Sunday, July 12, 2009

Campaign Continuity: Ever get that nagging feeling you forgot something?

Posts don't write themselves while you're LARPing (or recovering from LARPing), so Flashman85 is here to fill in with a guest post.


It's bound to happen: Whether you're writing book sequels, making a TV series, or running a tabletop RPG, eventually you're going to run into continuity issues. Maybe you mention in passing that the king has a throne made of gold, and when the heroes meet with the king, he's actually got a silver throne. Maybe a character's brother perished before his eyes in a terrible accident, yet the brother makes a live cameo later on, defying all logic. Maybe the absolute top speed of that zeppelin is 75 km/hr, yet the heroes go cruising off at an even 100 km/hr without any modifications or magic.

Sometimes, things just don't match up. Sometimes these things go unnoticed; sometimes you look really stupid. Tabletop RPGs run a higher risk of continuity errors than most other creative endeavors. No matter how much planning and preparation go into a session, when you're giving your players (or your GM) information on the fly, it's all too easy to forget minor details and say things that you'll later wish didn't become canon as soon as you said them.

If you're a player, continuity isn't such a big problem most of the time: flesh out your backstory in advance and write down anything you make up as you go. Easy peasy. If you're the GM, however, you're keeping track of far more than just one character and her cookie-cutter tragic childhood. If one tiny piece of your universe falls out of place, it might just mean your universe has one tiny little piece out of place... or it could mean that the stability and continuity of your universe are in jeopardy.

As a GM, you have 3 major options for addressing a continuity error:

(1) Just ignore the error. Hope no one notices, write it off as inconsequential, or accuse the players of being liars and blame them for pretending there's a continuity error. But if that won't work...

(2) Come up with a plausible in-game excuse, no matter how dubious it may be. Twist the game universe until continuity is restored. But if that won't work...

(3) Admit you've made a mistake and go with whichever version of the truth best suits the situation, even if that means completely erasing or revising something you've already told the players. Alternately, you can just kill off the whole party and start over from scratch.

Options 1 and 3 work best for covering up tiny mistakes, but if EVERYONE says there can only be two Sith--one master and one apprentice--running around the galaxy at any one time, you had better have a darn good explanation for why there are now FIVE Sith currently attacking the party.

Manufacturing a plausible in-game excuse, especially in the middle of a session, isn't always easy, but there are many ways you can get yourself out of a jam.

What I present here is by no means an exhaustive list of remedies, but hopefully these ideas will put you on the right track when you encounter the inevitable continuity catastrophe:

Bad information: NPCs lie. People have bad memories. Spoken words are misheard. Characters misjudge time, distance, weight, etc. Wise men don't always know everything. Maps are inaccurate. Ancient scrolls are mistranslated. Musty tomes contain typos. It's not necessarily a continuity error if the in-game source of information isn't entirely trustworthy for one reason or another.

Simple omissions: Why did it take seven days to reach the castle when last time it only took six? Oh, well, I forgot to mention that you were moving a little slower because of the weather, and you had to take a minor detour because one of the roads was closed. How did that bounty hunter suddenly get her hands on a disruptor pistol when you said she was totally unarmed and wearing a jumpsuit with absolutely no place to hide a weapon? Oh, well, you didn't look at her back to see if she had a pistol strapped to it. Remember, even if you're picturing a clear path to the castle or a bounty hunter with no hidden weapons, the only facts are the things you've told the players.

There's more than meets the eye: How did those rival archaeologists beat us to the excavation site if whe had them locked up in prison when we left town? Well, perhaps a mysterious benefactor sprang them out and arranged for faster transportation, or maybe those people you see before you are impersonators. How is it possible that the villain is really a vampire, yet he attacked us in broad daylight yesterday... while eating garlic!? Well, maybe vampires in this universe aren't the same as the ones you're used to, or it could be that he knows of some way to defend against normal vampiric weaknesses.

Without conclusive proof that something is completely impossible, there's always a scenario to explain the inexplicable.

Supernatural intervention: The ocean used to be twenty miles away from town... until the god of the sea got angry and pushed the coast inward about ten miles. Sure, the villain's hair used to be brown, but that Super Soldier Serum she injected into her arm last week seems to have a side effect that occasionally changes her hair color. When all else fails, blame it on magic--it's powerful stuff that can alter almost anything. Or, chalk it up to time travel. I mean, I've done it.

Remember, you don't always need to resolve continuity errors immediately; "That is an interesting question," and "Well, what do you think?" are perfectly valid responses to a player's suspicion or accusation that there's a problem with your story's continuity. Just be sure to think up an answer before an answer is absolutely required.

Do keep in mind that fixing one continuity error can lead to worse continuity errors, so if your players question the villain's ability to jump unnaturally high, don't place the blame on gravity elves if there's nothing supernatural or elfy about your campaign. Keep your fixes as simple as possible, and don't tell your players how you've resolved the problem unless it's brilliant or unless your players really need an answer--a single hiccup in continuity is often better than a convoluted solution.

Of course, proper preparation and self-monitoring really help to prevent continuity errors in the first place. Map out those crazy plot twists as far in advance as you can. Come up with very solid explanations for why anything will be different than it used to be. Have one of your players keep a log of all the major events in a session and all the key details you give. Jot down quick notes for yourself whenever you spontaneously come up with names or character backstories during a session. Go over relevant information from previous sessions if the players will be returning to familiar locations and meeting with familiar characters. That kind of thing.

Know your campaign universe inside and out, plan as thoroughly as possible, pretend that the easily fixed problems were part of the plan the whole time, and flex some creative muscle when everything falls apart. There's no continuity error you can't handle.

But if there is, you really can just kill off all your players to spite them.


Storyteller said...

Great guest post! Thanks for filling in! I certainly have had both the "Umm, yes. Backspace, backspace, delete. What I MEANT to say was..." moment, and the "Why yes, that IS interesting isn't it. To the naked eye it certainly SEEMS odd doesn't it?" response.

The first helps things move along quickly and appropriately, while the second can lead to entire interesting side-quests while giving me time to come up with a plausible explanation.

Awesome post!

Flashman85 said...

Thank you, sir! Again, I appreciate the opportunity to throw my words all over your blog.