5E The Debate of "Canon" in D&D 5E

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
I thought I'd make this thread, solely because I've noticed something pretty interesting that keeps re-emerging over and over in threads across this forum for D&D, and that is the concept of "Canon."

Canon, or canonical, when applied to fiction, means events or laws that are considered "official" or "true" when in a fictional world. For Star Wars for example, the events within all the films are considered "Canonical," but the events within books written before the Disney purchase are considered "Not Canon" and did not happen.

This concept is remarkably common in fiction, especially fiction that is not written by just one author but instead by many, like the world of a video game with book tie-ins.

But for D&D, the concept of canon is... weird. And this has to do with two pretty big differences with a lot of fiction, the former being reboots, the second being "home games."

Reboots are when a world is essentially "restarted." A good example is DC Comics' New 52, when the comic company only released 52 comic lines from it's main superhero world. These 52 were all replacing not just the previous comic lines, but also the very fiction that preceded it; no piece of fact printed before could be treated as an event that the current "versions" of characters had experienced. This Batman, though still Bruce Wayne, had been restarted.

Each edition of D&D, the entire multiverse has been in effect "rebooted," though I don't think that word has ever been used. The very cosmology and order to the universe has been reshaped from edition to edition, and large changes implemented among various worlds, like Forgotten Realms in its Sunderings. Other worlds like Dark Sun get an even more traditional reboot, where events are reset into an earlier timeline, as 4E did.

So when parsing what D&D canon actually is, it seems only content published for 5E can actually be treated as truly canon, and anything published before needs to be looked at with skepticism.

The second piece of D&D canon, which throws the whole concept of canon for D&D into doubt, is that of the home-table. As many WotC writers and developers have said, although there are several "official" or "canonical" explanation for ever world and the multiverses cosmology, none of them actually impact people's hometable. Meaning, when you play a game of D&D at home, you do not impact official canon in any way; even if you're playing in Forgotten Realms, you are in effect playing in a "fan fiction" FR, one that has no impact on actual canon. For this reason, you can kill the entire Council of Waterdeep, and you're not "playing the game wrong." It is your table.

Now that I've explained canon, and it's very difficulty when applied to D&D, I'll move on to it's actual debate. That often-times, it is used as a weapon against other players, in the "bad-wrong-fun" kind of way.

Every setting has its fans, some have more than others. But as we know, there is a dark side to fandom; if you love something, and something is released that contradicts the spirit of what you like about it, some people can have visceral and negative reactions. We've all seen how people have reacted to the Star Wars prequels and new trilogy. But I've also seen comic book authors receive death threats, such as when Batman was left at the altar by Catwoman.

D&D is not immune to this. Even though D&D has so much more freedom than a normal fandom, as every table is able to create its own version of a world, and even an entirely new world entirely, people still react badly when official content seemingly contradicts their "ideal" version of the world.

Some examples;
  • Eberron fitting into the larger D&D cosmology, instead of being an entirely separate cosmology that cannot cross into other worlds.
  • Greyhawk having dragonborn and tieflings, races not mentioned in that world before 5E.
  • Forgotten Realms now having an Acquisitions Incorporated book that seemingly makes a comedy podcast canon.
  • Ravnica officially fitting into the multiverse, despite seemingly having its own cosmology withing the rules of Magic the Gathering.
  • Exandria, and by extension all of Critical Role, getting an official book, and some of its characters making it into main headline adventures (Arkhan in Avernus).

Some people love these changes. Others completely detest them. Even more are conflicted, as am I.

But perhaps worse than official content contradicting people's beliefs, is when people use that official content as proof to confirm their POVs, as evidence to use against people that they are "playing in the setting wrong" or "aren't a true X fan."

I've seen Eberron flame wars about the cosmology, about how if you "cross the streams" there you are disrespecting the setting. I've seen people yell how Ravnica and Exandria are not truly canon D&D worlds. I've seen people roil how dragonborn do not match Greyhawk, and to add them would ruin the very essence of what GH is. That how Acq. Inc. makes a mockery of Forgotten Realms. That Takhisis and Tiamat are the same god across entirely different worlds. People nitpicking lines of content to prove their own POV, running through the same cycle of rage and frustration again and again.

And now, I finish my post with a heavy heart, knowing that none of this truly matters. That at the end of the day, we return to our own table with our own friends, and play the version of the game we choose to play. And I ask a seemingly unforgiving world; why?

Why must we use canon as a weapon, when it is simply but a handy tool provided to quickstart a game?

May we all take a deep breath, and accept there is no D&D canon that needs to matter.
 
Yup, D&D doesn't really have canon the same way Star Wars does, at least not in 5e, and really not the way some people seem to want it to. The main principle of 5e is use want you want and change the rest, and there's no room in that principle for "my truth is truer than your truth".
 

