Canon Fodder

Yeah, that was an easy pun, but it’s in stride with my opinions on this subject and has a deeper meaning in this essay. Based on discussions I’ve had with various colleagues and friends, I decide to put my viewpoint on display here. Hopefully, it’ll give you and me some clarity. First, though, we need to define terms.

In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting context, canon can be defined as imagined world history up to just a moment ago. This can consist of an overarching metaplot, as with White Wolf’s 90s and early 00s World of Darkness games. It can also encompass dozens of smaller stories, as with the Forgotten Realms setting and its embracing of novels as canon. Game setting canon can also include differences from core assumptions, spelled out or not, in a game’s implied setting, as it is in the core 4e D&D game. For instance, Eberron has different deities and styles of magic than those assumed to exist in the D&D game’s implied setting.

Canon Aims

Defining differences can make a game world stand apart from its peers. The myriad gods of the Forgotten Realms help make the world seem different. Highly organized kingdoms, complex politics, and large areas of known territory also distinguish it from the core “points of light” assumption. Eberron is similar. It’s not as wild as one might assume the implied world of the central D&D game is. In Eberron, most deities have no physical manifestation in the known universe. Magic is used much like technology might be in a Wild West or Pulp Era setting. In the history of Dark Sun, the primordials defeated the gods, driving them into hiding, imprisonment, or death. Divine power is hard to come by in Dark Sun, to say the least. Misuse of arcane magic led to the ecological collapse of Athas, Dark Sun’s world. With unnatural devastation and the absence of divine power came significant changes to the cosmology.

Differences that really define a campaign setting are cool. They help shape the image of the setting in the minds of the game’s players (including the DM). Such broad strokes also help the players understand mechanical divergences that might be in the setting. For instance, a player in a Dark Sun campaign assumes he or she should play a divine character only if a compelling reason exists as to why the character has access to divine power at all. Most players probably presuppose the divine power source is off limits, but they shouldn’t.

You see, setting changes that mess around with default game elements, such as whole power sources, should avoid absolutism. At least, their creators should avoid absolutes. Rather than writing in a Dark Sun book that you cannot use the divine power source, a designer should teach you how to use the divine power source in out-of-the-box ways that make sense on Athas. (By the way, I’m not saying whether the upcoming Dark Sun campaign setting is absolutist in the use of divine power. This is just an example.) Any given DM can choose an absolute stance for his or her campaign, although even that is less than ideal.

Also less than ideal are trivial changes that fail to define the game world in a meaningful way. The worst among these are absolutes that some designer or novelist added without much thought. Dark Sun setting material from older editions read that kank meat is inedible. So what? Does that small fact help you tell a story set on Athas? Or does it make you, like I did, question why anyone would herd these beasts over the delicious, egg-laying erdlu? Sure, kanks produce an edible honey, but a herder can use everything an erdlu produces, down to beaks and bones. If I lived on Athas, I’d herd erdlus and hunt kanks, or at most, keep small herds of kanks for work and riding.

I’m waxing pedantic there, which is something trivial changes can almost force you to do. Requiring and encouraging detail-oriented attention, especially in a game’s official product line, is far from good for the game. In another instance of this, the older Dark Sun setting had Cleansing Wars in the past, wherein powerful arcanists attempted to wipe certain species from the face of the planet. Taken on its face, this fact is fine. A story of racist sorcerers slaughtering certain folks can make for good history and an excellent basis for current politics and superstitions. But when you start listing races the Cleansing Wars wiped out to the last individual, when that fact is not important to the design or story, you’ve gone too far. Why? Because DMs don’t need to be told they can’t use a particular monster, and players don’t need to be told they can’t play a certain race, just because a novelist or designer arbitrarily decided to wipe out a particular creature.

It’s better to create tension, saying the arcane pogrom targeted gnomes, than to create absence, saying the arcane pogrom wiped gnomes out. In the former case, those who want gnomes in their campaign can have bitter, furtive gnomes that dislike human arcanists. In the latter case, those who want gnomes have to break with the official position on the subject. In both cases, those who want no gnomes can use the historic massacre as an excuse. Which tack is more flexible? Isn’t more flexible better for the game?

Canon Damage

As hard as it might be for veteran game tinkerers to believe, it’s difficult for some players, especially new ones, to break free of the official position on a subject. The official position is “the rule,” after all. Taught by the example of those in lofty official positions, newer players might also start to think absolute positions are right and good. I’ve met players who believe these points, who believe that changing what you don’t like about a game is something one does not do. That’s breaking the rules.

To use older Dark Sun material as a reference point again, some of the adventures and the second edition of the setting were less than popular among fans. This was with good reason. At least a couple adventures place novel characters in the central roles they had in the novel. They do the cool stuff while the players and player characters watch or take up secondary roles. Fun, eh? The whole second edition of the setting assumes the Prism Pentad novels have happened—have become part of the canon—and that the world has changed. A number of defining elements from the original setting are gone, because the novel protagonists removed them, usually bloodily. Allowing the novels to interfere with the game material did the fans no favors.

