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Jamie Chambers on Serenity RPG Canon

Jamie Chambers

Saturday 14 January 2006, by Webmaster

Jamie on Canon

A howdy and Happy New Year to my fellow Browncoats! I hope everyone had a great holiday season and rang in aught-six in high style. There certainly has been a very shiny movie to watch on DVD lately if nothing else. The subject tile above may have some of you scratching your heads and asking yourselves, "Why is Jamie standing on something that goes boom?" What I’m actually speaking about is canon, defined by the nearest online dictionary as...

can°on (n) 1, a general rule, principle, or standard 2. a decree issued by a religious authority, especially one ruling on religious practices 3. a set of religious writings regarded as authentic and definitive and forming a religion’s body of scripture

...and the definition goes onto include the Catholic church and music and a few other things. In fandom, canon generally refers to the first definition. Basically, fans want to know what material is "official," and what isn’t. Some fans take it a bit far and start mixing in the second and third definitions as well—wanting to know what’s "real" and denouncing anything else as heretical.

The film Serenity, as you know, had a number of licensed products—including comic books, action figures, trading cards, a cell phone video game, novelization, and a strange book called a role playing game. Good Browncoats everywhere ran to their nearest retailer or Cortex supplier and grabbed their goods and there was much rejoicing. But then came the questions.

I get asked one question more than just about every other (except regarding my forbidden love for aerosol cheese), both in "official" interviews and casual e-mails. These good folks want to know things like, "Is your material ’official?’" "Was Joss Whedon involved in the creation of your setting and character information?" "Do you prefer American or Sharp Cheddar?" Excellent questions, all—so let’s try to clear a few things up.

Firstly, let me say that I do not know Joss Whedon personally—though I’ll refer to him on a first-name basis in this writing because "Mr. Whedon" just doesn’t flow as well off the typing fingers. I’ve had the great pleasure of enjoying his work on television and film as a fan, and I’ve only met him twice in-person—once at San Diego Comic-Con and later at the premiere of Serenity in Universal City. He would almost certainly not be able to pick me out of a lineup. Secondly, there was no direct contact with Joss or his office during the creation of the Serenity Role Playing Game. While we were working on the game, he was busy working at the far more important business of making a movie.

So what business did I have writing information about the ’Verse, Serenity, or its crew when I didn’t have a steady pipeline of information from the creator? (And when I say "I" you should think "we" because I had a lot of help from a great design team and a best-selling author or two when creating the Serenity RPG.) I’ll answer that question the way Mal answers River at the end of the film: Love.

I’ll digress a moment to talk about one of my favorite subjects—me. (No, not aerosol cheese, though it’s a close second.) My relationship to Firefly and Serenity goes back to the spring before the series ever came on the air. I read news that Joss Whedon was developing a new television series, one that would combine the science-fiction and Western genres. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel were already on my TiVo subscription list so I was intrigued. After I read a script review of the pilot, I was like a fish circling the worm even though I could see the hook and line.

At the end of summer my company attended Dragon*Con in Atlanta. It was still quite some time before Firefly debuted on television, but I was eagerly following news on the series. Then I walked by the bootleg video table and something jumped out at me: FIREFLY: UNAIRED PILOT. It had a cheap inkjet-printed cover on the DVD case. I probably stared at that cover for some fifteen minutes, because I had a dilemma. As a writer and a publisher, I hate pirated material. The Internet age has created quite a challenge for copyright holders to be able to fairly benefit from their properties. I could see the moral and ethical high-ground, but there was this DVD on the table for twenty-five dollars and I REALLY WANTED IT! Ultimately my inner-fan won, and I traded cash for my prize.

When I got the chance to watch the pilot a week later I could see this was a very rough cut. There was no music, no special effects, choppy editing, no sound correction. You could sometimes see a mike boom pop on the frame, hear the director say "cut," or watch people dangling from wires in their space suits. The most amazing part was that it didn’t matter. This was amazing writing, fantastic performances, and an amazing setting that felt more plausible to me than any other sci-fi I had experienced (and as a registered geek, that’s a lot). I was in love, and the series could not have hit the air-waves fast enough. I was lucky enough to enter the show without the disadvantage that most of the audience had, which was starting with "The Train Job" instead of the pilot.

