Yeah, that was an easy pun, but it’s in stride with my opinions on this subject and has a deeper meaning in this essay. Based on discussions I’ve had with various colleagues and friends, I decide to put my viewpoint on display here. Hopefully, it’ll give you and me some clarity. First, though, we need to define terms.
In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting context, canon can be defined as imagined world history up to just a moment ago. This can consist of an overarching metaplot, as with White Wolf’s 90s and early 00s World of Darkness games. It can also encompass dozens of smaller stories, as with the Forgotten Realms setting and its embracing of novels as canon. Game setting canon can also include differences from core assumptions, spelled out or not, in a game’s implied setting, as it is in the core 4e D&D game. For instance, Eberron has different deities and styles of magic than those assumed to exist in the D&D game’s implied setting.
Defining differences can make a game world stand apart from its peers. The myriad gods of the Forgotten Realms help make the world seem different. Highly organized kingdoms, complex politics, and large areas of known territory also distinguish it from the core “points of light” assumption. Eberron is similar. It’s not as wild as one might assume the implied world of the central D&D game is. In Eberron, most deities have no physical manifestation in the known universe. Magic is used much like technology might be in a Wild West or Pulp Era setting. In the history of Dark Sun, the primordials defeated the gods, driving them into hiding, imprisonment, or death. Divine power is hard to come by in Dark Sun, to say the least. Misuse of arcane magic led to the ecological collapse of Athas, Dark Sun’s world. With unnatural devastation and the absence of divine power came significant changes to the cosmology.
Differences that really define a campaign setting are cool. They help shape the image of the setting in the minds of the game’s players (including the DM). Such broad strokes also help the players understand mechanical divergences that might be in the setting. For instance, a player in a Dark Sun campaign assumes he or she should play a divine character only if a compelling reason exists as to why the character has access to divine power at all. Most players probably presuppose the divine power source is off limits, but they shouldn’t.
You see, setting changes that mess around with default game elements, such as whole power sources, should avoid absolutism. At least, their creators should avoid absolutes. Rather than writing in a Dark Sun book that you cannot use the divine power source, a designer should teach you how to use the divine power source in out-of-the-box ways that make sense on Athas. (By the way, I’m not saying whether the upcoming Dark Sun campaign setting is absolutist in the use of divine power. This is just an example.) Any given DM can choose an absolute stance for his or her campaign, although even that is less than ideal.
Also less than ideal are trivial changes that fail to define the game world in a meaningful way. The worst among these are absolutes that some designer or novelist added without much thought. Dark Sun setting material from older editions read that kank meat is inedible. So what? Does that small fact help you tell a story set on Athas? Or does it make you, like I did, question why anyone would herd these beasts over the delicious, egg-laying erdlu? Sure, kanks produce an edible honey, but a herder can use everything an erdlu produces, down to beaks and bones. If I lived on Athas, I’d herd erdlus and hunt kanks, or at most, keep small herds of kanks for work and riding.
I’m waxing pedantic there, which is something trivial changes can almost force you to do. Requiring and encouraging detail-oriented attention, especially in a game’s official product line, is far from good for the game. In another instance of this, the older Dark Sun setting had Cleansing Wars in the past, wherein powerful arcanists attempted to wipe certain species from the face of the planet. Taken on its face, this fact is fine. A story of racist sorcerers slaughtering certain folks can make for good history and an excellent basis for current politics and superstitions. But when you start listing races the Cleansing Wars wiped out to the last individual, when that fact is not important to the design or story, you’ve gone too far. Why? Because DMs don’t need to be told they can’t use a particular monster, and players don’t need to be told they can’t play a certain race, just because a novelist or designer arbitrarily decided to wipe out a particular creature.
It’s better to create tension, saying the arcane pogrom targeted gnomes, than to create absence, saying the arcane pogrom wiped gnomes out. In the former case, those who want gnomes in their campaign can have bitter, furtive gnomes that dislike human arcanists. In the latter case, those who want gnomes have to break with the official position on the subject. In both cases, those who want no gnomes can use the historic massacre as an excuse. Which tack is more flexible? Isn’t more flexible better for the game?