This is one reason why it’s insane to use novels as canon for any game setting. Another is that a roleplaying game is about interacting with an imaginary world as a potentially important imaginary person or as one who directs events set in that world. The game is not about merely consuming someone else’s narration or spectating at historic events. Further, as the number of novels increase, the canon becomes increasingly unwieldy until it’s overwhelming for normal players. Most people avoid playing cumbersome games. Enforcing novels as canon from an official position also, eventually, makes it a nightmare to design game material and write shared-world fiction for that setting.

This was a very real problem that faced the Forgotten Realms setting when the 4e D&D game came on the scene. Keepers of the Forgotten Realms went even further in the past, actually. Just about everything with an official seal on it is canon for the Realms—games, video games, novels, and so on. Now that’s crazy and limiting. However, it could have all been solved by hitting the reset button on the Realms the way Wizards did with Eberron and Dark Sun. Back to 1357 DR, anyone?

Some novels or other non-game setting materials do more or less harm to games that exist alongside them or follow them. The Forgotten Realms setting is indeed a place where thousands of stories can happen. It is more tolerant to canon because of this. On the other hand, Middle Earth really has one ultimate task that needs accomplishing. If you ain’t a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, pal, you’re nobody.

A rich media environment is still good for a game. Novel and such serve the game and their own purpose when they tell what could be or might happen in a game world without enforcing that reality, as canon, on the game. Such stories then become great territory for DM looting, for adventures and NPCs, and player looting, for character concepts and backgrounds. They retain their value as entertainment, as well. No one can stop one DM or another from making a novel’s story canon for his or her game. That’s fine.

Canon Misfires

The point is, as my friend Stephen Radney-MacFarland liked to point out when I got too serious in some meetings at Wizards of the Coast, we all just make this stuff up. I’m just saying that what the official source makes up and peddles as canon needs to be defining and flexible rather than trivial and absolute. Trivial absolutes are the worst. They’re hard to remember, and often not worth remembering. (Oh, yeah, I can’t use trolls here because the trolls were wiped out in the Cleansing Wars. There goes my adventure idea. Bleh.) They also give those who can remember such trivialities a way to choose against being immersed in the distinctive world an individual DM wants to portray. Sure, that’s jerky, and we should avoid playing with jerks, but it happens. Put simply, trivial canon and absolutes, especially arbitrary ones without guidance on how to make exceptions, just make the game harder to play.

For the record, a lot of game material contains arbitrary absolutes that make the material harder to use. Take any monster that doesn’t play well with others, a prime reason why 4e monster entries try to give you reasons to mix and match. Look for any statement with a never or an always in it. When I edit, I kill such absolutes with wild abandon. I want to avoid making the game harder.

Final Volley

Game world canon can and should make the game better and easier to play. It should be defining rather than trivial. Setting material should teach you how to make a game of your own, instructing you on how to make fitting exceptions even to defining canon. What I’m really saying is that you can portray a unique and interesting game setting, and at the same time, make that setting easy to play. You have to be careful with your canon.

Just don’t point it at me.

Illustration for Art Crash 2010, by Jared von Hindman of Head Injury Theater.

31 thoughts on “Canon Fodder

  1. @Timothy: I never said that flexible is always better. I said you should give people tools to play the game they want to. That can be a little as a sidebar giving you options to defy a setting’s conceits at least on an individual encounter/adventure/ character level. I’m also talking mostly about D&D, although I have the same opinion about numerous games and canon.

    In that context, your assertions seem a little weird. If I make a D&D setting about Arthurian Knights (which ones? Christian? Transitional? Mists of Avalon? Excalibur?), I don’t have to include vikings to be flexible, because vikings aren’t necessarily part of the D&D game. I should include stuff about druids, because plenty of Arthurian stories include druid themes if not actual druids. Further, D&D includes druids. It’s not a stretch.

    In the context of 4e D&D, your assumptions about gnomes are also off the mark. 4e gnomes are neither humorous, necessarily, nor gadgeteers. They’re definitely not steampunk. The implied 4e D&D setting isn’t Dragonlance, Lantan, or Azeroth. It isn’t even Eberron, where gnomes are deadly serious. In reality, grim or at least serious gnomes and gnome derivatives are a norm in the 4e game’s implied setting because of their persecution and slavery at the hands of the fomorians. Saying one could play a similar Athasian gnome whose sense of persecution came from the historic Cleansing Wars and at the hands of modern defilers is also far from a stretch.