Zardnaar

Legend
The reason is this.

The game developers sell us fluff and that fluff is canon.

However if they can just ignore it in the next edition bit kind if makes the stuff they're trying to sell pointless.

If you don't respect the canon why should we care? If your story doesn't matter when it's convenient why should we care about your story?

I'm more in the game of go back to early days. It doesn't invalidate anything vs setting some in the future where something will become the new canon.

It upsets people when you blow stuff up. Look at 4E and it's fluff. It didn't matter how good or bad the fluff is but itwasnt the old stuff.

If it didn't replace the old stuff and was new doing it's own thing who cares?
 
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gyor

Legend
Some more terms:

Retcon, what happens when you change something pre-existing in a setting without providing a cause, but not to the point of a reboot. Sometimes gets misused for reversions or additions that do have a cause or which contradicts nothing previously in the setting.

Immersion, basically a the ability to suspend your disbelief and full lose yourself in a setting/Story, a kind of Story Henosis. Canon is key for this state to be achieved for many.

Shared World, a world shared by many authors and fans, canon is the lingua franca that allows this to even be a thing without dissolving into chaos.

Alternative Universes/Mirror Universes- Think Crisis of Infinate Earths or Kelvin Timeline of Star Trek (movies), sometimes gets called a soft reboot, but it's not really accurate, it's just a similar universe, within the setting's multiverse, like the Mirror Universe of Star Trek. A great way to have your cake and eat it too. Note: I am a Neopagan Neoplatonic Modual Realist in real life, I just add that for transparency sake.
 
I'd agree that canon does function as essentially an immersion lubricant for many gamers, but certainly not all. However, the index there is from book to individual table, that's what matters. Where it gets all manky is when our good friend Judgy McJudgerson steps in to chide the faithless who dare alter canon for their own tables. That guy can go jump in a lake.
 
D&D's Cosmology has always - in a kinda pre-Crisis/secret-wars way - left room for basically any/every-thing.
The prime material has infinite parallels, the outer planes, multiple layers that can be mutable or all but infinite, themselves. The World Axis, similarly - infinite parallel worlds, other planes infinite & mutable or subject to perception, themselves.
Landscape imposes on that, some, some settings take pains to cut themselves off from the multiverse, but that's about it.

So canon is contained w/in settings, and if it changes or ret-cons, well, that's just another alternate.
 
Canon has been ignored since at least the 80s. There was this letter (published in Dragon Magazine so we know it's official)



Which was later completely retconned without any regard for continuity.

From page 98 of The Adventure Begins:
Waldorf the Archmage (CN human male, Wizard 1, hp 1) is the 64 year old owner of the Roc and Oliphant Tavern. "Waldorf is notorious for his tall tales, most of which allegedly concern his past life as a deity. (He says he was eventually thrown down and made mortal by other jealous gods after a great battle in space.) He is a master storyteller for a failed wizard, and his grandiose but straightforward lies are the envy of all."
 
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gyor

Legend
I'd agree that canon does function as essentially an immersion lubricant for many gamers, but certainly not all. However, the index there is from book to individual table, that's what matters. Where it gets all manky is when our good friend Judgy McJudgerson steps in to chide the faithless who dare alter canon for their own tables. That guy can go jump in a lake.
You forget that for many they primarily consume the settings via novels, especially FR and Dragonlance, what happens at the table Top means nothing to them and they buy setting books to add to their knowedlege of the setting they are reading about in novels or media.
 

gyor

Legend
I'd agree that canon does function as essentially an immersion lubricant for many gamers, but certainly not all. However, the index there is from book to individual table, that's what matters. Where it gets all manky is when our good friend Judgy McJudgerson steps in to chide the faithless who dare alter canon for their own tables. That guy can go jump in a lake.
What people do at their tables is totally seperate from Canon, only official products matter for what is canon and what has to remain consistent with Canon.
 
What people do at their tables is totally seperate from Canon, only official products matter for what is canon and what has to remain consistent with Canon.
You have it on backwards. Canon is the current list of things I can choose whether or not to use at my table as I see fit, just like it is for everyone else. What happens at my table has no effect on anyone else's. I don't really care about rationalizing canon from edition to edition either, as I change too much stuff for that to matter to me. I know it matters to other people, and there are many reasons why that might be the case, but it doesn't matter to me personally.

I really don't care much about rationalizing canon over several previous editions and many novels spread over those editions. It's a mess, it has been a mess, and it will continue to be a mess. There are too many authors serving too many masters there to ever make it all fit. Why bother? Use what you like and leave the rest. You can clean it up to a point, and that's a fine goal, but it's never going to be pristine.

