The Trouble with Canon

The most passionate fans of fictional properties are rarely satisfied with consuming them passively. Fanfic, the convention circuit, cosplay, and yes, roleplay are all ways that fans engage with their favorite shows, movies, and books, and it’s no surprise that tabletop RPGs based on fan favorite licenses have become immensely popular. Engaging with these licensed games can pose challenges, though. Every fictional world, be it that of Star Trek, Star Wars, Discworld, or Marvel, has a body of work upon which it’s based; this body of work is referred to as its canon. While the definition of canon dates far back and has roots in Christian theology, canon as we nerds typically refer to it is most directly traced back to Arthur Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock Holmes was an immensely popular character and also an early example of a character who was the subject of fan fiction, or fanfic. Sherlock Holmes is also the first example of trouble with canon, as there are Doyle-penned works which are not necessarily considered ‘canon’ Sherlock Holmes stories. Arguing over canon is one of the pillars of nerd discourse, propped up by numerous comic book retcons and bigger events like the recent revision of the Star Wars canon by Disney. To say the least, the arguments don’t necessarily stop when we sit down at the gaming table.

Playing a game in a widely known fan favorite setting can be a lot of fun, but expectations tend to be more specific and heels tend to dig in a little further. While Seamus has previously talked about ‘Playing in Another’s Sandbox’, there are some specific elements that need to be considered when players are coming in with previous knowledge of the setting. First, what sort of stories do you want to tell in the setting, and what sort of stories are the players expecting to see? Second, do you want existing characters in your setting, either as cameos or supporting characters? And finally, when you break from the extant storyline, how and how severely will you violate the existing canon?

Canon Stories

One thing Seamus suggests in his previous article is to use the breadth of the setting to your advantage. If you’re playing a Star Wars game, there’s an entire galaxy to contend with, and most places have things going on that can make for interesting stories. This is broadly true, but you may find that telling your players the next game will be Star Wars and then setting it on a planet they’ve never heard of will cause some grumbling. As much as well-known locations, characters, and plots can cause trouble for GMs (and we’ll talk about canon violations in a bit), those familiar elements are going to be one of the selling points for an existing setting. Similarly, there will be tropes that your players will glom onto which will restrict what you’re going to do. If you want to run a supers game in the Marvel universe, you’re going to want to know right out the gate whether your players want a street-level game a la Jessica Jones or something more high-powered and closer to The Avengers. Talking to your players is important any time you start a new campaign, but if there’s interest and enthusiasm for a pre-existing setting, you’re really going to need to know why.

As you may be able to guess, having a whole table who all want to play a Star Wars game may very likely mean two, four, or five completely different reasons for wanting to use the setting. You may have a player interested in the Force and the story of the Jedi, another who wants to play a smuggler, and a third who wants to fly an X-Wing. More complicated, you might have players interested in different time periods or locations. The one of these that often becomes difficult to negotiate is when you have a conflict about how to interpret a core element of the setting. If one of your players believes that Star Wars is about the ineffable Light and Dark sides of the Force and his buddy across the table wants to play a Bendu, a non-aligned Grey Jedi, they’re not going to agree. And it’s not that one or the other is right…so long as they’re arguing and you’re not playing the game, they’re both wrong.

Fan ownership is a weird thing, and in big diffuse properties like Star Trek and Star Wars it tends to create arguments. It’s one thing to debate interpretations of fiction, but when you’re running a game, there will be a single call for all of these things. If your players are casual fans of the property, that will likely be fine. If you have more than one hardcore fan, though, you may very well have an argument. Make a ruling, stand by the ruling, and continue with the game.

Canon Characters

Wouldn’t it be fun to have Luke Skywalker show up? Or Samuel Vimes? Or Captain Picard? Canon characters can add some spice to your canon game, but including them does pose risks.

I personally would never allow a player to play an existing canon character. To be fair, my dogged insistence on this became somewhat of a joke in my college group, with my frustrations at people trying to sneak in pre-existing characters under my nose to troll me finally immortalized as “The GM Fire Rule” after a particularly persistent player saw his PC spontaneously combust in the first session. I’m not saying do that…in fact, don’t do that. It is both reasonable and can be pretty cool for a player to bring in a character that inspires them. That said, they need to make the character their own. Existing characters risk being static compared to an original one, and they almost never adhere to the axiom “the most interesting parts of a character’s life should happen at the table, not in the backstory”. The flip side of this is that bringing in an existing character and leaning into their tropes can be perfect for a one-shot.

