Canon (n) – a list of writings, esp sacred writings, officially recognized as genuine.
The issue of canon is one that can come up when fans get together (whether in person or online) and talk about their shared passion. It takes an interesting twist when applied to role-playing games. The main reason for this is because a role-playing game is really just a framework on which the group hangs their own stories and adventures — a kind of fan-fiction, if you will. There is nothing wrong with this, because that it the point of a role-playing game.
When you interact with other fans of the game, and players from other groups, having a “canon” for the game can be critical because it forms the starting point for discussion about the game. That canon, generally speaking, is the material released by the publisher — rule books, setting books, adventures, etc. But things can get thorny when you get a game that has multiple editions, sometimes with different publishers — like Earthdawn, or Dungeons & Dragons (which has had some radical changes over the years).
In preparing for my new game, I need to decide on how much of the published material is going to apply. I have an advantage in my situation — I am the most familiar with the setting. My players’ knowledge of the setting is largely drawn from their prior experience with the game, they aren’t the sort who read every book and obsessively pore over the details. It will be a lot easier for me to stray from the official setting canon because they don’t have any expectations or knowledge that I will need to take into account.
The bulk of the information about Landis is in the Cara Fahd sourcebook. There is some information on its history (mostly in relation to Cara Fahd and the conflicts between those nations before the Scourge) and a little bit of current geographic information (including references to several kaers and citadels). Outside of geography, Landis is largely a blank slate — which suits my purposes well enough.
One final thought on canon as it pertains to an individual campaign. How do you incorporate developments from later releases into an existing game? It is hard to know how easy it will be to handle this sort of thing. Here is an example from my own past experience to illustrate.
In one of the earliest Earthdawn games I ran (back in the earliest days of the game), the player characters were based out of a town I created called Riverfork. I plopped Riverfork down at the intersection of the Serpent and Caucavic rivers, and developed it as a major trading hub for the area. At the time I was running the game, this area was undeveloped in official supplements.
Then the Serpent River sourcebook was released, and a conflict appeared. According to the new sourcebook, the Cliff City of House Syrtis was a stone’s throw downriver from where I had placed Riverfork, set in the walls of the Lalai Gorge — a rather significant geographic feature that I had never mentioned in my game (since I wasn’t aware of its existence). I suddenly found the center of a major t’skrang trading house less than a day’s travel from my significant trading port — without having established any kind of significant t’skrang present there. This had the potential to cause a lot of problems.
So I ignored it. I brought some of the information from Serpent River over into that game, but it was more important that I maintain my game’s internal consistency than suddenly overthrow what I had previously established.
This taught me an important lesson when it comes to canon in a role-playing game. Each campaign develops its own canon. Once the dice come out, concerns about “official” become secondary. Recognize that there will inevitably be differences between the published material and your own game, and try not to stress about it.
That said, since my game is going to involve Landis to a fairly heavy degree, I am very curious what the upcoming Lost Dynasty supplement from RedBrick has to say about the area.