Player Canon

Note: I posted this originally as a Twitter thread here. Posting to the blog as well at the suggestion of one of my patrons!

We’re wrapping up Sig: City of Blades this week. There’s this thing my players do that I absolutely love: take the implications of abilities and setting, and merge them into entirely new, and now canonical, ideas. Let’s talk about making that happen.

The GM can’t think of their job as canon arbiter. There’s this old metaphor, when we treated game sessions like TV episodes, of the GM being the “show runner” or “producer,” singularly responsible for managing continuity. That metaphor doesn’t promote this kind of play. It’s more like being a therapist: ask questions, help them figure things out, take their idea and help them run with it. Push their ideas together. Celebrate reincorporation and call-backs.

How the game itself is designed affects this approach. Canon-heavy settings like Warhammer 40K, Glorantha, WoD, the fun is living in that canon, respecting it, deferring to it. Makes it hard for the players to feel like they’ve got GM-y agency to make new setting truths.

Other designs are better for this style. Rather than setting out hard facts about the setting, there’s meta-setting: themes that drive play, aesthetic vibes, broad notes in lieu of specific pronouncements. Few facts, touchstones to ground everything, many implications.

The system itself can also convey permission (or prohibition!) to the players to introduce major new stuff. In Sig, for example, one of the characters can “close (their) eyes and open (their) mind to the eternal dream.” Neat! But we know nothing about the “eternal dream” other than it tells the player about what the target “most wants in the world.”

“So what if we plumb the dreams of a dead god?,” a player asks. Oh! Do dead gods dream? They do now! Cthulhu fhtagn etc.

By comparison, Invisible Sun has specific rules about dreamscapes, so there’s more checking against established canon. It’s enough to keep players from trying. Tough match for that kind of play. It’s tricky to write setting/rules with many implications but few guard rails.

The players need their heads in the right place too. Inviting authorship doesn’t work if they want maximum fictional positioning benefits and no drawbacks. There’s some fruitful tension between players assuming pure benefit and the GM being neutral/devious.

In our Sig game, for example, plumbing the dead god’s dream ended up trapping the characters in a god’s nightmare hellscape. Super yikes! But also rad as fuck.

The best contributions invite players to explore the new space. “Royal guards always have a ceremonial dagger in their boot” doesn’t invite the players to explore. “Royal guards’ ceremonial daggers are inscribed with the distinctive signature of their soul” does.

Does a player-authored new idea invite more questions? Then it’s a good idea and everyone should run with it.

The first question I usually ask myself is “does this invalidate anything already in place?” Players should think about that as well, but sometimes the winning impulse is strong. If it does, how can we make it fit? Usually by going even bigger.

Final thoughts for playing this way:

  • If you’re running a canon-heavy game, players get first dibs on gaps.
  • If a character’s ability implies things about the world, expect the player to jump on it. Time to celebrate!
  • Make lots of callbacks to their inventions, center them in the fiction.
  • Signal you’re vibing with their idea with some yes-and followups. Contra: skepticism and snark are total buzzkills. Don’t punish your players for putting themselves out there.

Another note: my Sig: CoB deep dive is coming next week!

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