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28 June 2021

Canon, Your Homegrown Setting, and You


Our lives change constantly, as do our views and levels of creativity. For those of us who construct vast Dungeons & Dragons settings and worlds for our players to place their characters in and explore, this brings a dilemma. How do we stay true to all the wild escapades, heart-racing adventures, and ground-breaking campaigns that occur in our world? We all have an opinion on the role of canon in works of fiction—and we should carve one out for our own worlds as well.

Canon’s origins are holy, and canon maintains its religious meaning across our modern culture. The canons of our favorite shows, movies, and books matter to us. I am sure you have an opinion on the Great Stars Wars Canon Reset launched by Disney. I know many folks dislike J.K. Rowling’s approach to using Twitter to expand and retcon the world of Harry Potter. Of course, even ancient canons like the oral histories and tales of Herodotus or the Bible itself are still fiercely debated.

Presently, I am reading Dune for the first time. I know if, back when he was alive, Frank Herbert suddenly changed the name of Arrakis to Ikonon, gave Paul a third arm, or something silly along those lines, people would be rightly outraged.

With all of this in mind, think about what classifies as canon for your setting.

Is your world based on or literally the Forgotten Realms? If so, is all published material canon? What about novels? Video games? Do you reset the world with every new campaign, or do the actions of past adventures affect the present game?

Do you create your own world? If that’s the case, is everything you’ve written or thought set in stone and canon? Can your players add to your world’s canon? Or is that only something you can do? Similar to the Forgotten Realms question, do you reset your world with each story, or does every story build atop the previous one?



Let’s delve into Eldar and my view of canon in it as an example.

I began my amateur worldbuilding career as a fan of pure high fantasy. Dungeons, dragons, magic, gods, all the pillars of hundreds of other imaginary worlds out there. My dwarves were like the dwarves of Tolkien: sturdy miners who hated goblins and giants but loved forging wondrous weaponry. Over time, my tastes changed. My ideas...they changed.

The thoughts I had about my world in years past no longer appealed to me, but I had run campaigns in it, my players had altered the world, experienced it. I loved it, the world already had a living history! I couldn’t throw Eldar away...so I updated it, following one simple rule.

If the player characters encountered or encounter something in the world, that thing became or becomes canon, with few caveats. 


That’s it. That’s my world’s definition of canon and I'm staying with it.

I’m comfortable with this single rule because I can work within its bounds and continue to follow the vision I have for my D&D world.

I steer the story at the table, and while I let my players construct bits and pieces of my world, I think of them as children building sand castles. Their worldbuilding is malleable by me, the parent, and, if it has a poor foundation, it’s also destructible by me, the tide.

Every campaign, adventure, and moment is a new addition to my world's canon: the actions of past heroes and vagabonds affect the present. Of course, there's leeway on how much, but the important takeaway is that the decisions the players and their characters committed to impact the world and the fragments of the world they experienced exist in the present, though they might be reimagined in the distant future.

For example, when Aku and Cloud in the Eyes halted Yeenoghu's terrifying entry into the Material Plane from the Abyss, that moment was woven into the fabric of Eldar. Its ramifications shot across the world, altering dozens of plot threads and storylines I had planned for the time, in addition to stories I didn't even know I would tell in the future. Stemming rom their actions, gnolls in my world have two distinct factions: the Yeenish and the Hungerless.

The Yeenish are your typical gnolls, spawn of the demon prince who are more demonic than mortal. Then you have the Hungerless, descendants of gnolls who were in the mortal world when Yeenoghu's head was ripped from his bloody body. They don't feel Yeenoghu's hunger inside them and, over thousands of years, formed a culture entirely unique and separate from typical D&D gnolls. All of this is because of actions taken by player characters in a campaign that finished awhile ago!

Wielding that single rule, I've crafted an expansive lore base for my world which will continue to grow for decades. What is/are your rule/rules? Let me know in the comments below.


When crafting canon for our D&D worlds, we must remember that they're for us and our players. We're not molding a vast canon viewable by millions like J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, or George R.R. Martin. The continuity of our realms is a facet for us to explore and expand. We should only care about our own opinions and the opinions of those who venture across our settings. A newly-minted saying of mine is soft worldbuilding at the table, hard worldbuilding at the desk, but that's a topic for another day...

However, know you can set all the rules you want. To truly be comfortable with establishing a set canon within your D&D world, you need to know how to alter it to fit your present visions and desires.

The Right Way to Alter Canon


As I mentioned earlier, our outlooks on life and our fantasy worlds shift and meander as time goes by. At one point in our long lives, we might deeply enjoy gritty westerns and create a world raptured by sandstorms, walked by pistoliers, and ravaged by devilish bandits. After two years, we might dive into the land of pulp, adding fast methods of travel, bombastic villains, and creatures like dinosaurs and aliens to our worlds. Not long after, we may fully immerse ourselves in high fantasy, trading flintlocks and blunderbusses for wands and axes.