What about NPCs? Good cameos can really spice up a game, and players will often have a lot of fun when characters they’re already familiar with show up. The issue here is a combination of the one discussed above regarding expectations, and one we’ll discuss below regarding canon violations. Characters can be interpreted differently just as much as anything else in a fictional work, and you may find yourself working as hard as Mark Hamill to portray Luke Skywalker both as the heroic Jedi one player sees him as and as the whiny teenager another sees him as. For this reason, it can be just as important to the GM as it is to players to not get stuck into portraying characters that have already been fleshed out elsewhere. Important NPCs need to grow in the campaign almost as much as the PCs do, and for that reason canon characters may be best reserved for cameos. 

There is another problem with canon characters, of course, summarized bluntly with the phrase “if it has stats, we can kill it”. While canon violations take many forms, nothing’s going to break your canon as severely as killing a main character six movies before they’re slated to save the world.

Canon Violations

It is my firm belief that good campaigns in licensed settings come about when the existing stories in the setting are either avoided or directly engaged and then mutilated. Out of these two, wrecking everything is often more memorable. Sure, we played a fun game of Edge of the Empire running around and dealing with our own ne’er-do-well problems, but the game where we interfered in the events of the Phantom Menace, helped a pubescent Lando Calrissian run a long con, and unmasked Jar-Jar Binks as a Sith (Darth Vexus) was way more memorable. What you have to know, though, is whether or not doing this is going to give any of your players an aneurysm.

If your players are going to have a tough time with events that contradict the existing works in the property, it’s best just not to touch them. Without getting into the meta-mechanical issues of canon violations (a debate on the FFG forums over whether or not Darth Vader as-statted was too easy to kill gave me the sudden urge to run away and take up football), in nearly every system the probability to deviate from canon in a significant way just by virtue of how the dice fall is there. Now, I’m the type of player who would think that wrecking a movie storyline is awesome, and also the sort of GM who would relish running the fallout. Some people really aren’t, though. At the end of the day, the writers of the movies and books which have such rabid fandoms didn’t do it with dice, and the dice you have aren’t going to produce the outcomes that those writers did. You need to know whether or not that’s fun for your group. It might turn out that the fanboy who begged and begged and begged you to run a Star Wars game might be the exact person who isn’t going to have fun in the same way as the rest of the group. In every tabletop RPG you play, influence over the game’s events is split evenly between the participants. Knowledge of the setting doesn’t add weight to one player’s input, and ignorance of the setting doesn’t take away from another’s. Your game is going to have canon violations…if it doesn’t, it’s just a table read. While that doesn’t mean you have to go and dropkick Darth Vader into the Sarlacc Pit in session 1, it also doesn’t mean you have to (or should) give a damn about what’s going on in the movies or the exact timeframe of your campaign relative to this book or that TV episode. If everyone is on board with the same degree of simulationism, that’s cool! For the other 99% of gaming groups, the fanboy will need to chill out a bit.

Fortunately, most of these settings are pretty large. Use the breadth of the setting to your advantage. The rulebooks in games like Age of Rebellion or Star Trek Adventures are written with the intent of giving you a whole galaxy to explore, one where the titular movies and TV shows touch but a fraction. If you want to be fans of a series, use its scaffolding to go make something new. Your more casual players won’t feel straitjacketed, your fan players will still be in a setting they love, and your GM won’t feel like they have to write around the tripwires of existing events.

Fandom flips mental switches for a lot of people. The ideal setting for an RPG is akin to a playground, but end up on the wrong end of fandom and it ends up looking more like a holy site. Beyond knowing how to engage with a pre-existing setting in order to play or run an RPG in one, you have to be cognizant of how others engage with these settings. A key aspect of role-playing games is play, and the setting has to be mutable when faced with the characters within it. This doesn’t always sit well with every fan, and expectations for how the setting and the existing canon are treated vary wildly. Playing with an existing canon requires an understanding of what’s going to happen in a game, and what isn’t going to happen. If everyone communicates and can express how they feel about the setting at hand, there’s usually enough middle ground to have fun. If not…might be best to put the Alpha Quadrant back on the shelf.

Star Trek and all associated images are copyrighted to CBS Corporation.

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