Canon vs. alternate universe vs. original setting: What are the strengths and drawbacks of each?
A great many blog entries ago, I spoke about the concept of Kotov's Syndrome: better known in gaming circles as 'analysis paralysis'. You see, the problem when you can do anything, is that you can do anything! Without limits or some sort of constraining device, we mere mortals tend either freeze up completely or flounder through, unfocused, without any overarching plan.
I've found that, in most of my personal creative endeavors, it's best to put at least some limits on yourself. Limiting a game concept, a setting, or a scenario provides focus and allows a writer to better stay on topic. When writing Cold Steel Wardens, I made what I originally thought to be a controversial decision: CSW as a system does not have rules for transformative powers (a la the Human Torch or Colossus) or invulnerability (a la Superman); I tend to think they're overly powerful and not suited to an investigation-focused idiom. However, in practice, I've found that none of my players or readers ever found my decision to be that controversial--it made sense, given the context.
In terms of setting, I tend to appreciate these sorts of limits, as they provide finite plot points and boundaries for players to act within. Don't get me wrong--I like worldbuilding as much as the next writer/designer/GM/whatever, but in terms of my home games, I find that I prefer the "alternate universe" idea best between today's trio.
|There but for the grace of the Dark Knight...?|
So, let's change the paradigm and make that canon setting into an alternate universe. Imagine that same Gotham if Bruce Wayne had never became Batman. Certain members of his rogues' gallery might never come to fruition, while still others would become unchecked powerhouses. Bane might never exist, though someone like Black Mask might become a titan of the underworld. We have a framework in existence for the world, though the players can't necessarily expect their knowledge to be accurate.
Maybe that's not satisfying for your Batman-ia. Perhaps you could instead alter your universe such that Bruce Wayne died in his third year of being Batman, before ever adopting Dick Grayson. In such a scenario, numerous ripples would echo across the universe, perhaps with Grayson himself attempting to take on the role of masked vigilante with no mentor. What would he be like, without Wayne's intervention? What about Wayne's later protoges: Jason Todd, Time Drake, and Barbara Gordon? The possibilities, within a limited scope, are utterly endless.
Such is the benefit of the alternate universe. Once you have some lines to work within, it's so much easier to work without!