Canon is Overrated

I was thinking about settings the other day, and I started pondering the real difference between settings based on existing fiction versus setting designed for gaming from the ground up. Some of it is obvious: Game settings are built with a certain amount of expected expandability, if only because more books can be written. They are expected to have the kind of fractal depth of history, with only the success of publishing deciding how deep into the fractal things go.

Settings based on fiction are built differently. They have an essential, recognizable seed which needs to exist to be considered part of the setting in question. In popular settings (Star Wars and Dragonlance spring to mind), the material may go quite far afield from that core, but those variations are usually just shadows of the core. The odd fan might like them better, and more details is always appreciated by a certain type of enthusiast, but the core remains recognizable.

All this was going through my mind when I got to thinking about Amber. See, something that you will notice very quickly in any Amber RPG community is that it’s all about that group’s version of Amber. This is not accidental – most groups are well aware of other campaigns and ideas out there, ideas contradictory to their own – but there is very little sense that other people’s interpretations in any way lessen your own. When you go to a convention, the number of interpretations you will be exposed to can be truly dizzying, but what’s perhaps crazier still is that they will almost all be recognizably Amber.

This resonates on some level with the classic “shared” adventures of D&D’s past, the ones that the 3e series tried to recapture the spirit of. Against the Giants, Slave Lords, Temple of Elemental Evil and others were seminal experiences for players, but the expectation was that other groups played these adventures too, and had different experiences with them. Even Dragonlance, which has an “official” outcome, can create an experience through play.

What’s weird is that I find this attitude to be more of an exception than the rule in games with strong settings. The idea of the official canon is such that variations on setting are pushed to the fringe, sometimes treated as a sign of an inability to “do it right”.

My suspicion is that a lot of it is a function of “living” settings – people are not necessarily comfortable diverging from the game as written until the final input is received, and since many games are infinitely open ended in their presentation, that final input never comes. Some of it is also a function of volume: It is easy to retool Amber because there are relatively few moving parts. Similarly, an adventure makes for a very small setting.

I dwell on this because I really, really like the Amber approach. I love enthusiastic setting ownership. I love to see what people do with a setting to make it sing as much as I do seeing what people do to make rules work better for their table. The question, and this is the one I’ll be thinking about for a while, is how to make it happen.

12 thoughts on “Canon is Overrated

  1. Judd

    I’d love to see a Living Dresden, a site with a Google Map of the world with little pins linking to write-ups of various cities, even multiple write-ups for the same one.

    Could be neat.

  2. Allen Varney

    One way to make it happen is to explicitly reject continuity. In the PARANOIA line, descriptions of the Alpha Complex setting repeatedly, not to say joyously, deny internal consistency. The game uses internal contradiction as a device in achieving its unique psychological effects.

  3. Reverance Pavane

    There is always a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) negotiation between new players and a gamemaster, especially where the newcomers already have some concept of the game.

    For example, one of my first Traveller games was set purely inside the Solar System (no FTL, no gravitics, Holmann orbits, ion drives and fusion torches), with a despotic Earth and rebellious High Frontier. When I ran a scenario based on it many years later (after the Third Imperium was established in the rules) I got a quite vehement response from one player that it wasn’t Traveller. Despite the fact that all the rules were the rules of Traveller, except that drive efficiencies dropped by 99% for ion (maneuver) drives a 90% for torch (jump) drives. It took everybody by surprise. I think it was the fact that he had a mindset of what Traveller was and was unwilling to consider anything else.

    Similarly, my Runequest game is now so different from canon I went through and changed all the cult names to purposefully remind players of that fact. You can still recognise the god Humakt in Huma Grim, but it is a good active reminder of the canonical difference. [And yes, given the scorn I’ve encountered on the mailing list I’m definitely in the wrong for even considering what I am doing.]

    I think it’s also what is attracting a lot of people to the so-called Old School Rennaissance. The idea that you can create a game that is purely yours, rather than adventuring in a pre-packaged published setting. Which is what happened in the very beginning, because this wealth of setting wasn’t available.

