17 February 2021

Earthdawn 4E: Musings 04 - The Importance of Canon

This is the fourth part of Musings part of an ongoing series about Earthdawn Fourth Edition. Introduction and Index.

Everything contained here is the work of a fan and not associated with FASA Games.

It’s cliche, but let’s start this discussion of canon with what it is. I find it useful to define the terms I’m working with at the beginning of a discussion so everyone has a common frame of reference. This is also quite relevant to the topic at hand. We have two definitions, one given by a dictionary and another more casual from Wikipedia:

“A collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.” - Oxford Languages

“... the material accepted as officially part of the story in an individual universe of that story.” - Wikipedia

Canon is essentially the shared version of the setting. This is important because it gives everyone a common frame of reference to discuss the topic. Without that, things can quickly lead to misunderstandings or worse. That’s the key and the value of canon: it provides a clear starting point to discuss and alter things.

In terms of Earthdawn (though this can apply to anything), the canon setting is the currently published version of the setting. Reboots reset that canon (e.g. Battlestar Galactica) and new editions may retcon portions of it (e.g. Star Wars). There’s nothing wrong with discussing previous versions, but it’s important to establish that up front because the default assumption is to work with the most recent version, unless there’s context to indicate otherwise.

Statements like “everyone’s game is canon” are not helpful or useful. It takes a very useful term, “canon,” and strips it of all value. Indicating they are canon to the campaign isn’t useful because that’s an already known fact and a misuse of the term. What happens at your table is awesome, but not officially part of the setting.

This is not to impune or look down at what happens at individual tables with the setting or in fan fiction (which is in some ways what we’re creating)—that’s literally the point of the game in the first place. I always change elements of settings I’m familiar with because they’re so familiar. There’s often some aspect I want to play with and use that to subvert my players’ expectations. Their familiarity with things their characters don’t know is a way to make things surprising and new, even in small ways.

Canon is important conceptually, but less so once you get to your table. You do you. Have fun and be awesome. But in doing this, let’s not misuse the word and see it for the value it brings: clear communication and reference point to discuss and deviate from.

In practical terms, the canon for Earthdawn Fourth Edition is everything released by FASA from 1E, Redbrick from Classic and 3E, and obviously 4E. Which excises the material produced by Living Room Games. There may be some similarities between Barsaive at War and the history presented in the 4E Gamemaster’s Guide, though this is because they started from the same place and moved in different directions. Which is to say: the events in Barsaive at War are not canon, but you should absolutely use them at your table as you see fit.

If something isn’t specifically addressed in a 4E book that covers a topic (e.g. the windling tribe in Blood Wood), this doesn’t mean it was removed, but is left to each table and campaign to determine its fate and relevance. Another example along these lines is the material from the unpublished 1E Dragons manuscript. It was published by Living Room Games as part of their 2E run. Much of the material from the 1E manuscript was incorporated into the 4E Gamemaster’s Guide, but not all of it. What does this mean for the material omitted from the unpublished 1E manuscript? Well, it isn’t canon. However, it doesn’t mean you cannot use it—you absolutely should use it as you see fit! There’s material in 4E that relies on pieces of the unpublished manuscript as the setting moves forward. Which pieces remain a secret because that ruins the surprise.

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