To Retcon or Not to Retcon? Seven Questions to Ask

To retcon or not to retcon? It’s a harder choice than you might think. The nice thing about a retcon is that it gives you, if not a blank slate, then at least one without as many marks that could get in your way, or if nothing else without that one mistake you really wish you didn’t have to work around. On the other hand, audiences often don’t respect retcons, and players get understandably frustrated when a retcon cancels out something they’ve just done or ruins an assumption that they had been operating on for a while. And on the creator’s side, there’s the belief that a retcon, since changing the piece means that clearly there was something ‘wrong’ enough to be worth changing, is an admission of failure and/or weakness. So how do you decide whether or not to retcon? Here are some questions you can ask yourself.

  1. How large a detail is it? It’s a lot easier to retcon smaller details than larger ones; the color of someone’s shirt today as opposed to who’s been ruling the Empire for the last ten years, for instance. Small details are harmless and don’t have an impact on much, so many people will shrug and let it go; with some audiences, you can even get away with making a small change and counting on the audience not to notice. (Be careful, though; they can get a bit insulted by that.)
  2. How obvious is it? As I noted in my article on changing a setting’s history, sometimes you find an explanation for an event a long time after the fact, and can just sneak it in without anyone noticing; similarly, a GM might arrange with one player to change an aspect of her backstory that hasn’t yet appeared on stage. The safest retcon is the one that nobody realizes is there.
  3. How long ago did it happen? The best time to implement a retcon is as soon as possible, both in the setting and in the real world. After all, the longer people have to keep a situation in mind, the more they’re going to stick to whatever happened (or in some cases, whatever they remember happening).
  4. If what set it off was a mistake, how obviously a mistake was it? I’ve seen a few scenes that were taken from some part somewhere in the middle because the entire thing had been predicated on a miscommunication between the GM and one or more of the players; similarly, I was once in a sidechat, back before chatrooms had “is typing” messages, where my fellow player’s highly compassionate character said something that was a perfectly reasonable response to the first half of what I was saying—but came out right after I’d posted the second half, after which the comment had an entirely different and much more insensitive meaning.
  5. Speaking of mistakes, what kind of mistake was it? If the issue is a matter of someone, particularly a player, just making the wrong decision and wanting to escape the consequences, it might make sense to say no. But on the other hand, if what’s going on is that someone’s logic was perfectly fine with the information she had, but the information is verifiably wrong, and most of the other criteria point to it being safe to retcon, it should be reasonable to do so without too much shame.
  6. Overall, would the retcon have a net beneficial effect? This might just be straight improvement (this is cool, but this would be tons cooler and fit the overall themes of the narrative better), or it might be mitigating something that went wrong (this mistake that only happened because of the medium we’re playing in would create a whole lot of unnecessary arguing, let’s get rid of it), but either way, if the story or game is better off for it, that should be a strong point in its favor.
  7. How many people agree on whether this retcon should take place? This one can be a major kicker, particularly in a game group. It might be that the audience is pretty meh about it, but the creator really wants it changed—or conversely, the creator thought it was a good idea at the time, but the audience is disinterested at best and unable to enjoy it at worst.

There are no set conditions under which a retcon is absolutely necessary or absolutely forbidden, but these questions should help you figure out whether one is appropriate.

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