Saturday, September 3, 2011

Retcon Job

This past week has proven to be pretty interesting in regards to continuity.  On the one hand, DC Comics has ceased the run on all their comics in order to more or less reboot the DCU with 52 new issues in an attempt to boost sales.  Histories have been re-written, the status quo shaken up...again.  Now, I say "more or less" because while some characters are getting a fresh start, the better selling titles like Green Lantern and Batman Incorporated are going to be largely untouched despite massive holes in logic...which seems par for the course as the first time DC did a shake this big it was also done in a typically half-assed fashion.

It will be interesting to see if this daring (uncharitable readers might use the word "desperate") move on the part of DC VP Dan Didio will work or not.  Me, I will buy some of the comics, give the experiment a chance, and I hope it works because I do want to see DC succeed in the dwindling comic market.

I must admit, the man does rock a bald dome.

The other piece of news-and this one makes me cringe-is George Lucas releasing the original Star Wars trilogy on Blu Ray...and making yet more changes.  The most damning, unforgivable one to me is changing Darth Vader's climactic scene.  It is evidence of George Lucas being surrounded by yes men who are unable and/or unwilling to tell him when he is doing something creatively bankrupt and when he is alienating the fans that made him filthy rich.

I could post a ten thousand word rant about the subject of George Lucas, but there are other places online for that sort of thing.  I only mention it here because of the symmetry we are seeing between the Star Wars and DC franchises, on retooling properties that may or may not need it (I recognize the potential need to tweak the Star Wars movies for the high definition format.  I just disagree with the tweaks George has chosen to make.)

Raping my childhood since Greedo shot first.

These changes are known as "retcons", a shortening of "retroactive continuity".  Now, you may ask, if I am not going to rant about Dan Didio and George Lucas, why do I bring up retcons at all?  Well, you may wish to do one in your game.

This is not something you should consider lightly.  A retcon should never be attempted unless it is absolutely necessary.  A retcon involves editing or adding to a game's history and that is to me a very, very big deal.

There are different kinds of retcons.  The least damaging is one where history is added to without contradicting known information.  An excellent example of this where comics are concerned was a Spider Man story written by professional wrestler Raven. He penned a story about the wrestler Peter Parker had defeated that fateful night when his Uncle Ben had been murdered (I have not read the story but have been told it is a great read.).  Nothing in the story contradicts what was written before.  An excellent example of this where my Vindicators game is concerned was his post my fellow GM Rafe composed concerning vampires, and not the sparkling kind.

The face of regret, ladies and gentlemen.
He had in mind the idea to employ a little used, all but forgotten character called The Ace of Spades.  In one great post he turned this character from a punchline into someone menacing, hinting at a deep back story.  And he did it without contradicting what we knew of Ace or any of his in-game actions.

Another example of retconning is the alteration of known game facts, but said facts do not impact the game as a whole.  In my games there was an organization known as the Six Families, magical clans.  One of them was called the Fong-Kabayama. It was a lame name but at the time I did not see it as a high priority.  It was an Asian clan and I did not have any immediate plans to use them, it existed for the purposes of fleshing out the game world.  Only now I am running a new game, Behind The Veil, and it involves the magical community in a broader way and "Fong-Kabayama" simply does not cut it.  So I changed the clan name to Golden Dragon and added more information without altering the information that had already been posted.  It was a harmless alteration, it changed no past events.

Now we come to the sorts of retcons that make major alterations to the histories of properties.  Excellent examples of this can be seen in Star Trek, The Next Generation, where the Klingons started out as joining the Federation, then later on writers decided to make the Klingons a separate empire again (A note: my friend, Dave Zyn, thought Star Trek producers Berman and Braga missed an excellent opportunity during the Enterprise television series.  The show's primary subplot concerned a "temporal cold war", a conflict taking place between rival time travelers.  Dave suggested every retcon seen in Star Trek could have been ascribed to the temporal cold war, where one side or the other was messing with the timeline to suit their purposes.  Sadly Berman and Braga were pretty much just cashing a check at that point and did not seem interested in generating compelling storytelling or paying attention to inconvenient literary gaps in logic.).  Another example is where a character has been killed but another writer brings them back (Sadly, Marvel and DC Comics both have been guilty of this on what is by now probably a hundred occasions.).  It is these sorts of retcons that you have to be very careful of.

