Settings with Canon

There are so many games out there inspired by ongoing series from A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying and Adventures in Middle-earth to Star Trek Adventures and Mouse Guard. This is actually one of my favorite types of RPG and the whole system roundtable is based around the idea of playing in a setting that already has an awesome story in it. But how exactly do you make room for your own story in there? Here are a few ideas.

One of the best breakdowns of this topic that I’ve seen is in The Expanse RPG where they give three different categories of campaigns to try: parallel, replacement, and beyond canon. To those I’m going to add a fourth category of “before or after.” I’m going to frame this discussion in these terms and to illustrate these sorts of in-canon approaches I’m going to use the examples that hopefully a lot of people know; If you aren’t familiar with one of these and want to avoid spoilers then skip those parts…

Image © Green Ronin

Parallel Stories

This is the approach that seems most natural. There are big events that happen in the stories we love, plots that shape the world in amazing ways. Thanos gathers the Infinity Stones, Danaerys Targaryen levels cities with her dragons, Captain Picard navigates the Klingon Civil War. In the shadow of those events, smaller dramas play out and your player characters carry out those stories. This might seem less than satisfying, like you’re just bit players in someone else’s story, and that’s probably because it’s true. This is the Avengers’ story, or the Mother of Dragons’ or Jean-Luc Picard’s, and that’s the whole point. You can interact with these characters but becoming more important than them will redirect the world in a way that you don’t want because you want parallel tales.

Of course, you can try to have the most epic story possible or change your mind (more on that later) but there is some real benefit to this set-up. First of all, you don’t have to worry about making this setting feel like the “real” one since it will be default. If your young wizards are pursuing a parallel story to Harry Potter’s then it will feel like Rowling’s work because all the events that she wrote will still be there. Secondly, there’s only one canon to keep track of and there’s no confusion over things that “didn’t actually happen” in your version of things. If you have someone other than Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star then everyone needs to keep both versions in their minds.

A great example of this sort of storytelling is the Dragon’s Hoard campaign for A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. In this campaign you’re hunting for a lost treasure of House Targaryen, in the early days of the series. While Ned Stark is going to King’s Landing to become Hand and the events of A Game of Thrones are starting to play out, this story is unfolding and (potentially) intersecting with that one. Finding the treasure or not won’t stop what’s coming but it will certainly spell fantastic success for the home house(s) or seal their fate.

Image © Cubicle 7

This is the sort of story that my Adventures in Middle-earth campaign was designed as. The player characters were small-time heroes in Rhovanion and they solved small-time problems. Then they took over a ruined fortress and built it as their own power base and things took a shift… Specifically, they took a shift to the Replacement option below. That’s a really good way to

Here are a few more examples…

  • As Harry Potter and his group of friends try to stop You-Know-Who’s rise to power, a group of young wizards have similar adventures stopping Death Eater attacks in the American magic school of Ilvermorny. The big struggle is happening across the Atlantic but things are just as dangerous in the American wizarding world.
  • Thorin and his Company are stealing back the Lonely Mountain from Smaug in the events of The Hobbit. As they do, though, a power play is happening in Lake-town where a group of mercenaries try to usurp control. Your band of heroes has to stop them… and then fend off the destruction of Smaug when he is woken by the Dwarves.

Replacement Stories

This is probably the most unstable option since you’ve got limited options moving forward. If you’re at the start of a series of events that you already know, you can have new characters act through them and have the same results. Maybe the details will be a bit different but your new hobbit also makes it to Erebor and chats with a dragon, your new commander of Deep Space Nine also is drawn into a war with the Dominion, and your new Jaime Lannister also… well you know. For some groups this is a big plus as they love portraying the scenes and conflicts they know and love. Feeling like your on the path of fate and can’t escape is the draw for many players.

Image © Paramount Pictures

For others, it feels like a trap. It’s like reading the books and then watching the series: for some people they feel like “I can’t wait to get to [insert event]” while others feel bored knowing what’s coming. That’s why TV series and movies based on books often diverge, they want the already-interested fan base to have to do some guessing and stay engaged. Game of Thrones saw this for sure and even the Harry Potter movies did to a degree (they didn’t for the first few movies and look how that went). You’re likely to see the same sort of thing happen at your table and that’s why this is an unstable model. You can go through the same motions as the story you know but eventually a die will roll bad, someone will make a dramatically different decision, or you’ll just want to shake things up. Then the campaign will shift to one of the options below and you should let it.

