelligence officials worked to deal with the backlash from the actions taken by Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, The Bourne Identity, Good Will Hunting, Contagion) to publicize the program both he and Cross were products of…

And by now you’re wondering what all of this has to do with role-playing games. Well, the way that plots from all the Bourne movies were woven into The Bourne Legacy made me look a bit more closely at how I scope plots in my own games, specifically at what I’ll call “micro” plots and “macro” plots.

Microplots deal with conflicts at a personal level. For instance, Aaron Cross was not interested in the big picture, just his own continued survival. These plots don’t need to be complicated… They can be as simple as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or needing to protect one’s home, property, or way of life. Everyday human interactions are filled with microplots.

Macroplots on the other hand are the bigger picture conflicts, such as the cover-up of all parts of the program that created Jason Bourne and Aaron Cross as expert assassins. Another example is the reboot of Total Recall recently, which centered on what was largely a resource war between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Typically this type of plot hinges on the desires of organizations, nations, and planets. Read the daily news for a solid dose of macroplots, from struggling economies to ideological debates.

Another way to look at the difference is how much a particular plot deals with the needs of the few vs. the needs of the many. Keep in mind that nothing says a particular plot has to be one or the other either. A soldier in a war is a perfect example: one person trying to stay alive and do the right thing in a larger conflict between nations.

game mastering experience has had its ups and downs like everybody else’s. Many ideas seem to work great at the macro level but fail to engage players on the micro level. My own sandbox games are a perfect example. Big things were afoot in the world (forces awakening for the first time in a thousand years) and I somehow just expected my players to hook into that. Instead, they went off on a tangent never to return.

Now that I’m looking at running a small campaign in the next couple of months, I’m trying to sketch out a few adventures. For each adventure I want to note both the microplot and the macroplot to make sure I have things in place to engage the players and myself on multiple levels.

My macroplot in this case is that a big evil has moved into an ancient fortress, displacing several smaller bandit groups and demihuman tribes. As a result, those smaller outfits have been pushing into civilized lands at a much higher rate than usual. Eventually the big baddie will launch an offensive, but for now it’s just a few remnants causing issues.

At the microplot level, a town on the outskirts of civilization is being plagued by recent attacks from the wilds. Town leaders are asking for volunteers to not only help defend the town, but maybe try and figure out where the bandits and creatures are coming from. It may be nothing more than a tribe of kobolds seeking food and shelter from a coming storm, or it may be something more than that…

The party has to find their way from the micro level to seeing the big picture, but by tracking the plot and story at both levels I will hopefully be able to connect to the players and still have a handle on the grand plan. That’s the theory anyway… It’s kind of meta, but that’s sort of the GM’s job to be meta. 🙂

What do you think? Will it work? What techniques do you use to plot out your campaigns and adventures?


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