I love the lore behind imaginary places, people, objects, games, worlds, and stories! And I’m not alone. Far from it, drawing people into these imaginary places is what drives the huge popularity of the great IPs of our time. Middle Earth, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Twilight, James Bond, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, Sandman, Harry Potter, Warhammer. And so on.
They were stories first of course, or games, or comics, but to fans it’s all about the lore. About the imaginary history and the internal consistence, and even bout the places and events that are only ever visited ‘off camera’.
Now, MMOs, comics, and TV series have a unique challenge with respect to their lore, because it will change and grow over time. Sometimes in a long running series, it’s difficult for creators to keep track of every single aspect of the IPs history – and fans love to catch them out on it. This is especially true when it becomes more and more obvious that when the series began, the creators hadn’t yet decided how it would end.
And both TV series and games have reasons for wanting to insert new elements or directions into their lore. For a TV series, maybe the series needs to come to a neat ending (Battlestar Galactica), or a new show runner wants to take a different direction (Doctor Who), or one of the script writers just had a really cool idea that everyone likes. In games, developers also want to be responsive to what players want, and shifts in game design. Or maybe they just want to drop in a new race of space aliens because they look cool. Or in other words, there are good reasons for wanting to twist the lore into pretzels; to improve gameplay, or to improve a dramatic arc, for example.
As fans, we’d like to think this never happened, or at least that we would never notice. And in great novels, the chances are that the author will be able to go back and adjust the lore to fit the story if s/he needs to do it before publication. But in ongoing TV series, comics, or games, that isn’t an option.
It’s a familiar dilemma to pen and paper GMs also. You think of a great idea for next week’s scenario. But how can you make it fit into the game world?
Here are a few suggestions for game designers. Next time you need to do something crazy in game for gameplay reasons, try one of these excuses to sell it to the players.
1. A Wizard Did It
A time honored D&D favourite justification. This can explain just about anything you ever want to do in a fantasy setting. And as a bonus, can cover up any failure on the part of the GM to remember some minute background detail that was mentioned in passing three years ago. Players will ALWAYS remember this sort of thing.
For example: ”Why is there a black monolith in the middle of this desert? There’s no black rock around here.” “A wizard did it.”
If you get bored of wizards or are working in a different genre try these alternatives:
- an ancient god/ civilisation did it
- ultra high tech did it
- black ops/ secret government labs did it
- you have no idea what did it (Oo, a mystery! As a bonus, if you are lazy you can listen to players discuss their ideas and then use the one that sounds coolest.)
2. A MAD Wizard Did it
Like #1, but when the thing in question is obviously pointless, contradicts current lore, or even acts against the creator’s best interests. You can even combine 1 with 2 if players ask particularly awkward questions:
Why is Bob riding a sparkly pony!
A wizard did it.
But all wizards are afraid of stars, you told us that last week.
Uh … a MAD wizard did it.
Sometimes you can even explain that the wizard in #1 later went mad and was responsible for #2.
Everything goes up in flames for no reason. But it’s ok because it’s SYMBOLIC. Bonus points if you can work in a thematic colour scheme, weather effects, and NPC names.
“Do you think Mr Justifiablehomicide wants to be our friend?”
4. Crisis on Infinite Azeroths
It’s … a crossover!
5. The Hudson Hawk Defence
Also known as ‘the totally bullshit explanation’. Just state your highly implausible explanation with a straight face and see if anyone buys it.
You’re supposed to be all cracked up at the bottom of the hill.
Air bags!Can you fucking believe it?
You’re supposed to be blown upinto fiery chunks of flesh.
Sprinkler system set up in the back.
Can you fucking believe it?
Yeah! ……. That’s probably what happened.
— Hudson Hawk
6. I woke up, and it was all a dream
Made famous by Dallas, this explanation allows you to reset the lore to any time in the past that you wish.
Haha, bait and switch. Everything the players thought they knew turns out to be wrong. In The Matrix, this was because the entire world known by the protagonist was just a VR simulation.
But a similar explanation can be used to justify why the players’ allies are actually their enemies or any of their assumptions (which were encouraged strongly by the game, story, or TV series) were completely incorrect.
Players will typically accept this once, but will then choose the blue pill and try to stick with the original assumptions because those are why they liked the game in the first place anyway.
8. Break the fourth wall
I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.
- Groucho, Horse Feathers
We don’t see this often in MMOs but occasionally an in-game narrator or tutorial will explain game mechanics to the player. A similar scheme can be used to try to explain lore changes that were made for gameplay reasons.
9. Blame Christopher Tolkein
Blame any changes on the vagaries of the IP’s current owner.
Christopher Tolkein and the Tolkein Estate can take the flak for Middle Earth based games, Games Workshop can shoulder the blame for changes in Warhammer, and so on.