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Beware the Retcon!
Posted By Kurt "Telas" Schneider On February 16, 2009 @ 3:18 pm In GMing Advice | 12 Comments
We’ve all been there. A mistake is created when a rule is misinterpreted or misapplied, but not caught by the group. Later on, for some reason, the mistake becomes apparent. The overwhelming temptation is to go back in time and retcon* the initial event, and fix the mistake.
Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? And after all, if it’s used in comic books, it can’t be all bad… Right?
I say again, do not fix your mistake. Moving forward, you should definitely use the proper rule, but unless something monumental is riding on it (such as character death in a long-running game without resurrection, or the implosion of your gaming group), fixing the mistake will cause more headaches than it’s worth.
There are two reasons not to fix the mistake you’ve already made:
In high school, a friend of mine is warming up for basketball practice. He picks up a pair of scissors lying on the gym floor, and tosses them towards the bleachers. They stick in the bleachers. He spends the next few minutes trying to get the scissors to stick in the bleachers again, but (of course) they don’t.
I’m hunting deer. (It’s okay, I live in Texas; we do that here.) I’m sitting against an oak tree, about ten feet behind a barbed wire fence, looking out over a field of sage brush. Dinner steps cautiously into the field, and I carefully take aim and fire. Bambi romps off, and after a few frustrating moments, I discover that my 7mm wide bullet hit a strand of barbed wire, deflecting upwards. I couldn’t do that again if I tried.
To my gamer’s mind, both of these stories describe a situation where the Great GM forgot a rule for a second, and something that should not have happened, actually did happen. In other words, these “what the fuck?” moments actually happen in the real world. So when your non-magic-sword-wielding fighter managed to take out a Wraith in one round? Yeah, it happened, but don’t count on it happening again. When that musket ball penetrated your Class V Power Armor? Helluva fluke, but sometimes that kind of shit just happens, man.
More importantly, there are few things in gaming that will frustrate a group more than turning back time to fix a mistake. Let’s say that Hapless Harold forgot to write down his Cloak of Magical Ignorance. (It lets him ignore magic, duh…) Harold gets blasted with a Middle Finger Of Death spell, but forgets about his cloak until four rounds later, when he’s forlornly looking at his existentially-challenged and rapidly cooling character.
So, do you rewind time, just so you can give Harold his four rounds worth of actions? Hell no. (I’m sure most of y’all are with me at this point, but let’s carry on…) Your group will never remember exactly what happened in the last four rounds, and your Big Cool Spell is already spent, and now the group knows about it anyway, and it was Harold’s goddamned fault in the first place for forgetting to write down his stupid Cloak of Ignorance… Whew.
Try this: Harold’s alive, but was shocked into submission/unconsciousness/whatever when the spell went off. He’s finally shaken off the effects, but he doesn’t get his four rounds back. Done, and we’re on with the rest of the game…
Okay, you say, that makes sense; four rounds is a lot of time. But what about one round? Half a round? How many characters’ turns? I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but as a general rule, I don’t allow “rollbacks” unless they happen before the end of the next character’s turn. When the next character’s turn ends, it’s written in stone.
(Unless, of course, we’re talking the aforementioned character death, impending implosion of the group, etc. It’s gaming; there’s always an exception, isn’t there?)
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