    I also don’t advocate “watered statements”–I advocate giving people tools to play what they want. I also advocate using absolutes and exclusions only if they are defining to a setting. Excluding gnomes and trolls because of some historic pogrom is trivial, because the coolness of the pogrom, the Cleansing Wars in this case, isn’t diminished because it failed in its utter eradication of its targets. Most historic pogroms on Earth failed exactly so, but succeeded in creating a historical context for interesting stories. The defining element of those wars in Dark Sun is that they happened and create a similar narrative context.

    I’ve also said it over and over again: Some people treat canon like law or rules. They don’t change even what they don’t like. Others even use their knowledge of canon to diminish fun or the flexibility of others. I’m glad you’re more flexible in your outlook, but you’re not everyone.

    What I’m really advocating is telling people that someone just made this stuff up. It isn’t law or rule. You can make up something that defies canon (that is, something someone else made up), and you’re still playing the game right. I’m advocating helping people understand flexibility and giving them tools to be flexible if they choose to.

    It might not apply to every canon-based game. Original games have the luxury of excluding certain content from the beginning. When a supplement to an existing game makes exclusions, those exclusions should be very important. Further, such exclusions are no reason to leave out tools for people to ignore those exclusions. In every instance I’ve seen, such tools take little space and are worth the space they take.


  2. Sorry to come in late.

    I think one of your core assumptions, which seems ot be that flexible is always better, is…well I don’t think its true. I think when you are designing a setting and you want it to be distinctive, you have some right to say “My game is about Arthurian knights.” rather than “My game is about Arthurian knights, but I’ll put in a few pages on playing druids, and some bits on playing viking, in case you want them, even though neither adds to the sortso f stories I’m designing rules to simulate.” Games are tools to tell partcukar sorts of stories, and details like Dark Sun’s “No gnomes!” seem perfectly fair to me as a way of creating a storytelling tool in which the usual gnomish mix of comedy and gadgetry are forbidden. I can see characters trudging through necropoli of dead gnomes, dealing with the fact that they aren’t in a cutesy gadgetter steampunk setting this time.

    What does it add to the game if you let players who really love playing gnomes add gnomes to this setting? Even in your own post, they can play gnomes so long as the gnomes…well, don’t act like gnomes, really. Isn’t it even more flexibile to allow them to play gnomes straight? Yes, but it diminishes the game if players do, because this game’s not the tool for that story.

    So, basically, in terms of your question “flexibility’s always good, right?” My answer’s “No.” Flexibility has a cost, in terms of setting focus. Given that GMs have every right to just ignore and add bits to canon anyway, in their own games, I don’t see why your wouldn’t just make strong statements of intent in the game materials, knowing people can water them down as much as they like, rather than making pre-watered statements.


  3. @Seth: The derivation of trolls, or any other monster, in the D&D game is largely irrelevant at this point. Why? Because a troll that is part of the D&D milieu makes few if any attempts to recall that derivation. They are D&D trolls, not Norse trolls, regardless of origin. The same is true for creatures clearly derived from science-fiction novels and other non-medieval fantasy. Take the displacer beast, which is essentially the coeurl from A. E. van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer” and Voyage of the Space Beagle. Comparing including trolls in Dark Sun to including Viking longships in Dark Sun is a huge reach. It’s akin to saying that including the displacer beast in Eberron is like including starships and advanced, nonmagical technology in Eberron. It’s no more true. It’s hyperbole.

    Creating a new monster to do the exact job of an extant monster, based on trivial setting canon, is a waste of designer time, company resources, book space, and player money and time. This has been done, for sure, but that fails to alter my perception of the process as ridiculous. It’s better to use the same resources to create a truly unique creature and simply leave trolls in the setting. The easiest way to leave trolls in the setting is to say nothing about them at all, unless they are somehow defining to the setting. That’s my whole point.

    @Marduk: I don’t think I said FR NPCs do all the important stuff, but I see how I might have given such an impression. I agree that Toril is big enough for thousands of stories. That fact is no defense for using novels as setting canon.

    I’d say that the deeds of figures in constantly expanding canon always has the potential to threaten the deeds of those playing the game. At the heart of the matter, you’re right. The threat is only as big as the participants allow it to be. Some participants, however, have less perceived control or less willingness to be flexible than you.

    @sealionii: The truth is that, from a business standpoint, it’s often nonviable to have a policy that all writers know all canon, especially when that canon is huge due to unnecessary media bloat. Although I agree that DMs and players should consider canon only as much as they desire to, the desires of individuals in a game group can differ. Further, as I said, some players have a hard time changing or ignoring official canon.

    @Enerla: I’m not sure why you say my approach is one of the worst absolutes, then go on to agree with it, since I support the use of defining absolutes in setting material. I advocate the trimming of trivial absolutes, or better yet, avoiding the introduction of trivial absolutes.

    @Justin: I agree up ’til we start introducing supplements that advance the timeline too much. Such supplements need to be carefully crafted with tools that allow players and GMs to ignore or change elements that clash with home campaigns. Such clashes are bound to happen.


