The Purpose of Canon and the Care and Feeding of a D&D Campaign Setting

On the Down with D&D podcast this week, there was a discussion about “canon” in D&D, and what the pros and cons of it are, both for players and for the company publishing the game.

Me from 10 years ago would probably really have a hard time with my responses.

The Positives of Canon

When an established setting refers to past products and builds on the past, the setting gains a certain “reality” to it. Recurring themes and history create a tone and feel for a setting. The setting means something because certain things are true from one product to another.

When done right, that means people know what they are getting when they buy a product set in that setting.

The Dark Side of Canon

At its best, canon is there to build consistency. If a character exists, they have a consistent personality across multiple products. If an event was historically important, people can refer to that event as if it were a real event that happened.

On the other hand, depending on how that event was established, the setting might gain more than the designers had intended. The fact that a certain war was pivotal to shaping the world 1000 years ago might be a boon. The fact that a source mentioned that battle happening 1050 years ago and another source mentions it 990 years ago can cause problems.

Absolutes are one of the biggest pains when it comes to setting creation.

But, What’s the Point, Really?

Dwelling on exactly what year a given event happened when the point is that it happened “about a 1000 years ago” misses the point of what that event represents. Pointing out that one source said there were only 500 soldiers present at the defense of a ridge, and yet another said there were 1000, again seems to miss the point, if the crux of the story element is that the opposing force outnumbered them 100 to 1.

The Value of the Unreliable Narrator

It seems that a lot of consumers of media miss the value of an unreliable narrator. They also seem to miss when one is present in the first place.

The original Old Grey Boxed Set for the Forgotten Realms had very basic entries for locations and organizations, followed by Elminster’s Notes. Many modern gamers take this as a mark of authority, since Elminster is a Chosen of Mystra and over a thousand years old. If these are “Elminster’s Notes,” that must mean these are the “real” secrets of the Realms, right?

However, if you follow Ed Greenwood’s thoughts on the matter, giving greater details under the guise of “Elminster’s Notes” was meant to do just the opposite. Elminster was an old man whose sanity is at least a little questionable, and who isn’t omniscient by any means. Elminster’s Notes were meant to be flexible enough to allow DMs to change details. Elminster doesn’t know everything, but if you do want to take what he says as absolute, you could go that route as well.

A few of the early Realms products followed the pattern of being Elminster’s notes on a given location, and the Savage Frontier supplement went one step further and introduced a new sage with his own quirks as the filter for information on the Sword Coast North.

Serving Two Masters

A game setting doesn’t have the same needs as a line of novels. The original Realms novels served the setting, essentially giving “examples” of average adventures in various regions around the Realms.

The novel lines became very successful, and the settings started supporting the novel lines, instead of the other way around. Sourcebooks detailed hero NPCs and gave them stats. Books started presenting historical “facts” more definitively.

By the time 3rd Edition D&D came around, there was a lot less setting information in some of the setting books. More effort was put into taking organizations from the novels and matching them to prestige classes, and coming up with more spells, feats, and magic items. The majority of information on the “facts” of the setting were coming from the novels, which meant that at times there wasn’t a filter saying “is this good for a game setting,” because the primary concern was “will this sell a new trilogy.”

Myth Drannor, Netheril, Imaskar, and Gauntlgrym existed to be ancient, fallen civilizations that provided an excuse for why there are dungeons and magic items to be had for adventurers. When these ancient civilizations suddenly return to the modern-day, there are now characters that can provide absolute details about things that could have remained shrouded in mystery.

Reflexive Preference

A significant number of fans who frequent sites that I did when I was in the heyday of my Realms fandom want more. Not just more general content. They want the exact numbers of troops in the military of Cormyr. They want a detailed timeline of every year since the Spellplague started. They want an accounting of what every god has been doing, and the exact details of how the cosmos works.

I understand the drive to know more about a setting. I get it. But I also understand, now, that when companies give in to that kind of fan demand, it can become a trap. There is a temptation from the company side of things to err on the side of “they will buy whatever we put out,” instead of “leave them wanting more.”

The problem being, when you try to produce as much as people will buy, fans often don’t realize how quickly fatigue actually sets in.

Dirty Little Secret

Honestly . . . I like the idea that having two worlds fuse together, then separate, might cause some “temporal anomalies.” What I mean by this is that maybe historical “facts” that were once true may not actually be so, because the ripples for altering reality on such a grand scale mean that an event may have been displaced by a decade or so. Facts may get fuzzier, because all of reality shifted, not once, but twice in the last century.

And for my other dirty little secret–I would have been okay with resetting the Realms back to the timeframe of the Old Grey Boxed set back when 4th edition happened, and probably would have been fine if that had happened for 5th edition. I strongly suspect it was maintaining “canon” for a series of books about a certain ranger and his panther buddy that kept that from happening, even if it was the most logical course of action, instead of literally moving heaven and earth to change rulesets and the conceits of the setting.

The Best Use of Canon

Essentially, canon, for a commercial property, exists so that multiple people recognize something released for that property. There have been multiple versions of Superman’s continuity, but we’ve reached the point where we assume that he’s from Krypton, was raised in Kansas by the Kents, and has a super-smart enemy named Lex Luthor. There have been tons of Robin Hood stories, but people expect that Robin Hood is a guy robbing from the rich to give to the poor, is good with a bow, and opposes forces attempting to usurp the throne of King Richard while the king is away from England.

The tricky part is to create a world that has just enough detail where people feel rewarded for recognizing the same things, without having so many details that ultimately add nothing to the setting, but serve to become the yardstick by which “true fandom” is measured.

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