Eberron Continued: What Is Canon?

I’ve got a lot of things I want to write about this week – Phoenix, Kickstarter, and more. However, a comment on the last Dragonmark raises an interesting question, namely “What is canon?”

Let’s start with the comment itself.

If you consider DDO to be canon in some way, there is two survivors from the Dragon/Giant war too: The Stormreaver and The Truthful One. They both died in the conclusion of the most recent game raid, but their history had been told since DDO launch.

Excellent point. But what really interests me is “if you consider DDO to be canon…” I am thrilled with everything that DDO has done and the stories that they have created. They have helped to keep Eberron alive over the years in which there’s been little new published material. But personally, I don’t consider that material to be canon… any more than I consider my own novels to be canon. Because in my mind, these are the same thing.

What COULD be considered canon? I could see a case for any of the following.

* Sourcebooks created by Wizards of the Coast.

* Articles created or authorized by Wizards of the Coast – the Dragonshards, Eberron Expanded, articles from DDI, Dragon, or Dungeon.

* Eberron novels authorized by Eberron.

* The lore created for D&D Online.

With that said, when the design team first created Eberron, we made the decision that novels wouldn’t be considered canon. A novel is a particular story that COULD happen in Eberron… but that doesn’t mean it WILL happen. In other words, just because a novel says that Lhesh Haruuc of Darguun dies in 999 YK doesn’t mean that you’ll ever see that mentioned or acknowledged in a sourcebook. In the Dreaming Dark Trilogy Pierce gets an artifact – the Docent Shira. When I wrote Secrets of Xen’drik, I included game stats for Shira. But I didn’t mention Pierce. Because if you want to use Shira in your campaign, I want YOU to decide what happens to her. So in a sense, SHIRA is canon – covered in a core sourcebook – while Pierce is not. In my opinion, DDO is in the same category as a novel. If DDO does something with the Lord of Blades that contradicts what you’ve done with him, you aren’t somehow wrong. DDO is one possible story, just like the novels. But it’s not any more important than your story.

This raises the bigger question: What is the purpose of canon? In my opinion, having canon material gives players and gamemasters a common language. It lets players from different groups share stories. It gives them something to expect. It can inspire stories and adventures. I can go into an Eberron game and tell the DM “What I really want to do is to investigate the Mourning.” Canon provides the major pillars that carry the setting… The Last War, the Mourning, the Treaty of Thronehold, the Dragonmarked Houses, the Prophecy. I may not know the specific details a DM has decided (such as the cause of the Mourning), but I know the Mourning is a major force in the world. Canon creates a CONTEXT. In my opinion, canon is most useful as a source of inspiration, when the ideas of the Lords of Dust or Lhesh Haruuc’s successor or the Race of Eight Winds or whatever gives you an idea for a story and gives the PCs context to fill in all the little details around it. What I don’t want is for it to limit you. Case in point, in the last Dragonmark someone asked if Eberron had legends of sunken lost continents. None of the material I’ve written does; in developing the setting I focused more on creating civilizations for the aquatic races than on having sunken surface nations. But as a DM, the LACK of canon information shouldn’t stop you from creating your own sunken nation. And regardless of what a novel says, you should feel free to kill Lhesh Haruuc, keep him alive, or just replace him entirely with this cool bugbear you’ve developed.

Beyond this: I might say “Sourcebooks are canon, but novels aren’t.” But the fact of the matter is that *I* don’t use everything in the sourcebooks. For example, I feel that the depiction of Thrane in The Forge of War runs counter to its depiction in other sources and to my personal vision of the nation… and thus, I ignore it. So in my campaign, The Forge of War isn’t canon. Meanwhile, you might decide that since you and your players love the Legacy of Dhakaan books, you want to make the events and characters in that book part of your story. So for you, it’s canon. When we talk about our respective campaigns, I can say “I’ve made DDO and the Thorn of Breland canon, but I’m ignoring the other novels”… and that lets you know what to expect, and gives you information you can use in creating your own character and story.

Ultimately, “canon” is a tool that helps you and your players understand the world. It creates a common language for storytelling. So what’s really important isn’t the broad generic canon, but the canon for your campaign. Personally, I’d suggest that you tell players what’s going to be canon when you start a campaign. If you like certain novels, you can say “These novels are canon.” If you hate a particular sourcebook, mention that you aren’t using it. What’s important is creating YOUR canon.

So… that’s my long rant on canon material. What do YOU think? Do you personally use the events of the novels and DDO in your campaigns? Do you feel that encouraging DMs to make the world their own is a strength of the setting, or a weakness?