  4. Re: Game worlds as “snap shots” which can be infinitely altered by the actions of the players. I agree 100%.

    However, I would counter that a game set the Cuban Missile Crisis:

    (a) Can be pretty cool, even though we historically know how the Cuban Missile Crisis turned out;
    (b) Could easily allow PCs to change the course of history if they’re actually in a position to do so;
    (c) Will, in fact, change the world;
    (d) Is made even cooler if the PCs are rubbing shoulders with JFK or Castro [i]if the PCs are doing so as equals[/i]; and
    (e) Could just as easily be a fictionally-created event

    With all that being said, however, I still think Dream Pod 9 had it right with Heavy Gear: They set a baseline year and provided comprehensive support for a “jumping off” point starting with that year. They also provided an evolving future history in a separate series of “canon-advancing” supplements. There are ways in which this model could be improved, but it was very effective at giving the best of both worlds.


  5. I think your approach is one of the worst absolutes.

    Lets speak about an “old” absolute.

    You have a dwarven civilization that is developed in a certain way because they are unable to cast arcane spells, their race cannot (and won’t) use arcane energies. If you say it isn’t absolute what happened? You killed a defining trait of dwarves, and most of their civilization is built on a trait you killed,.

    By killing absolutes saying they should never happen (which is an absolute) you will end up removing absolutes, hen removing their effects on settings, but as you change setting for this, a lot of other stuff will be unexplained / illogical, and you will have to remove even more.

    You roll back what was done by NPCs? But how much of it? Soon you will kill even more of the uniqueness of the setting. You have to add back missing races, missing spells, etc. because you don’t want to take them away, but to have a spell developed by a certain wizard you have to add that wizard “back” to the setting, but then he needs his history, his homeland, etc…

    When an absolute IS a defining trait of a race / world it should STAY as absolute. If it isn’t a defining world and is relatively safe to modify it (without hurting other players, etc) it can be removed.


  6. My view on the utility of canon boils down to this: It’s really important for writers to know the canon and respect the canon for their setting, so that the setting can be developed in a rational and self-consistent way.

    For Dungeon Masters and players, canon should only be considered to the degree that it enhances the the campaign. The restraints that a setting’s canon imposes are important guideposts, but should not, at the level of individual campaigns, be considered absolute mandates or prohibitions.


  7. I can understand wanting canon to exist to give a consistent experience to all gamers playing the same setting, but as a player and a DM I don’t want to have to uphold or even remember every fact about the gameworld. Heck, in the case of the Forgotten Realms I’ll probably never read half the novels published.

    My usual method is simply to start with a small section of a published game world that I like, place my campaign there and not worry about any published information beyond that. To take an example, for a long time I ran a campaign set in Greyhawk’s Gran March, but when the ‘Greyhawk Wars’ came along, I simply ignored them because they didn’t fit with the conflicts and themes going on in my game at the time.


  8. My view of canon as provided by the setting itself and any supplemental materials is that we can pick and choose what we want to use. Novels and the like are helpful for providing ‘look and feel’ for the setting, so players and the DM have guidelines for what sorts of behaviors and attitudes to expect in areas covered in the novels. The party can hear tales of the deeds of others, and maybe feel that they are cut from the same mold and try to emulate those great heroes; or maybe they see these other groups as rivals and strive to out-do them. Or they don’t hear about these other groups at all because they don’t exist… or they hear about them but it is all the lies of bards. Yes, bards lie. A lot.

    The Lord of the Rings is halfling propaganda. It is written by Bilbo and Frodo to present themselves as heroes rather than thieves. Bilbo: “Oh, I found the ring. I told a lie about winning it because just finding it seemed so unlikely, and I feel just terrible about lying to my friends. You know, if they hadn’t asked I wouldn’t have had to lie. It’s really all their fault, you see.” Frodo: “Yes, the Phial of Galadriel and her personal monogrammed box containing magic fertillizer and the only Mallorn tree seed in existence were gifts to help us on our quest to fence… er, destroy, yes, destroy the One Ring. We definately didn’t steal them. Or the One Ring. Or that Palantir thingy, which was of course given back.” Sauron was an idiot to place his power into something a halfling could carry.

    As for the feeling that NPCs like Drizzt are doing all the important work in the setting, I don’t understand that. My impression, from reading the setting books and most of the novels, is that the Forgotten Realms has plenty going on all the time and the stories in the novels are only a small fraction of it. The only NPC with truly significant power is Elminster, and he doesn’t do much directly. Indeed, he is very useful for providing adventure hooks *because* he doesn’t do things himself. “Hmm, there’s a demon causing trouble at the next table over… too much of a bother to stand up and destroy it myself, I’ll send these fools.”

