Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Exploding Continuity

When does a vast expanse of continuity become too much? For some fans their favorite licensed property reaches an event horizon where the continuity involved in actively following that license becomes far too much to keep track of and engage their interest, especially when so many other geeky pursuits (including other licenses) vie for their attention; this remains a particularly acute challenge for roleplaying gamers whose characters inhabit and explore the most detailed aspects of such settings. At what point does a licensed property -- including a roleplaying game -- gather so much continuity that it becomes unwieldy and thus loses its appeal? StarWarsSB

There was a time when I firmly believed the only “canon” Star Wars roleplaying game material for me was what we saw in the original trilogy; this view carried over to my early experiences with West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game, when I relied on the main rulebook and sourcebook for setting information and game stats, all primarily focused, like I was, on the core trilogy. When I began working for West End Games on the roleplaying game line this attitude obviously fell by the wayside and I had little choice but to became more open-minded to include what would become the vast Star Wars Expanded Universe of novels, comics, game sourcebooks, and other material during the resurgence of that media property in the mid- to late-1990s.

Games depending on setting and character sourcebooks have long faced this dilemma, too. Many popular roleplaying games expand their universe with additional sourcebooks on new locations, character classes, equipment, rules expansions, or different factions in the setting. By their nature these resources expand and change the scope of continuity within a game. When I was actively playing an early edition of Legend of the Five Rings, I bought the clan books that interested me. The gamemaster trusted players to have familiarity with their characters’ clans and related rules. The vast scope of second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons supplements also presented this challenge. Both trusted the players to use expansions properly without saddling the gamemaster with having to own and be familiar with all new materials. 

The exploding continuity problem grows exponentially when one considers re-imagined and re-launched media properties. Some, like Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek, infuse the property with an entirely new atmosphere. Most re-boot the media to contemporary standards of plot, character, and special effects based on the writers’ and directors’ own styles. I recently experienced some of the confusion this causes during an awkward conversation driving home from watching Star Trek into Darkness in the theater. I enjoy J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek film franchise given today’s computer generated images as special effects (except all that lens flare), his penchant for non-stop roller-coaster action sequences, and his creative philosophy in always keeping viewers guessing (as featured in a TED talk I’ve mentioned at Schweig’s Game Design Journal before). But the vast scope of Trek continuity familiar to fans and the creative freedom to play in a re-booted universe can offer some confusion. One of the younger members of our theater-going group wondered about the significance of Khan and Carol Marcus, and whether other elements in the current film show up in the established continuity of several television series and numerous earlier films.

What serves as the baseline for these discussion among geeks? So many aspects of licensed continuity exist even within the parameters of a given sub-category franchise, like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, even Superman and Spiderman, which have recently undergone several recent film re-boots. (I’m not even going to touch upon comic book franchise re-boots and the animosity and confusion those sometimes engender….) Even without a “re-imagining” of a license, new expansions of it can offer discrepancies in thematic perception if not in continuity. For instance, my young nephews love the Star Wars Clone Wars cartoon series and view Anakin Skywalker as a hero; I, on the other hand, am not familiar with that aspect of the media franchise and still view Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader as a villain. Similarly, in the exponentially growing Star Wars continuity, characters, locations, and other continuity “facts” from early Expanded Universe products (such as West End’s classic roleplaying game). have been ignored or changed altogether to fit within the continuity of new material.

Even as a non-gaming fan I’ve found I have limited patience for continuity within series I’ve watched. I can’t recall how many times during the infrequent airing of Lost or the later seasons of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica I debated whether I should hang on and follow episodes to the possibly disappointing end. Maybe I’m getting old, but I can descend into a catatonic trance if I try too hard to think through the continuity of either series.

The internet hosts numerous websites -- both from official media sources and fans -- to help people research continuity references and expand their knowledge of a popular franchise beyond their current experience of television programs, films, novels, games, and comics. While these resources might seem like definitive “sourcebooks” on continuity, they still require fans to invest time reading and sometimes interacting to gain a solid grounding in the minutiae of a particular fictitious universe.

Roleplaying gamers face an interesting continuity conundrum. Deep familiarity with a setting remains essential in a roleplaying game based on a media property; players and gamemaster must define what core source material is common knowledge and what secondary material exists from which everyone can draw ideas, equipment, and adventures. For instance, in my example above, I long maintained the Star Wars game universe in my home game consisted mostly of elements from the classic trilogy, supplemented by additional material from the game’s Star Wars Sourcebook. Some folks prefer to play in the era of the Clone Wars or the New Republic, focusing on some or all of the continuity resources available to those periods. In some cases expanding continuity becomes problematic when gamemaster knowledge of a licensed setting is not quite as voluminous as player knowledge. Does lack of such omnipotent setting familiarity in relation to what players know disqualify a gamemaster from running a particular game with any degree of authority? How does a group define a setting…by delineating which sourcebooks are “in play” or simply deferring to the gamemaster’s level of knowledge (and assuming everyone knows the difference between player and character knowledge in game)?

No definitive answer to these questions exists; they vary depending on game group dynamics and the licensed property itself. These game challenges reflect the fluid and sometimes tumultuous nature of fandoms infamous for their disagreements about various aspects of their favorite media franchises. Different elements appeal to different people…finding a practical consensus remains the true challenge.

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