The Smallest Kid in the Sandbox

A writing teacher of mine once said that any writing you do is more than just a story or novel or essay; the act of writing is also entering a conversation with all the other writers who have ever or will ever write something as well. If I took that statement literally, I would be too intimidated to ever put pen to paper, imagining that I was actually shooting the breeze with brilliant minds like Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and Updike.  However, this thought does help focus a writer—it instills the awareness that the act of writing is something worthy of taking seriously, even if the work itself is silly or irreverent in tone (or for a fantasy RPG).

The sentiment from that teacher is never far from my mind, but it struck me even more prophetic as I did more and more work in the game-design field—and in particular when that work brought me into designing within a shared-world environment. Even as the forward-thinking R&D folks at Wizards of the Coast do a little bit of public introspection on the past and future of the game of Dungeons & Dragons (and RPGs in general), and as the public interprets that introspection as a referendum on the next iteration of D&D, it strikes me how working on content for a game really is a conversation with past and future designers and developers. And, if game design is such a conversation, then designing content in settings such as the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Greyhawk is an outright public debate, including Springer-esque, chair-throwing, clothes-ripping brawls.

When I was given the chance to work as one of the Global Administrators on the Living Forgotten Realms campaign in 2008, I had the slightest iota of experience working on projects in other shared-world settings, mostly D&D ones like Eberron or Greyhawk, but also Babylon 5.  Working on projects in those arenas was a bit unnerving, but the Forgotten Realms is a whole different beast.  Not only are there years of gaming material lurking behind it, but whole libraries of novels hang over a designer’s head.  And that doesn’t even touch the video games and other ancillary products.

After all, it is one thing to play around with the fundamentals of a shared-world when you are doing so for a group of players in a private (which can be a tough enough job).  It is another issue entirely when you are being asked to tread upon fans’ sacred grounds; it is impossible to hide your footprints in a sandbox so public and sometimes overly scrutinized.

I have spent much of my last 4 years in my game design career treading in the sandbox of the Forgotten Realms. The Living Forgotten Realms content was the starting point, but that was somewhat a small corner of the very large play area: organized play is often considered its own small niche, and it is easily overlooked by the hardcore fans of a setting as somehow parallel and therefore not necessarily connected.  Although the work that organized-play administrators and volunteers in such campaigns is difficult and extensive, we are often shielded from the worst of the angry fans of a setting.

If there is one word I hear spoken in a ghostly and terror-inducing voice in my nightmares, that word is “canon.” The term originally referred to the pieces of a religious text that can authoritatively be deemed scripture, and it was later co-opted by literary scholars to refer works that can be definitively attributed to an author.  In areas of the fan bases’ interactions with a piece of intellectual property in general, and in areas such as RPG settings in particular, the word “canon” has come to refer to those pieces of work that are considered “official” for the setting. Starting with my time working on the Keoland Triad in the Living Greyhawk campaign, and continuing up to the present as I stare at the projects on my desk that delve deeply into the lore of the Forgotten Realms, very few words have been as important and as frustrating to me as “canon.”

The irony is that as a History major in college, I gained the deepest respect for history and those who study it. I understand that hindsight is far from 20/20, and that our understanding of the past evolves almost as rapidly as our predictions of the future.  It was hard enough to find experts agreeing on the causes of certain wars or historical movements that happened years or decades or centuries ago.  Imagine how hard it is to get people to agree on fictitious pasts!

A younger version of me interviewed writer Frederick Busch about his novel The Night Inspector, set in New York City in the aftermath of the Civil War. One of the many things that will stick with me forever from that interview is what Busch said about writing an historical novel. He warned of the danger a novelist faces when researching background: it becomes a temptation to research too much, to lose one’s self in the material and neglect to write the story meant to be told. He talked about “falling into” that world and being unable to get out.  Those working within imaginary worlds face the same danger.As an LFR admin, my work had me delving into the past of areas as diverse as the Moonshae Isles, Waterdeep, Cormyr, Thay, and Zhentil Keep.  Even after stepping down from the campaign, I found myself with other project that led to extensive research into several other areas. Two recent projects set within the Forgotten Realms have led me to learn everything there is to know about the Moonshae Isles and Undermountain.  Such research, combined with the need to extrapolate and move the timeline forward, is daunting.

