Peregrine's Nest: Using the Canon

One problem that seems to come up a lot for many GMs in many settings is how to create adventures in the midst of an established setting's official canon. The problem is usually framed as “How can I run any adventures when the events of the setting are already so set?” I hear this a lot for Dune, and it also comes up for 7th Sea and its metaplot. But I’d argue that canon is your friend. Where's why.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Afterwards

One easy option to run a game is to wait for all the canon events to pass in the game's established timeline. Setting your Dune game after the last books or running a Lord of the Rings game set after the destruction of the One Ring can work. The issue with setting a game after the events of the main metaplot is that it can sometimes feel like like all the exciting work has been done. Once peace has settled and evil has (supposedly) been vanquished, it may seem like there isn’t much work left to do. This puts pressure on the GM to either resurrect the original villain or create a new one.

There's a balance to this approach, however. How much should the game stay true to the themes of the original without losing its charm? After all, most players want to play in a movie or book's setting because they recognize its core elements. “Nasria the dark spirit of the broken ring” may be a cool new villain in Lord of the Rings. But you’re probably playing One Ring so you can fight the minions of Sauron and Saruman.

Finding Gaps in Time and Space

The most obvious way to avoid the problems of an established timeline is to set your game in the narrative gaps. Most books or movies zoom in on particular protagonists, leaving plenty of events that aren’t detailed in the canon. The One Ring RPG takes place in the sixty years between the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It is the perfect place to start, with evil on the rise and all the iconic characters available to interact with, but with no specific canon events to trip up the game's flow. It also gives the GM plenty of time to run a whole campaign in that sixty year span of game time.

In galaxy-spanning settings like Dune and Star Wars, there are a multitude of planets that can be fleshed out. Canon events can't cover every planet, allowing the GM and the players to do what they like without directly impacting the official timeline. Even in a fantasy game, most lands are large enough to have new places of explore. In Lord of the Rings we barely see a fraction of Middle Earth in the books, leaving vast parts of the continent ripe for development.

Of course, canon doesn't have to be avoided; it can also be used as a campaign framework. I based a whole campaign in 7th Sea on the metaplot.
The mad fate witch Lucrecia targeted the PCs as "having destiny" and manipulated the strands to place them in critical points along the timeline. They sunk Caligari island, delivered the Montaigne Emperor Leon to the Kreuzritter, and all manner of other things.
It made my job as the GM so much easier as the story was already there. It didn’t get in the way; I used it to give me ideas. As such it wasn’t a hurdle so much as a vital ingredient for my campaign.

Becoming the Unsung

History is often written by the victors, and if books and movies are considered historical retellings (as Star Wars positions itself a "long time ago in a galaxy far, far away"), then by necessity there's content that was left out. PCs can be the nameless heroes responsible for the unwritten quests. While there isn’t a lot of fame and kudos for the player characters in this option, that isn’t the only reward. In these adventures there is a chance to be part of the canon rather than just watching it unfold. Sure, the good guys won, but for the PC heroes, there's plenty of story to tell in how the protagonists got there.

Star Wars has been trading on this for years, creating whole series to follow minor characters or answer questions about what actually happened at certain times. Who were the Bothans who got the Death Star plans to the rebels? You can easily apply this to any other setting: In Lord of the Rings, what battles were fought against the Witch King while the hobbits were climbing Mount Doom? In Star Trek, what were the Romulans doing before they entered the Dominion war? In Dune, who found out the Harkonnens were losing their grip on Arrakis and told the Padishah Emperor?

There are also opportunities to be present at major events. In Lord of the Rings, those who rode out with Theodan at Helm’s Deep or led a company to victory on the Pelinor Fields can be just as much a hero as Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas. Maybe they were even the ones to inspire those same heroes to stand and fight once more when they weren’t sure they could carry on.

Being the Heroes

If you're not particularly bothered about the details, you can change the general canon while staying true to its spirit. In your Lord of the Rings campaign, it may not matter if Bilbo, Frodo or even Gandalf on an Eagle threw the One Ring into Mount Doom; all that matters is that someone did. Give the One Ring to your players and see how they do (hmmm, I think we might already know the answer to that particular one though and it’s not good). But maybe it was a player character and not Eowyn who faces the Witch King; in Star Wars, maybe Darth Vader has a few more children than even Yoda kept track of.

