If you have ever cared about anything nerd-ish, you probably have cared at least a little about it. The ability to strike up a conversation at a game store or laugh at a joke about Orcs or admantium claws with someone you just met relies on it. The seas of commonality of organized play events and camaraderie around a convention floor live and die from it. Yet it continues to be the one of the most divisive forces in the hobby. Edition wars have their roots in it. Genre battles stand on its shoulders.
Continuity is a two-edged sword you must understand to manage a successful long term RPG campaign.
Examining Continuity – Types of Gaming Continuity
Story/Historical Continuity – As far back as Homer glitches in the fictional histories of our imagined worlds have been an issue. The great poet (probably) just allowed the contradictions to stand and can be seen as an example story being sovereign to continuity. That said, a principle effort of the role-playing game (and fantasy literature in general) is to use consistency and continuity to enforce the feeling of verisimilitude. Consistency stands in for reality. Continuity errors often have a deleterious effect on investment in imagined worlds. GMs need to be aware of the level of concern with this type of interest in continuity at their table. Video games have gone a long way to create a stream of less continuity-concerned gamers but you will still see those who manage to experience a sense of it even in the most repetitive of grinds or asynchronous events.
Genre Continuity – This is a broader sense of continuity but still very important to be aware of any side of the screen. Continuity of genre is what makes our elves diminish in the East, our orcs barbaric and our laser-wielding gunslingers clash when standing beside their wizardly peers. The base elements that “father” Tolkien laid down have become imbedded in the imagined cultural origin as much as Lovecraft’s tendrils coiled around the medula of their fears. Ignoring these rivers of thematic consistency can doom a game before it starts, while artful manipulation of them can instantly set apart your efforts from a thousand others.
Rules Continuity – Among the ugliest beasts in the fields of continuity, the reliance on rules-sets to define our gaming worlds is perhaps the most continentious form of continuity any gamer needs to be aware of at a table that intends to ever play again after a first session. The basic frustration of staying with or changing away from a rules-system can be more apocalyptic that the wrath of a whole army of demons.
Perils of Continuity
So with a (very) general understanding of the types of continuity we might want to be looking at the dangers of enforcing and ignoring this aspect of the imagined.
Stagnation – A principle fear surrounding continuity is that of stagnation. Characters builds or behaviors might become repetitive. Themes become pounded into the dirt. And even Cthulhu’s tentacles and his cultists waste smeared faces become… tired… with enough screen time.
Creative Limitations – Genre continuity can make some GMs feel limited, say if they want to run a game with a hegemony of sorcerous androids for their group of ring-hating halfling rogues. Story continuity might cripple the newest adventure path when your recent campaign already killed its main bad guy. Rules continuity may cause players to scream “it doesn’t work like that anymore” when your story still wishes it did.
Learning Curve – Its a testament to the draw of the gaming hobby that new players aren’t more often seen hyperventilating into paper bags. Dozens of imagined histories, hundreds of rules, and a bevy of terminology and slang that renders “English” almost indecipherable to the novice.
Phantom Zones – A lack of enforced continuity can erode everything you attempt to do at the table when running or playing in a game. Inconsistent rules, histories or themes can cause your night in the hobby to become a hazy contradictory mess that wastes everyone’s time. Failure to reflect continuity in organized play may render a setting unrecognizable.
Examing Continuity – Paradox Solving
In the business book Management of the Absurd, the thesis statement more or less boils down to the “paradox” that “problems contain their own solutions” and often this is a excellent tactic to handle continuity issues.
Solving for Stagnation – The crux of the stagnation issue is one of repetition. As such, when you use reprise as a player or GM, always keep an eye to the delivery. Taking the power attack feat again? Maybe reference a half-orc mentor that advocated swift and powerful actions with a reckless bent. Returning to an old location from earlier in a campaign? Highlight the differences from last time. The more nuanced and descriptive a repetition is the more likely it will be to enhance overall immersion rather than drain it. Someone who is frustrated by this aspect of continuity is probably too focused on the bones–mechanics of the rules (it gives me the bonus I need or this was such much better last edition) or thematic rigidity (alien horror is cool, everyday always, times ten)–and could benefit from stepping back from the repeated aspect to look at its connective tissue (description, context, and relation to other elements).
Solving for Limitations – A math professor once said to me “We don’t really know anything, we only approximate knowing it.” All of continuity in fantasy is similar approximation and is not nearly so static as we think. When dealing with continuity and its creative limitations an active understanding of retconning (Retroactive Continuity) is an essential thing to have. A combination of artful retcon paired with sticking to your guns can help you establish mastery over this aspect. Take for example the in continuity “reboot” of the Star Trek franchise. By careful usage of established “history” and “science” they were able to launch their stories into entirely new territory while still honoring their past. Often times, retcon isn’t even necessary, rather a more thorough exploration of existing details (oh hey, their is another continent with day-loving, pyramid-dwelling dark elves) that you yet to define. Such activities not only expand the options of your story but also lend greater verisimilitude to your overall setting.
Solving for Learning Curves – Presenting a wall of information can often have disastrous results to a player that is new to a system, group or story. That said, it is more important than ever NOT to fear repetition when “seducing” new players. Much like learning a new language a best practice to combat steep continuity curves is immersion. The key then is to again avoid being stale or predictable as you enforce consistency. Look for and demonstrate connections and similarities so that new information builds on other elements and itself. If you have a both new and “stagnant feeling” players, this balance can be even more challenging.
Solving for Phantom Zones – The balancing act here remains vital in the extreme. Like a person’s body, your story needs to remain mostly fluid to remain healthy. That said do not hesitate defining what needs to be defined, root your continuity (rules or story) in something found and don’t budge from it. Nothing frustrates a player more than late game definition of or changes to something critical. Consider that the further you go into something, the more explanation and effort will be required to add a definition. In contrast understand that the later you go, the more likely to be permissve you will be required to be to avoid threatening your own world building and consistency (rules-based or otherwise). Leave yourself open spaces to grow into while defining their borders to maintain your world or stories structure.
Successful understanding and use of the structure of continuity will lead to adventures people can’t wait to return for and worlds they will hope you will reprise. And if not, their are always Timelords.