A writing teacher of mine once said that any writing you do is more than just a story or novel or essay; the act of writing is also entering a conversation with all the other writers who have ever or will ever write something as well. If I took that statement literally, I would be too intimidated to ever put pen to paper, imagining that I was actually shooting the breeze with brilliant minds like Dostoevsky, Faulkner, and Updike. However, this thought does help focus a writer—it instills the awareness that the act of writing is something worthy of taking seriously, even if the work itself is silly or irreverent in tone (or for a fantasy RPG).
The sentiment from that teacher is never far from my mind, but it struck me even more prophetic as I did more and more work in the game-design field—and in particular when that work brought me into designing within a shared-world environment. Even as the forward-thinking R&D folks at Wizards of the Coast do a little bit of public introspection on the past and future of the game of Dungeons & Dragons (and RPGs in general), and as the public interprets that introspection as a referendum on the next iteration of D&D, it strikes me how working on content for a game really is a conversation with past and future designers and developers. And, if game design is such a conversation, then designing content in settings such as the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Greyhawk is an outright public debate, including Springer-esque, chair-throwing, clothes-ripping brawls.
When I was given the chance to work as one of the Global Administrators on the Living Forgotten Realms campaign in 2008, I had the slightest iota of experience working on projects in other shared-world settings, mostly D&D ones like Eberron or Greyhawk, but also Babylon 5. Working on projects in those arenas was a bit unnerving, but the Forgotten Realms is a whole different beast. Not only are there years of gaming material lurking behind it, but whole libraries of novels hang over a designer’s head. And that doesn’t even touch the video games and other ancillary products.
After all, it is one thing to play around with the fundamentals of a shared-world when you are doing so for a group of players in a private (which can be a tough enough job). It is another issue entirely when you are being asked to tread upon fans’ sacred grounds; it is impossible to hide your footprints in a sandbox so public and sometimes overly scrutinized.
I have spent much of my last 4 years in my game design career treading in the sandbox of the Forgotten Realms. The Living Forgotten Realms content was the starting point, but that was somewhat a small corner of the very large play area: organized play is often considered its own small niche, and it is easily overlooked by the hardcore fans of a setting as somehow parallel and therefore not necessarily connected. Although the work that organized-play administrators and volunteers in such campaigns is difficult and extensive, we are often shielded from the worst of the angry fans of a setting.
If there is one word I hear spoken in a ghostly and terror-inducing voice in my nightmares, that word is “canon.” The term originally referred to the pieces of a religious text that can authoritatively be deemed scripture, and it was later co-opted by literary scholars to refer works that can be definitively attributed to an author. In areas of the fan bases’ interactions with a piece of intellectual property in general, and in areas such as RPG settings in particular, the word “canon” has come to refer to those pieces of work that are considered “official” for the setting. Starting with my time working on the Keoland Triad in the Living Greyhawk campaign, and continuing up to the present as I stare at the projects on my desk that delve deeply into the lore of the Forgotten Realms, very few words have been as important and as frustrating to me as “canon.”
The irony is that as a History major in college, I gained the deepest respect for history and those who study it. I understand that hindsight is far from 20/20, and that our understanding of the past evolves almost as rapidly as our predictions of the future. It was hard enough to find experts agreeing on the causes of certain wars or historical movements that happened years or decades or centuries ago. Imagine how hard it is to get people to agree on fictitious pasts!
A younger version of me interviewed writer Frederick Busch about his novel The Night Inspector, set in New York City in the aftermath of the Civil War. One of the many things that will stick with me forever from that interview is what Busch said about writing an historical novel. He warned of the danger a novelist faces when researching background: it becomes a temptation to research too much, to lose one’s self in the material and neglect to write the story meant to be told. He talked about “falling into” that world and being unable to get out. Those working within imaginary worlds face the same danger.As an LFR admin, my work had me delving into the past of areas as diverse as the Moonshae Isles, Waterdeep, Cormyr, Thay, and Zhentil Keep. Even after stepping down from the campaign, I found myself with other project that led to extensive research into several other areas. Two recent projects set within the Forgotten Realms have led me to learn everything there is to know about the Moonshae Isles and Undermountain. Such research, combined with the need to extrapolate and move the timeline forward, is daunting.
While writing an article for Dungeon Magazine that gives the background information for potential campaigns set in the Forgotten Realms’ Moonshae Isles, my ability to walk that line was tested. Of course my first step was to move backward through the reams of previous content detailing that area: everything from the first Moonshae RPG sourcebook and novel trilogy to the latest 4e information. I re-read the trilogy, reviewed the original RPG sourcebook, and consumed the 3e and 4e D&D published material. Before I realized it, I was among the lotus-eaters. I was daydreaming about the awesome campaigns that could be set there. I was thinking about how gripping an updated novel trilogy could be. No actual writing was in danger of getting done.
Like Odysseus, however, I was able to pull myself out of the stupor. The writing began anew. However, before long, the fear of the fans’ canon debate seized me up again. Was the Earthmother a divine aspect of Chauntea or a primal power in her own right? What should I do when a beloved part of a 20-year-old novel conflicted with a new piece of 4e game design? In the material I was designing for Undermountain, what was I going to do with Halaster, one of the most well-recognized wizards in the Realms behind Elminster? I won’t go as far as to say that I was starting to freak out, but only because that might cause people to question my sanity.
In the end, some deep-breathing exercises and a little perspective saved the day. Yes, I was the smallest kid in the sandbox. Yes, if I tried to grab hold of the coolest sand bucket and shovel, one of the bigger kids was likely to punch me in the mouth. The key, in the long run, is to respect the setting—respect all the hard work that has been done by others with better minds and clearer vision. The setting is beloved for a reason, and that existing love has been well earned. However, there are also further stories to tell. If new footprints aren’t made in the sand because of fear of disturbing existing footprints, the sandbox will never attract new kids. Time, even time in fictional worlds, marches on. If not me, then who? So I will grab the pail and shovel, with the understanding that I could end up with a mouthful of sand and a bloody lip. But even the fight might be fun, right?