Impractical Applications (You Need a Retcon?)

Earlier this week, I discussed retcons. They’re a touchy subject among GMs, in my experience, and among players: there’s a lot of dignity tied up in them, and a lot of weight. But I’ve seen a number of them that were verging on necessary, and that managed to work, both in my game and in others.

One of the big ones was actually in my own game, early on. This was my first major attempt at running, and certainly the first time I’d run a serious game for people who weren’t my blood relations—but more importantly, I was still a little shaky with the system, and all of my players were first-timers. Because of some difficulties we’d had with one of the mechanics (due to a mutual misunderstanding, actually, but that’s not the point), one of them asked permission to essentially rebuild his character during the fifth session. I was a bit hesitant in the beginning, but I agreed, and he pretty much switched his numbers around while we were running. The end result? Beneficial for all concerned—the worst change was figuring out who had done one of the things that had been done a couple sessions prior if he hadn’t, but since his mentor was one of the party NPCs and was at that skill level, it all worked out.

A while later, I had my chance to do one of those retcons that doesn’t actually change anything. My primary antagonist had pulled a stunt involving the theft of various magical foci and a number of grimoires on demon-summoning. At the time, this didn’t strike me as particularly odd, but as I got better with the world itself, and understood what said antagonist was capable of, I began wondering: Why the grimoires? What could possibly be in them that he didn’t already know? It wasn’t until a few sessions before the group killed him that I understood: there wasn’t anything in them that he didn’t already know, and really, the books themselves were useless to him. But the fact that that particular type of book was being stolen—that got people’s attention. And in particular, it got the attention, and ensured the intervention, of someone he had designs on. Plot ensued.

Most of the retcons I’ve seen, though, were immediate patches to something that just didn’t work out the first time through, usually for a good reason. There was one game where the GM introduced a change in style and emphasis that the entire group had neither wanted nor signed up for, and to say the reaction was strong is rather like saying it gets a bit warm in Arizona in the summertime. After a bit of explanation, and some negotiation, the GM patched it with an “all a dream” revision and took the plot in an entirely different direction—given what I saw later, I think this was the better choice. In a different game, we found ourselves in a more short-term situation, where the GM had read a player’s action as being exactly what the player was trying not to do; in that case, once the misread was established, we backed up a touch, clarified, and proceeded from there.

And of course, there are always accidents. I can think of a few times when I decided something off the cuff, then forgot I’d decided it and either changed it the next time it was mentioned or treated remembering it as learning it for the first time instead; one of my NPCs, for instance, had at different times (and possibly to the same PC, I’m not sure) explained herself as coming from two different lineages, and there’s one incident that nobody’s ever caught me on where I figured something out as a result of being backed into a corner, only to see it carefully written in my notes from two months prior.

Retcons happen, and they aren’t always a bad thing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s seen them work.

2 comments

  1. Morten Greis says:

    Interesting. I am not alone, it seems :)
    I use retcons too. If the campaign suddenly take a wrong turn, we agree in the group, that we’re going to retcon the episode and then move on.
    Basicly for me it is about the collective project, which the campaign is, and it is a simple matter of talking with the group about it and being open about, why a retcon is made.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Yeah.

    One of the things that set me off on the whole retcon bit was a running argument I’ve had along those lines; one of my GMs and I have quite different views of an ongoing collective project, and this has caused some rather interesting debates. The longer he plans something, the more glued to it he gets….

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