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The Douchey DM » Misc » Don’t Retcon Me

Don’t Retcon Me

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.

An example:

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.

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Living in his secluded mansion off the coast of Iowa, JimTo often spends evenings reading, role playing, and writing for DoucheyDM. His best qualities are being loud, rude, and obnoxious, but for some reason, people still love him.

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17 Responses to "Don’t Retcon Me"

  1. DerekNo Gravatar says:

    being the dm in question, i thought by letting it play to its logical conclusion would have been self defeating to the gaming group. one pc had made a series of bad moves that wrecked everyone’s fun, and i didn’t want the group to dissolve. maybe i was wrong.

  2. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    Nah, I understand why you did it, and as Keeper, that is your call. I’m not the type of player who would argue that with you, I’m just saying it’s not my preferred method..

    “one pc had made a series of bad moves that wrecked everyone’s fun” My god, yes he did. So glad I don’t game with him anymore.

  3. BrianNo Gravatar says:

    I’m kinda curious about what kind of decisions this mysterious problem player made that was ruining things so much?

  4. Rian Q.No Gravatar says:

    Have to agree, if someone makes a stupid decision in my game, I will outright warn them that it’s dangerous. If they go ahead with it, even if it starts World War 3, then that’s what you have to deal with.

  5. Sean HollandNo Gravatar says:

    Agreed, somethings things just go wrong and it should be rolled with, not ignored. It is far more heroic to make mistakes and overcome losses than to have then hand-waved away.

  6. JazzIsBluesNo Gravatar says:

    My feeling on the subject is generally that once something happens it happens and we move the story forward not backward. The caveat to that is if I have done something as the gm that a) breaks the implicit contract between gm and players or b) violates the rules of the game. We all have to live with the decisions that we make. In one of the games I play in my character committed murder. The guy wasn’t an innocent but he wasn’t going to hurt us any more. Hindsight being 20/20 I shouldn’t have done that, but I did and if it comes back to haunt me it does I’ll have to take that.

    I don’t play the “it was all a dream” card unless I have preprogrammed that into the game and have given clues that it was all just a dream along the way and given the pc’s the chance to see that.

    As always just my 2 krupplenicks worth, your mileage may of course vary.


  7. cetikenNo Gravatar says:

    Is it ever good to retcon? I frequently run published adventures and recently forgot to let the PCs loot a McGuffin off a Bad Guy. I rememberd when they looted part two of the McGuffin off the Final Boss and waved my hands about mentioning how simular it was to the first part that they had taken off the Bad Guy.

    My players seemed cool with the minor retcon to cover DM error, and of course I’ll work to avoid such things in the future.

    I’m wondering if this type of retcon would bother you as well?

    1. JimToNo Gravatar says:

      I think the only time I’m ever really OK with it is like what JiB mentioned above: If it is pre-programmed, it is a planned part of that story, then that’s fine by me. BUT, even then it would have to make sense in the story. If the GM preprogrammed it with the intention of just being a dick at the end of the story, that’s not cool.

  8. DerekNo Gravatar says:

    so, if after the game, three of your four players don’t want to play anymore, and the next session is going to be keeper and erstwhile private eye (forgotten first name) rockwell, you would be okay with not invoking deus ex machina?

  9. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    I wouldn’t be happy, but yes. If 3 of 4 wanted to bail because of 1 hr of less than great gameplay, especially when that particular group had been playing together for months and having a great time, I’d let them go. Not all sessions are gonna be awesome, but we had an unusually high number of really, really good sessions as far as I’m concerned. 1 hour of bad should not destroy that.

    However, in this particular case, I find it difficult to believe if it had come down to the point of 3 wanting to quit, 2 of them wouldn’t had come back once the problem player was gone.

  10. DerekNo Gravatar says:

    i’m sure the occult specialist would have come back, but i’m not so sure about the bounty hunter, even if mr. sleeps with his guns in both passive and active senses would have quit. she was really upset. so i felt that the retcon was the best of bad choices. enough said. i think it didn’t end up hurting the game long term, but had we not retconned it, and even if i managed to smooth over enough egos to keep the group together, i think the game would have failed, as the only recourse to dealing with temco and the shk’ryth would have been a frontal assault on a heavily guarded facility. including another showdown with kage, who by that point was very very angry after having been beat by you guys, and nyralthotep’s pet twice. you remember how hard he was by himself, without that book you were to retrieve, you’d have had to face him and gerard moore at once. it would have been tpk.
    moral of story, retconning is a necessary evil.

  11. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    “so i felt that the retcon was the best of bad choices.”

    I disagree, but like I stated in our private conversation, it was a valid decision, and as Keeper it was your choice to make. Would I have preferred something different? Sure, but I that wasn’t my call. Again, as Keeper you were stuck in a really unfortunate spot and had to do something. Even though I wasn’t fond of the choice made, I am glad you made a decision and stuck with it. Indecision would have killed that group as fast as anything else.

    “I think it didn’t end up hurting the game long term”


    “moral of story, retconning is a necessary evil.”

    We’ll just have to agree to disagree here. 🙂

  12. DerekNo Gravatar says:

    ok, how would you have handled it? (using for learning exp, not being a jerk.)

  13. JimToNo Gravatar says:

    Not being able to recall every specific, and not knowing every detail of that scenario, I can’t say EXACTLY what I would have done. Most likely, I would have found a different person to convey the information from the guy who got executed, impressed upon the party this was a different way presented that included NOT killing an innocent. My character, and 2 of the 3 others would have jumped at a non-innocent killing solution.

    After that, I would have made Mr. I Sleep With My Gun face the legal consequences of executing someone for no reason. Maybe somebody else saw it happen and went to the cops. That character would have 1) gone to jail for murder or 2) got in a gunfight with cops and been killed. Either way, he would either have to 1) roll a new character or 2) quit.

  14. StuNo Gravatar says:

    There have been times when I’ve either retconned something or ignored or changed what would have been a MAJOR change in campaign direction.

    In honestly, most of the time, I did this for my own convenience — as I didn’t want my game prep to go to waste.

    1. JimToNo Gravatar says:

      Et tu Stu?

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