While writing an article for Dungeon Magazine that gives the background information for potential campaigns set in the Forgotten Realms’ Moonshae Isles, my ability to walk that line was tested.  Of course my first step was to move backward through the reams of previous content detailing that area: everything from the first Moonshae RPG sourcebook and novel trilogy to the latest 4e information. I re-read the trilogy, reviewed the original RPG sourcebook, and consumed the 3e and 4e D&D published material. Before I realized it, I was among the lotus-eaters. I was daydreaming about the awesome campaigns that could be set there. I was thinking about how gripping an updated novel trilogy could be. No actual writing was in danger of getting done.

Like Odysseus, however, I was able to pull myself out of the stupor. The writing began anew. However, before long, the fear of the fans’ canon debate seized me up again. Was the Earthmother a divine aspect of Chauntea or a primal power in her own right? What should I do when a beloved part of a 20-year-old novel conflicted with a new piece of 4e game design? In the material I was designing for Undermountain, what was I going to do with Halaster, one of the most well-recognized wizards in the Realms behind Elminster? I won’t go as far as to say that I was starting to freak out, but only because that might cause people to question my sanity.

In the end, some deep-breathing exercises and a little perspective saved the day. Yes, I was the smallest kid in the sandbox. Yes, if I tried to grab hold of the coolest sand bucket and shovel, one of the bigger kids was likely to punch me in the mouth. The key, in the long run, is to respect the setting—respect all the hard work that has been done by others with better minds and clearer vision. The setting is beloved for a reason, and that existing love has been well earned. However, there are also further stories to tell. If new footprints aren’t made in the sand because of fear of disturbing existing footprints, the sandbox will never attract new kids. Time, even time in fictional worlds, marches on. If not me, then who? So I will grab the pail and shovel, with the understanding that I could end up with a mouthful of sand and a bloody lip. But even the fight might be fun, right?


  1. Canon (in the Realms especially) drives me nuts because it opens up a wider discussion about DIY versus provided content.

    So the whole point of setting material is its great to take some workload off of a DM and here you have a whole staff of writers and artists and cartographers and monster-makers and whatnot doing exactly that. And that’s awesome. So you get an adventure together, and you sit down to the table-the DM and 4-6 players..

    ..and suddenly you don’t have a staff of artists and writers and cartographers and such. You have your notes or whatever it is you took from them, and you have some stat-blocks, and maybe even an adventure write-up all neatly printed out. But during the game, the DM is kinda on his own. And inevitably one of the players pulls some factoid out of his hat like “We’re in Eveningstar? no problem, we’ll see if we can buy a Tressym*.. a Tressym will totally solve this mystery” (or whatever else) and suddenly the DM doesn’t know what a Tressym is or whatever.

    And the problem with canon is this right here; the DM doesn’t know what to do, and the player who knows everything about Faerun feels like he is entitled to this situation where the Dm doesn’t “mess it up” because canon (like biblical scripture) is perfect and exists outside of us. The DM is the black box through which all experiences are processed..and itis missing vital pieces of information.

    And of course, the other paradox of canon is people want the Realms to be *about* these fascinating details, but without actually touching them. So the Realms are supposed to be about Elminster but Elminster can’t ever be used as an NPC in an adventure..or referred to. That, (much like a steering wheel on a pirates belt buckle), drives me nuts.

    The only remedy- the only one that works for me, and that I fully admit may not work for everyone– is that DMs must go further to develop their own DIY spirit. They should be aware that when they sit down at the game table.. there’s literally nobody else to save them, and they have full control over the experience. They should know the canon, certainly.. but like the rabbis of old, they should know when to deviate from canon, or to provide an explanation when things go off the books. Oh, and also, quit relying so slavishly on content providers. The two Forgotten Realms sourcebooks and the Grand History of the Realms are full of amazing details.. enough for any DM to go on.

