HobbitModI am going to disclaim 2 things before getting this article going:

  1. If you have not yet seen the new Hobbit movie, there will be spoilers.
  2. Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit movie steps on my childhood and crushes it into the dirt, but it was a great movie.

I grew up in Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth. My first experience was with the Rankin-Bass cartoon of the Hobbit as a very young child, and that led me to try to puzzle through my mom’s copies of the book at 5 or 6, then more successfully at 8, 10, 11, and every few years thereafter just for fun. Once I’d fully come to get the Hobbit as a book, I started the laborious trek through the Lord Of the Rings trilogy and Tolkien’s other works.

When the Lord Of The Rings movies came out, I vehemently railed at them for being unfaithful to the feel of the world that spawned them, while at the same time loving the action and computer generated incredibleness that they brought to the screen. It wasn’t the same as the books I’d devoured throughout my adolescence, but it still made for a good movie.

I knew this was how the new Hobbit was going to be. I knew that it would, in equal parts, dishearten and thrill me. With the new Hobbit movie, I also had different experiences to color my perspective. Having worked in both the RPG industry and the television industry, I knew that the experience of creating a book and making a movie are very different and are aimed at different audiences, just like the process of creating a world setting and playing a game in that world setting are two entirely different things aimed at two very different audiences.

Books = Slow & Singular, Movie/Gameplay = Fast & Broad

When you sit down to write a world setting for publication, you are performing many of the same tasks that you perform when you sit down to flesh out the imaginary world in a novel. Since reading a single book isn’t a group activity, you’ve got some time and space to flesh things out. And, since the readers are primarily going to be ingesting words, your goal is to get them to build the sensory experience of the imaginary lands inside their heads. You do that by creating a framework and gently guiding them down a path, but making sure they have room to go play on the grass and plant a few new things of their own. Creating a spark of inspiration for the Game Masters and players to build off of is much like the novel author trying to forge a connection with the reader by giving enough detail to guide them along towards your vision, but leaving enough blanks for them to fill in so that they can sympathize with your work.

However, when you sit down at the table with your players, the atmosphere is completely different than when you are looking over setting books and imagining the various factions, lands, races, and unique aspects of a world. Much like a movie audience, you are going to have many types of people sitting down for the experience, each getting the maximum enjoyment from different facets of the experience. Some may be familiar with the source material and gain their enjoyment from playing in that setting, some may just be in it for the action and combat, some may enjoy the number crunching and mechanical manipulation of the system, and some may enjoy the deep mysteries and feelings of awe that come from being in a good story.

Since everyone is at the table for a different reason, the setting might not be a perfect fit for all of the types of players. What the audience is looking for at this current time may not be the same thing that the authors of the book envisioned when they were hunched over at their keyboards. The game setting at your table may be based off of the setting in that book, but it is a living, organic thing that comes to life in the minds of the players, not a static one whose boundaries are defined in ink.

The Setting At Your Table Trumps The Canon Of The World

What you should be concerned with when you are running a game isn’t faithfulness to the original source material, but the enjoyment of the audience sitting in front of you right now. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t utilize the materials of a pre-made, or self-generated, world setting, but that when the setting and the fun at the table start butting heads, err on the side that generates a better experience for the group as a whole.

Even though the movie experience of the Hobbit breaks my purist heart, it is the right experience for the movie going audience in general. It got 70% of the way to what I hoped it would be, then blissfully ran roughshod over the rest of it so that it could pull in a broader audience. The high, squeaky voice of the grotesquely marshmallow like goblin king was nowhere near the terrifying (to a 5 year old) experience of the gravel voiced, wrinkly, savage, goblin king from the books and the cartoon. The one who was seconds away from biting off Thorin’s head.  But… it fit the movie, and it probably plays better to the younger audience of today than a younger audience of the 1970s.

The addition of Azog as a nemesis for Thorin, instead of as a mere backstory element to showcase a previous battle, was an excellent way to enrich the inner turmoil of the character of Thorin, even though it never happened in the books. In game terms, Thorin’s player needed a nemesis to keep him personally involved in the action, so the canon of the world was modified and a more interesting experience was available for the player who needed it – just like it was provided for all those non-purist audience members that needed a hero/villain experience to complete their movie going experience.

Audience, Audience, Audience

When you are working with a more active, dynamic medium that is being presented to multiple people at once, that is what it all comes down to – Audience. You have to provide an experience that can partially engage multiple people instead of absolutely engaging just one. The audience sitting around your gaming table has more in common with the audience sitting at the movie theater than they do with the person sitting down and reading the world setting. Things they may have loved in the world setting as they mull it over in their head don’t play out well at the table, despite being incredibly fascinating and inspiring.

