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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.

  • Retcon – Contraction of “Retroactive Continuity”, or a rewrite of an event established in the past. Common in long-running comic books and soap operas.

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it?  And after all, if it’s used in comic books, it can’t be all bad… Right?

Wrong.  Don’t do it.

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:

1. These “WTF?” moments also happen in real life.

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.

2. Rolling back time will suck the fun right out of the game.

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?)

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."




12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Beware the Retcon!"

#1 Comment By John Arcadian On February 16, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

I’ll rarely, if ever, do rollbacks for actions that occur in action sequences or combat. It often changes far too many factors of the situation. You’re absolutely right. Those kind of moments do happen in life. Weird stuff just sometimes goes off. My buddy once threw a piece of bamboo through a fan and stopped the blades. Another buddy once threw a poker chip into a pile, knocked out the white poker chip in a stack of blue ones, and got the black one he was throwing to stick in its place. NFA!

I might do a rollback for minor things. Did the group forget to buy torches when they where going through their extensive pre-dungeon shopping spree? Would they have logically known there might be a lack of light deep underground? Alright, you bought torches, lets not dwell on it.

Of course, it’s also fun to watch them roleplay the trip back to town, smacking the guy who was supposed to get the torches, only to find unlit torches in the loot of an adventurer one room beyond where they stopped to turn around . . . :)

#2 Comment By lyle.spade On February 16, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

Yep. I agreee completely. I did it once, and it really screwed things up. Suspending disbelief is what we do for fun, but we like to have some sense of rules to our fantasy. Casting aside those and dumping a re-do on the players, regardless of intentions, only causes problems.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 16, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

Solid advice and well put. :)

#4 Comment By DarthKrzysztof On February 16, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

The Shadowrun game I used to play in became such a snarl of retcons that I couldn’t keep track of what had really happened any more. Is that NPC dead or alive? How did that adventure really end? Is my soul not jumping between bodies anymore?

Telas is f’in A right. Don’t do it!

#5 Comment By Jonathan Drain On February 17, 2009 @ 3:19 am

This is exactly how I play. No do-overs.

#6 Comment By Balam Shimoda On February 18, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

Whatever you do, don’t allow psionics in your D&D 3.5 game, or they can force you to retcon!
http://forums.gleemax.com/wotc_archive/index.php/t-737126

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 18, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

@Balam Shimoda – I actually tried something like that to playtest/break a game. My “superpower” was a device that reset time back to the end of my previous round, but I and my companions knew what had happened. It was usable roughly once an encounter, and was a lot of fun for me, but a skullsplitter of a headache for the GM, who decided it wouldn’t work.

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On February 18, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

Here is one situation with my current group where I’m tempted to retcon, but really can’t: The party has spent the entire campaign periodically being harassed by a tribe of goblins. It came out that the goblins were led by an evil paladin of Torog. The party also has a paladin of Torog, whose goal it is to make his god less evil (long story). Everyone agreed that he should take out the evil paladin and take over the goblins, thus turning a menace into a resource and accomplishing one of his personal goals.

Well, last session, he did just that. As it turned out, the goblins had prisoners. He asked, in a secret note, what to do with them. He thought he was asking Torog in prayer. I thought he was asking the goblin hexer in goblin. I wrote back, “A sacrifice would be appropriate,” since that sort of thing would be on the goblin’s mind. He thought he had received a divine order from his god, and now he’s all set to sacrifice the fighter if the rest of the party can’t bring him an alternate victim in time. I didn’t understand why he was arguing so vehemently in favor of the sacrifice until after the session, when I realized the mix-up. The party went from “Hurrah, we’ve defeated the goblins,” to “Uh-oh, we’re all suspicious of each other and someone might die painfully” because one miscommunication.

#9 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 18, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

@Swordgleam – I think you might need an above-game conversation with the player. Perhaps you could tell him that the “dark side” of Torog was very strong in that area, and he should ask again…

#10 Comment By Swordgleam On February 19, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – He knows about the miscommunication – I figured it out at the same time as he did. But we both realized it was a little late to say to the party, “So you know how I just convinced you all that I need to sacrifice someone or the goblins will turn on us and Torog will take away my power? …Not so much.”

My players don’t seem to uncomfortable with the notion of one character torturing another (nearly) to death, so I think it’s going to turn out okay. It’s a dark campaign, but this is a bit farther than it’s gone before. As long as no one starts thinking, “These guys are a bunch of sadistic freaks – I want out of this group” it should be all right.

#11 Comment By Bercilac On February 21, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

I’m in general agreement. I do, however, think it’s okay to allow a bit of fudging. In my most recent game, one person had a dinosaur as an animal companion with poison claws. Sometimes he would forget to demand his opponents make a poison save. I think generally as long as less than a combat round has taken place, and there are no “time paradoxes” to work out, it’s okay, especially if people are playing with new characters that they haven’t figured out all of the tactics for yet.

#12 Comment By Zaraphina On August 21, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

My GM/Boyfriend has a saying “you’d be a better fighter if you had a better head for numbers.” As a DM I don’t roll back time when I mess up, so I shouldn’t rollback when the players mess up either.


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