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The Retcon

Jan 17, 14 The Retcon

Ah, the oh-so dreaded retcon. Fans of comic books and long-running television series will know this one all too well. Short for “retroactive continuity,” it is used to describe when the established cannon of a particular series is rewritten. This can happen for a number of reasons. Maybe the series got new writers who did not like what the old writers did with it. Maybe by simple mistake. Maybe it was done to correct a mistake, knowing that despite the fan outrage that it would be better for their series overall. Retcons can happen in tabletop role-playing games as well, though personally I like to look at them as the nuclear option: use only when nothing else will work. The retcon is the card I set on the table when some unexpected event has thrown the entire game into disorder and, for the sake of continuing the campaign as a whole rather than abandoning it, it makes sense to try a do-over.

So how does it work? Simply put, you need to select a time during the campaign where things were still working and go back to that. The less you have to erase the better, and the less you have to take away from your players the better still. For example, it is easy to say “hey, lets just say that previous session did not happen and try it again from where we started it” more so than it is to say “I do not like where this last major arch went, so lets go back several levels, erase all those wonderful magic items you found, and start fresh from there.” Unless you feel that there is absolutely no other option, do not do anything that might come off as punishing to your players. The point of a retcon in a table-top game is to preserve the game itself, but if doing so will be a slap in the faces of your players, then its better to just bite the bullet and let the game die.

Despite this, you should not be afraid of trying a retcon. Just be sure to talk it over with your players before any final decision is made. Even if you, the Gamemaster, did not like where an adventure might have taken you, they might not feel the same way. All too often a Gamemaster will think they are doing a terrible job when actually they are doing just fine. Sure, some sessions may not be as good as others, but that does not make them terrible. Trust your players to be honest with you when they tell you that they are having fun. Do not just think they are saying that to make you feel better. Sure, they might not want to say something that they feel might upset you, but if you ask them to be honest then trust that they will be. And players, when your Gamemaster asks that you be honest with them about how you feel about something, be honest. Be honest to them and to yourself. Sure, conflicts are not fun, but just because you do not like something you should not be afraid that saying so will cause conflict. If you do not say anything, you cannot expect anything to change.

When all is said and done, it is all about the story for most of us. This is what makes retcons a possible alternative at all. No matter what happens, no matter what terrible luck shakes the core of a game and threatens to cause the whole thing to come crashing down around us, we are willing to take a step back and try again because we want to know the how things will all turn out in the end. Honestly, in all of the greatest games I have ever had the privilege of being apart of, there have been retcons of various degrees in all of them. Even my favorite campaign of Anima: Beyond Fantasy had a retcon of the very last session, where we decided the ending just was not as great as it could have been and so we tried again, and you know what? The retcon made all the difference.

As always, thank you all for reading and I wish you all good gaming.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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About 

Joshua is a freelance writer, aspiring novelist, and avid table-top gamer who has been in love with the hobby ever since it was first introduced to him by a friend in 1996. Currently he acts as the Gamemaster in three separate games and is also a player in a fourth. When he is not busy rolling dice to save the world or destroying the hopes and dreams of his players, he is usually found either with his nose in a book or working on his own. He has degrees in English, Creative Writing, and Economics.