If that happens, we have four options. We can:
  1. Create a brand new setting that embodies our current vision for an interesting world,
  2. Add these new concepts to our world without worrying about how they fit,
  3. Talk to our players and retcon the previously established concepts, or we can
  4. Intelligently alter our world’s canon to weave in our new vision with basic worldbuilding techniques, keeping our beloved world intact.
Let's delve into each, with a greater focus on the final option (my favorite). As with any form of world construction, you can always combine all four options, though mastering one is usually favored!

Option One: Create a Brand New Setting


The easiest and most relaxed of the four options, weaving a new world is what you do when you don't want to build upon your past musings. If you're fine with running a campaign in one world then hopping to the next, this is the choice for you. Pursuing this option allows you to experience wildly different themes and topics for each of your adventures without worrying how they all coalesce into an evolving, living world.

One campaign might involve the pursuit of a renegade spelljammer hopping from plane to plane, encompassing voyages into the Plane of Fire to the Far Realm and beyond. Another might be low-magic and based on survival, set in a world where huge dinosaurs are the most dangerous beasts around. The next could oversee the politics of a back-stabbing kingdom of frivolous halflings, all yearning for power and relaxation at the same time.


With Eldar, I've conjured up how I can continue adding layers to my setting while creating an entirely new setting. The advent of spelljammers in Eldar will, very soon, allow its peoples to access the only previously unreachable realms: the eight moons. The lizardfolk of Eldar are already aliens from one of these moons, I think it's about time to take adventure to these otherworldly, non-planar locales of my setting, while crafting brand new settings in the process. Each of these moons could represent a different method of exploration for me and my players: one could be similar to Dark Sun or other survival-based settings. Another could be completely civilized, a city the size of the moon itself. I could go on, Eldar has eight moons, but you get the point!

With this approach, the possibilities are endless, but the worldbuilding stops after every adventure. The old world retires and the new one takes center stage.

Option Two: Add Without Thought


All the carefree folks out there, this option is for you. If you don't want to ponder over how everything fits together in your sprawling world, just drop it in and, if your players ask how it makes sense, you can remind them that it's your world and it's a fantasy game where anything is possible. This approach isn't for everyone, and it takes a particular type of group and worldbuilder to see it succeed.

Option Three: Retcon and Talk


If there's something major in your world you want to change and it has been introduced over and over to your players, simply retcon it and speak with them. Explain why this part of your world is changing. With a minutia of evidence, they'll likely nod along and thank you for explaining it to them. It's imperative to keep the verisimilitude of our worlds intact, and talking to our players about major changes that, if we're making them lackadaisically, might shatter their sense of immersion and investment in our worlds.

Even though I prefer the method we'll discuss in a moment, I've practiced this approach before. Originally, my world had five moons, each unique in color and shape. I'd incorporated them into my second campaign, the Frozen Expanses of Iskryn, multiple times. Quite recently, I changed that number to eight moons (plus a ninth moon that crashed into the world quite some time ago). To retcon it honestly, I reached out to the players involved, both people who still play in my world weekly.

If you don't want to cleverly integrate huge alterations to your world (or they're just too large to weave in seamlessly), go with this approach.

Option Four: Intelligently Alter Canon


I want to elaborate on option four.

Although I try to refrain from touching my world’s canon, I can if needed, but careful justification and handiwork is necessary.

Let’s look at a simple, high-level example.

If the player characters stay at an inn owned by a fire genasi and her daughter, when they descend into the depths of the city’s sewer system, it should be there when they return. If it’s not, there should be a reason. Maybe it burnt down, targeted by foes of the party. Perhaps during their adventure the local temple seized the establishment and it’s under new, dictatorial leadership. Or maybe everything is fine and dandy, with a few slight alterations to the inn’s decor. I’d like to see it under new leadership, with a dramatic flair. The fire genasi owner was taken, her daughter left behind, and the daughter’s father is now in the picture—and he runs things differently.


That was simple enough, right? I wanted to change something, the owner of the inn, so I went ahead and did it and properly justified the alteration of canon. Even something as small as the owner of an inn classifies as canon in my book!

Let’s supersize it.

If the player characters encounter fiercely territorial, demon-worshiping halflings in one campaign, and peaceful, agriculturally minded halflings in the next—and they’re supposedly of the same people—you need to ask some questions. How did the halfling’s culture transform in the past 100 years? Do remnants of the old culture remain? Will the newer, relaxed halflings speak of their ancestors? Do they still ride dinosaurs? Do demons still haunt their heads?