  • So, should you feel okay glossing over the incredibly detailed information in the setting about exotic foods and faux-pas about the order in which to eat them? Yes, if it wouldn’t enrich the game.
  • What if the way your player is interpreting her character in the Mokole race is wrong according to the setting? So long as it isn’t disrupting the game or allowing for epic cheatery, then let her play the character as she sees fit.
  • Does the mystery of the seclusion of the dragons get broken when one player shows up in dragonmail armor that he crafted himself? Yes, but work it out in his back story instead of outright denying it because of the setting.

 

demotivational-posters-dd-party

Back before I was able to play D&D and was just able to read the rule books, it bugged the heck out of me to hear about the half-dragon PCs, uber-assassin custom classes, and wild hi-jinks of others’ games. It didn’t jive with what I was getting out of the singular, static, and entirely in my mind experience of the books. But then, I got to play, and I got to look at the rest of the audience around me and see how much fun they were having, even if it wasn’t fully accurate to what was in the books.

Gaming is a wonderful collaborative experience, and one of the very few that lets the audience impact the medium. So, should we let the canon of a book or setting say what works for the group of people assembled at the table? As a purist who loves the world of Tolkien, I understand that the movies don’t represent what I grew up with and loved, but I also realize that they create a broader narrative that includes more people, just like we do when we game. So, I say shatter the canon of the world setting or the rules if it makes the game more fun, even if it makes you cry a bit inside to do it.

What do you think? Do you agree that fun at the table should trump the canon of a world setting? How faithfully do you hold to a world setting when you run in a premade one? In a homebrew one?

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.



11 Responses to Breaking Canon For A Better Experience

  1. There is some inherent wringing of canon’s neck in any use of a published setting. Eventually the GM and players will advance far enough in the story to where some well established fixture of the world is affected in a significant way. Their actions don’t happen in a vacuum, and the more it’s played the more it’s changed.
    Breaking from canon can be a source of fun like wiping out the Red Wizards of Thay or founding a new faction in Sigil. How many times have we as gamers cringed at the horrible ending of a TV, game, or book series we’ve followed for years? Tabletop RPGs give us that chance to set things right, within our angry fan-boy/fan-girl point of view anyway.
    Still, some essence of what makes a game world what it is has to be retained. The reason we play in published worlds is because there’s something about them we find interesting, and straying too far from canon can take away a setting’s unique feel. Saying dwarves developed matchlock muskets in 1st ed era Forgotten Realms wont change the general feel of the setting. But saying dwarves used their mastery of firearms to build a world spanning empire connected by a vast railroad network and highways patrolled by scores of steam tanks would.
    Fun at the table should always win out over canon though. I’m a big believer that the people around the table are the best ones to decide what’s the coolest way to go. To that end, canon is like any tool. It should be used when it’s needed, and kept in a box when it isn’t.

  2. I think the fun of the group should always trump “canon”. If you stick to the canon too strongly you might as well just adapt the book to a stage play and give the players the script – which is what too many DMs effectively do.

    A certain amount of sticking to canon is good, especially if the players know about it. For example, Star Wars has a ridiculous number of planets. You could leave those as part of the setting and be fine. However, if the PCs know nothing about the galaxy at large (like Luke in the first movie) then it’s better to shake things up – otherwise the players will know much more than the characters and you will be missing a lot of surprises.

    If the game hinges on scenes that were in a book/movie, you will run into trouble. The PCs either follow the script (not much fun), get to do their own thing but it doesn’t affect the outcome (pointless), or the PCs do their own thing and it does affect the outcome – at which point you’ve broken canon. Since so many books/movies follow a linear plot, any change will cascade down the line so that even a short time later you are so far away from canon you can hardly see it any more.

    So basically, using canon as a background, or as a set of rules that the universe follows (such as no ship can travel faster than X, or firearms don’t exist) is good, but using it as plot or story is bad.

  3. Lack of this is what made “Living Greyhawk” so very, very wretched. The scene that stands out involved the party defending Alwyn Brendigund, a truly awful merchant prince, from a group of dwarves that wanted to arrest him and try him for theft (of which he was guilty). The proper role-playing answer would have been “can we help with the rope?”, but there were serious game currency penalties for such shenanigans (mostly because the author was being a tool). There were numerous modules after that, and every time we met Brendigund we had to be railroaded away from locking him in the dungeons of the Theocracy of the Pale awaiting fair trial and execution.

  4. I am happy to play fast and loose with canon. I’m currently running a campaign in the Wild Card universe, and I’m enjoying watching my players rip their way through the canonical characters and plots. I knew going in that what makes a great novel and what makes a great game are very different. I view the campaign as comic book style reboot. Everything starts off the same, but nothing ends the same.

