The Path to Canonicity

This is the fifth in a series of posts regarding shared story world design



This post will touch on the issues of managing canonicity for a SSW.

“Canon” is a term applied to content deemed official or recognized as officially part of a shared story world.

Normally, canonical content is generated by the internal creative team behind an entertainment property. In this instance, only internally-produced or contracted/work-for-hire content is deemed to be canon (official), leaving everything else in the realm of apocrypha or fandom (unofficial content).

But SSWs are all about inviting audiences to contribute canonically to the entertainment property. In fact, there is an expectation audiences will collaborate with the SSW team.

And when that happens, things get equal parts more interesting and challenging.

The SSW team must define and communicate the conditions for audience contribution (or what I like to call the “path to canonicity”). The path will have certain hurdles or barriers that audiences must overcome: submission guidelines, the need for understanding the existing canon, required skillsets, etc. Further, not only will each property have a fairly unique path to canonicity, a property can have multiple such paths, each with their own unique sets of barriers.

A helpful metaphor is to view the space where the SSW team and its audience collaborate as a sandbox. The sandbox occupies the space between canon and apocrypha, operating as a kind of bridge between the two. The SSW team sends out invitations to audiences to come play in that sandbox. Once audiences arrive, the SSW team provides a list of guidelines and rules for what audiences can do in the sandbox if they want their contributions to be considered for canonicity. The contributions that meet the guidelines are moved from the sandbox into the canon.

In this metaphor, the path to canonicity involves (a) an invitation for audiences to collaborate, (b) a sandbox in which they can collaborate, and (c) rules or guidelines provided by the SSW team.

The good news is the SSW team can craft paths to canonicity with few and/or low barriers, even for established properties with extensive canons. I touched on this in my last post about Scoping the Audience Participation, and I’ll revisit it in a future post about crafting specific invitations for audiences to collaborate.

Whatever the path, the SSW team must review each audience contribution with care, as every addition to canon has implications that ripple far beyond the confines of the individual submission. In fact, each new canonical contribution – by definition –  places limits on all future contributions. The crafting of the sandbox guidelines is, then, as crucial as the need for rigorous review of submitted contributions.

The design of the path to canonicity (the invitation, the sandbox, and the rules/guidelines) will determine the balance between an audience’s allowed creativity within canon and the realistic need to have contributions conform to established canon. Design well!

Some Questions to Consider:

  • What are the elements for each path to canonicity you design (invitation, sandbox, rules)?
  • How many paths are appropriate for your SSW?
  • How will you encourage maximum audience creativity with a minimum amount of canonical limitations?

4 thoughts on “The Path to Canonicity

  1. Hi Scott.

    Thanks for the post, helped me tweak the collaborative structure of my own project. Have you any thoughts on retaining / transferring of ownership when canonising? I know ‘it depends’ but I’m asking anyway 🙂



  2. I have lots, Paul. And yes…it depends. 🙂

    The bad news is that there’s no single, simple answer. The good news is that we a lot of choices when it comes to slicing legal ownership rights and monetary commercial rights.

    As with most of these design considerations, the better answers take into account the nature of the world (genre, size of audience, additional licensing aspects such as Creative Commons, etc.), the limits of the creative (budget, time, resources, etc.), the goals or success criteria for the creative (revenue amounts, number of outside contributions, awareness/exposure, effecting an external change, etc.), and the unique design of the world (the scoping/scaling of participation, the mediums allowed for contribution, whether fans can remix each other’s contributions, the path to canonicity, etc.).

    I recommend starting with these items first, then constructing a copyright/commercial rights structure that supports the goals of the creative while respecting the limitations of the world.

    That’s the approach Brain Candy used for Runes of Gallidon. We asked “what kind of world experience do we want?” then we formed the legal contracts and IP sharing/revenue rights to support that experience.

    Based on our goals for a maximum amount of remixability with a minimum amount of peer-level hassle on the part of fans, we constructed a model that lifted Ideas out of Works. Ideas are typically not copyrighted concepts (they’re characters, places, objects, etc.). Works are what we normally think of as copyrighted creations (novels, art, video, audio, etc.). Ideas become community property and are available for anyone to use. Revenue is shared at the Works level, not the Idea level.

    We then applied a Creative Commons license to the whole thing to make it very clear how serious we were about making Gallidon a remix-friendly world.

    Depending on the nature of your world, you could come up with a different model, one perhaps that did not expressly allow fans to remix each other’s work (in order to keep things simpler).

    Happy to jump on Skype and help you with specifics of your world if you like. It’s the kind of stuff I love doing. 🙂


    1. Hi Scott and Paul,

      I was going to ask the same question as Paul. I think ownership, IP rights and financial compensation is the biggest question surrounding an SSW and audience contribution. It’s the one thing that’s always put me off developing a SSW, though I’d love to.

      I’ll have to take a read of the Runes of Gallidon IP contract to see exactly how you do it. Though revenue based on works and not ideas makes complete sense. That’s exactly how it works in general business – you don’t get compensated for ideas, only for the implementation of those ideas.

      Great article Scott. I look forward to reading your other articles on Shared Story Worlds.

      All the best

      The Worldbuilding School


  3. Hey, Nathan, thanks for the kind words (and glad you stopped by – intrigued by!

    Feel free to take a look at the Artisan’s Agreement for Runes of Gallidon:

    If you’d prefer to watch a couple of videos instead, check out “Welcome to Gallidon”:

    Finally, here’s a short reference guide on rights and commercialization:

    Let me know if you want to Skype or send me some questions:

    The short answer is that as the “world owner” you can structure the rights however you like. Creatives determine who, how, when, and where people can play in their world within the legal context (note: engaging audiences who ignore legalities of IP law is a whole different, and not entirely negative, conversation).

    Writing a legal contract is simply taking the relationship you want with an audience and expressing part of it in a formal, documented way. Your vision for your world drives the terms for collaboration, not the other way around.


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