Easy, see? I sought to create another halfling culture in my world that stands in stark contrast of the old, slightly altering and greatly expanding my world’s canon. To accomplish this, I gave myself two starting points, then asked question after question to ensure the new canon made sense. This is an excellent strategy not only in the alteration of canon, but worldbuilding in general.

Okay, let’s amplify this as much possible.

If the player characters learn that airships are scarce in your world, let’s say only nine exist, but then you become enamored with the ideas of massive airship battles, soaring from exotic locale to locale, and crafting a faction of sky pirates, you might need to incorporate some new facets into your world. Oh, look, this powerful faction just discovered a huge supply of aetherwood in the depths of the Plane of Air, and they’re constructing a permanent gate to the place! On top of that, a peculiar mark that allows people to fly and control the wind is manifesting on certain individuals. How strange!

You get the point.

Truly, the keys to altering canon are asking questions, fleshing out the path from point a to point b, and convincing your players this “discovery” or “story beat” was always present and in your mind, just waiting to break out into the setting.

Let me know which parts of your canon you have altered, for better or worse, in the comments below. Let’s see whose canon has experienced the most changes.

Time Skipping


There is also another, secret option for “altering” canon: skipping forward in time. If you are like me of say, three years ago, and you want to keep the same world but also radically change it without proper methods of justification, zip forward 5,000 years! If you take this route, you can include whatever new funk you want in your current world, while building on the prior foundation.

I’ve done this with Eldar, though I won’t be anymore. My first and second campaigns took place thousands of years before my third, fourth, and current fifth and sixth ones’ beginning. I vow: time skips will no longer be used to update my world, only for dramatic events and radical, post-campaign effects!

The old Eldar needed to be changed, and I wasn’t clever enough to reinvent the setting without zooming forward in time. It’s a strategy I’d only recommend as a last resort—never begin your thought process with time skipping.

Tracking Canon


Okay, you have defined canon in your world and learned how to alter it if needed. How do you track it? Succinctly, it depends on how passionate you are about your world.

You can do what I do and keep a massive setting companion, available to players whenever they need it. In addition, I keep campaign compendiums that chronicle the events of all of my campaigns—summarizing them.

You can create an online wiki editable by your players and you.

You can simply rely on your notes and the notes of your players, piecing parts of your world together when needed.


You can use a worldtracking tool like LoreMaster.io to craft an actual representation of your world on the internet.

You can try out an app recently brought to my attention, DungeonMastery, to keep a comprehensive, combined repository of your in-game canon and important beats.

Or, you can be bold and care-free, deciding to rely only on the world as you gaze into it from your mind’s eye.

Whatever you do, I recommend you dedicate yourself to one. If you want to keep a companion and set of compendiums like I do, focus on that. Love the idea of an internal wiki for your world? Work on it, but don’t also try to build your world on LoreMaster.io.

Concurrently as you track your world’s canon, keep speaking with those who venture into it.

Talk to your players about their experiences, their favorite parts, what canon inspires them, and makes them want to return.

Also remember to dive into the actual folk of the world. Try to immerse yourself in their lives and think about the world’s canon from their perspective. What does the half-orc lumberer think about the Dragon Empire? Does the halfling noble from the rugged plains know the world’s creation myth? Does Suta Hyrgdaught know all the names of the moons in the sky?

It might sound silly, but it’s effective. Try it and let me know how your adventure goes.

Lessons Learned


When it comes to canon and your D&D setting, remember the following:
  • Form a definition for canon in your world. What is it? Who can alter it? How extensive is it?
  • Always follow your vision, whether it requires you to make a new setting or alter your world.
  • Try to create compelling reasons and/or methods for your canon to change.
  • Constantly ask questions to help connect the dots between old and new canon.
  • If all else fails, skip forward in time.
  • There are plenty of ways to track your canon, dedicate yourself to one of them.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

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Art in Order of Appearance:

  • White Dragon Fight from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Core Rulebooks
  • Dwarven Warrior from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Core Rulebooks
  • Sly Rogue from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Core Rulebooks
  • Airfight from DMs Guild Creator Resource - Eberron Scenes & Symbols Art Pack
  • Eberron Heroes from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition Core Rulebooks
  • Black Dragon by Lucio Parrillo

2 comments:

  1. I 100% agree with you here. If it's encountered by the players, its canon. If not, don't worry about it. Things like the Players Handbook and modules can be treated as guidelines, and until you actually say something out loud, it's just a suggestion of what could be.

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    Replies
    1. Right on. Lift from the Player's Handbook, Volo's, even novels like Dune and such for inspiration and craft your canon from that energy, your personal worldbuilding, and the stories told at the table. Soft worldbuilding at the table alongside the people you call friends & companions, hard worldbuilding alone at the desk with a keyboard or pencil and paper.

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