Is All Improv A Retcon?

After listening to episode 350 (milestone alert!) about retcons, I had to go back and listen again to the definition Brett provided and then compare that to examples provided in the episode.

After a second listen, I thought maybe I needed to call BS… but no, it wasn’t wrong. Then I thought I should call the Gaming Police and they told me there’s a special branch that handles these kinds of cases…

The Improv Police.

[cue Law & Order classic SFX]

“Ok, what’s the next case?”

“The People versus the Gaming & BS Podcast, your honour.”

“Thank you, your honour. The People have accused the Gaming & BS Podcast of third degree Misuse of Improv Techniques after they provided examples during an episode about retcons in RPGs that tread on and misidentify standard improv techniques as corrections to the story created during play. This contrasts to the verdict in the 1997 lawsuit of the Screenwriters of Good Morning Vietnam vs Robin Williams where the court ruled Mr. Williams was indeed retconning the script because it had been written prior to shooting those scenes.”

“So what’s the difference here, council?”

“Your honour, if a GM is running a game in complete improvisation, as per the standards and guidelines set down in the Off Broadway Accord of 1986, a story and/or elements of a story that are improvised have not been presented in the medium in which the story is being told. In other words, it wasn’t written down and therefore has not been revised as per the definition of a retcon. We plan to prove these are examples of adaptations as they are created collectively by the players during play, much in the same way improv performers are adapting their story as it unfolds.”

[Brett and Sean sit at the defence table, holding their heads in their hands. Their lawyer rises.]

“Your honour, my clients are not improv performers, they are RPG podcast hosts. And yes, while they are beloved by their fans and idolized in a cult-like fashion that has been deemed a threat to national security, they cannot be held to the laws of this court. For starters, they have real jobs and friends who aren’t annoyed by them. We demand this case be remanded to the Gaming Police for judgement.”

[The judge holds up a hand and the court goes silent.]

“This is not the first time such jurisdictional confusion has come into this court. Have the two sides tried mediation to resolve this matter?”

“No, your honour. We thought this written parody of a courtroom drama was funny and went straight to that as a crowd pleaser.”

[The judge bangs the gavel.]

“You improvers have been warned about these kind of shenanigans before, including when you brought forward cases as a fake news report, a fake weather forecast, and that time to you presented your case against the Misdirected Mark Podcast using only a pool noodle and a set of chopsticks. This court demands both sides discuss this matter and settle out of court before someone calls out for the name of a place where you would go shopping. Court adjourned!”


And scene!

Ok, in all seriousness, it did seem there was some alternating examples in this episode between retconning something that was expressed during the game and adaptations made during play. To me, it feels like some examples were indicating that launching a fireball into a room means you have to retcon that the room is on fire rather than adapting to the fact that room is now on fire. Sure, the book doesn’t say the room is on fire when the PCs arrive, but that’s doesn’t feel the same as Brett’s example of his kids searching for a secret door that wasn’t there. Unless Brett had mentioned earlier that there are no secret doors in this room, is it a retcon or is that adaptation?

A Guy Who Definitely Sat On The Toilet Too Long Typing This Post


Or is Adaptation just another term that accomplishes the same thing? :man_shrugging:

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Woop! Woop! Woop! Usage alert:

Retcon is short for retroactive continuity - changing an already established narrative.

[See season 9 of Dallas for a famous example.]

I try not to retcon. The number-one reason I retcon is when a significant rules misunderstanding caused an effect that I can’t undo with a simple narrative patch.

For example, if I misunderstood the drowning rules and a character died as a result. If I later learned that the character shouldn’t have drown, I’d call a “unforced technical foul” and offer a Retcon to have the character otherwise survive. I might do something clever, like have a mermaid save them, but might be too flustered to think that up on the fly.


Early candidate for post of the year. This is gold.

Also, what happened with Robin Williams and screenwriters in 1997?

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I mean, drifting this to other media/creative processes . . . I know there are a ton of authors that think they are going to have a character do X, but when they get finished with the story, when they get to that moment, it doesn’t feel right to do X. They had an idea in their head, but in the moment, it didn’t work. I’m not sure that’s a retcon, because the full story hadn’t taken shape yet.

Where I think this gets fuzzy is when you present something, never give any clue to something, and then later you decide that something is true of an element you already used in a “completed” story. Technically were weren’t told that everything leading up to Daniel Craig’s Bond film SPECTRE wasn’t tied in to that movie’s villain, but it also feels as if each of the stories that had already been told were discreet stories that weren’t open ended, and that the connections were built on the back end to give the reveals in that film more gravitas.

