I’m not a huge fan of retconning in the games I play. I believe the game should unfold naturally and the players and GM live with the results. If your character lives, great. If they die, you best get to rolling up a new one.
In the same Call of Cthulhu game session I mentioned in my previous column, Guns & Cthulhu, we ran up against a pretty hardcore fight in a subterranean cavern. The Big Bad in there was willing to let us walk out of there in exchange for another human soul. The group, still reeling from how badly we were getting our asses kicked just a few seconds previous, decided to take this bargain. Long story short, we found an innocent guy we had left back in town and brought him to the Big Bad. That guy was immediately removed from the mortal coil. My group faced some very stiff Sanity losses for condemning an innocent to death.
Later that night after the sessions was over, our Keeper pulled out the “it was all just a dream” retcon. Sanity and Hit point losses, which were numerous, no longer applied. Mr. Innocent was no longer dead. I wasn’t fond of this then, but looking back at it now, I like it even less. The guy we sacrificed had a larger role to play in the story and we probably had just horked up the next four sessions for our Keeper, but looking back now, I wish he had found a different way to move things along.
My point is simply this: We deserved to be punished for what we did. We were getting our collective ass handed to us and, in a wildly obvious attempt to just not die, we completely disregarded our character’s morals and sacrificed the one guy we knew we could get to go underground without a fight. That was not good roleplaying. But we did it. We did it and in my opinion, we should have had to live with those consequences.
By retconning our stupidity out of the story, it would have been far too easy to not learn from the experience and end up repeating it somewhere down the road. It could also easily be taken by some folks as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card any time we ran into a tough opponent who offered an easy, but morally-challenged way out.
In any RPG I play, for me to enjoy it I need to feel that there is a sense of mortality to what I’m doing. That it’s quite possible that I won’t walk back out of the old mansion on the edge of town or the dungeon out in the woods. There needs to be a sense that what I’m doing has bearing on the world my character inhabits. And, like any other world, my time could be up at any given moment. When my actions are essentially “wiped out” by a retcon, I feel as if my place in that world has less meaning.
In the end it comes down to this: Let me make my mistakes. Don’t take them away from me, let me learn from them. That mistake today could teach me the lesson I need to save my ass tomorrow.