Here are a few more examples…

  • The crew of the Nostromo wakes up from hypersleep in your version of Alien, but there’s not a Ripley, Dallas, Lambert, or Kane among them. This new version of the crew receives a distress call from a harsh planet and makes their way to a crash site with weird alien eggs. Will they approach them or leave them alone? When a xenomorph hatches will they succeed in containing it or be killed off?
  • Nick Fury travels around the world to collect superpowered individuals for his new Avengers Initiative. He gathers a group of six heroes together, the Earth’s mightiest, but they are not the ones you know from the movie. How will your players’ original characters deal with Loki’s theft of the tesseract or the Chitauri invasion he unleashes? Can they fare better than the Avengers we know and love or will they fall short?
Image © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Stories Beyond Canon

Instead of leaving everything the same but replacing the main characters, you can change the setting and see how characters deal with that. This option is very similar to replacement stories, but even more of a shift. In this, the plot is changed dramatically and a whole new story springs up with the same players. This is the case with the (albeit controversial) Star Trek movies by J.J. Abrams. Those movies are not events playing out alongside the original Star Trek series, nor are they new heroes trying their hands at the stories that we know from before. Through time travel, there’s a break in the timeline so that James Kirk and his crew (as well as some new faces) are facing threats that their prime universe versions never did.

This is a tricky option as you’re pretty much breaking the setting and playing with the parts. What is the Potterverse like if Voldemort died the first time? What happens in The Expanse if the protomolecule is destroyed impacting Venus? How would Jurassic Park play out of the park succeeded the first time? Every setting rich enough to fall in love with can be remade in this way and still be good but you have to make sure your group is ready for it. If you show up to your first session to play in the Marvel universe and you tell the players “by the way, there’s no S.H.I.E.L.D.” then you’ve waited too late to spring that gem on them.

Interestingly, comic books offer the best example of this type of storytelling. The classic “What If?” stories from Marvel or “Just Imagine…” from DC Comics, all the different parallel universes, and even the relaunches like DC’s Rebirth are all constant experiments to see how the stories take place with different parameters. This is also a common element to fanfic creations, marking canonicity to a certain point and then diverging into a new story. In these new stories, your player’s characters are just as important as the beloved staples of the setting, or maybe they become even more important in this new setting! Regardless, there’s more room to make your campaign in a setting unmoored from expectations but it also requires some juggling and a strong knowledge of the setting to keep it from drifting too far.

Here are a few examples of this…

  • Lord Elrond has called together a conclave of leaders to Rivendell, including some minor lords and warriors, in this version of the Lord of the Rings. Aragorn arrives with a gaggle of hobbits in tow and your player’s characters will hear the terrible news: Gandalf the Grey has been captured and killed by Saruman. Without the wizard, who is up to the task of carrying the One Ring to Mordor and destroying it? Can they even do it without Gandalf leading them?
  • All of Westeros holds its breath in this alternate Game of Thrones as King Robert Baratheon lies suffering from a wound. Many say he is about to die… But then he gets better! His son Joffrey remains a prince and the Iron Throne turns its attention to Danaerys across the Narrow Sea and the reports of her dragons. Ned Stark has hated his time in King’s Landing and leaves for the North, prompting King Robert to appoint a new set of advisers: your players’ characters.

Stories Before or After

Image © Wizards of the Coast

This is a way to get around this whole issue, to have your cake and eat it too, and it’s a trick that film and TV writers have been using for years. If you don’t want to mess with canon, just set your story at another time in the same universe! Tell the story of Batman as a little kid, or come back to Ripley and the xenomorphs many decades later when things have progressed. You can pull a similar trick with your characters, setting your game in the aftermath of a big event, in the years leading up to it, or in even more distant periods.

The Darkening of Mirkwood campaign for The One Ring (published for Adventures in Middle-earth as the less-imaginative Mirkwood Campaign) is an awesome example of this, covering the thirty years between the events of The Hobbit and the War of the Ring. Since Rhovanion doesn’t feature in The Lord of the Rings there’s a little leeway but basically characters have free reign to do what they like in the years before the Fellowship heads south… of course in my campaign “what they like” turned out to be the party completely reshaping the political landscape of Wilderland so that the war is going to be pretty different.

Some settings have deep pasts that make it even easier to do this. Setting a campaign during the age of the Silmarillion or the age of Numenor is a breeze and George R. R. Martin’s historical tales of Dunk and Egg and Fire & Blood provide extensive details of setting without too many story details. Of course setting things in the past means you still have an end point that you are trying to reach so there’s some constraints. A totally free option is to set things after it all happened like the 25th century setting of Star Trek Online or telling the story of the next generation of wizards as The Cursed Child did.

Here are a few more examples…

  • Before the events of The Expanse, the period just after the invention of the Epstein Drive through the system into upheaval. The brewing conflict between Mars and Earth seemed about to go to war. Your players’ characters are in the midst of this tension, trying to keep things from turning violent and hoping that their faction can get ahead.
  • Decades after the fall of the Capitol and the end of the Hunger Games, Panem is beginning to fray. Though they were harsh and brutal, the decadent residents of the Capitol united the rest of the land with hatred and without them the districts are beginning to turn on each other. They need a strong hand and a new generation of heroes to save them from themselves.

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