While chatting with one of my gaming groups, I noticed a disturbing trend.
What am I referring to?
Someone who hunts down and learns every bit of world-building information and lore about a particular fictional setting. For example, someone who has seen every Star Wars movie, watched every Star Wars TV show, has a bootleg copy of the “Star Wars Holiday Special”, read every Star Wars novel, Star Wars comic, interview with George Lucas, etc would be a Star Wars lore nerd.
Normally, this is fine. Just an eccentric person learning more about their favorite fictional universe.
The problem is when D&D gets involved. I have seen too much “how powerful is X in canon” or “this random book I found says Y, that’s canon right?” lately. These statements appear to be directly related to the game we are playing, as if something outside the GM determines “canon” in the game world.
Let me be clear.
THE ONLY CANON THAT MATTERS IS WHAT THE GM SAYS
It’s one thing if you are just talking about the lore of a particular published setting like the Forgotten Realms or Spelljammer or Planescape and NOT relating the discussion to an actual game-in-progress. That’s fine.
However, even if a game is being played in a published setting, the GM reigns supreme. PERIOD. If the GM decides that carnivorous space manatees are threatening ships in a Spelljammer game, they are! It doesn’t matter whether or not carnivorous space manatees appear in any Spelljammer books. The published setting is an aid to GMs, not a ball and chain.
It’s no secret that I love ACKS. On the website for the company that makes it (autarch.co), the following phrase appears: “Every campaign is a law unto itself”.
This is the attitude we need more of, not “Hey GM, this Forgotten Realms game we’re playing takes place in year 8765309. Per page 874 of this obscure Forgotten Realms novel, Jimjor the Evil is still imprisoned in the 3rd layer of the Plane of Ranch Dressing, so he can’t be here fighting us right now!”
Why is this a problem? Earlier, when I mentioned people asking about lore, I am seeing an assumption that “default-D&D-as-presented-in-the-rulebooks” has specific lore that must be adhered to. This lore is apparently an iron-clad contract binding GM and players.
To that, I say “Hell naw to the naw naw naw!”
The thing that should bind a GM are his rulings. If he makes a ruling… for example, turkey slapping a bandit does 2d4 damage… that ruling stands. If your player turkey slaps someone else, it should also do 2d4 damage (unless it is cold outside)!
Sure, there are assumptions about a game world baked into the rulebooks. For example, in D&D, there are probably dungeons full of monsters, including, but not limited to, dragons. But where the dragon came from, what the dragon is named, who built the dungeon, etc is NOT specified in the rulebooks. The GM gets to make that call. If a particular book states something lore-related, the GM chooses to accept that answer. And that is the important distinction: a GM chooses, a lore nerd obeys.
So, as a GM, I recommend that you be wary of established settings. You don’t have to fully avoid them, but be aware of what you are keeping / throwing out. And for the love of St. Cuthbert, if a brand-new piece of lore comes out that contradicts what you previously decided, ignore the hell out of it!
Even better, read the books from Appendix N and generate your own ideas!
SIDE NOTE: I know 3rd edition used the Greyhawk deities to show how deities and domains worked, but it isn’t binding lore. A 3rd edition game does NOT require the use of the Greyhawk deities or Greyhawk setting.