The Alphastream Game Design Blog
I want to touch on a few different topics this week. We’re going to end with D&D’s canon, but let’s start with Dragons!
I was fortunate to join host Amy Dallen on D&D Beyond’s YouTube channel, alongside Riley Silverman as we all discussed the upcoming Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons. This book, scheduled for October 19th, is the latest iteration of a series of books usually entitled Draconomicon.
These books have historically been some of the most beautiful D&D books – filled with gorgeous evocative art. They have typically also provided a host of great lore and ideas for running exciting dragon encounters. Seeing the anatomy of a dragon is interesting. Seeing what each of the dragon’s lairs look like and how they change their surrounding ecology? Both fascinating and useful.
On the show I shared some of my hopes. I would love to see a great 5E version of draconians – the draconic foes of the Dragonlance campaign, who were just as dangerous alive as when you killed them. Or, to see the amazing catastrophic dragons return! The design of the Volcanic dragon – especially the first 4E playtest version – remains my favorite dragon of all time.
Finally, I’m excited to read the lore and see how 5E might modify the Forgotten Realms or even all of D&D’s lore regarding the earliest creation stories. In the past we have seen some variations of stories related to the dragons fighting primordials at the dawn of time, and this battle leading to the creation of Tiamat and Bahamut, and this in turn leading to different types of dragons. I’m curious how 5E’s design team will hone and refine that story.
As I posted a few weeks ago, I have been playing the new Dune RPG by Modiphius with an incredible cast and DM Richard Malena-Webber. This five-part series is a learn-to-play, where we learned the game at the same time as the viewers. In the first two episodes we created our House and established our over goals, followed by creating our characters. We also showcased the Roll20 integration, which proved to be very useful for both character creation and skill rolls. This Tuesday (August 3rd) is our final episode. Last time we had crash-landed our thopter, so it should be a fun conclusion as we try to solve a sabotage mystery and somehow win favor for our house. You can find links to all of the episodes here.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog series on downtime. It is one of my favorite additions to 5E. The Tome Show’s Edition Wars podcast had me on to discuss Chapter 6 of the DMG, which contains Downtime and a few other items. I hope you enjoy the discussion!
This week’s episode of Mastering Dungeons was a lot of fun. We wrapped up Van Richten’s by reviewing the fun monsters in that book. And as part of our review of the news we talked about canon. Jeremy Crawford started things off recently, saying in an interview that only the 5E books are considered canon for this edition. None of the novels, none of the past edition material, and none of the current video games or comic books or anything else are canonical. This week Chris Perkins followed that up with a Design Studio blog, where he narrows it down even further to just the three core books being canonical for their partners!
My friend and co-host Shawn Merwin makes excellent points. Canon can be used to gatekeep and it can stifle creativity. We don’t want to be held to canon that is problematic – for example, the sexism and stereotypes found in the Drizzt novel series.
At the same time, D&D creates community through canon. The Drizzt novels are some of the few widely recognized stories of D&D. Icewind Dale is one of the few parts of the Forgotten Realms that has left a recognizable impression upon D&D fans across time. Because of that, it continues to come up in adventures, video games, comic books, and other properties across the editions.
When the upcoming D&D movie was first announced, many wondered what its story would be – in part because D&D has very few stories. Marvel has no shortage of stories that fans know, and which can be drawn together into new stories. D&D could actually use more readily known elements of its canon. So, it is very interesting to see 5E now decide that novels are not canonical.
On the design blog, Chris Perkins says the new approach is creatively liberating, freeing up designers and partners to serve the needs of the product. I agree. But I also note that across 5E WotC designers have been unable to hold to that so far. While they like to say that D&D adventures can be played in any order and have no particular date, designers can’t help but tie things together. We see in Dragon Heist that it states the year 1492, and then proceeds to mention past events with Princes of the Apocalypse, the ousting of Lord Neverember, Chult, and more. Tomb of Annihilation references Storm King, and Rime of the Frostmaiden tells us it is likely one of the earliest adventures (even though it is one of the most recent).
Why? Why do designers do this? I think the designers can’t help but tie the world together, because that is pleasing to us. It creates a more rich and intricate world. One of my most popular pages on this blog is The Official Timeline for the Forgotten Realms and Its Adventures, and folks love to discuss the order of the 5E adventures. It’s a very common question.
I think DMs and players alike also want to know about impacts. Did we save the Forgotten Realms for Tiamat? From the Death Curse? Did the Rime end, and how? (If you have read Rime, you likely know there are some very interesting possible conclusions.) Gamers like to feel that they are a part of the Realms and its evolving story – that their games had impacts.
The question of what 5E should do is a good one. I am of two minds. On one hand, I really like a rich connected history. I would not mind it if every adventure was in order, telling the evolving story of the Realms. I think WotC could add ideas for DMs to run them out of order, as well as keep the lore light enough that the order is not confining and to ensure DMs can run any one product without the others.
If I actually worked at Wizards, I would probably argue the opposite approach. For the sake of sales and ease of use, have no order whatsoever to the adventures. To do this, never have one adventure mention another. They can all happen in any order, or not happen at all. Maximum choice for each DM, and no lore implications. At the end of the edition, an order could be declared – whatever makes for the best story and at that point decide any lasting impacts. The adventures would still have plenty of lore and canon – but not with regards to each other.
I’m also completely fine with changing canon. Evolving canon is still canon. The point of canon isn’t that it is confining. The point is that it is rich, evocative, and communal. It brings us together. That doesn’t mean it can’t change. The superhero Thor can be a man, a woman, and an amphibian. Over time, we can find ways to make that all true, and the game or story can be richer for it. Canon has even more value when we can adjust it across time, but in deliberate meaningful ways.
It’s also okay to reset canon. The story of Dark Sun as told in the Prism Pentad novels is fantastic and wonderful. It gave birth to countless ideas that improve the setting. But it also changes the setting and leaves it in a place that is less fun and less useful for DMs and players. Because of that, 4E reset Dark Sun to the initial story point where AD&D began. That was a great call.
What I don’t want is a strange combination rife with mistakes. The timeline of 5E already has continuity conflicts that weaken otherwise amazing adventures. I also don’t want works that specifically avoid lore to make it simple. We tried that in organized play with the first 4E adventures, resulting in adventures that failed to be engaging or evocative. The world should be rich and interesting. A product should entice you to learn more… it just shouldn’t require doing so.
What do you think? Tell us your canon sweet spot in the comments.