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Problems With Canon


If you have not read the Dresden Files series, and you car about having things spoiled, STOP READING NOW.

This is a spoiler — get it?

I’ve been reading through Dresden Files RPG: Your Story, looking for some ideas for a similar, but different sort of campaign I’ve been thinking about running.

Having read all of the Dresden Files books to-date, I can definitely tell that the DFRPG was written a couple books ago. In the introduction to the setting, the authors discuss how the White Council is locked in a war with the Red Court of vampires, so much so that they are pretty preoccupied.

As  anyone who has read “Changes” knows, that war ended very decisively — about as decisively as any war can end.

And that brings me to two problems I’ve always had with RPG stories that involve existing canon.

1. It’s someone else’s story, and the canon marches on.

Now, I realize the first thing someone’s going to say is, “you don’t have to follow the author’s canon. Your story is independent of what anyone else writes, and this is true. To me, however, one of the reasons I would want to play in a game like Dresden Files is because I really enjoyed the books. I like the whole package (could have done without Ghost Story, but that’s another post). I like the characters, the way the world works, the bad guys, the developments in the story, etc.

If our story deviates from the advancing canon, I will feel like we’re not really telling a story in that universe anymore. Certainly not the end of the world, but still something that would nag the back of my mind. Or, even worse, perhaps some guys we’ve barely heard of from Chicago single-handedly end the war with the Red Court …

2. The PCs are just supporting actors in a larger story.

While we’re wandering around eking out a living with our tiny merchant ship, trying to get by, evading Imperial patrols, making the Kessel Run in 11 parsecs, true heroes are battling against the pillars of the Empire and will eventually bring about its fall. The only role we’ll play is to watch the CGI’d fireworks shows as every planet in the Empire miraculously finds out about it at virtually the same time.

Throw a Big F@*#ing Wrench in the Canon

It may seem a little counter-intuitive, considering the above-mentioned sacro-sanctity of canon, but consider a big, catastrophic change to canon before your campaign begins.

Imagine if Harry and his intrepid Chicagoans make it to the ancient temple deep in the jungles of Mexico, and they all get their asses handed to them. Total TPK. The Red Court remains intact, the White Council is now shocked and stunned with the death of several senior council members, and your players now have a big void they can fill with their own characters.

In other words, remove the protagonists from the picture entirely. Now the party isn’t relegated to supporting cast status.

How do you handle problems with canon?

Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

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8 Responses to "Problems With Canon"

  1. Andreas DavourNo Gravatar says:

    Don’t play in games/settings with canon. It just makes my head hurt and it’s totally not worth it.

  2. Xer0No Gravatar says:

    For me, having run several DFRPG games now, I always base my games either in the past, since I love alt-history stuff or I’ve set my games up to involve minor players in a different city. I ran a game that involved PCs at the Waist-Deep level set in the Capitol in DC. My alt-history games have been set in the post-Civil War American West and Cold War Berlin.

    I don’t think I’ll ever incorporate DF cannon into my games, other than setting material – there’s so much more out there to explore.

  3. BrianNo Gravatar says:

    Longtime listener, first time posting, I think. Cannon, well In some instance I would stick more to cannon if the party was close to the source. Meaning the location that cannon takes place. The majority of the time though I drop cannon and the players know this. Being a primarily D&D player in Forgotten Realms this could be an issue sometime with players who were fans of the novels by Greenwood.

    My general reply was always “Yeah, that’s great for ED but this is our story”. The fiction of a setting is a fantastic resource for running a game in it. Though it should never overshadow what the players are doing.

  4. ChuckNo Gravatar says:

    I’m running a Dresden game now. I used the basics of the world (Laws of Magic, White Council, Wardens, Fairy Magic and so forth). The one big change I made was that there was no war with Red Court. If there was going to be one then player characters would be the ones who started. The only canon character that has even made only an off screen appearance is Murphy.
    The rest of the story has been all around the player characters. The big shake ups in the world are going to be thanks to them.

  5. maliferNo Gravatar says:

    I think the idea is if you care about canon then World Shattering stories are out.

    Instead of playing Neo or Morpheus in the Matrix, you’re just some other guy who will never make any significant change. I have known some GMs that are very strict with canon. I throw canon right out the window.

    Call it an alternate universe/timeline if you like. It’s along the same lines as how I hand wave players missing a session. The character is not there and then next week the character is back. It’s not important to the core which is to have fun.

    You can say that you don’t use canon, but unless every PC is a Human in the modern world then something is being taken from somewhere.

    If there are Vampires in your game, you are going to need to define what kind. Are we talking Dracula, Anne Rice, Twilight?
    With that definition comes a lot of baggage.

    There will always be a starting point from there the game is yours.

    Instead of getting bogged down in the idea that the biggest stories can’t be told focus on a story you would like to tell.