    The other NPCs may be fairly big fish, but they are lost in an ocean. How often do they do anything with more than local consequences? Even the gods are at a fairly low power level in the Realms, relatively speaking, because the average power level of adventurers, evildoers and bystanders is so high. So some NPC stopped Moander from coming back; so what? It would have only been a matter of time before someone else stepped in and destroyed/banished/ate it. When the gods were banished to the Realms, how many of them were killed, and how many went into hiding because they were worried about just such a fate? Their power to effect change in the world comes from their priests and their cults… if those aren’t widespread, neither is their influence. The PCs start small, but can become movers and shakers far more powerful than their ‘competition’ in the novels.

    I have to admit that of the RPG settings I have used I have only ever read fiction for the Forgotten Realms, so I can’t speak to the others. But in the Realms, at least, the NPCs in the novels don’t threaten the heroism of PCs unless the DM wants it to happen that way. If you set your campaign in Icewind Dale while the novel characters are present, that’s your problem. But even if you want to use Icewind Dale as your setting, your players can still shine – just set it before the novels, or use the setting without including the NPCs from the books, or after the novel characters have left to do small-scale heroic deeds somewhere else. The novels don’t talk about your party saving Icewind Dale from certain destruction three times because the novels are about someone else. So write your own novels.


  9. @David: Actually, we don’t disagree even on your fundamental point. Your thinking that we disagree is an indication that I was unclear somewhere. Defining absolutes are fine, but it’s better if the game or a supplement to it gives you tools to integrate something despite the defining absolute if you choose to do so. Bruce Cordell’s article on integrating warforged into FR is one example. I’d expect an article or supplement on the Nanotech power source to tell me that it’s not a normal power source for FR, but I’d also expect it to give me tips on how to add it to FR if I want to do so.

    Throwaway comments are exactly what I’m talking about when I say “trivial absolutes.” It’s a trivial thing for a designer or novelist to write trolls were wiped out in the Cleansing Wars, frex. The game is better served when trivial specifics are just eliminated.

    Your example of a good absolute is right on target with my thinking.


  10. Yes and No.
    I pick up a world like Dark Sun because it sounds interesting to me. After reading the material I then decide if that is a world I want to run a game in. If the answer is yes, then I follow the canon of the setting. If the answer is no and I don’t want to follow the setting, then I can simply create my own world, or find one more appropriate to my senses.
    That means if canon says there are no trolls then I do not use trolls…sort of. I am not above twisting a setting. If I want trolls because they regenerate then I can use another monster that can regenerate; no trolls but the same effeect. If for some reason I am just enamored with trolls, I could make a rule that a Dragonking is regrowing trolls as a private experiment and one escaped. This can still follow canon while drifting outside of canon.
    However, always remembering the canon of a setting is what gives it depth and “meaning”. If there are no trolls and one appears with a logical reason, the players embrace the original rule (no trolls) with the new rule (a dragonking is conducting twisted experiments).
    I do not believe that printed material knows everything about a setting. The authors are observers of the setting, putting in their viewpoints. There are things an author can not “see”. Within every setting and world there are the unusual things that are unknown. It is real easy to mess with the canon of a setting if you allow for the “hidden places”.
    I agree a DM should not be in a straightjacket when it comes to a setting, but I also believe a settings canon should always be kept in mind. Canon can guide an adventure and give it more depth. The old adage of “for every rule there is an exception” is relevant here. By showing an exception of a rule, it makes the rule more “real”.
    To me canon, even the absolutes, is more of a guideline. I see the problem you are discussing as more of a lack of imagination on the part of DMs to truly explore a setting and its canon. Canon is not a rigid structure but rather something we can manipulate and enhance.


  11. I really, really agree with a lot of this post, so I want to pick up on one disagreement and one expansion.

    The disagreement is pretty fundamental. I think setting designers should be allowed to be absolute about forbidding elements of the game, as long as that is central to defining the setting. To the best of my knowledge there is, for example, no Nanotech Power Source in D&D 4. That’s an absolute, right there. If it gets written, should it be allowed into the Forgotten Realms? (I typed “Forgotten Reams”, which reminds me of why you are so, so right in so much you say about canon.) I think I’m agreeing with Seth White here.

    To the expansion. When I launched the fifth edition of Ars Magica, I told all the authors, and the fans, that canon had been reset. Nothing from earlier editions was canon any more. The reason for this was, quite simply, that there was too much material, and some of it sucked. (Not a great deal of material, but the Garden of Eden in the Alps? Woo boy…) I wanted people to be able to write for the fifth edition without having to be experts on the previous seventeen years of obscure small-press publications.

    And, in the process of developing the edition, I discovered I had to be even more draconian with authors. If you are writing about northern France, you can’t say anything new about southern France that isn’t already specified. You have to leave space for the authors of that bit to come up with their own ideas, without being constrained by some throwaway remark made by an author in another supplement.

