Canon is Dead! Long Live Canon!


Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 07 September 2010

Recent years have seen reboots of many long-lived and beloved story lines whether it's Star Trek or Dungeons & Dragons. Many fans of these series went through all the stages of grief, mourning the deaths of their friends and companions. As a lover of story, I totally understand this reaction. It's unsettling when the world rearranges itself beneath your feet and all the lore and knowledge you've gained no longer orients you in the world.

However, as a newcomer to the world of D&D, this reboot has been a godsend. I'm being a bit selfish here. While in theory I love canon, those stories weren't my stories. I didn't grow up with them; I didn't sneak a flashlight under my covers so I could read them. Instead, I viewed them as a barrier to entry. I heard their whispers, "That girl, Tracy, she's just a poseur. I mean, she doesn't even know who Orcus and Vecna are. How can she call herself a D&D player?" I've had my geek cred challenged on the account of the fact I couldn't recite lines from Star Trek from memory, so why would these D&D players be any different.

The other guys in my gaming group couldn't convince me that canon was my friend either. One of the members, Joe, kept telling me that if I set my campaign in a published setting and wanted a lake where none existed, I could just create the lake and the rest of the group would be ok with it. In my mind I wanted to believe him, I mean, a few of them really wanted to play in Eberron after all, but my fears and self-doubt cried out, "It's a trap! They want to use your newness against you. They've read the novels. They are going to recite stories from it that you have no idea about and laugh at you when you don't get the reference."

So what did I do? I "created" my own world, full of towns and details from 1st and 2nd edition modules. No "canon" there that they could use against me. I picked fairly obscure modules and I made so many changes to them. I pulled heavily on fairy tales and European mythology to give my world a framework. And, for awhile at least, things went pretty well.

And yet, as time went on, I struggled. I had to switch jobs which cost me an two hours a day that I normally would have spent on D&D. My world became less rich and I had to do more wholesale grabbing of stories from other places. Andernach, my beloved dwarven city, had to become a reskinning of Hammerfast because I just had no time to do it justice. I became more and more jealous of my new D&D friends who knew the Forgotten Realms or Eberron like the back of their hand or who had binders of stories and characters lovingly gathered over the years.

Hindsight being what it is, it's easy for me to say today that I was incredibly wrongheaded back then. I didn't realize that the canon of published campaign settings could be used like those binders. I wish I had read articles like "Fire the Canon!" I wish I had read the Planescape campaign setting books, where they explain that the planes are big but that DMs shouldn't worry about that, just start really small and circle out. Don't worry if you don't know all of Sigil, there are plenty of adventures in just one small section of it. Most of all, I wish I had the support network then that I have now.

By the way, if you haven't read the above mentioned article, go and do it right now. It's important that every DM and player understands why canon exists. And if you are in a position similar to the one I found myself in when I started, that being you just started playing but your players all have many more years experience, don't be afraid of canon. Just be honest with your players and tell them you're going to make mistakes.

And if you are afraid, like I was, of misaligned perceptions and assumptions about the world due to different levels of experience, set up a system for raising an objection. Try to be as neutral as possible, just like you would any other rules call. Hopefully everyone at the table will be adult enough to realize that a newcomer just can't have the same level of knowledge as a veteran.

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One way I handle canon is to pick a point and then say that we are moving forward from HERE. I grew up in love with Greyhawk. Granted, when I started playing, it was the only TSR-published world, but I've found it's the one I've kept coming back to. Everything that has happened after that first published boxed set is pretty lame, in my book, so I just don't use it. Unless my players really want it, I tell them "We're using the 1983 edition, not Greyhawk Wars or any of that. Rary isn't going to be a traitor unless I make him one myself."

I think using a published setting is a bit of a godsend for people who have lives outside of a game (be it a professional life or a social life or whatever). I've been working on a sandbox and it's pretty daunting to create it from whole cloth. I'm actually debating switching back to Greyhawk (I'm running either B/X or AD&D, so Greyhawk fits). Before I felt that a sandbox would be best for the players I'll have when I move back to PA in November, I was actually looking at a 4e Eberron campaign set in Communist Riedra. Maybe I'll go back to that.

I keep looking at Planescape and wondering if it's for me or not. We'll see.

I would find it more time consuming to learn a published setting than to make up the sparse details needed to create a campaign world, which can be fleshed out as needed and in stages.

It really is less work, especially if you just do a bit at a time and borrow heavily from some of the better content blogs out there. All you have to do is remember to be consistent with what you said before and not feel embarrassed to take a moment to make up stuff the players ask about.

The hardest part is a map, and there's plenty of those out there already, both real and imagined.

While I've never shared the same frustration, I can understand where you're coming from, since I've had discussions with DM's who do seem to be burdened by canon. In a recent IM discussion I had with another gamer, he mentioned the difficulty of pinning down what is or is not canon for the Legend of Five Rings RPG, a game whose canon is somewhat capriciously based off the results of AEG's CCG tournaments. It was up for his group's DM to decide where and when the game took place in that setting's timeline.

I think beginning with an established setting with a neutral interpretation is a great idea. When I began DMing Eberron, I actually took the setting over from another DM in my group about how the setting should be interpreted. (The debate was mostly about how important nation-states were in the setting.) That being said, like those binders of NPCs and Plot, you shouldn't be afraid to shake things up and tell your own stories. Since even though Eberron may be written by Keith Baker, it is still your world. Heck, it's your multiverse.

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