On the Dreaded Retcon


So your Friday night game session hasn’t gone well for your players. Which is to say, they’re all dead or worse — and yes, there is such a thing as ‘worse’ than dead, in a roleplaying game session. For example: the party may have just utterly made it impossible to continue on with the roleplaying game campaign that both you and your players have spent the last six months investing your emotional energy in. Maybe the dice didn’t love the party. Maybe they missed a key clue. Heck, maybe your players were absolutely begging to have rocks fall and everyone die. Whatever the reason, they’re not happy, and you’re kind of not happy, and you’re wondering: “Is it time for a retcon?”

‘Retcon,’ if Wikipedia is to be believed, stands for ‘retroactive continuity,’ which is Slightly Pretentious for ‘We painted ourselves in a narrative corner, and now we’re getting ourselves out of it.’ It’s done a lot in comics (you try keeping Superman and his universe’s story perfectly consistent and non-contradictory for decades, especially when you have multiple writers) and is not unknown in films. For example: depending who you ask, the status of Star Wars’ midichlorians are a retcon either when George Lucas stuck them into continuity to explain how the Force works, or will be a retcon when J.J. Abrams yanks them out of continuity because the very idea was idiocy on stilts. So it’s pretty inevitable that the idea would have eventually ported over to tabletop roleplaying.

All of this doesn’t really help a gamemaster (GM) who needs to to decide what to do when the perceived need for a retcon shows up.  The good news is, there are options. A few of which follow right after the page break.

Retconning options include:

  • First off, the easy answer is “Do nothing.” Let the dice fall where they may. Consider a total party kill (TPK) to be useful negative feedback. Frame the collapse of an entire campaign as being a test-to-destruction that, well, worked. There are definite advantages to this method, particularly if your players are not treating the game seriously AND doing so in a non-entertaining manner*. Stepping back letting a player’s actions lay waste to his or her character sheet can often prove to be an excellent motivational tool. Drawbacks: your players will pout. For that matter, you might pout. You spent months designing this campaign world, after all.

  • The polar opposite to this is “Rewind back to before the disaster.” Wiggle your fingers and declare it all to be a dream. This is also not an invalid strategy!  …under the right circumstances. It’s pretty justifiable when the campaign has just started and/or the GM has, honestly, forgotten something important or miscalculated how deadly combat was or simply didn’t think things through. Drawbacks: if there is no chance for real failure, then there is no dramatic tension, and less chance for player engagement in the game. Plus, your players may try to get you to retcon everything.

  • And then there’s “Move laterally.” Did what just happened wreck the campaign? Fine. Make up something on the fly, keep things in furious action until the end of the game session, then (before the next game session!) rewrite the campaign to the point where there’s something for the players to still do. Accept that your players’ characters — assuming that the originals are still alive — may be not suited for the new campaign focus, and let them figure out how to deal with that (be kindly about letting them roll up new characters). Drawbacks: people don’t often like improv. They also don’t always like sudden changes in a campaign’s mood or tone.

As usual, my opinion on the ‘right’ answer to whether or not to retcon involves the question, “What will be most fun for both the GM and the players?”  If there’s a conflict there, then the question should be, “What can both the GM and the players live with?” You know, communication and interaction and all that other grown-up stuff. After all: it’s a game. People are allowed to make and effort to ensure that they enjoy themselves.

*If you and your players get together every month and spend four or five hours making wisecracks, hanging out, catching up, showing each other fun things they found on the Internet, and oh, yeah, rolling 3d6 every so often, and nobody minds… congratulations, you’ve got a successful campaign going. It won’t GO anywhere, but if everybody’s enjoying themselves, who cares?

(Artwork created using modified images.)