    Here’s a blueprint for a new way to vet RPGA judges: you don’t take a herald test. Instead you write and run an adventure which gets judged on a 1-10 scale of “Was this a good adventure” and “did you have fun?” and a yes/no/still needs practice scale of “is this person any good as a DM?”

    (* This was a totally random example. Tressyms are winged housecats that can be found in Eveningstar, according to canon. I have no idea how that would solve a mystery, I just like winged housecats.)

  2. Canon is what I tell the players it is. Granted I will try my best to go by what’s known in the sourcebooks. But usually that’s as far as it goes. If I can’t quickly and easily validate something a player wants to do because they know the canon better than I, then it gets dismissed in such a way as is beneficial to the story, or I take the player at their word if it’s not a game-breaker and we move forward. But my players have always known that the DM’s word is law and if cannon gets thrown out for the betterment of the game, then that’s the way it is. Since I haven’t ever had people quit my campaigns and have, at times had to turn people away because the group was too large, I assume that “betterment of the game” has worked.

    I have never heard the “the act of writing is also entering a conversation with all the other writers who have ever or will ever write something” parable but if I thought of it that way I’m sure it would be daunting. Luckily I don’t care what anyone thinks of my writing, or in this case, crafting of game content. Granted, mine is not for publication to the masses. Even when writing for my game groups I still write for myself. What I create is a story that *I* want to tell. I bring people in and craft that story to be interactive and enjoyable for everyone involved. But ultimately, it’s still written for my own enjoyment. If I tweak something someone else wrote in doing so or eliminate details to further my story, then so be it. That I might be stepping on the toes of giants who have gone before me does not enter my mind. Just creating content that is enjoyable by all is worth a little toe-stepping.

  3. Great article Shawn! Very inspiring and thought provoking for those of us who love to write in an established setting.

  4. Been doing some research on FR canon in connection with my current FR campaign, and it’s very clear that the designers/writers themselves don’t keep stuff straight. Best solution is to take the bits I like and lose the rest.

  5. @ Fearless DM – I usually smile at that kind of player, and then try to come up with a quick fix, sometimes which sounds like the total BS that it is, but it gently says “Just because you’ve read The Realms doesn’t mean you know My Realms”.

    Something like, “Oh, well, sadly, the Gawd of Tressym fell in the Avatar Crisis, so now there are very few, and they cost like, 5 billion platinum, and the law of Cormyr governs how you treat them, as an endangered species…in fact, there is a registration fee to own one, and you can’t take it out of the country…”


    “Well, you see, Tressym are so magical, the Spellplague burned through them and mutated them. You could own one, if you really want to, but there is a chance it will always act like a housecat, permanently high on catnip, at they also tend to scream like a Tribble next to a Klingon when exposed to dwarves…”

    Alternately, I go ahead and give it to them. I may let it work. I go to Forgotten Realms wiki, read a little more on “X”, and then X becomes three or four new plot threads, and the rest of the players are like, “We were just fine until you decided to buy that dern Tressym! Now, it keeps chasing Dire Rats and bringing them home, leaving them in my sleeping bag…” 🙂 Peer pressure is a grand way to “get back” at that player who blasts you with “Canon”.

    @ Shawn – Just like the James brothers, in their Phlan 4e adventure, you also have proved yourself a Realms fan, and show love for the material, the canon, and the rest of us fans, when you write in the Realms. If Ed Greenwood doesn’t dicker with what you wrote, who are we not to embrace it? Well done!

  6. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Fearless – DIY vs. pre-made is definitely part of the equation. When I started DMing long ago and far away, I would use certain parts of pre-made setting and adventures, but for the most part I created by own settings and adventures. However, some of the DMs I played under used those pre-made settings religiously–and there was an attraction to playing stuff that had been done by “professionals” and that had all that support–and that I knew other people were experiencing too. Without the Internet at that time, we just stayed away from reading too much about the setting other DMs were using, and we were happy. The more novels and CRPGs that came out, the harder it became to keep that sense of wonder at the setting. I like the implication that DMs who are good at writing adventures are good at DMing as well, because the two really do go hand-in-glove.

