Lets talk for a minute about Continuity in your RPG sessions.
How invested are your players in the continuity of their game sessions? Are they into one-shot adventures with characters they will likely never play again? Maybe they just enjoy the tactical side of the game and want to gloss over story details. Do they care if a bartender’s name is different the next time they return to their favorite watering hole? Would they even notice?
What if it mattered? What if the name of the bartender was different because he wasn’t “himself” anymore, but rather a monstrous or magic using impostor???
Perhaps you have players on the opposite spectrum. They become deeply invested in the fantasy of the setting and story. They want maps and deep description locations and characters. They seek their enjoyment from the immersion in the game world and look forward to escaping for a while into this fantasy world. Can you blame them? Sounds pretty sweet to me.
The deep immersion games can explore all the roleplay in between adventures, and focus on opportunities to build on characters social standing in the game world. While at the same time the players are learning more about the setting. It becomes more and more familiar to them, and they become more comfortable exploring “their” shared world. What then happens, if you offer to gloss over events that the players want to spend a few sessions on? Or what about Retcons. Well lets look at what a Retcon is, and how it can help a story. and then consider if they are worth wile at all in a story.
Wikipedia defines retcon as;
“Retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is the alteration of previously established facts in the continuity of a fictional work.”
while TV Tropes says;
Reframing past events to serve a current plot need. The ideal retcon clarifies a question alluded to without adding excessive new questions. In its most basic form, this is any plot point that was not intended from the beginning. The most preferred use is where it contradicts nothing, even though it was changed later on.”
Perhaps you offer a retcon after a bad session, most likely a character death or party wipe. Sometimes people don’t make it to the game and their character gets killed. Or worse, the rest of the party suffers heavy casualties or fails at an objective because they didn’t have the characters, or the characters were played as NPC (often poorly). Real life gets in the way sometimes and sooner or later I think every group sees this happen.
Sometimes really bad dice can kill a party or ruin a session. The groups star-ship blows up or an ally gets killed and the party and defeated because the whole night everyone is just rolling poorly. Should there be a chance to re-write a bad session and just hand-wave it away. Sometimes it is just a particular rule. If a mechanic was handled wrong and lets say… and artifact would not have been destroyed by that spell last session… Do you retcon it and say then that it survived?
What are the players opinion on the retcon? What if one or more of your players don’t like the idea? They want to know that each session logically follows the next and continues to build upon the story. That seems like a pretty fair point of view. How then do you mitigate the desire to retcon something with their desire for logical continuity?
As TV Tropes reads “The most preferred use is where it contradicts nothing, even though it was changed later on.” and that is my only advice to GMs struggling with these issues in their own sessions and campaigns. I have many many times built upon past events and even run “flashback” sessions based on cool ideas that came out during regular campaign sessions. Those sessions are always very rules light and typically what is at stake is success or failure of a task, rather than life and death of the character.
I have retconed a few party wipes, almost every time because half of the players didn’t make it to a session and the rest wanted to go on anyway. My advice for this is “Have something else ready to play”. This is a perfect time for another player to step up and run something, or a chance to learn a new game system you have lying around, waiting to be played. Maybe this is a good night for a flashback session explaining the true origins of the madness that overcame the character when he found a particular cursed item. Or maybe “what happened to that guy who got left on a alien planet for two sessions?”
Whether you are slaying goblins deep in a cave or blasting robots in a dystopian colony world, there a million stories to tell and play through. And that’s the fun of it after all isn’t it?