    Also, what is that 3rd screenshot in the demotivational poster?

    • The third screenshot is the movie, ‘Hawk the Slayer’ A really bad fantasy movie from 1980. Every gamer should watch it. The good guys are an elf, a dwarf, a giant, a couple humans, one of which only has one hand and uses a fully automatic crossbow.

  5. There’s a line where disregarding canon can hurt a game, just as being too rigid with it can ruin the game. In the past, I’ve played in games where the GMs and other players disregarded canon in a way that comes off as disrespectful, either to the other players or to the source material. There are certain core pieces of flavor that make a setting unique and if you trample them or ignore them too much, you may as well be playing something else completely.

    One of the games that still pisses me off today over ten years later, was a World of Darkness game where the GM allowed a player to create a male Black Fury character. The player didn’t care about the setting, he just wanted to play something that would make him a special snowflake (his other concept was a homid Red Talon). To me, that wasn’t just tossing out canon to make the players happy, but disregarding something that made that setting unique.

    Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with you that being a stickler to things the players may not even care about is a sure way to kill a game. It’s just important to figure out which pieces are important to keep and which can be ignored. :)

  6. First, I feel that’s a fair shout. If you’re not deliberately out to parody a setting, why misuse it? Be respectful of the source material. However…

    We play games to have fun, and if the players (including the GM) are doing that then game on, I say.

    Orikes makes a valid point too. I wouldn’t appreciate someone getting a snowflake bonus like that unless we as a group had agreed it first. There are plenty of ways to differentiate your character without violating the precepts of the setting and interfering with everyone’s sense of immersion.

    Now that I think about it, maybe that’s the real issue. Changing canon changes what everyone has to imagine about the world, and perhaps we’re not all comfortable giving that kind of authorship to a player just because he has a “neat idea”.

  7. Well, Hobbit the movie is BASED on the book. Based being the key word. The book is a childrens story and a very good one at that. The movie is not something I would take anyone under 10 to. And I loved every minute of it.

    Canon is a tricky thing in gaming. I’ve played and run Star Wars games for over twenty years. I am a Star Wars nut. I probably know more about the setting than anyone I know. Star Wars only maintains its allure when you don’t rigidly adhere to canon. For the canon of Star Wars is one big inconsistent mess. The core ideas and the core elements are what makes Star Wars great. Hold to the core and be creative with the rest and your Star Wars games will sing. Try to make complete sense out of it and you will end up with a migraine. :D

  8. As in most things, the key is to find the right balance. Being a slave to canon can keep the game from being fun, but ignoring it too much can eliminate the “feel” of the setting and make it pointless to play in it. Movie adaptations with seemingly pointless changes are irritating. For example, if one took the part of the story of King Arthur in which Arthur has Excalibur thrown back to the Lady of the Lake and instead has it thrown into a volcano, go write a story in which that happens, but don’t tell me it’s King Arthur.
    I knew there would be changes in “An Unexpected Journey”, but I was still disappointed with how many there were. IMHO the Goblin King’s voice was completely inappropriate. The movie wasn’t all bad. It was well acted and beautiful, but it was not great.

  9. @Crimson Newb, it sounds like you would be disappointed to learn just how many different versions of King Arthur there have been. His stories were already old, and had undergone their share of face-lifts, before the canon of the sword being returned to the Lady of the Lake appeared in the Vulgate.

    How many times has Robin Hood been re-imagined? Or Hercules? Or Mickey Mouse? Where would Batman be if DC Comics had slapped down Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” concept as going against the campy canon established by Adam West?

    It’s human nature to believe that the world we were born into is the definition of normalcy. It’s human nature to look to the first version of a song or a story or a game we liked is the true, essential version. But the world was already burning out of control eons before we ever drew our first breath, and every generation reinvents its narratives to suit the needs of the moment.

    And just for the record, speaking as a fan of Middle Earth for over 35 years, I thought the movie was great.

    • @GiacomoArt I’m familiar with Arthur and many of his versions. I even like many of them, especially Cornwell’s “Warlord Chronicles”. What’s the difference between Arthur, Robin Hood, your other examples and “The Hobbit”? All of them have been around and handled by different story-tellers for decades or even centuries. Part of the reason for the mutation of Arthur and Robin Hood’s tales is due to the spread of their stories by the spoken word, relying on the memories of minstrels. “The Hobbit” is one story that was determined and recorded by its original creator and is available to all in that form. Peter Jackson and co. have taken that story and cut, pasted and altered whatever they thought would make a good movie. Unfortunately, they took a great quest story and turned it into a series of fights.

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