I'm not trying to trivialize your obvious passion for the subject here, but your priorities aren't everyone's priorities. Where I think we end up arguing is that I also happen to think that your priorities vis a vis 'canon' are not the priorities of WotC either, nor do I believe they should be. Not because I think you're a bad guy, or shouldn't get what you want, but because I think what you want isn't what enough people want to make it a major focus of the design process. We'll probably have to agree to disagree about that I suspect.
 

gyor

Legend
You have it on backwards. Canon is the current list of things I can choose whether or not to use at my table as I see fit, just like it is for everyone else. What happens at my table has no effect on anyone else's. I don't really care about rationalizing canon from edition to edition either, as I change too much stuff for that to matter to me. I know it matters to other people, and there are many reasons why that might be the case, but it doesn't matter to me personally.

I really don't care much about rationalizing canon over several previous editions and many novels spread over those editions. It's a mess, it has been a mess, and it will continue to be a mess. There are too many authors serving too many masters there to ever make it all fit. Why bother? Use what you like and leave the rest. You can clean it up to a point, and that's a fine goal, but it's never going to be pristine.

I'm not trying to trivialize your obvious passion for the subject here, but your priorities aren't everyone's priorities. Where I think we end up arguing is that I also happen to think that your priorities vis a vis 'canon' are not the priorities of WotC either, nor do I believe they should be. Not because I think you're a bad guy, or shouldn't get what you want, but because I think what you want isn't what enough people want to make it a major focus of the design process. We'll probably have to agree to disagree about that I suspect.
Back at you, your priorities aren't everyone priorities, and I don't have it backwards at all. I don't think your bad either, it's just that I understand Canon has practical value and problems happen when it's treated by developers, like huge fan base divisions and other problems.
 

Weiley31

Adventurer
At this rate, in 5E, I can have the events of The City of The Spider Queen/The Silence of Lolth happening as a current event DESPITE it being 3.0 and happening already BEFORE the Sundering "gives us" 5E.

Or I can have The Temple of Elemental Evil being "5 years ago" and Return to Temple of Elemental Evil being many years later.

Slumbering Tsar is "supposed" to take place during 2E in my mind, and shows Orcus's death/split from his godly essence. The revived Orcus of 5E is faced in Rappan Arthuk.

Tyranny of Dragons is the "Avengers/Infinity war/Endgame" of the 5E Cinematic Universe

Heck, I imagine Aqccuitions Incorporated as Forgotten Realms/Faerune much later in the future of the world after the "current state of what 5E" is.

My one buddy, however, views each edition as an age. So 1E is The First Age, 2E is The 2nd Age, 3E/3.5 is The Third Age, 5E is the current century setting as it's The Fifth Age.

Although, I can view 4E as the age before The First Age. Especially since the Dawn War would "explain" things like the gods and how the Points of Lights would eventually become various landmarks in current age 5E.
 
Canon for a game world matters more if it is a living world where time passes there as time passes in the real world, like with the Realms. Just like 5+ years have passed in the real world since the release of 5E, 5+ years have also passed in the Realms. And events that happened during that time are now part of the Realms Canon.

Also, canon matters for any official play campaigns, such as the Adventurer's League. Everything published by WotC for 5e Realms is canon for AL play, and I would guess that is true for the other settings that have official AL adventures set in them. But other than Organized Play campaigns, canon only means as much as a gaming group, or their DM, wants it to.
 
Although, I can view 4E as the age before The First Age. Especially since the Dawn War would "explain" things like the gods and how the Points of Lights would eventually become various landmarks in current age 5E.
Something like that occurred to me when I first read about the World Axis & Dawn War:

The "Lattice of Heaven," destroyed in the Dawn War, could have been the Great Wheel... or, the replacement lattice Eratis aspires to create could be...

...or both, in an occilating cosmos.
 
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But perhaps worse than official content contradicting people's beliefs, is when people use that official content as proof to confirm their POVs, as evidence to use against people that they are "playing in the setting wrong" or "aren't a true X fan."
If you use any Greyhawk setting material past 1985, you aren't a true Greyhawk fan! Gygaxian 4 Life!!! (okay, maybe Ghosts of Saltmarsh, but that's it)

Just kidding (well, sort of). I've seen how they've trashed my favorite setting over the decades, so I've decided to disregard all canon I disagree with. It's not GREYHAWK; it's my Greyhawk and I'll do with it what I please. I've even found a way to make most of the weird/stupid races reasonably playable in my games with a bit of reskinning and a lot of social issues for them.

I ask a seemingly unforgiving world; why?

Why must we use canon as a weapon, when it is simply but a handy tool provided to quickstart a game?
You must be new to the internet 😂

Seriously, a lot of people are a-holes who feel the need to be justified by an authority figure (in this case, the writers). Add in a touch of arrogance and the anonymity of the internet, and you get flame wars about meaningless stupid stuff. The ONLY time it has an actual impact is Adventurer's League, because organized play uses official canon.
 

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