On Continuity and Barney Stinson

So, I watched a TiVO’d episode of How I Met Your Mother yesterday. It’s one of my favorite television shows, and I think it’s one of the best sitcoms on television right now, if not the best. But that’s neither here nor there.

Barney StinsonWhat’s here is that there was a continuity error on the episode “The Bracket“. While that doesn’t seem like much of a deal, it is for a show that makes inordinate use of flash-backs and flash forwards and different retellings of events. (In fact, for those not in the know, the entire show is one giant flashback.)

See, in The Bracket, Barney Stinson mentions that he may have sold a woman for a Mercedes, which he then drove off. He also flashes back to where he stole a date’s truck while camping, and then drives off in it. There’s only one problem with these two scenarios…

Barney can’t drive.

Alas, in the episode “Moving Day,” it is established that Barney is terrified of driving and can’t really do it. (It’s all he can do to get a moving truck around the corner behind a bar.)

Bit of a continuity error. Ah well.

I’m not really going to review the episode, but I do want to talk a bit about continuity in your campaign. I like to think that the succession of all campaigns (when one campaign in a group ends, and another begins with the same players), falls into a few broad and vague categories, summarized by, appropriately enough, television shows.

  1. The Office / Battlestar Galactica – The two campaigns have nothing in common except the basement where they take place. Setting, genre, feel… All are completely different.
  2. House / Grey’s Anatomy – Same feel, same genre, different settings. Crossovers aren’t really possible.
  3. Cheers / Frasier – Same setting, but cameos and crossovers are rare.
  4. Star Trek – It’s the same show. Different characters, but you know what you’re doing and references abound.

Now, in the first two, continuity doesn’t exist and is a non-issue. (In today’s post, I’m dealing with really long term continuity. I’ll address shorter term, between adventure continuity in another post another time.)

In the third one, continuity is present, but is relatively easy. One is in Boston, the other is in Seattle. The only time you really have to think about continuity is when you have an NPC cameo, when there’s a little crossover. It won’t happen often, but it can happen. Otherwise, continuity can safely be ignored, or easily dealt with by any DM worth his salt. Occasionally, you might make a small error, but it can either be explained away as the slip of the tongue. (“Did I say the Eye of Thorgonia? I meant the Hand of Thorgonia. Sorry about that.”)  Others can simply be retconned in. (“I know Lord Salazzar would have been three years old at the Second Battle of Chanapoly, but he was propelled backward through time by a rogue Time Elemental.”)

Of course, these kind of gaffes should be avoided.

The longer a campaign runs, though, these gaffes become harder and harder to avoid.  My Countless World setting has been home to between seventeen and thirty campaigns, depending on how you slice it.  Errors are going to show up.

I’ve got three tips for avoiding these kind of errors.  Each of them work well in the context of role playing, though they might be more difficult to maintain in a more constrained narrative (such as a book or movie).

  • Long Dates – The best way, in my opinion, to handle temporal continuity, is to make everything take forever.  No two hour battles – battles take a minimum of two days, if not weeks or possibly even months.  No month long wars – wars take years and years and years and generations.  This solves the problem that any time you reference two things happening concurrently, it could be the end of one and the beginning of another, giving you a wide window to work with before you commit an NPC to having been in two places at once.
  • Short Dates – On the flip side of the coin, short dates can help, too.  If you refer to an NPC being at the Battle of Tunigia, “from the moment the ships came down from the sky” to the moment “we stormed the walls and raised our flags in victory,” and you’ve stated the battle took eleven weeks, you’re kind of committing your NPC to being their for all eleven weeks, which can preclude him from being involved in other battles of the war.  It would take some awkward backtracking for you to say they were there on the first day, and there on the last, and absent in the middle.
  • No Dates – The final, and easiest, way to address temporal continuity is to simply ignore dates.  Don’t reference when things happened.  Sometimes you have to, either vaguely or specifically, but whenever possible, ignore dates.  (“He fought in the Chriminian War with your father in the year before you were born” should be cut to “He fought in the Chriminian War.”)  Often, this is not possible – Players need to know when things happened, and you never want to cut out the flavor if you can avoid it.

Admittedly, this is somewhat contradictory advice.  That being said, each piece of advice is appropriate at different times.

I also recognize that this advice is all about temporal continuity, which really has nothing to do with the aforementioned Barney Stinson continuity error.  However, it’s the first piece of continuity I want to address, and I started thinking about if after watching “The Bracket.”  Bear with me – I’ll come back to both short term continuity and non-temporal continuity another time.

Until then, there you go.


4 responses to “On Continuity and Barney Stinson

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