Canon is now a Thing. Nerds fret over it and creators hate wrestling with it, but it used to be a nonentity in mainstream media. You had continuity, but there was little pretense of a persistent world with a coherent entity. Now everybody’s trying to build big media franchise like Marvel and Star Wars. Now it’s annoying to a large enough group to hit The Atlantic.
RPG canon peaked in the 90s, so of course I’ve got to talk about it.
RPG designers used to be the best at canon, period. That’s because we understood what it was for. Our audience was thousands of imagination-medium showrunners with unlimited budgets and actors with Klaus-Kinskian attitudes. (I like to imagine this is about Klaus’ PC refusing to accept the mission assigned by Herzog’s NPC Bar Wizard.) We started in hard mode. Unfortunately, we don’t make enough money to be taken seriously, much less take ourselves seriously, so nobody ever dug into our hard won knowledge.
Canon exists to give the world integrity beyond any individual story. This helps players treat it with authenticity and take it seriously. It generates commitment, but also gives them the power to let go of individual stories, particularly when they suck or characters die or retire. It builds a sense of shared experience outside the table. But canon is hard. It can become increasingly convoluted, overstuffed and fragile. So let me tell you how I think it should be done. Canon needs:
Density: It’s easy to spout “less is more,” but harder to really make more out of less. When you establish a fact, what function does it serve? In Shadowrun, Essence (the soul power/connectedness game trait and concept, which is canon through the power of diegesis) has the game function separating spellcasters from cyborgs as character types, but it’s also the seed for the game’s magical metaphysics and supports the theme of alienation (you become disconnected from your soul, or bound to it through experiences that separate you from the ordinary). Essence really pulls its weight. In Vampire, one of my favourite bits of slang is “shovelhead.” It’s a term for a Sabbat neonate that describes the method of initiation (hit by a shovel, buried), and implies that they’re disposable dumbasses at the same time.
Immersion: Canon should make players feel native to the setting. This is superficially easy in adaptations of big media like Star Wars. You know that ships jump into hyperspace. The trick is the next step, where players ask where a particular planet is. The easy solution is to answer with a bare fact, but it’s better to do it within the world — to present a map of the galaxy or at least describe the reference being used. This makes the knowledge an experience of being in the world, and also provides an out. Maps can be unreliable, after all. In-world texts and artifacts are fantastic at this, and where big media can legitimately beat RPGs. On a simpler level, good slang helps.
Hooks: Canon generation in media properties is usually reactive. We need a planet whose inhabitants will refuel the ship. We need a place for superheroes to beat each other up in that nobody really cares about, like a fictional Eastern European country. In RPGs, this reactive functionality doesn’t cut it, because characters like to poke around. So we need to proactively devise people, places and things that naturally generate story ideas. That’s where Vampire’s Chicago comes from. It’s full of highly motivated, weird and annoying vampires. When designers do their job, these bits of lore possess density, above, and you can grab their existing planets, cities or people to populate a story instead of inventing more.
Open-Endedness: Don’t answer every question until you want to blow it all up. Don’t make promises unless they’re absolutely necessary, or unless you can break them in interesting ways. Only two Sith? Well, the excuses for more are sometimes clever, and sometimes . . . not. Vampire never gives you a straight answer about the Antediluvians (oldest vampires, basically) unless they kill one or have a specific plot-advancing plan.
Subjectivity: You want there to be an ultimate truth. You do. Under no circumstances should you make more than the most basic information objectively true. Three reasons for this. First, it’s authentic. Outside of math, real information is transmitted through unreliable narrators. Avoid “Here’s how it is” asides for epistolary notes, in-world images and the rest. Second, it keeps the setting alluring, with the idea that there’s always something more to speculate about.
Third? This is a big one. Plausible deniability and retcon power.
Here’s the thing big media doesn’t seem to know, RPG designers used to know, and folks seem to have forgotten. Across a long enough timeline and big enough roll out of content, someone will fuck up. They will introduce continuity errors. They will bury jokes in stuff that eventually stops being funny. They’ll produce embarrassing things, offensive things, and things that just suck.
Are you managing a transmedia property? If you are, read this: You will screw up. You will not do better than your predecessors.
Here’s an example: Under Disney, Star Wars’ managers moved the old Expanded Universe to “Legends,” rendering it unofficial. This was redundant, because Lucasfilm already had a brilliant canon policy that put the movies first, and said everything else was a set of unreliable stories that can always be tweaked and revised. From now on, there would be one official Star Wars continuity, managed centrally, where everything is canon, period.
So now this is canonical:
Yes. This is a Mon Calamari fish-dude with General Grievous’ cyborg body and a purple lightsaber, commanding Imperial troops. Here is my curse: The next time you watch a Star Wars movie, know that the Word of God is that a robot fish-man with a lightsaber was definitely around at one point doing his thing. When Luke Skywalker was gingerly handling his father’s inheritance, a mystery from another age and a gateway to self-actualization as a hero, a robot fish-man was definitely swinging a cooler one around and totally being a rival to Darth Vader. In fact, totally canonically, if things had transpired differently, Luke Skywalker would be confronting this fish-robot in a duel for the destiny of the galaxy. “No, I, a fish-man, killed your father! Who was Darth Vader, by the way! I have four robot arms!”
Don’t do that. Make everything a legend, a rumour, a possibility. Save ultimate truth for a finale, or as a secret thread to draw the myths together.