I grew up in Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth. My first experience was with the Rankin-Bass cartoon of the Hobbit as a very young child, and that led me to try to puzzle through my mom’s copies of the book at 5 or 6, then more successfully at 8, 10, 11, and every few years thereafter just for fun. Once I’d fully come to get the Hobbit as a book, I started the laborious trek through the Lord Of the Rings trilogy and Tolkien’s other works.
When the Lord Of The Rings movies came out, I vehemently railed at them for being unfaithful to the feel of the world that spawned them, while at the same time loving the action and computer generated incredibleness that they brought to the screen. It wasn’t the same as the books I’d devoured throughout my adolescence, but it still made for a good movie.
I knew this was how the new Hobbit was going to be. I knew that it would, in equal parts, dishearten and thrill me. With the new Hobbit movie, I also had different experiences to color my perspective. Having worked in both the RPG industry and the television industry, I knew that the experience of creating a book and making a movie are very different and are aimed at different audiences, just like the process of creating a world setting and playing a game in that world setting are two entirely different things aimed at two very different audiences.
When you sit down to write a world setting for publication, you are performing many of the same tasks that you perform when you sit down to flesh out the imaginary world in a novel. Since reading a single book isn’t a group activity, you’ve got some time and space to flesh things out. And, since the readers are primarily going to be ingesting words, your goal is to get them to build the sensory experience of the imaginary lands inside their heads. You do that by creating a framework and gently guiding them down a path, but making sure they have room to go play on the grass and plant a few new things of their own. Creating a spark of inspiration for the Game Masters and players to build off of is much like the novel author trying to forge a connection with the reader by giving enough detail to guide them along towards your vision, but leaving enough blanks for them to fill in so that they can sympathize with your work.
However, when you sit down at the table with your players, the atmosphere is completely different than when you are looking over setting books and imagining the various factions, lands, races, and unique aspects of a world. Much like a movie audience, you are going to have many types of people sitting down for the experience, each getting the maximum enjoyment from different facets of the experience. Some may be familiar with the source material and gain their enjoyment from playing in that setting, some may just be in it for the action and combat, some may enjoy the number crunching and mechanical manipulation of the system, and some may enjoy the deep mysteries and feelings of awe that come from being in a good story.
Since everyone is at the table for a different reason, the setting might not be a perfect fit for all of the types of players. What the audience is looking for at this current time may not be the same thing that the authors of the book envisioned when they were hunched over at their keyboards. The game setting at your table may be based off of the setting in that book, but it is a living, organic thing that comes to life in the minds of the players, not a static one whose boundaries are defined in ink.
What you should be concerned with when you are running a game isn’t faithfulness to the original source material, but the enjoyment of the audience sitting in front of you right now. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t utilize the materials of a pre-made, or self-generated, world setting, but that when the setting and the fun at the table start butting heads, err on the side that generates a better experience for the group as a whole.
Even though the movie experience of the Hobbit breaks my purist heart, it is the right experience for the movie going audience in general. It got 70% of the way to what I hoped it would be, then blissfully ran roughshod over the rest of it so that it could pull in a broader audience. The high, squeaky voice of the grotesquely marshmallow like goblin king was nowhere near the terrifying (to a 5 year old) experience of the gravel voiced, wrinkly, savage, goblin king from the books and the cartoon. The one who was seconds away from biting off Thorin’s head. But… it fit the movie, and it probably plays better to the younger audience of today than a younger audience of the 1970s.
The addition of Azog as a nemesis for Thorin, instead of as a mere backstory element to showcase a previous battle, was an excellent way to enrich the inner turmoil of the character of Thorin, even though it never happened in the books. In game terms, Thorin’s player needed a nemesis to keep him personally involved in the action, so the canon of the world was modified and a more interesting experience was available for the player who needed it – just like it was provided for all those non-purist audience members that needed a hero/villain experience to complete their movie going experience.
When you are working with a more active, dynamic medium that is being presented to multiple people at once, that is what it all comes down to – Audience. You have to provide an experience that can partially engage multiple people instead of absolutely engaging just one. The audience sitting around your gaming table has more in common with the audience sitting at the movie theater than they do with the person sitting down and reading the world setting. Things they may have loved in the world setting as they mull it over in their head don’t play out well at the table, despite being incredibly fascinating and inspiring.
Back before I was able to play D&D and was just able to read the rule books, it bugged the heck out of me to hear about the half-dragon PCs, uber-assassin custom classes, and wild hi-jinks of others’ games. It didn’t jive with what I was getting out of the singular, static, and entirely in my mind experience of the books. But then, I got to play, and I got to look at the rest of the audience around me and see how much fun they were having, even if it wasn’t fully accurate to what was in the books.
Gaming is a wonderful collaborative experience, and one of the very few that lets the audience impact the medium. So, should we let the canon of a book or setting say what works for the group of people assembled at the table? As a purist who loves the world of Tolkien, I understand that the movies don’t represent what I grew up with and loved, but I also realize that they create a broader narrative that includes more people, just like we do when we game. So, I say shatter the canon of the world setting or the rules if it makes the game more fun, even if it makes you cry a bit inside to do it.
What do you think? Do you agree that fun at the table should trump the canon of a world setting? How faithfully do you hold to a world setting when you run in a premade one? In a homebrew one?