Sunday, July 03, 2011

Canon Should Be Shot From A Cannon

I love canon. Whether it's for a game, movie, book or TV show, exploring the official canon involved in the product is usually great fun. When it comes to RPGs though, I hate it.

Rather, I hate the straitjacket it often seems to create for GMs, players and even game designers. For an example, let's take something from the Dresden Files RPG. In the entry for Harry Dresden in Our World, there's a section called "A World Without Harry?" that warns that removing Harry from the Dresdenverse would surely have led to many bad thing happening. OK, if that's the only change made, then yeah, things would suck. Why would I have that be the only thing I changed?

This seems to be a problem encountered in a lot of situations where people start talking about messing with canon. In a Star Wars game, if you talk about dropping Luke you inevitably get an argument about how then the Death Star would have blown up Yavin, wiping out the Rebellion. As if you can only make that one change, and not decide to make a number of other changes as well.

When I run an RPG in a licensed setting I prefer to play fast and loose with canon. If the canon provides an easy answer to a problem, then fine, I go with it, but if it gets in the way, then it gets tossed out. This is doubly true if canon provides insider information that the characters in the game should never have access to. If I run a Battlestar Galactica game, then the person least likely to be a Cylon is Boomer, and everything else if up for grabs as well. Maybe Kobol is still inhabited when the Galactica gets there. Maybe human looking Cylons are a myth that merely serves to generate paranoia. There are so many ways that the story could have gone that it would be a shame to just repeat the one presented in the show when playing in an RPG.

This is true for other settings as well, even when there isn't as much mystery as there is in BSG. Star Wars is a good example. For me the original trilogy is the only thing that is in my personal canon, but if I'm running a Star Wars RPG, why even stick to that? Maybe Kenobi told the truth and Vader really did kill Anakin Skywalker. Maybe the person he tells it to isn't Luke Skywalker, but Luke Starkiller, a PC who then goes off on a grand adventure that ends with the destruction of the Death Star... at the hand of the PCs!

There are two impediments to disregarding canon like this: game designers and players. The lesser of the two are the game designers. Most licensed games seem to assume that you are going to stick to the canon. Rarely do they offer any sort of discussion as to how to deviate from canon, and if they do it's minimal. My discussion of the Dresden Files above is an example of this. It can be argued that if you buy a game with a license then people will want to play in that world, but this ignores the fact that most properties worth licensing offer rich settings where a single different choice could have produced a completely different, yet just as compelling, story than what was presented in the original property.

I think one of the better licensed games in this regard that I've seen lately is DC Adventures. They made one very important decision that I think makes a huge difference: they decided to present the characters as iconic representations rather than current canon. So, the Aquaman you find in the book is a clean shaven man with two normal hands in a yellow and green costume, because that's the iconic image of Aquaman. There's a sidebar discussing a couple of the more modern alternate versions if that's what you want to use, but the iconic version is the default. This makes the DC Universe as presented in the RPG into less of a straitjacket and more of a toolkit for creating the GM's own version of the DC Universe.

The bigger impediment is the players. If you have players that are knowledgeable about the canon, then they often expect it to be canon in the game. I'm willing to work with my players on this. If there are elements of canon that the players are particularly fond of and want to be in a game they play in, then I'll work with them to keep those bits in. If the players in a game of BSG really want to serve aboard the Galactica under Adama, then I'll try to structure my game to include those bits of canon, but those might be the only bits that I keep.

Even if the players want to play with a majority of the established canon that they know and love, I will still refuse to stick to it completely. It's too limiting to have to stick to the canon, and both in terms of options within the game, and in terms of how much work it can take to keep everything straight when there's a large body of canon to deal with.

Of course, there's one thing that will always be canon in any Star Wars game I run: if there's a Han Solo in the universe, then he shot first.


Jabbott said...

I'll try to remember to discuss this more with you tomorrow. But for now I'll just say that 1) I love the familiarity and the "Oooo look, its 'insert famous/well-liked character name here'" elements of having canon and sticking to it. That is a huge portion of the reason to play any sort of licensed product.

2) I don't really see why you would WANT to interact with the main stories, whether you stick to canon or no. The idea of being Luke Starkiller doesn't make sense to me. Playing in licensed universes is a way to play your own story, in your own corner of the universe; and the canon is stuff that happens elsewhere, or happened at some other time. It is just cool because it gives reference points and because it makes; for instance, Star Wars, Star Wars.

I think as long as canon is in the background and not integrated it works fine. Don't have Luke or Mal or Harry in your party. Don't interact with any pre-written portions of their story lines. Don't play the same story that the canon tells; just play parralel, or even perpendicular.

Fulminata said...

Playing other stories in a common universe is certainly a valid way of doing it. That's not always an interesting alternative though. Take BSG for example. There's not much room to tell new stories in that setting without changing canon. You're either stuck following the script as canon, or playing some insignificant window washer in the fleet somewhere that really can't do anything to change the overall storyline for fear of disrupting canon.

I find cameos by canon characters interesting only if canon is open to modification. Without that, they have plot immunity from most conflicts that they could get into with the players.

Also, I think it effectively dis-empowers the PCs to slavishly follow canon, because I believe the PCs should most often be the heroes of the story. If you play in a game set in the era of the original Star Wars trilogy that follows canon, then you can never hope to be anything but a supporting character. You might be a A hero, but you will never be THE hero, because THE heroes have already been established by canon.

Luke and Han will always be responsible for blowing up the first Death Star. Luke will always be responsible for converting Vader and causing him to kill the Emperor. Lando and Wedge will always be responsible for destroying the second Death Star. Collectively, those are the events that bring about the end of the Empire, and therefore the players can never hope that it will be their actions that do so. They might contribute, but they will never be THE heroes of the story.

And that's the story that matters to me in just about any licensed universe. If I wasn't interested in that main story, then I probably wouldn't be interested in that universe.

That's not to say I don't enjoy a game where the PCs are supporting characters, and if that's what everyone wants to play then I'd be willing to run such a game. I'd also be willing to play in one, but I think most of the time people want to play the heroes.

Also, this isn't just pure theory with me. I've played in canon games, and they've always tended to lead to the PCs actions being rendered meaningless. Cameos by canon characters have a tendency to become the worst type of mary-sue super NPCs that either defeat the PCs with ease, or else rescue them with ease, depending on which side they are on.

Of course, there's also room to debate just how strict the canon has to be. There's room to bend canon without ignoring it completely. It's simply that in my experience, the more willing the group is to change or ignore canon, the better the game has ended up being.

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