Peregrine's Nest: Using the Canon

How do you run a campaign set in an established RPG setting's 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.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.


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?

log in or register to remove this ad

Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Committed Hero

Hogwarts during Harry Potter's 7th year is a good model for an RPG setting, as

[spoilers for a 15-year old book]

The main characters can remain off-stage until the climax of the campaign.

log in or register to remove this ad

Voidrunner's Codex

Related Articles

Remove ads

Voidrunner's Codex

Remove ads