Canon has been addressed in prior posts on this blog. I’d like to add to the discussion in terms of RPGs, since edition changes and ancillary materials contribute or modify their canon.
Recently, over on the official Dungeons & Dragons website blog, Christopher Perkins addressed the issue of canon for D&D:
“Our studio treats D&D in much the same way that Marvel Studios treats its properties. The current edition of the D&D roleplaying game has its own canon, as does every other expression of D&D. For example, what is canonical in fifth edition is not necessarily canonical in a novel, video game, movie, or comic book, and vice versa. This is true not only for lore but art as well.”—Chris Perkins, D&D blog
In short, Perkins notes that this liberates creatives and players from having to know an extensive multi-decade backlog of lore and details for a game setting or other element, and that it enables positive elements from prior works to be perpetuated while negative elements may be changed or removed.
In the realm of comic book properties, canon elements can be and are a headache and a half to deal with. Throw in the reboots, alternate universes, versions of spinoff media, and so on, and it gets to be a real mess. This holds true of any franchise of media. (I applaud Anthony the Silver tackling the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but to be honest, I would not try to bear the burden that argent Atlas hoists around.)
Yet, even with this declaration, I suspect some of the fanbase may feel a bit thwarted. If anything, their esoteric knowledge has officially received a demotion from Fact to “cute detail.” That information is no longer How It Is, but merely A Way It Can Be. For those fans who are prideful about mastering that knowledge, it can be a bit of a shot to the gut. For others, especially new fans of a franchise, one of the most annoying things to deal with is the whining and grumbling of one of the former know-it-all fans who’s recently been knocked off their perch.
But the trick with canon elements, especially with a persisting franchise, is that it is meant for the audience of the time and not just for the audience of the past. If canon were rigidly inviolable, then Superman has a lot of explaining to do based on his actions in old issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.” The past can be respected, if not changed to a more respectable format. The class-act performance in this category goes to the Black Panther film depiction of M’Baku, formerly the questionably named and costumed Man-Ape. Old fans like myself got who the character was, but didn’t have to wince or cringe at his inclusion as we might have if the character remained true to his original debut in the comics.
Roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons also face issues of canon. One recently announced change is the inclusion of two additional major cultures of drow elves. The ones most familiar to many, the spider-demon-goddess-worshipping wicked raiders from the underworld, are merely one culture instead of a typical example of the culture of the drow. The harmful stereotype applied to one of the game’s most famous drow elves, Drizzt Do’Urden, as “one of the good ones,” has been recognized and addressed by the author R.A. Salvatore.
This freedom from canon is helpful in creative endeavors. More than with some other franchises, roleplaying games need creativity in order to use them. Players create characters; Dungeon Masters create adventures and campaigns; groups create sessions and memories. And the canon of the gaming table is a unique creation in its own right: you can’t call up Wizards of the Coast and demand that your half-orc assassin, Balzbustur the Leet, now officially be listed as the ruler of the first layer of the Nine Hells, as well as married to the dragon goddess Tiamat, but man oh man, does that ever make for a good story around the table.
Though the results of actions and prior sessions can contribute to a group’s canon for a campaign, a campaign setting, especially a published one, brings a certain level of challenge. With significant adventures set in a published setting, groups are invited to have their characters be the ones who embark on the mission and influence the events of the world around them. In prior cases, these adventures are not pinned down and defined, because whereas one group would be successful, another would not be.
But tie-in elements like novels and comics and the like can potentially “set” canon for a campaign setting–or it has in the past. The Forgotten Realms had a major event, the Time of Troubles, that had the gods banished to the mortal realm and struggle to regain their divine power. During this time some of the deities were slain or permanently changed, while some mortals ascended to fill in the gaps of the pantheon. This event has remained canon, though later edition updates have added changes to this.
Now, as of fifth edition, a lot of the familiar deities from the pantheon’s origins are back, but the changes from prior editions haven’t been totally discarded. Essentially, it allows for fans of many editions to maintain canon for the setting as they wish. So if you liked the big divine shake-up that occured in fourth edition, you can keep that for your game, just as much as keeping the first edition lineup if you prefer. But, the game itself is in a relatively “fixed” state of play. It acknowledges what would happen after that state of play in certain modules at certain release times, but nothing more. It doesn’t assume that the players progressed through a particular adventure unless explicitly stated as such in the module itself.
An older setting for the game, Gygax’s old setting Greyhawk, has a fan-built site that deals with all things Greyhawk. Its title, Canonfire! addresses the issue at hand in its very name. One of the taglines in the banner states: “Editions change. Greyhawk endures.” Considering that this setting, along with Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor setting, were around before and during the origins of the game, there’s been a lot of stuff added in one form or another. And that’s not even considering what may have taken place in the games run by Gygax and Arneson themselves, which some devoted players desire to adhere to in their own games.
Tying back to the quote from Perkins, this is important because it addresses those fans who are concerned about canon, and who are so invested in the setting that they devour anything and everything released for it. It’s akin to any fan of a work who can cite rare facts and elements of any number of works written in the particular milieu, whether it’s a Tolkien fan discussing the Blue Wizards to a Star Wars fan discussing the death of Chewbacca. And those two examples are used to emphasize a point, because fans who saw the sequel trilogy of Star Wars only may not be aware that Expanded Universe materials had Chewbacca die. Or fans of the Lord of the Rings films may not know about Alamar and Pallando since the Silmarillion material or other significant notes by Tolkien were not licensed for use by the filmmakers. In essence, this stance by Wizards of the Coast is saying “the way it is now is the way it is now,” which can be a very frustrating experience for those fans who pride themselves on their mastery of the lore.
So Drizzt the drow ranger, technically, isn’t that much of a ranger, and is more of a fighter with a bit of experience as a ranger. This is fine if you consider that he never really used the magical abilities of the ranger class that much in the books (or at least not to my memory, though I’m sure a devotee of Drizzt can easily correct me on this), but it can be considered an inconsistency for some diehard fans of the character.
In relation to Drizzt, his fellow companions are a pair of humans and a dwarf, all of whom have rather short lifespans in comparison to that of the dark elf. In the novels, these fellow Companions of the Hall reincarnated and joined Drizzt on adventures once more. However, the recent Dark Alliance game has the Companions of the Hall, all in their original incarnations. It’s like the band got back together again, and found the Fountain of Youth while they were at it. It’s also a means for a game that uses the passage of time to explain changes to circumvent that problem regarding popular or beloved elements that fans want to persist as they are… like comic book characters. We don’t have the great-great-grandson of Bruce Wayne as Batman–we have the original. And he isn’t perplexed or surprised by the miraculous technology of today, as he would be if he were still an adult from the 1930’s, but is in step with the times, trends, and tech just like the bulk of his current audience is. This problem is rather old hat for franchises like comics, but it poses some challenges for things like roleplaying game campaign settings and related media. So, it’s not surprising that they took a solution used by a multigenerational media source and applied to their own creations.