    So, it’s not just novels that can make a game a nightmare to design for. Designers who don’t retain a laser-like focus on the bit of the world they are supposed to be designing can create similarly large issues.

    As a final point, there’s one type of absolute I think works extremely well in gaming material. “No-one has ever successfully done X.” Especially if followed up with guidelines on how the player characters can be the first.


  12. I agree with Chris.

    Established canon can be fun to read and a good foundation for a game or campaign (which is the whole reason to pick up a setting in the first place). I find that a few restrictions tend to make me more creative than total freedom. But the moment I begin to fear canon, it needs to step aside. As I understand the Eberron setting, there are a few key facts, such as dragonmarks, the Last War and the Mourning, but nearly everything else is just what is most widely believed to be true. That’s what I think should be the typical approach to a setting. The DM should make an honest effort to stick with the established setting as only as long as it’s beneficial to adventure creation.


  13. Here are a few of my thoughts about flexibility in a setting.

    I think it’s ok to set certain facts in stone for a setting. I’m ok with absolutes, but they should be defining instead of trivial. I don’t think there needs to be any flexibility about certain core attributes of a setting.

    A setting is defined by its differences. Dark Sun is not Eberron, and should never be mistaken for Eberron. I have no problem with a setting creating stringent rules on what is and what is not that setting. Perhaps it’s because my background is working with international brands, and I believe strongly in the importance of brand identity. As a result, I see no problem in creating limitations to set apart a product from its competition.

    I’m ok with WotC saying flat-out: there are no trolls in Dark Sun. If the setting needs regenerating bipedal humanoids that are unafraid of death, then they can design creatures with those qualities that exist in that world. They just wouldn’t be trolls, since a troll is derived from Norse mythology and fits in the setting only slightly better than a viking or a longship. They could hypothetically create a setting that doesn’t include elves (though I’m uncertain if that would be successful or even if it would be D&D), and I’m ok with that.

    Now Eberron is more flexible than Dark Sun; it states that anything published for D&D should have a place in the settting. But if I were to introduce Spelljammer ships or steampunk rifles in my Eberron game I shouldn’t be surprised if my players have reservations. That doesn’t mean these are bad game elements or that they might not be really fun. But they aren’t canon in core D&D. And as such, they aren’t Eberron. And if I bill my game as an Eberron game then it’s best I steer away from those non-canon elements without consulting my group to see if that would be fun for them.

    A game is a social activity that has implied social contracts. If the players of the game want to adhere closely to published canon, then they should; if they don’t then it’s ok to deviate. And if players disagree, then they should work it out like adults. The game doesn’t belong to any one player, including the GM and no one should use something like canon to be a dick to their friends.


  14. In the Birthright campaign setting for D&D 2e, I thought the staff at TSR handled canon rather well. The novels in the Birthright setting told the stories of individual heroes, and they did not fundamentally change the nature of the setting. Years later, when the writers for the Birthright setting were asked who in the setting they thought might unite the continent and affect world changing events, they replied, “We always figured that was a job for the PCs.”

    Leave room for the PCs to be the big heroes of the world. Drizzt is a great character, but no one wants him in their questing party.


  15. Good post Chris.

    I agree that insisting on following everything in novels as canon is probably not needed, but I do like it to be present. I don’t mind when the old monster manuals say this creature never works with x creature. It sets a standard and establishes a norm by which we can understand the world.

    It also allows DM’s to write adventures within an establised framework which is easier however it also gives them ideas for breaking canon which has more impact if the players understand what is standard in the first place.

    If the designers just present stats with no flavour you end up with something which is very bland and vanilla and un inspiring.

    Give me all the rules and minutia you want, 90% of the time I will stick to it and it will make my job easier as well as giving a rich experience. The rest of the time I will do what I want and ignore canon.

    Not sure if my ramble made sense but love reading your posts and insights.


  16. Great article. Flexibility for both player and GM to be able to tell their stories is important, especially in D&D. I agree that it’s a lot of fun to run a heroic campaign where the PCs are the center of the world, and their mission is to save the world from a horrible evil. This is how I run my Eberron game.

    However, I still like the idea of a living, breathing, evolving world, where big things can happen beyond the control of the PCs, and even ancillary to the PCs’ story. I think D&D can be a game where a particular story revolves around the PCs, but the world doesn’t have to.

    I think there’s plenty of room in rpgs for the PCs to be part of a world that is changing around them, and they need to try and grab on and hold on for dear life just to survive. To that end, I’m interested in a storyline that unfolds beyond the reach of the PCs (especially in the heroic tier), moving the world around them.

    Nonetheless, I have no interest whatsoever in the PCs being the pets of more powerful heroes, or following in the wake of anyone. To that end I’m not at all in favor of novels like the Prism Pentad being canon. I want things to happen — important earth-shaking things, even, but I don’t want those events to be driven by invincible heroes. So what I’m saying is I’m perfectly ok with a Bas-Lag setting where the novels are canon, but not Forgotten Realms where the novels are canon. Now, for instance, if Drizzt were to die or go insane, or fail to save Mithral Hall, then maybe I’d be more interested in using those novels as canon.