    @kanati – I am glad that being able to ignore canon works for you and your groups. I would never say that a DM is bad for not sticking to canon. My point was that when you are writing official game material for a published setting, that is a whole separate issue.

    @Robert – Thanks for the kind words. While writing the setting material, I just tried to ask myself over and over again, “What would be cool within a campaign?” while still trying to stay true and respect the setting’s past.

  7. Shawn Merwin says:

    @S’mon – I cannot disagree that there are many discrepancies even in the official published works. And I would not expect a DM to slavishly conform to the story as written. In fact, I would hope that DMs would tailor everything, including setting history and even game rules, to make the game work for himself/herself and the players in the game.

    @Greek – Thanks, and great points. I hear some DMs talk about their players not getting enough into the setting and background of the game, so part of my would be overjoyed when players are interested enough to bring up something they may have read about the setting–and I would certainly try to work with them as you suggest. Of course if they were pushy about it that is one thing, but I would also love the players to make such an investment in the game and I would reward them for it.

  8. @Shawn – I’m using non-FR adventures in my FR Loudwater campaign, so obviously I can’t stick religiously to canon. I’ll use bits from canon – eg there are goblins in Southwood, so that’s a good place to stick The Slaying Stone. The upper Delimbiyr above the Shining Falls is a long upland river, so a good place to put Heathen (Dungeon 155).

    Perhaps my biggest change was roughly halving the map scale, while adding in a bunch of villages, small towns, tribes etc – making the place a lot less empty!

  9. The other answer to the ‘canon lawyer’ type of player is “Oh, you HEARD that there are these flying cats in Cormyr, yeah, we get that kind of fairy tale from outlanders a lot here…” You can stick to the conceptual framework and a lot of the details of a setting and still confound the players who think they know it inside and out. Their character ‘knows’ something, but any arbitrary amount of it can be tall tales, misinformation, etc. The reality could be equally interesting and will be at least surprising.

  10. Forgotten Realms is the Star Trek of the D&D worlds – it’s the plethora of canon itself that is the main attraction of the setting – and just like Trek there’s intense scrutiny on any product bearing the ‘official’ tag. You wouldn’t have the same problems writing for Dark Sun or Spelljammer (OK there’s a lot less material to deal with in the first place) because people are attracted to those settings for different reasons than the realms’ rich history and fabulous detail.
    It’s easy to say ‘screw canon and do what you want’, but then you’d be ignoring the thing that makes people like the realms in the first place. It’s a very tough tightrope act to walk – you have to tell new stories and expand the setting and at the same time not punish fans who’ve invested themselves in the setting. I think your approach is right on for tackling such a difficult problem – I’m looking forward to the new Undermountain book.

  11. Here’s an example I came across a few minutes ago of why it’s crazy for DMs to stick to canon – thanks to a mix up at some point, ‘FR canon’ now says there are supposedly two different Netherese liches in the ruins of Karse, both of whom happen to be called Wulgreth!

    That’s what you get when designers try to stick to canon and have it make sense. Designers may feel forced to do that, but the smart approach for a DM is to treat it as a smorgasbord, take what you want and leave the rest.

  12. My Loudwater campaign blog has many examples of how I’ve treated canon as inspirational and a valuable resource, but refused to be constrained by it:

  13. Funny how many comments discuss canon in relation to their home campaigns, while as Shawn pointed out, it is a much bigger problem in a shared campaign like LFR or when writing an official article in an official product (which by definition becomes part of the new canon) 😉 In all honesty, I have worked with a “worse” crowd than LFR players though. The big change in regards to the Spellplague helped a lot in that regards, and people have different expectations for Organized Play games.

    Personally I would love it when my players actually spend time reading on the details of the campaign and use it to enrich the gaming experience through their character’s background and dreams. The problem lies mostly in a potential disconnect and long discussions (which I personally love, but which can detract from the actual adventure). Still, I think the positives outweight the negatives in a typical home campaign.