Friday, May 9, 2014

Canon is Bullshit

I should be looking for printers and working on the pitch I have to do for the place of my employment before I can "commercially release" Hot Springs Island, but I'm procrastinating right now to blog. I recently got HBOgo and after catching up on Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley (this show combination is like... my life) I decided I should watch Rome.

pew pew pew pew pew
Watching Rome naturally makes me think of Star Wars. Partially because the Disney PR machine has begun emitting article exhaust all over the internet, and partially because of Star Wars' creative debt to the fall of that old Republic. I also saw a few bait posts in the G+ stream where people were saying Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms were unplayable, and with my most recent blog posts about the Shattered Aquifer where I slopped around phrases like "emergent gameplay" I thought it might be fun to write on the subject.

Canon is a pox. Especially on games. It's how you end up with red shirt guys, and pearl clutching tech articles about billionaires who don't care that two characters they created are separated by almost 200 years, and shark jumping time travel sequels. Now, since rhetoric compels me to demonstrate my street cred on the subject so I can more effectively trash talk, you should know that I was a red shirt guy for the Ultima games (6, 7 and UO. Britannia only, you keep your Sorsarian hijinx away from this article). I went to the Texas Renaissance Faires and met the devs and won t-shirts and autographed boxed copies of UO:Renaissance 'cause of my 1337 knowledge of the lore. There's just something off with my brain that causes factoids about imaginary lands and peoples to stick deeply in my memory after the briefest of exposure. Six hundred years ago I think I would have been a bard.

So why is canon bad? And why was Dragonlance utterly doomed to suck as an RPG product?

The most interesting times in history are the times right before war, revolution and upheaval break out. These are the times when chaos is nearing its peak. Potential is expanding exponentially. New players are emerging in the social, political and economic fields. Institutions are afraid, and probably doubling down on bad ideas and programs to try and preserve the status quo against the storm it feels on the horizon of time but cannot yet see.

An example from United States history would be the time between the Boston Massacre (1770) and Lexington/Concord (1775). For Rome, I'd say it would be the time between the beginning of the First Triumvirate (60BC) and Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon(49BC). In France it would be the time between the death of Louis XV (1774) and the storming of the Bastille (1789). In Krynn it would be from the time the companions went their separate ways (before the Chronicles) to the retrieval of the disks of Mishkal (Dragon's of Autumn Twilight). For Tolkien it's the time period between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

During these periods the churn is happening. The build is happening. Pieces are being arranged on the board of the world. This is the period RPG fluff should write about. These are the relationships that should be mapped and given to the DM. This is the time period your factions should come from. The game itself should begin at the moment of outbreak and the future must be clear.

A party of ascendant murderhobos should be like hydraulic fracking in the cultural shales of the world. Shit's gonna fall, and shit's gonna break, and earthquakes are going to start and get worse as the spray of dungeon won gold gushes into the pockets of the populace from a heretofore unknown power source. Canon, a mapped future, directly undermines things by defining that collapse. It restricts and limits in the wrong way because it provides protections. If Eowyn has to kill the Nazgul on this date and this battle, then she's got to get there and do that. A global setup has to take place and armies have to move right or things will quickly stop making sense and immersion will be lost because people that know the story will start to see the holes that are appearing.

If the story of the world is already known and defined it immediately cheapens what your party does. No brah, Eowyn kills the Nazgul. John Hancock is the first one to sign the declaration. Caesar makes Octavian his heir. The companions were the ones that freed that slave town and killed that general, not you guys. So to play in a defined world is to either rewrite what's been defined and take the glory for yourself (which seems masturbatory), or know that your adventure is effectively meaningless because the *real* heroes are out there somewhere going through the process of saving the day as defined by the canon.

Games shouldn't be about weaving the thread of your party into the predefined tapestry of fate. They should be about exploding the bubble of potential and seeing where things end up when the smoke clears. The way things end up for you and your party should have the freedom to end up completely different than the way things ended up for my party, or their party, or those guys party.

And when it's all over, the stories from each group's splinter of reality should be even more amazing because they share a common cast of characters and factions and cultures and in this we can perhaps glimpse the multiverse.


  1. You know that "the canon is too complex" is actually one of the reasons that George R.R. Martin has given for the delay of his books. I'm summarizing but he did actually hire a fan (i.e. red shirt guy) to assist him in his writing of the sequels.

    1. I'd always thought the delay was because he'd killed off or maimed all the characters he liked and didn't know where to turn. ;) Gotta admit though, it'd be pretty awesome being "loremaster" for a project like GoT.

  2. This does a great job of capturing why I've always disliked canon and metaplots and hyper-defined settings. Despite being an enormous Tolkien fan, I always found MERP/other roleplaying in Middle Earth to feel off for exactly the reason you mention - you have to tip-toe around what's supposed to happen, or else scrap the idea you're in the same world, and then why don't you just make your own? Every supplement to a system that advances the history of the place closes off possibilities, even if it comes with some cool potential.

  3. This is why I love the Hârn setting so much. They have fixed a date and no published material will go beyond this date, which allows each group of players to create their own Hârnic timeline. Some groups exist out there who have played close to thirty years in this setting... This is how to do it and give the players and GMs all the freedom they need.