Saturday, March 24, 2012

On Canon

When I published the latest of my "Mapping Beyond the Flanaess" maps, a very strange phenomenon occurred. A few people, rather than discussing the maps themselves (aside from an occasional perfunctory "they look nice, but...") proceeded to rip into them not for their own substance, but because they are based, in large part, on the map that appeared in Dragon Annual #1 back in 1996.

I confess I was somewhat taken aback by this, since it didn't seem particularly fair to take me to task for something that was done by Skip Williams and Dave Sutherland 16 years ago. But apparently old hatreds simmer for long periods, and will find any excuse to come to the surface. My maps were just a convenient excuse to vent their spleens once more.

It does bring up an interesting question as to how, exactly, we handle issues of canon that we don't especially like.

While for most people, the question itself sounds almost nonsensical ("who cares about canon?"), it should be remembered that for some fans of specific game settings, the question of whether something is or is not canonical is crucial. After all, stray too far from the published material, and eventually you're not playing in Greyhawk at all. (The question then becomes, "when does that happen?")

I was one of the first people (perhaps even the first, but who can remember back that far?) back in the AOL days to use the term "canon" in the context of Greyhawk; I myself had heard it in similar context regarding things relating to Star Trek, and found it an apt term. Discussions as to how canon can be fit together, or made to work, are as much staples of Greyhawk fandom as is the introduction of new material ("fanon", as the neologism has it). The main fan-based website for Greyhawk is not called Canonfire for nothing.

There are three approaches one can take with canon:
  • Everything that is published as canonical material should be used, and trumps anything that fans come up with (even material used in one's home game). If new canonical material is published which conflicts with homemade material, the latter is discarded in favor of the former.
  • Start with a base of canonical material, but with the understanding that canon can be discarded as the game master desires.
  • Start with only the very basic material (usually one of the boxed sets or folio, when talking about Greyhawk) and develop your own material from there, ignoring most of the remaining material unless its inclusion is personally compelling. Even the basic material is fair ground for modification.
I should state emphatically that none of these options is right (unless you're writing for Wizards of the Coast, in which case the first option is your only option), nor is any of them wrong. Most, but not all, game masters and players find themselves following the second option, which is more of a spectrum than a point. One can have a great respect for most canon, and still find onesself willing to discard one or two elements that one really doesn't like in favor of a homebrewed solution.

That, of course, is what I did with my Castle of the Mad Archmage. I'm not a fan of the Greyhawk Ruins module, and therefore wrote my own megadungeon to replace it. That's a personal artistic choice, but on the whole I tend to fall into the camp of "use all the canon I can"; probably a 3 on the scale above. There are a few specific items I've replaced (my map of the City of Greyhawk, for example), but mostly those have been done because I don't find the canonical sources as true to their Gygaxian origins as they might have been, and I find my substitutions moreso.

Quite a few people have the same attitude towards the map from DA#1. They don't like the physical layout, or the choices of which cultures are next to one another, or whatever. That's fine, and there's no more wrong with that than their is with my discarding Greyhawk Ruins for my Castle of the Mad Archmage. However, what becomes problematical is how such things are addressed. I feel that complaining loudly and often about what bothers me only goes so far. Without taking matters into one's own hands and actually doing something to address the concerns, complaining turns into whining.

Accept on the face of it that the canonical source isn't going to change. Short of your winning the lottery, buying the rights to it, and re-writing things to suit your fancy, chances are that the offending map, or module, or deity, or whatever aren't going away. In such a case, you have three choices:
  • Suck up and deal with it.
  • Create your own material to replace the offending material (create a new map or module, etc.).
  • Come up with an in-universe explanation for the anomaly and provide a solution that provides a better explanation without breaking canon. Sometimes called "canon reconciliation". Especially used when two pieces of canon seemingly contradict one another.
That last is something one sees a lot in the Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes fan communities. To take but one example; for years before Enterprise finally gave a canonical explanation, Star Trek fans attempted to explain the discrepancy in appearance of Klingons in ST:TOS and later incarnations. Were there different castes of Klingons? Half-breeds? Mass surgery? Dozens of explanations, some plausible, some tortured, were offered. But the best were the ones that explained the anomaly completely within the bounds of canon.

So, too, can such an attitude be taken towards canonical elements of the World of Greyhawk that one dislikes. To take one example that was brought up by my publication of my maps; the notion that Zindia and Nippon (or as I call it, Woguo) are too close together. In the real world, they are separated by China. Surely if they were closer together, Zindia would have an influence on Woguo, and thus Woguo would have a culture nothing like historical Japan.

To my mind, the solution is not to continually complain that the problem exists, but rather to come up with an interesting and plausible explanation that still falls within the bounds of canon. That's why in my maps and related material, I posited that there was an extensive Suhfang (the Chinese analogue) population in more direct proximity to Woguo; this population was later conquered and became the Woguo Dominion. Prior to their current expansionist phase, Woguo was deeply isolationist in character. Since the Suhfang lands were much closer to the island of Woguo than the Zindian lands, the vast majority of cultural pollination that took place would come from Suhfang.

However, it should be remembered that Suhfang in Oerik (at least as I envision it; we know nothing about it but the name and the vaguest outlines of geography) lacks the influence of Zen Buddhism that its real-world counterpart has. It's still a very deeply polytheistic land, and if Woguo is anything like Japan, we need to account for the much more Zen-like character of its religion.

I'm sure the answer is as obvious to you as it was to me. The proximity of Zindia now becomes not a problem, but a solution! What little Zindian cultural pollination there has been of Woguo has been in the form of spirituality, rather than other aspects of culture and technology.

I put this out there not to invite a discussion on this specific idea, but rather as an example of how canon reconciliation is a useful and positive tool. I'm sure the explanation I proffer above will be lacking to some people. The answer, then, is to come up with your own canon reconciliation. Try to come up with an answer that stays within the bounds of canon before you throw something out. You might just find that your explanation ends up being more interesting than what you might have invented in its place.


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