    For me, I like the IDEA of novels as canon that can move a setting forward, but I don’t have any examples where it’s been done the way I’d like. I think this kind of thing interests me more as an idea — a game that has a core setting, and instead of myriad sourcebooks and gazetteers, it uses fiction to develop the world, and even the timeline, and introduce characters and organizations. But perhaps that kind of thing wouldn’t work with D&D, and would have to be a different kind of project.

    I never read the Shadowrun fiction or the BattleTech fiction that was referred to, so I’m uncertain if those novels did something similar to what I’m interested in. I think in order for the novel-as-canon to properly work, the fiction writers would have to work within very strict constraints developed by the setting’s designers, since the goal would be to make the game more interesting and more playable, instead of less.


  17. The Simple: For a novel or movies series, canon is merely internal consistency and a shareable frame of reference for audience members. Novels and movies move forward in specific ways, and must do so. The same is not true for a game setting, which can remain a static launch pad for a thousand-thousand stories, personal or public. Enforcing media standards on what can be a static launch point is less than ideal.

    Setting growth occurs in play, possibly through official adventures, and in ideas generated by surrounding media. A game setting is meant to be a tool for play. It can be debated and analyzed from a story or growth standpoint other than play, but such debates start from a premise other that that for which the setting was designed.

    The Longwinded: I support the idea of novels supporting the game. I support the idea that a game can come from the IP of other media, including novels. What I fail to support is the idea that the media from which the game comes continues to tell the future history of the game, a series of events that must be acknowledged and adhered to in official material. The problem becomes even direr when the media has its characters doing the most important work in the setting, which is the usual case.

    If the setting was a media setting first, then the media and it’s ongoing future history is more important. Stories presented for public consumption sometimes need internal consistency that way. I say “sometimes” because the consistency matters only if the consumers of the media need common frames of reference. That’s usual, too.

    A game setting, on the other hand, is a picture in time, a static snapshot, a doorway through which the players and their characters enter. Then they start to affect events and people, unfolding a very personal story of that world.

    In this case, the whims and imaginings of someone who’s absent from my game, such as a particular author, are unwelcome unless I invite those ideas by stealing from media surrounding the game. Hooks presented in good campaign settings tell what might happen in an area if nobody interferes, allowing a DM to weave a future history of his or her own. Complex games, such as roleplaying games, must give tools to allow for the desires of the players (including the DM) to be expressed. Anything that works against that is counterproductive, made worse if the counterproductive element is really trivial.

    Further, when media outside the game setting is canon, it places an emphasis on facts and events outside the control and immediate knowledge of a given DM, such as me. That means, if I care about the canon for whatever reason, I have to educate myself about these facts. But the reality is that these facts have no bearing on my personal campaign unless I choose for them to. The problem with official emphasis on canon is the “official”–it makes it seem like you’re playing improperly if you ignore the canon. That’s a false position, but one that countless players and DMs hold. The canon also makes some players uncomfortable, wondering if, as they create a personal expression, they’re doing it right. That discomfort, because of canon, is bad enough.

    When media exists to allow you to participate in the game setting, speculatively, while not playing the game, then the media is at it’s best. It’s a game within a game. You’d still have countless forums with thousands of people discussing the merits of this story or that. What you wouldn’t have is annoying pedants who cry out in agony when one sentence in a novel that sold a few thousand copies goes against another in another novel that sold a few thousand copies. You also wouldn’t have the discomfort some players feel when trying to create within a canon-fettered world.

    I respect people who educate themselves on canon. It’s neat to be involved deeply in a rich world. It’s also fun. Heck, some people, such as Brian R. James, deserve a damn honorary degree in literature for their knowledge of certain influential settings. What’s not neat is the browbeating, teeth gnashing, and name calling that goes on over canon–especially when aimed at “official” sources.

    I’m just saying you can have a rich involvement with a game setting without everything with the same logo on it intruding into that setting’s “truth.”


  18. I find I somewhat disagree, but not totally disagree. My issue with Forgotten Realms was that the world was static, like a portrait while Greyhawk evolved through the modules released for it (albeit slow focused growth in discreet locations until Greyhawk Wars). I never read any of the FR novels, which may be why I never saw any growth in the setting. I have no problem with novels being canon per se, but I do have issues with them being the only source of campaign growth, mostly as they are awful as reference works.

    I like slow or localized growth in a game world as it provides necessary verisimilitude. World-changing change for change’s sake (like Greyhawk Wars) I don’t like. I also ignore canon if it contradicts what has happened in my game, which should trump published material every time.