If the GM does let the player characters take the place of the canon characters, it is up to the GM whether or not to keep the original heroes around. Those heroic NPCs can be a useful backstop if the player characters go too far or simply fail. They might face the Witch King in a Lord of the Rings campaign and get utterly defeated, but as they lie there waiting for the final blow they see what they thought was a young boy tear off their helm and declare “I am no man!” and rush in to fight.

In my Dragonlance campaign I let the players create all new heroes, but I kept the Heroes of the Lance around. In my game the original heroes simply didn’t get involved in the War of the Lance in the same way. So Raistlin and Caramon are still jobbing mercenaries, Riverwind and Goldmoon are taking care of their tribe. This meant the player characters could still run into the iconic characters, even though they were the heroes of the story.

Is it a Problem Anyway?

Canon really matters only in the eyes of the participants. If you and your players aren't concerned about it, canon events can easily be tweaked. In Dune, very little changes for the Houses of the Landsraad over the events of the early novels. Sure, there is a massive coup and the power balance across the universe between the Guild, Throne and Bene Gesserit is shifted forever. But how much does that really affect your noble House? Spice is trickier to get hold of and everything just got a bit more expensive. But the houses still trade, the rules of kanly still apply to assassination, the rich are still rich and the poor are still poor. Upsetting the Emperor is just as bad an idea as it always was. The only difference is that you need to travel to a different planet to apologise and you get attacked by Fremen instead of Sardaukar if you don’t. Its business as usual.

In Star Wars they say Luke is the last hope for the Jedi, but the new films and series have made it clear there is still an abundance of lightsaber wielding force users spread across the galaxy. The same goes for Lord of the Rings, where you might not be able to destroy Sauron, but the forces of darkness still need to be stopped. In most popular settings there is a force for evil that is never quite destroyed, and there's always room for one more hero.

And who says the PCs have to save the world? Sometimes, it's the little things that count. Given that riches can be earned anywhere and good beer is hard to find, saving the heir to the throne may mean far less than saving the local pub and becoming heroes of the village the PCs grew up in.

Your Turn: How much do you worry about canon in your games?
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
This is focusing down to a specific type of canon - (meta)plot that is already happening, perhaps by the heroes of an IP that has been converted to an RPG setting. I mention that just to separate out from things like the large amounts of lore that a setting like FR has, which could be a shorthand understanding between players and DM or a source of confusion if not equally understood. But in this case, it's something to be intentionally either incorporated or worked around to focus on the PCs being the heroes of the story.

I like the suggestion about finding gaps - not overlapping in time with the IP. For example, the Avatar: Legends RPG gives you four different time period suggestions to place your game, and all of them are outside the media (at the time the game was published, it looks like there's more Avatar on the way). Even for the ones that take place before published IP, there's a lot of room for the world to be changed and great stories told.

Non-story-IP metaplot on the other hand I find is a great way to keep things dynamic. Eberron has a lot going on and small forces (read: the PCs or the villains) could make large shifts in the power balance. Things happening in the campaign which are not linked to the PCs are great ways to make a setting feel vibrant and alive.
 

We did the same thing, with the characters finding themselves the the dark forest with the forest guardian unicorn, and him choosing the kender as the first archedruid in hundreds of years. They kept fighting a halfogre named ho’rogeth that they kept literally tripping over, who was enacting the will of takesis to try and gain advantage against the heroes of the lance.

good times. They were literally the second stringers clearing the way for the heroes and running interference. Never got credit.
 

I can run a game in World War Two without the players needing to kill Hitler so I can run a game in Star Wars without the player ever meeting Darth Vadar or Chewie or whomever.

Lots of ground to cover and lots of heros. My grandfather flew over 20 bomber mission over Germany. You don't know his name but I heard his stories and he is just as much a hero as as everyone else who fought.

No one person wins the war. Luke fails without parts, intell, his wingman, and thousands of rebels who die off screen spreading the empires forces.
 

ngenius

Explorer
I play lots of D&D and the low level play is so much fun, and, yes, your PCs do not need to change history, but can save the local tavern in which they first met And environment threats from a simple cave adventure are much more rewarding when your team actually has to climb and not just fly, or use laterns not darkvision. Maybe that is why Shadowdark Kickstarter broke a million.

Adventures in Middle-Earth has several such simple folk stories in the Bree book.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I learned that while I love home brewing, I don't have the time these days to pour into creating detailed setting material and while I'm not bad at improvising, I'm bad at keeping notes while also running a game, and terrible at remembering improved lore and recording it. At the same time, I hate feeling like I have to study a game setting like a semester of history and sociology courses.

