Will Hindmarch on Canon

For a while, I wrestled with the ways I could handle canon in my home Dragon Age RPG campaign.

Canon, of course, refers to the works of an author or setting that are counted as authentic lore—the books, stories, games, and more that interact officially and are regarded as What Really Happened. For a vast world like Thedas, that exists across multiple media under the Dragon Age banner, canon is both important to track for verisimilitude and sometimes intentionally blurry, imprecise, or even unreliable. At the risk of spoiling certain Dragon Age stories, for example, characters who are declared dead in earlier works may turn out to have stories left to tell in later works. Just because something is canonical doesn’t mean it won’t have twists and surprises.

A home roleplaying game campaign, of course, can have a complicated relationship with canon. Mine does. We started with players who were familiar with Dragon Age: Origins or Dragon Age II, but that was it. I avoided answering the question of what was true in our campaign—our instance of Thedas—until the last possible minute.

For me, it was in part because I didn’t want to commit and push out this player’s vision of the Origins tale or that player’s notion of how open the world was. Maybe it would be our complex and morally gray characters who helped thwart the Blight in Ferelden? Maybe they would get to play at being kingmakers? I didn’t want to answer one way or the other, at first. I wanted to wait until our story took hold, until our characters had their own narrative trajectory in the world, and then embrace the fact that our campaign wasn’t about the Blight or the fate of Ferelden, exactly. It was about the player’s characters and what they wanted.

Still, I alluded to the battle at Ostagar and events from Origins and Dragon Age II as we climbed through levels of play (and flashed back to earlier levels), reminding the players that they were treading the same earth as other Dragon Age characters. I wanted to build up tension before I revealed how we were deviating from canon, and where.

Short version: I didn’t think I would deviate from canon all that much. I’d just keep our characters in the shadows of history, living their own tales.

Then I read David Gaider’s The Silent Grove and saw the animated film, Dawn of the Seeker, and I had something of a change of heart. Those works are important, canonical parts of Dragon Age lore… but they’re also boldly committed to their own styles of storytelling and to the strengths of their forms. They are much better comics and movies than they are games, obviously, but they didn’t shy away from tapping the tropes of Dragon Age or the traditions of their media.

So why should I do any different in my Dragon Age campaign?

Some of the strengths of RPG play are dramatic unpredictability and the dynamic ability to explore and reflect player choices over time, right? So why was I fretting about the relationship of canon to my campaign instead letting our actual play decide? Players undertaking the quests of Dragon Age: Origins don’t have to fret if they’re deviating from canon and I don’t want my players doing that either. I want them playing to the hilt.

So I’m soon to put a big choice in front of my players and their characters. It’s a choice I won’t spoil here, in case they’re reading, but one that’ll either keep us within the edges of Dragon Age canon or take us in an exciting direction of what-if play. I’m looking forward to finding out what the players choose to do.

At the same time, I won’t stop drawing inspiration and lore from Dragon Age sources, of course. The way I’m running this one campaign, everyone else in the setting—all the NPCs—they’re canonical until they come into contact with the Player Characters. So, for example, the events of David Gaider’s novel, Asunder, happen in the background of my campaign just as they do in canonical Thedas. How the aftershocks of that story get felt by my players’ characters… is for them to decide.