  19. Chris, you bring up some interesting points. I can see both sides of this issue.

    As one of the 3.5 Dragonlance game designers, I can say how problematic it was when proper research wasn’t done with the Rise of Solamnia series, where the Knights of Solamnia were portrayed in a very inaccurate manner. We had to put in fixes and compromises for Knightly Orders of Ansalon as a result.

    On the other hand, where would some settings be without the novels? Dragonlance has always done better as a novel world. If we followed your line of thought, DL might have fond its end with the Fifth Age and a fan base that continued to be splintered. If not for War of Souls, we would not have had the 3.5 game line by Margaret Weis Productions. In that case, the novels gave the impetus for more gaming materials.

    Chris, I’d like to invite you to join in on a discussion about this over at

    Thanks for your time and thoughts on the issue.


  20. Fantastic post, Chris. You very nicely articulated how I feel on the subject of canon as well. In particular I was vigorously nodding and saying “yes exactly!!” when you used the example of the original Dark Sun adventures having the novel characters as the actual central figures and the PCs were basically spectators. Brought back all the memories of playing through them as a gladiator watching big events unfold and I was not happy. Those adventures were a big reason I didn’t like Dark Sun to begin with. I got over that as we left those adventures behind, and it did really leave an impression to me of something to always avoid in my own games.

    Thanks for writing this article!


  21. This very problem basically intimidated a would-be GM friend of mine so much that he opted to not run Forgotten Realms. He was too worried he’d ‘screw it up’ and ‘tell it wrong.’ It always mystified me that Forgotten Relams could be held hostage by (essentially) Drizzit munchkinism.

    On the other hand, one of my friends is an absolute sponge for Star Wars lore and expanded universe. In his Star Wars Campaign, he has this crazy ability to scour Wookieepedia and tie the party into just about any adventure with a solid hook… by drawing from canon. Maybe it helps that Star Wars is boundless and you can easily navigate around the ‘canon’ that bothers you by plopping down a new world someplace. That being said, he’s not afraid to have the canon changed. His original game fundamentally challenged the Rebellion era so that its tone is very similar but the proper nouns involved have been tweaked.

    Great post!


  22. Chris, thank you so much for writing this. I did a little happy dance when I saw it. I hear many of the same things you do; newer players are afraid to change things because they are canon and, once they get some confidence about changing thing, they feel a sense of uncertainty about which things they should change and how. I thought some of these same things myself. It’s easy for “official” people to forget that most of their fans give their words more importance and treat the ideas as rules instead of guidelines. Thanks again!


  23. Well said. One of my biggest things I’ve noticed having gotten into D&D over the past few years (which reminds me to get to Phil’s Gamer DNA post to chart why the past 10 years are the most important), is how some of the D&D crew seems to be more…errr….Psycho about Canon. That’s not the right word but it’s hard to articulate in a D&D venue without reaching a bit. From the games that I hail from (Or used to hail before the Dungeon-Bearing Dragon devoured them all) you just didn’t see a DM and half the table punishing a female player for making a female dwarf by forcing her to have a Beard. Even the Penny Arcade Podcast had this awkward moment where one player told about his old awesome campaign where their characters fell into Dark Sun and the D&D Veteran declared “That can’t happen” as if it were Law. Awkward explanation ensued and both parties moved on kinda unsatisfied. I see this kinda thing regularly as fact (well, D&D In-World Fact) battles it out with Player Fun (and creativity).
    Ultimately…a great post. I couldn’t agree more that Novels shouldn’t be used as Canon. I mean, I’m still waiting for a specific Salvatore-Polymorph Spell. And by waiting, I mean dreading.


  24. THIS.

    Having novels as canon has always been a pet-peeve of mine. I never liked playing in the Forgotten Realms setting because of it. I felt like with all the high level NPCs from the novels running around, there was no place for my character to really do anything or be a hero.

    Some of my favorite role playing games from last decade were affected by similar problems. The BattleTech storyline told in the novels slowly got more and more convoluted and uninteresting, especially following the events of the Clan invasion. Eventually, the overarching plot had no where to go; they had written themselves into a corner. The game designers and novel writers both admitted it, too, and had to reset the setting by releasing BattleTech: Age of Destruction. Shadowrun 3rd edition suffered from a similar problem, though not quite as bad.

    On the other hand, Eberron in D&D 3.5 went the opposite way. The motto of the setting was “if it exists in D&D, it has a place in Eberron,” and novels were not canon. Both helped give DMs the creative freedom to do whatever they wanted in the game world, making it their own. Little things in the setting itself also increased DM freedom, like not giving an official reason for the Mourning. It’s like giving complete creative control to Peter Jackson when he was directing “Lord of the Rings;” we get a superior product that is more entertaining than if limits were placed on everything.

    Roleplaying games are founded on creativity. I definitely favor any measures that increase player and DM choice because they lead to more creativity and potentially more fun.


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