Musings on Continuity

Our Own Hero’s Journey

Sometimes, in any fantasy world where you have invested a large amount of your imagination, you start to append your real-world experiences to those of the characters being portrayed. For example, in the Star Wars universe, characters such as Luke are relatable, in that most people understand the story of “the everyman.” He is compelling because of the extraordinary destiny that lies ahead in his life. People generally like to feel that there is a greater purpose for them, and as such, they always cheer for the protagonist that achieves this greatness. As we cheer on we also become invested in the story. No matter how far removed from reality the elements of the story are, there is a humanization that brings us right back in. We love this. We want this to continue. We want to never break the feeling we first received while experiencing that story.

Everyone experiences this in a different way. What we pull from a story will differ depending on our life’s experiences. Continuing with Star Wars, one might feel more attached to Han Solo, the brutish scallywag that really has a heart beneath his crusty façade. Or, maybe it is Leia, the strong-willed and persistent princess, one who can get things done, regardless of the testosterone that flies around. Maybe you even felt a connection with Chewbacca—a big cumbersome brute that protects his friends with furious devotion, but is cuddly and cute once you get underneath the fur. Regardless of how you made the connection, you connected. You became invested in the story, and you want nothing to scramble that experience, even if you’re willing to give little ground.

Continuity of a game world works the same way. Consumers of fantasy become invested in the characters, and they begin to sense the world around them, taking in the descriptions and feel an author has provided. R.A. Salvatore, New York Times best-selling author and creator of the renegade drow Drizzt, is fantastic at bringing in the reader and giving them what is needed to relate to his characters. It is undeniable that Drizzt is popular, and for numerous reasons, people keep coming back to hear what will happen to him next. They want to maintain that feel, and have the protagonist overcome adversity.

The Ultimate Power In The Universe

Consumers of fiction care about the setting of which their protagonists reside, and they want to see that maintained to a certain standard. When large swaths of their protagonist’s world are rewritten/overwritten/removed, it begins to deteriorate their experience, and becomes a frustration. Imagine, if you will, in Star Wars, that the snowy planet of Hoth was retroactively rewritten to be a tropic world. The explanation is that the Empire developed a terraforming device, the LifeStar, to make planets inhabitable so that the Empire could more easily expand their reach and develop larger populations. First things first, this is lame. It is so lame that I’m getting pissed just writing it. No matter why this was created, or what justification there is for doing it, it just plain sucks. It feels foreign, is not relatable (never found in any of the popular movies, or in the novels), and completely distorts our mind’s eye view of the Star Wars universe.

I admit, that would be big change, and I used it more to illustrate something extreme. Surely that would never happen, but the point remains. Let’s take an example that really did happen. R.A. (Bob) Salvatore, someone I am blessed to be able to call a friend, was tasked with killing off one of the most iconic characters in the entire Star Wars franchise: Chewbacca. At its concept, it is huge. It is almost exciting, right? Killing off an iconic character!? Oh, my God! Imagine the ruckus this will cause! Surely it will be good for sales! No, it is a kick in the nuts. Remember where I said Chewbacca was a cuddly and cute? People generally like bad-ass characters that are also cuddly and cute. How about Ewoks? Not so much. Kill them as much as you can. Yeah, I’m looking at you Wicket! Don’t even get me started on Jar-Jar Binks. Messa gonna have an aneurism.

Continuity of a shared world is difficult, however, and it is not without some major constraints. The longer the world exists, and the more people who contribute to it, the more it becomes a cumbersome beast. Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) used to employ continuity editors. In fact, Erik Mona, one of the big honchos at Paizo and one of my game design idols, was originally hired to be a continuity editor for the Greyhawk world. How freaking cool is that? His job (I assume) was to make sure things made sense and that the world of Greyhawk wasn’t devolved into something that would rebuke fans.

Continuity Cops: Protecting and Serving

Making things more difficult are fans like me. I have spent a good portion of my free time, prior to being a game designer, connecting the dots of continuity in the Forgotten Realms setting. Even with my dedication, I am but a speck when compared to others—such as my older brother, Brian R. James. So, if someone like me can devote a large amount of time to the Realms, imagine what a large group of like-minded individuals could accomplish? Fans like me tend to be viewed as a thorn in the side of editors and game designers. We are quick to point out inconsistencies and errors, and we are unforgiving in our relentless quest for purity. We’re not always right, and we’re certainly not always fair, but the intentions of such fans should be viewed as an asset to a publisher. I’ll explain.

Without fan-sites and discussion boards, I would have to comb through my large library of books for the nuances of what an author wrote. It could have been written 20 years ago. I feel these sites should be viewed as a resource, and not a burden. It’s much easier to see the collective discussion on a topic than it is to hammer it all out in your own brain. I can’t count how many times I have relied on these communities to pin-point an exact piece of information that I can use. As the game designer, it is my duty to remain true to that experience, and to be the judge in forming its creation.