My sweet spot is to find a setting that my players are not very familiar with and using it for inspiration and to have content to answer lore questions and have plenty of material for sandbox adventuring, but feeling free to change it however I want.

Yes, you can do this with established settings like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc. But I find with wildly popular setting like that, you are going to find that most players already are quite familiar with setting (most more so than I) and many players want to play in such games because they love the settings. I find I'm more likely to find players less than thrilled with my violations of canon in certain settings. Not that I have any horror stories of players being jerks about it, but I'm just not going to run a satisfying Star Wars campaign for an uber fan.

My last attempt at running a game in a popular setting was The Expanse. It was ... okay. But I just was not the right DM to capture the feeling of the setting. I ran only one session and the book is basically something for me to enjoy reading on my own.

My next campaign will be Warhammer Fantasy 4e. While Warhammer has decades of lore and a rabid fan base, none of my players have any exposure to it and no expectations. So I have no worries about using it for flavor but changing the recipe to run the game how I want or how it develops. Any "mistakes" or improved lore or locations I make when I forget whatever is written in the books, just become the way things are in our world in our campaign.

I love being a player in games run by GMs with deep knowlege of a particular IPs canon or a specific historical period, but I don't enjoy trying to run games like that.
 

The previous franchises can be a great source of inspiration, but also these could become a straitjacket if you worry too much about to respect the canon.

Other point about the creative freedom is the PCs can't alter the main plot. For example you can play Dragonlance, but the PCs shouldn't alter the path by the heroes of the lance, but if the players are in an alternate timeline. Some times the DM has to alter the plot because other players have read the book and these know what is hapen, for example about the secret identity of Fizban.

Even if you love worldbuilding other players would rather a setting with known names because then you haven't to explain about who is who or what is happening in the neighbour kingdoms.

Other times the canon has to be broken because a player wants certain crunch, for example a class or PC race/specie.

Let's remember the lore of the TTRPGs are like the bricks within a LEGO box (or other building toy). You are totally free to create you wanted, and this hasn't to be like in the cover of the box.
 

Weiley31

Legend
I don't mind playing with Canon. For example, in my 5E games, the Silence of Lolth is currently happening during a time where a great Drow Schism is happening.(also explaining why there are now playable Drow pcs that aren't all auto-evil Drow style). Technically, according to DND canon, this pretty much already happened during whatever timeline it was during 3rd Edition.

Meanwhile in Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition, the emergence/destruction of the Ravnos Clan's Antidiluvian was the second nail in the coffin(haha) that pretty much jumpstarted the Second Inquisitions' war on the Kindred.

Sometimes, it's fun to mold a current existing Canon in a way that best fits your stuff and campaign.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
No one person wins the war. Luke fails without parts, intell, his wingman, and thousands of rebels who die off screen spreading the empires forces.

The point is, though, that we already know Luke didn't fail. So, when we come into Rogue One, we know that they get the plans out - if we adhere to canon, failure is not an option. And, that leads to a different focus of the story, again, as seen in Rogue One, where we could focus on what a tragedy that success really was, for the people involved.

Another approach is to be a little creative with your use of the gaps. For example...

I played in an awesome Star Wars campaign, set about 5000 years before A New Hope, in a slightly alternate history for the galaxy - the Jedi Civil War happened, but it left the Jedi, Sith, and Mandalorians all devastated. The people of the Republic came to feel the Jedi, with all their powers, should have been able to prevent it all, and blamed the Jedi for the widespread destruction so much that the organization was outlawed. The Temple on Coruscant was closed, the few remaining Jedi scattered, and generally in hiding from the public.

A generation or so passed, and there's new force-sensitive people coming of age - including our PCs.

The campaign conceit was that, one way or another, over the next 5000 years, the Jedi would rise again to what we saw in the movies. This was understood. The question we got to explore was whether our PCs would lay the groundwork for it, or not. Our failure wouldn't have impacted the canon - there's millennia to work that out if we failed. But, if we succeeded, that success would be all ours.
 

I have run games in established canon worlds but, despite the canon, its still the shared fun of my group. For that reason, I let players change the results.

For example, I ran a long campaign using MERP / Rolemaster in which Thorin met the PCs in Bree. He's agreed to Gandalf's plan but wants to hedge his bets. He offers the PCs their weight in gold if they can come up with some way to dispatch Smaug. A battle with Smaug and the aftermath were the finale of the campaign - and while they barely succeeded, it took down a little over half of the party.
 

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