Fast forward a few years, in which I experienced the same love of the show, heartbreak of its cancellation, and the excitement over the news about the film as the rest of the fans. Then I had an idea: If the film Serenity was on its way, would it be possible to obtain the license to produce a role playing game for it? The short conclusion to this digression is that through persistence, karma, and smart negotiation we reached an agreement that let us proceed. If a geek was going write a Serenity Role Playing Game, I felt like I was the geek for the job. Because I loved it as much any other fan, and perhaps as long as anyone else.

I only had a few extra resources to set about my work than any other fan. Aside from the television series and fan-compiled information on the Internet, I had the amazing script (which I had nearly memorized by the time the first sneak screening happened) and a short memo that was recently published as part of the Serenity Visual Companion.

Each storyteller has their own means and methods when pursuing their craft. In science-fiction and fantasy it’s not just about establishing characters and conflict, there is also a whole world/galaxy/universe to define. Some choose to define the world of their story in great detail before the writing process even begins. Tolkien was such a storyteller, as is my friend and colleague Tracy Hickman. (Quick plug for good books: Head for a bookstore and check out the Bronze Canticles trilogy!) Other genre storytellers choose only to define the basics, the "broad strokes"—leaving enough blank canvas to fill in more details during the course of the story according to its needs and elements revealed by character.

Though I cannot speak for him, I suspect Joss Whedon is of the second school. He defined the "big picture" of the ’Verse that was easily summed up in a paragraph. Don’t get me wrong: There is a metric ton of detail presented in Firefly and Serenity, information presented visually and through dialogue. But the specifics of the ’Verse and its history were left wide open to explore, and from personal experience I can attest it’s sometimes as much fun for the writer to discover something he didn’t know about his world or characters as it is for the audience. But we only got a half a season of television and one on film. Thusly, we only learned a bit about the ’Verse—a proverbial drop in the bucket.

One complaint I sometimes receive from the fans is that the Serenity Role Playing Game did not provide enough detail about the ’Verse or the important characters. We need details! What’s the population of Londinium and what’s the weather like there? What was in that syringe that Inara carries around? How long does it take to travel from Ariel to Bellerophon in the month of April? How could I design a role playing game that leaves out those critical details?

Part of the answer is that the "core" book only had so much space for world and history information. Another is that we didn’t want to venture too far from our primary source, the film itself. But the most important answer is this: we want Serenity RPG players and Game Masters to have the freedom to create the ’Verse according to their vision.

Ultimately anyone running a Serenity adventure or campaign is picking up where Joss has left off and assuming that role of a creator and storyteller. Take up the challenge and answer each of these questions your own way. Londinium’s capital city is partly cloudly today with a high in the low 60s, it’s a 22 day journey from Ariel to Bellerophon on this date at full burn, and the drugs in Inara’s syringe are a super-steroid/adrenaline that gives her the strength of ten Grinches plus two. Understand that in other campaigns, or in future "official" Serenity tales, your version of the ’Verse may not exactly match up. And that’s okay. Really.

So to throw a lasso around this long-winded bundle of words and drag it kicking and screaming back to my point, what is official in the Serenity RPG? The whole thing. This is an officially licensed product, approved by Universal according to our agreement.

The next question, of course, is Joss Whedon bound by our presentation of his universe, its history, or characters? Hell no! As we Browncoats are fond of saying, Joss is Boss. He can — and should — tell his stories the way he wants. The environments, characters, and details should serve the structure and needs of the story—just like any good Serenity Game Master should do when creating adventures for his or her crew.

I think consistency is a grand thing, and when it doesn’t interfere with good storytelling I’m one-hundred and two percent (okay, I’m lousy at math) behind the idea. But when I’m running a game, the ’Verse belongs to me and the folks around the game table. You should feel the same.

So that’s how I feel about canon. Next up, the many uses of cheese that comes in a can!