The beauty of large and vast worlds is that there should, theoretically, be plenty of design space to create new and interesting stories. It may be the case, and I have been guilty of this, that writers want to butt up against something that is already established. This is not inherently bad, but it does open up a can of worms if proper due diligence is not employed.

After all is said and done, continuity is an important aspect of consideration that publishing companies should consider carefully. While the downsides are clear, and include a larger overhead (much larger depending on the setting), the benefits of taking the time to do it right can return ten-fold. What are your thoughts? How important is continuity when it comes to the imaginary worlds (or universes) you use?

Comments

  1. Mark Taylor says:

    Good Read – I wish all writers of official canon felt the way you did.

  2. Jeremy Grenemyer says:

    I think continuity is important, but only up to a certain point. That is, it shouldn’t be something that prohibits practical decision making for a product.

    I see your point about introducing what amount to alien concepts into a campaign setting; large, wholesale changes are never a good thing, no matter what amount of in-game explanation you give (be it the passage of time or what have you).

    But at the same, as regards settings like the Forgotten Realms, the Realms **must** change. It should grow and expand. NPCs should grow old and die to make way for new ones.

    For the Forgotten Realms, it’s a very delicate art to balance the sum of all prior information about the Realms against the very real needs and goals of the business that publishes products set in that campaign setting.

    To sell products, you have to make something new. When you make something new, things change. That’s not always easy for fans to accept.

    I also see your point about fan sites. I only want to add that fan sites are a double-edged sword: the more they focus on continuity and canon (that is, the more rigid and stratified a fan site’s thinking becomes on the subject), the less open a fan site will be to creativity, imagination and “working outside what’s known”.

    The primary strength of the Forgotten Realms is not in what’s been published about it. Rather, it’s the Realms’ ability to ignite the imagination and inspire ideas.

    Fan sites concerned with preserving continuity is a good thing. However, fan sites that forget the purpose of continuity is to preserve a setting’s ability to ignite the imaginations of (novel) readers and inspire the creativity of (D&D) gamers don’t properly serve the wider fantasy world community they are a part of.

    Great article Matt. Hope to see more from you in the future.

  3. Thank you for the kind comments. I agree whole-hardheartedly that a good balance is required. The need for the setting to grow, versus the preservation of what has come prior.

  4. As dogma piles up on dogma, maintaining continuity becomes a real burden for DMs, too. Having even one player who knows more about a setting’s history than the DM and isn’t shy about sharing it, can really disrupt game sessions and derail adventures. We used to refer to such people as “dogma gobblers.”

  5. I’m with you on everything but the ewoks (I have a soft spot for those guys), and I agree that continuity can be an asset rather than a burden if publishers look at it in terms of brand loyalty. As you point out, fans invest money, time and emotion into these worlds. That investment is taken away from them when continuity is gutted, in essence punishing fans for their continued loyalty to a setting. The flipside is that a cohesive continuity, with the occasional shout out or easter egg, rewards continued brand loyalty because it rewards the invested fan’s knowledge of the setting. As fans are rewarded for their loyalty to a setting, the stronger their investment grows and the more likely they are to continue to purchase products associated with that setting (which in the case of Dragonlance or the Forgotten Realms goes way beyond a few rulebooks: comics, novels, videogames, etc.).

    @Steve – I hear ya, it can be annoying to DM the rabid ‘dogma gobbler’, but I don’t think that’s a reason for publishers to throw away continuity. DMs on the other hand…

  6. Guillaume says:

    I read a few days ago an article where the problems with the last game of thrones (supposedly : too slow, not enough story advancement – I have not read it yet) were attributed to the idea that GRRM is scared of continuity fanatics, and must be sure that everything in his very complex tapestry is valid, because somebody is going to calculate travel times and check horses’ color. It’s too bad I can’t find it anymore :(

    I think your idea of settings continuity is conflicting with the author’s primal need to be creative. I’m nearly sure that most of the discontinuity examples (Mage 2e/3e, Forgotten Realms 4e) were done mostly because the authors have changed, and the new ones wanted to implement their own vision, rather than just trying to be a Brucato or Greenwood clone. Can you blame an artist for wanting to create things his/her way ?

  7. Philo Pharynx says:

    I believe that reimagining can be a good thing. The classic superheroes have been re-imagined in lots of ways, so has Star Trek, and any number of properties. Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t. But I don’t think that a failed reimagining harms the original. It’s still there waiting for you on the shelf or on the screen. And new adaptations can bring a fresh idea and fresh blood into things.

  8. Ashimar says:

    See I think the Hoth example is not a good example of continuity. It had a reasonable explanation on what happened to Hoth to tun it into a paradise. Now if the author describes Hoth as always being a vacation paradise or home to the Ewoks then that is what I call continuity issue. I think people get too stuck about their universe I remember when the Star Wars novels introduced the Yuuzhan Vong. Everybody griped that the the Yuzhan Vong didn’t feel like Star Wars but the thing is before Star Wars was created nothing felt like Star Wars.

  9. “…but the thing is before Star Wars was created nothing felt like Star Wars.”

    Right, but it Star Wars was created.