Sometimes a retcon may seem necessary, especially where real world events may impact your game.  For example, author John Ringo has written a series of books about a retired Navy SEAL who killed Osama Bin Laden and collected the reward.  Only now Osama Bin Laden is dead for real.  So if John Ringo wishes to continue writing that series of books he is going to have to address real world events; either he says his character is still Bin Laden's killer (which in my opinion is disrespectful to the men who really did take him down) , or he says the man his character killed was someone else.  So what we are seeing is how a real world event impacts a work of fiction.

So it might be necessary to tweak your game a bit if modern real world events impact a game that takes place in the future.  However you can usually find that most events can simply be ignored where your game is concerned.  Ten years on, 9/11 is just one more tragedy in a long, long line to most people not directly impacted by it, and in another ten years there will be a generation it hardly affected at all.  No one ever talks about the Oklahoma City bombings any more, Timothy McVey is almost wholly unknown to anyone not living there or in Michigan.  Same goes for the tragedies in Waco or Columbine.  So for simplicity's sake, most modern events can be ignored.  At worst you can simply say your game is taking place in an alternate timeline where it did not happen.  After all, the Eugenics Wars never happened during the late twentieth century and that never stopped me from enjoying Star Trek re-runs. But perhaps you feel it necessary to incorporate real world events into your setting.  If so do try to do so with a modicum of tact, if anything to spare the feelings of those who may have touched by the tragedies.  Try not to exploit them.

So it might not be necessary to incorporate real world events into your game.  What other reasons might a retcon be necessary?  Perhaps there was a player meltdown and someone has quit.  The break up was so acrimonious you want to wipe any trace of this player's character from your game.  And let's say there has been a player involved in the game since the beginning, or at least years.  And the two of you have had an epic falling out.  Words were exchanged that cannot be taken back.  He or she has gone, but he or she has left behind hundreds and hundreds of posts.  So, what do you do?

Nothing.  Nothing at all.  He or she is gone, suck it up.  Doesn't matter who was right or who was wrong.  For the good of the game you accept the fact their contribution is there to stay, write their characters out in a fair and realistic manner, and then you move on.  You do not pretend their character did not exist, you do not murder their character in some humiliating fashion.  You do not write some massive vindictive post where a time traveler murders his character in his crib.  Find a way to logically write their character out of the game, be mature about it.  But for God's sake do not retcon them from existence!

So now let's say you have a great idea for an adventure, but the only problem is this pesky event happened five years ago that is in the way.  So you have to ask yourself these questions: Is this really the only way you can accomplish the story you have in mind?  How important is the event in question to the players?  What are the long term consequences to your game's integrity?  If any of these three questions give you pause, do not do the retcon!

If it seems that I am against major retcons you are right. I am against introducing new characters that are written as if they had always been.  I am against extensive re-writes of canon history.  I am against bringing dead characters back to life regardless of how much I like them.  Greg Rucka may have written some great Captain America stories with Bucky not dying in that rocket crash, but at the cost of destroying a key component of Captain America's origin.  Rucka creating a third Summers brother in X-Men, an entire team of X-Men no one ever heard of before?  Pardon my french, but I call bullshit on that.

Now, that being said, I am not against a perceived retcon.  In these cases it appears you have made dramatic changes but in reality it is not the case.  For example, in my game Paragon died.  What if Paragon resurfaces?  Is it truly Paragon or an imposter?  Is it Paragon from a parallel universe?  What we can have here is a mystery the PCs need to solve.

Or is it Paragon time traveling a day before he dies?  What are the implications if the PCs talk him out of going back?  What we could see there is a possible retcon based on the actions of the PCs and even a potential Flashpoint (Warning: Spoilers!) situation.  Still, I would be very, very careful before

So when it comes to retcons, think twice.  If it is a minor thing then there is no harm.  But if the consequences are potentially game wrecking, well, play it safe and don't pull a Lucas.

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