    Case in point Stu’s Ghostbusters game or Call of Cthulhu game. These are IP with lots of Canon. Stu hand waves the stuff that isn’t necessary. The Ghostbuster’s game has all the elements you would expect, average people in extraordinary circumstances. Oh and the second movie never happened.

    IP Rpgs are way to re-create the genre or feel of the IP. It can be both a benefit and a hindrance. It sets up a great starting point with hooks, NPCs, and locations the GM can grab in an instance. But some people might complain that things change, the idea is to make those changes fun.

    In my game the player can always kill Darth Vader. Now there are repercussions maybe the Empire now spins it and spreads the news of the awful assassination from rogue terrorists and Vader is martyred.

    Maybe the Smuggler who was going to redeem himself and become a hero, now becomes a criminal mastermind because you changed the storyline.

    Does this mean your no longer playing in Star Wars? Nope it’s still SW. But it will be different. Sometimes it might even be better. Midi-chlorians anyone?

  6. Jimbo HawkinsNo Gravatar says:

    I’d say as long as you’re having fun, does it matter? I’ve ran and played in Star Wars and Star Trek games and they’ve all been a blast. Do you worry about the ‘canon’ of HP Lovecraft stories when you play Call of Cthulhu? Of course not; you just try to stay alive longer than anyone else.

    As long as everyone is enjoying themselves, that’s what makes the game for me, regardless of setting or canon.

  7. KevinRNo Gravatar says:

    I find out what the players are looking for in the story and then pick a time frame to start in. Once we pick a time frame all canon story ends there anything else happening in our story happens because the players made it happen.

  8. Eric PiersonNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve always run Star Wars with Canon, and instead of doing it at some far off time, always within the original trilogy of movies, since 1987. Some of this was covered on the Happy Jack’s board but let’s address the issues here:

    1. Canon may march on and there may be 50 million Star Wars books, but a great majority of people I know have seen the movies, so the rest of the stuff can go right out the window. I am not worried who got a planet dropped on them or whose child got turned to the dark side or being corrected on how to pronounce the name of an obscure character from the Cantina on Mos Eisley (I kicked a guy out of the group for that…seriously we are there to have fun not worry about the correct pronunciation of a fake person’s name). I know on the podcast people talked about going for the flavor of Star Wars. I would actually say you are looking for the Themes of Star Wars. Flavor would be things like the planets and the lightsabers and hyperspace and droids and aliens. Themes for Star Wars would be more things like (please note, this is based only on the original trilogy):

    The Mystery of the Force
    Epic Technological Weapons of Destruction
    Explosions of Epic Technological Weapons of Destruction
    The Destiny of Heroes – Either Fulfilling or Avoiding
    Snappy Dialogue (Especially in the Middle of Combat)

    An example of this would be in D6 Star Wars it is very hard to do anything with Jedi Powers, which makes sense based on the source material. That first time a lightsaber became a true weapon in the hands of someone who had the Force in my campaign was always one of those true Star Wars moments.

    2. Supporting Characters in a Larger Story

    OK, so some bad guy’s whiny kid and his friends waited until the bad ruler came all the way out to a remote location and killed him off with his favorite pet project with the help of primitive teddy bears.

    If your GM can’t think of something far more interesting and epic for your characters to be doing in the meantime, he should hand in his GM card immediately.

    Some examples of things going on otherwise:

    a. Political espionage game where the Rebels are the guys trying to get money from very wealthy and powerful families to finance all those pretty ships. While still having the Themes of Star Wars it has a bit of James Bond flavor to the actual game play.
    b. Smugglers who could care less about the whole mess with the Empire and Rebellion. Why not play Firefly? Because this plays more like Firefly when there was still a Civil War going on and the Themes are less the Old West (I love Firefly but the reason I love it is because it is a Western pretending to be sci-fi) and more Space Opera.
    c. Extreme Example – Rebels dealing with an alien invasion from outside the galaxy or Elder Gods. Scary crap that will never get mentioned so the populace will not panic.
    d. OK, look at the crappy remakes of the original movies. At the end of Jedi there are celebrations going on all these planets, including the capital. I highly doubt just because some idiot got thrown down a shaft by his own lackey that everyone loyal to him on the planet just rolled over and surrendered. What if there was a ground operation involving the liberation of the capital planet? I think that’s more significant in multiple ways than whiny farm boy’s little ambush out on the rim…

    Now, yeah, you could blow up canon. I’ve done that with Superheroes (I killed the Justice League in the first 5 minutes of the campaign) and I would probably do the same thing with Dresden if given the chance, because they are still constantly evolving.

    I also LOVE doing Homebrew stuff. However, then I get my themes from the system itself. This is why I want to try GURPS and see what themes I end up with.

    In the end, you can pull of canon as easily as homebrew.

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