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Adherence to Canon — Fast Tracks for the Fastidious Game Master

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Isn’t it a delight to crack open a new roleplaying game setting book for the first time? It’s wonderful fun discovering how the creators have reinterpreted classic tropes or generated genuinely unique ideas to delight their audience. I enjoy the fictional timelines, legendary people, ancient origin stories and so much more. It’s a pleasant waltz through someone else’s imagination and it’s inspiring! Although when it comes time to Game Master a campaign or write a new product for the setting it can be agonizing to get every little detail correct. Not long into the endeavor I invariably find myself wondering: How will I keep all of this lore in my head?

D&D canon lore clark harper dungeon masters guild

Clark Harper creates content for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons available through Dungeon Masters Guild.

Making the most of D&D lore and canon

Lore, for the purposes of this post, encompasses anything that is worldbuilding information. Lore includes things a player character might learn about the setting when they chat up an NPC, read a book or embark on an adventure. These details make a game world feel richer, more immersive and easier to engage with. Established settings like Forgotten Realms and Eberron have canon lore, which is to say there are sources of truth for their lore — oftentimes many. Keeping consistent with the canon lore adds a level of authenticity and polish many players appreciate.

Keeping canon

When I write or Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons I tend to use the Forgotten Realms setting. I Love it. I’ve read all of the Elminster books and most of the very loosely connected Harper series (for obvious reasons). The Grand History of the Realms is the centerpiece of my book collection. Ed Greenwood is my hero. However, even for a frothing fanboy like me it’s easy to get lost in the sheer volume of lore at my disposal.

Over the years I’ve grappled with this challenge, I’ve come up with a few techniques to keep it all square:

Familiarize don’t memorize

You don’t need to be a human almanac. Focus less on memorizing the facts and more on learning where you need to go to reference them. Keep a Lore Journal where you jot down tidbits you find in supplements, characters you read about in books or villains from adventures. Write down the page number they were mentioned on, a little bit about why they’re interesting and then move on. When you discover you need a villain, NPC or adventure hook review your notes to find a compelling choice and look it up to get the details right.

Start small

When you begin a new campaign in a new setting you don’t need to know the entire world’s complete history from the outset. You should definitely understand the broad strokes but focus on the area you’re starting your campaign in:

  • What events are impacting day-to-day life in this region?
  • Who are the local powers?
  • Are there any distinct characteristics about the land? (Rivers, mountains, swirling vortexes of doom?)

When you design an adventure, build off of something with relatively little canon lore. I was inspired to write The Mourning Lord by a tiny sidebar on page 80 of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Combined with what I had already learned about the surrounding region I had very little I had to stay true to. Thus I was able to build everything from canon lore but was comfortable adding extra touches for flair.
Keep at it in this fashion and before you know it you’ll have gotten through a few regions, pieced together a few adventures and learned a lot along the way. Keep your notes handy and be prepared to come back to these locations in the future. After a while you’ll find you’ve learned a great deal of canon lore and can leverage it whenever you need!

Ask the players

If the players at your table are well versed in the lore of the setting you’re using ask them what they already know about it and how. Is there a book series attached to the setting? A TV show? Get your hands on a copy of the book or look it up on Audible. Check the show out on Netflix or Hulu. You’ll probably discover many new favorites!

Discovering where the players are getting their information is a good way to identify where you should be getting yours. This is also a great way to gauge the type of lore that each player gravitates towards be it historical battles, legendary heroes or otherwise the fictional events they remember most might indicate the types of adventures they want to undertake.

Feel free to do this in game. Player characters live in the world and no doubt they know quite a few tales of its history. Gather the party around a campfire and roleplay them telling a few stories to each other!

Handouts

Handouts are a great way to package and deliver canon lore. You can take all the time you need to create them so you have time to get them right. Alternatively, you can buy them at the Dungeon Masters Guild and plug them in wherever you need them. I’ve recently released Lore Books: Netherese as a supplement to my adventure The Day the Sky Shattered for just this purpose. Anyone who runs the adventure — or any adventure having to do with the Netherese — can simply give this to the players when appropriate. Lore achieved.

Digitize

Find a digital solution for your session notes and planning. I use Roll20 for even physical games to plan adventures and keep things tidy. You can even use it to distribute handouts and keep them in a place players can reference any time. A properly maintained digital solution creates a database you can reference whenever you need.

Lore for different player types

For some, lore is a pleasant footnote; a nice touch. For others it’s the most important part of the game. Some players twiddle their thumbs and roll their eyes when it comes time to engage with the lore. I have to remind myself occasionally that not everyone cares about what year a fictional ruin was built in, why it was destroyed or what color the tapestries were before they were grey with age. And that’s okay.

There’s a challenge inherent to the wild differences between player types though. Most often each table consists of a combination of players of different types. For those who want lore you need to be consistent and accurate with it to satisfy their abundant curiosity. At the same time you need to keep it distillable enough that players who don’t want to engage with it can get what they need from it and move on. As a GM you have to adapt your style to give everyone a good game.

Be mindful of the player types you have at the table and encourage them to play according to their style. Also be mindful of the fact that engaging with the lore can be time consuming. When appropriate you can give one player a handout they’re really interested in and move on to the actions of another while they read it. This would work well for a moment such as when the druid wants to read a book about local fauna while the barbarian smashes down the door to the next room. Handled with care this can create a fun, compelling moment for all.

Sally forth

Ultimately the setting is yours to reimagine as you see fit. Don’t hesitate to make your own choices. However, if you choose to adhere to canon lore I hope these techniques bring you much success. Keep it up and you’ll become a loremaster before you know it. As always, remember to enjoy the process. If it gets tedious, change your approach. Don’t forget to engage with others and keep taking notes. Remember first and foremost to have fun!

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