    [And it is a matter of support. The more support provided by the publisher, the less likely that someone will seriously deviate from canon. Even if it is just so they can use the next book unedited. People are inherently lazy. Amber on the other hand doesn’t seem to provide a canon per se. It tells you what is, and then says “what are you going to do with it now?”]

  4. Reverance Pavane

    @Judd: A Dresden RPG Wiki might be the way to do this. Collecting people’s city descriptions, local personalities, and events based on games run. Of course the trick is to get people interested in populating it.

  5. Bolthy

    I do see some settings monkeyed with more than others. Star Wars, especially with the volume of how contentious material outside of the original trilogy can be, finds a lot of variation in what is considered canon.

    Comic books, also, with all the What Ifs, Elseworlds, alternate realities, reimagining of canon, etc, also lend themselves to a certain flexibility regarding canon.

    I find that with a lot of games set around an existing fiction, you already have to bend things to work players into the subject matter. So people tend to be fine with a little finagling with details.

    Where I’ve run into trouble is with the games that don’t contain the basic information in the core book. I’ve gotten burned trying to run Exalted for huge Exalted fans who knew every sourcebook inside and out.

  6. DNAphil

    I think one reason why the approach you mentioned, works so well with Amber is that deceit is such a large part of the setting that anything that is written is not really canon. In the first series of books, Corwin pretty much says that he has lied about things, and that the victors write history. So Amber to me is canon-lite.

    Most Amber games I have run, or played in, start with Corwin’s telling of the Patternfall war and then add “what really happened” to some aspect of the story.

    Also, players in Amber, after the initial learning curve expect that someone has or is lying to them. So when these campaign specific changes are discovered, players take them in stride.

    I don’t think that you can get the same buy-in and effect with how the truth is used in an Amber game and a Start Wars game, where canon is taken very seriously.

    That said, I think that the Amber method does make for a more enjoyable way of dealing with Canon, as long as everyone is on board for the same experience.

  7. lucek

    There is one great advantage for literature canon-based settings – it’s their spread factor. It’s quite easy to find a gamer who never played, for example, Star Wars, but he probably seen it. It greatly lowers the knowledge treshold required to play the game. If anyone would ask me (a quite typical geek from far far away Yewrop) if I would prefer to play, say Dune or Traveller, my choice is an obvious thing.

    As for the main point of your text – all the “canon” content made for the game is a derivate from an original thing, and must be prepaired especially for the gaming purpose. Let’s look at the Star Wars again – none of the books let you play Vader or Luke. You can meet them, interact with them to some degree, but it’s just a background. All thoset are the contexts, not the actual text.
    And of course, I am talking about designed games (in a contrary to “let’s buy all those brands to sell our crappy game bettar” approach).


  8. Russ

    I’ve seen exceptions on the “living” front when the author does something sufficiently controversial amongst fandom — e.g. my first exposures to both Pern and Elfquest were via RP settings that had branched at a particular point to avoid where the canon had gone. (Never mind comics-based RP; when canon is so constantly fluid, you can hardly help but pick a point and run from there, I think.)

    Then again, my experience is predominantly online RP, not tabletops, so perhaps there’s a difference.

  9. Jim

    Brazenly if apologetically hijacking Rob’s thread a moment:

    Russ, where can I find good writing about the online RP world? The equivalents of everything from this blog to, God help us, Story Games. Frex, do you blog about online RP somewhere?

    I desperately want to learn more about that medium, but it’s separate enough from tabletop that I don’t even know where to start.

  10. Ben

    Unknown Armies has a great approach to encouraging this kind of approach to canon. The various factions and NPCs are explicitly left somewhat open-ended so that they can be fit into whatever role the GM needs them to be, and there are a few parts in the GM section where the authors explicitly state that they don’t know the answer to a particular mystery. From what I’ve seen of the sourcebooks, they kept up the modular approach to content with powers, NPCs, and plots that can be plugged into an existing game in any number of different ways.

  11. Daniel M. Perez

    This is exactly how I’m approaching Thedas in my Dragon Age RPG. I’ve never played the videogame, probably never will, so to me it’s just a framework to build on as I see fit, much like the Known World was in red box days.


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