As hard as it might be for veteran game tinkerers to believe, it’s difficult for some players, especially new ones, to break free of the official position on a subject. The official position is “the rule,” after all. Taught by the example of those in lofty official positions, newer players might also start to think absolute positions are right and good. I’ve met players who believe these points, who believe that changing what you don’t like about a game is something one does not do. That’s breaking the rules.
To use older Dark Sun material as a reference point again, some of the adventures and the second edition of the setting were less than popular among fans. This was with good reason. At least a couple adventures place novel characters in the central roles they had in the novel. They do the cool stuff while the players and player characters watch or take up secondary roles. Fun, eh? The whole second edition of the setting assumes the Prism Pentad novels have happened—have become part of the canon—and that the world has changed. A number of defining elements from the original setting are gone, because the novel protagonists removed them, usually bloodily. Allowing the novels to interfere with the game material did the fans no favors.
This is one reason why it’s insane to use novels as canon for any game setting. Another is that a roleplaying game is about interacting with an imaginary world as a potentially important imaginary person or as one who directs events set in that world. The game is not about merely consuming someone else’s narration or spectating at historic events. Further, as the number of novels increase, the canon becomes increasingly unwieldy until it’s overwhelming for normal players. Most people avoid playing cumbersome games. Enforcing novels as canon from an official position also, eventually, makes it a nightmare to design game material and write shared-world fiction for that setting.
This was a very real problem that faced the Forgotten Realms setting when the 4e D&D game came on the scene. Keepers of the Forgotten Realms went even further in the past, actually. Just about everything with an official seal on it is canon for the Realms—games, video games, novels, and so on. Now that’s crazy and limiting. However, it could have all been solved by hitting the reset button on the Realms the way Wizards did with Eberron and Dark Sun. Back to 1357 DR, anyone?
Some novels or other non-game setting materials do more or less harm to games that exist alongside them or follow them. The Forgotten Realms setting is indeed a place where thousands of stories can happen. It is more tolerant to canon because of this. On the other hand, Middle Earth really has one ultimate task that needs accomplishing. If you ain’t a member of the Fellowship of the Ring, pal, you’re nobody.
A rich media environment is still good for a game. Novel and such serve the game and their own purpose when they tell what could be or might happen in a game world without enforcing that reality, as canon, on the game. Such stories then become great territory for DM looting, for adventures and NPCs, and player looting, for character concepts and backgrounds. They retain their value as entertainment, as well. No one can stop one DM or another from making a novel’s story canon for his or her game. That’s fine.
The point is, as my friend Stephen Radney-MacFarland liked to point out when I got too serious in some meetings at Wizards of the Coast, we all just make this stuff up. I’m just saying that what the official source makes up and peddles as canon needs to be defining and flexible rather than trivial and absolute. Trivial absolutes are the worst. They’re hard to remember, and often not worth remembering. (Oh, yeah, I can’t use trolls here because the trolls were wiped out in the Cleansing Wars. There goes my adventure idea. Bleh.) They also give those who can remember such trivialities a way to choose against being immersed in the distinctive world an individual DM wants to portray. Sure, that’s jerky, and we should avoid playing with jerks, but it happens. Put simply, trivial canon and absolutes, especially arbitrary ones without guidance on how to make exceptions, just make the game harder to play.
For the record, a lot of game material contains arbitrary absolutes that make the material harder to use. Take any monster that doesn’t play well with others, a prime reason why 4e monster entries try to give you reasons to mix and match. Look for any statement with a never or an always in it. When I edit, I kill such absolutes with wild abandon. I want to avoid making the game harder.
Game world canon can and should make the game better and easier to play. It should be defining rather than trivial. Setting material should teach you how to make a game of your own, instructing you on how to make fitting exceptions even to defining canon. What I’m really saying is that you can portray a unique and interesting game setting, and at the same time, make that setting easy to play. You have to be careful with your canon.
Just don’t point it at me.