The Dangers of Playing with Established Canon

The Dangers of Playing with Established Canon

Who could resist, honestly?

When it comes to running an RPG in an established setting, there are pros and cons everywhere. Many would agrue that the cons outweigh the pros (and would push for a homebrew setting) but I disagree. I'll try and outline my thoughts on it below... Let's see how this goes. 

The Benefits

I'll start with the benefits of playing with established canon/settings.

No! Nothing like this... Oh Sigmar, nothing like this please.
Firstly, for the lazy or busy GM, one of the greatest benefits is that more than half of the work is done for you - in session and pre-session - in that you have tonnes of material already written and (hopefully) balanced to the game world. Not to mention art to go along with it, sometimes novel series, and if you're very lucky, music and movies. You can throw together a perfect immersion track, or give your players an info dump without having to hold a seminar... Just lend them the book, or have a movie night. Plus, you can steal their favourite aspects of these things for your campaign. They really like Hoth? Well, set an adventure there. They are massive on Spiderman? Well, have your new Supers meet him.

Secondly, feeding off the first, is that you don't have to re-establish mood. If you're working with a setting everyone is familiar with, you shouldn't have to explain the sorts of characters you want, nor the feeling of each session. If you're playing Hellboy, then they know what to expect. This means you can focus on key points which make your game cooler - as contrast is easy to build here. They know what should be, but if you change that, it is way more effective.
Hopefully they wont look at you like this, though!
But the biggest thing is probably player expectation. You'll find your players riffing off of the setting a lot more when they know it intimately. In a homebrew Sci-Fi setting you might have players in a bar ask "Who can I go to for spare robot parts?". In Star Wars, you'll have "I look for a Jawa so I can buy some spare droid parts." See the difference? The players know what the world holds and will be able to seamlessly play in it without feeling like they're stepping on the GM's toes doing so.

However, it isn't all sunshine and daisies...

The Problems

Sorry to kill the good times, but I should probably mention the bad things that come along with established settings.
It isn't all this...
One of the worst ones for a GM who likes to world build is definitely the constrains on creative freedom. If you change something too big in someone's favoured setting, they're going to let you know. Very vocally. Some, in our sub-culture, will even let you know vocally for minor things; insignificant to you in the face of a good story, but heresy of the worst kind to them... This can stifle a GM and make them resent planning the sessions because they can't tell the story they want to tell. And be assured of this, nothing, nothing, NOTHING, breaks a game quicker than a GM who hates his job.

Next, and again somewhat feeding off the first, is that is becomes very difficult to break existing tropes. For instance, if you're playing in a Golden Age Superman game, there probably wont be any death. If you put in death, someone is going to become upset, or doubtful, or confused. Likewise if you give your 40k Space Orkz a Welsh accent instead of Cockney Hooligan... People will look at you funny and you'll break immersion pretty quickly. This can cause in group arguments and halt game play for the evening. I know, it sucks, but as I've already said, our culture is based on knowing way too much about something, and introducing cognitive dissonance into that mix rarely works out well.

Lastly is more on cognitive dissonance. If someone knows something, and they are told differently, they are very unlikely to believe the new information. The more that new information conflicts with what they already know, the more likely they are going to disbelieve. Imagine the following scenario: you're GMing a game of Dragon Ball Z, and the players are talking to Goku's father, Bardock, who they've found. Whilst chatting, he reveals that Goku is actually half Human, with a Human mother! Wow!
What're you saying about me?!
This could fly. Goku is unlike most other Saiyan's we meet, and he looks Human enough. Fine. The players might accept this. Instead, say that Goku's mother was Namekian. Yeah... No dice. People are going to argue this. He can't regrow limbs, doesn't have green skin, doesn't shoot eggs out of his mouth when he dies. He has absolutely no Namekian traits whatever... You simply wont get away with that.

But never fear! There are definite solutions to these problems...

Solutions to Said Problems

If you're planning on playing with an established setting (which I hope you do, as there are many great ones) I would suggest using the following solutions to avoid the above problems.
But what are the dragons doing there?
The easiest fix to the continuity/conflicting problems is to set your game somewhere else in the setting. Pull a Fantasy Flight Games and set your 40k RPGs in the Calixis Sector, a previously unheard of portion of space. It is just 40k enough that everyone who loves 40k can get involved, but removed enough that no one kicks up a fuss about all the apocrypha. Perfect!

Just grab a map of your setting, look for a section that isn't detailed much (trust me, unless you're playing the most ridiculous settings out there you shouldn't have a problem with this) and plonk your campaign down in it. Or, alternatively, grab a section of the timeline where nothing much is happening and put it in there. This way you get the locations everyone loves without fiddling too much with everything. I would suggest putting it far enough in the past or future that no one would alive in it that is alive in the canon setting.

But probably the best way to go about it (only if you have an understanding group) is to add into your gamer charter a section detailing the rule YMMV - Your Mileage May Vary. Basically state that this version of the setting is the group's version (don't say your version, but the group's) and that it is alternate to the canon one. It still has everything in the canon one +/- some of the stuff you don't like...
Midichlorians anyone?
But set up a Nolanverse or a where you can do no wrong, and that everything odd is just a quirk of this version of the setting. This solution wont work for every group, but if you have understanding players (and if you include them in the change making process sometimes) they may be more forgiving and just let it slide and enjoy your setting for its oddness.

I hope that has settled some of the problems with using established universes, and I hope it has encouraged you to give it a try! Have you ever had good experiences with established canon? Bad ones? Let me know!