But I think when you are looking at something like a collaborative experience, like an RPG, I don’t think something is “in continuity” until it is presented at the table. If you decide that the ambassador that has been maneuvering against the PCs, who you were originally going to make a normal wizard, is then introduced as a lich, so you can use them as an ongoing villain, if the first time they come face to face with the ambassador in combat they’re a lich, I’m not sure that’s a retcon. Nobody had a chance to “test” their stats before that moment.

On the other hand, if you go through with using the wizard stat block, the PCs kill them, and you decide later that they just never figure out that they were a lich and they are coming back again, that’s a retcon. You didn’t use anything in the first encounter that would have indicated what they actually were.

Now, in the end, I’m not sure if the distinction is absolutely important. I’ve had discussions with players where we decided to agree on a retcon because we all remembered how something went, and it just isn’t want we really wanted. So I guess what I’m saying is, contradicting something that was established, and moving forward with the new reality = retcon. Adding details to something that wouldn’t have changed anything about how an element was first introduced would = either improv or emergent storytelling.

I guess the only real important distinction is so that you are doing what you are doing with intentionality. If you know you are changing something you already established, that’s inferring a slightly more open-ended nature to the storytelling of the campaign, especially if you do it more than once. If you improv a different “reality” to be presented at the table, but it was only ever “real” in your head, not in what was presented at the table, this isn’t really saying anything about the continuity of storytelling in the campaign.


This is my usage as well.


If I establish something as I improv it and then change it I’m doing a retcon yes?

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For me I find that continuity is important to me as I improv - even if it’s only in my head for a bit - as I need that as I GM. So if I mess with the continuity “off screen” it’s still retcon work for me as I see it.


If “established” means shared with others, sure! Doesn’t matter what method was used to establish the facts introduced to the continuity…

You do you, but I call this “changing my mind” or “figuring better shit out.”

:grin: :grin: :grin:


Yeah, I establish stuff in my head and don’t aways share it right off - just my style and all that.

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Nothing. Just riffing and pulled that out of my butt.


As someone who comes from the comic book world I am in agreement that the B&S are using the term “retcon” incorrectly. As stated above, retconning is retroactively changing an established continuity. Things like the GM changing their mind about how many monsters are in the room before the players arrive is not retconning. Even if it’s written down in an adventure book, the GM is taking creative liberties for their adaption of the adventure for the table.

For example: Jack Napier/The Joker killing Bruce Wayne’s parents in the 1989 Batman film instead of Joe Chill, the man who murdered the Waynes in the comic is not a retcon, it is a change made to deliver a more satisfying narrative to the audience.

A retcon is a change made to explain away an inconsistency or overwrite a past event to better fit in line with the narrative. To continue with the comic book analogy, the establishing of Earth One and Earth Two in 1961 is a retcon that’s used to explain why characters like The Flash and the Green Lantern are different people with different costumes than they had in the 1940’s and also a way to explain why Batman isn’t an old man even though he’s been fighting crime for 30 years.

In the latest episode of my Batman Podcast we covered Vicki Vale, who was introduced in the late 70’s as a married woman and then, five years later, re-introduced by a different team of writers unaware of the first appearance, where she began flirting with Bruce Wayne. Readers wrote in wondering why Bruce was flirting with a married woman and the writers retconned by establishing that she had gotten a divorced since the last time they met.

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I’m just sad that things in my head aren’t real/established just because no one else can see it :cry:


Sorry Brett, in a shared storytelling media, the only story that’s canonical is the parts that actually get shared. :stuck_out_tongue:

If you want some greater truths about your world to be canonized but you can’t find an organic way to bring it up, you write them down in a setting bible and force the players to read it as part of their player homework. :smiling_imp:

Otherwise, I wouldn’t sweat it. Typically my players come up with better story twists and details than I can, so those are the ones I roll with (with a healthy amount of subversion of expectations).

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I think I can have unrealistic standards. I gave up on one podcast when the hosts started talking about Tolkien. I gave up on another when the host started to define and explain “canon.”

But, somehow, when Brett and Sean are wrong, the show is still good. :grin:


It’s why I tell players from the very beginning what is canon or at least strictly referenced from the core book. For example, I might say the map and history as documented in the rulebook are locked and untouchable, but NPCs may change to suit whatever. Even if they haven’t read it themselves, it still allows me to have that “reason” to retcon because we got caught up in the moment.

AKA it’s the fair way to say “Because I fucking said so.”

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