Playing to Type: Genre Fidelity and Growth

Genre conventions and assumptions can make or break a session, scenario, campaign or even a group. They are not alone in possessing this awesome power, but they do occupy a curious niche of game elements which people seem to understand, yet prove that they do not somewhere between ‘it’s probably too late to fix things’ and ‘it is definitely too late to fix things.’ By people, I mean anyone involved with the game – on either side of the screen.

The Name Game

As much as we might like to dispute it, terms often do not mean what we think they mean, and worse are accidentally or intentionally misinterpreted by just about everyone we will ever game with. I tend to think that avoiding this classification problem is why there are so many branded games in homage to specific shows and films. It works, to an extent but it exposes the problem of how the presentation of a thing, even by its creators will shift over time to incorporate elements which conflict or clash with what came before. I don’t just mean George “The Stories are Mine!” Lucas. He is not alone in this effect, although he might be its most willful adherent.

Using The Shadow as an example… is the character a ‘Pulp Character’? If so, what sort? Which version of the character? Which version from which era? Early fiction? Early Radio? Film? Comics? Popular conception? The Shadow may know, but I daresay not too many ‘regular folk’ will. The same argument can be made for Batman, and the cartoon cohort of characters which have been stealing ever more of Hollywood’s attention. Do all the people at your table view the subject the same way? To what degree should they – if at all?

Keeping it Real

If your group does not seek an immersive level of play where in-game choices reflect the world the characters are in, not the world the players are in then games with foundations in subtle or less common genres will be difficult to run – no matter how cool everyone thinks they sound.

If a certain portion of the game group does not understand the underlying realities of a Western, playing Aces & Eights will be a challenge. If some or all of the players do not get it, then it gets harder and harder to interact with them in ways which are true to the genre because the players will simply not understand what anything means, or what their characters are representing within the context of the game. The campaign may very well survive if the players are enjoying themselves, but arguments could be made that the group is not really playing the game. This does not matter to some, and perhaps that is the single most comprehensible reason why D&D (a genre in and of itself) persists as the apex product of the hobby: Playing the game properly means being yourself and improving the capabilities of your avatar in the game world. Most other games do not operate from this sort of principle, no matter how present these paired characteristics may be in them. Players enjoy improving their Investigators in Call of Cthulhu, but ‘leveling’ is not a foundational aspect of play.

If the GM doesn’t get the chosen genre and some or all of the players do, it pretty much kills the game outright. GMs often seem to labor under the hope that they will be able to teach the players how to play the game. In my experience that rarely moves beyond the rules. The group in concert will come to define a vision of their game’s genre over time, despite any one vision being touted as paramount. Players rarely have these illusions; a game is either fun or it isn’ t. If you signed on to play a Deryni campaign and you get Logan’s Run, it won’ t just be Logan in the wilderness trying to find a way to live.

Morpheus: We’ve survived by hiding from them, by running from them. But they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys. Which means that sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them.
Neo: Someone?
Morpheus: I’ve seen an agent punch through a concrete wall; men have emptied entire clips at them and hit nothing but air; yet, their strength, and their speed, are still based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that, they will never be as strong, or as fast, as *you* can be.

Genres are given shape and life by the elements which define them. Removing them, ignoring them, never bothering to learn them… these things by their very nature prevent anyone from actually experiencing a genre in play. If the intent was to sit down and play a horror game set in the Victorian Age, but you play without status, social convention, are carefree about travel times and forms and speeds of communication, and above all never develop an understanding of what would horrify your character and what would enable them to act despite that horror… what have you actually accomplished as a player apart from die-rolling practice? Likewise with a noir setting, or transhumanist science fiction, or a particular flavor of fantasy… if you are not exploring the genre, you are exploring something else. If nothing else we should hold ourselves to being aware of what we are doing. If we are never engaging with the genre at all, if we just run avatars through encounters with a skin of the genre-de-jour what chance do those explorations have of being meaningful, or memorable?

No avatars allowed

It seems to me, that apart from a sort of method gaming where you might try to recreate yourself as you might be were the genre and setting real, no one can successfully interact as themselves with their real-world  biases and outlooks intact in an RPG set anywhere but our world.

Neo: I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

Evolution in Schools

We gather together in pods and groups and play our games for our collective entertainment. Most of the great tales we weave will never leave the table around which they were brought to light. The stories are what we make of them, and all elements from the setting through the underlying rules of the genre which informs the setting become ours in play. I do not advocate for adopting static and suffocating roles which are more suited for stage than our dice-laden arenas of Mountain Dew and Doritos. I advocate for embracing a starting point from which evolution and personalization can grow. If all your games after all this time are just D&D with different equipment options, then is it not fair to state that you are missing out, and the money you spent on supers games, and pulp games, and SF games was all wasted? If you never leave the dungeon, why bother with games in which dungeons have no relevance? I am saying that as you open your mind to a new system or a new approach to a familiar one, be as invested in understanding the core assumptions of the setting.

Is this the sort of world where Han kills Greedo before Greedo can move to kill him, or shoots only after being fired upon? Is this the sort of world where honor is worth more than life? Is this the sort of world where each must fend for themselves, or one where those with the ability are duty-bound to protect those without? Is the watchword of the game Sacrifice or Avarice?

With an understanding of the genre, the journey or evolution of the character can make a sort of sense beyond just being a string of events in the past and eraser marks on a sheet of paper. Those changes may very well change the genre and the entire setting as a result and that is a damn fine thing. Unlike in film or on the printed page, our games need never end, and as a result we don’t fade to black as Rick forfeits his insular depression in the desert and returns to fighting the good fight. A shift in character such as for Bogart at the end of Casablanca, one that has until the final scenes been rooted in noir, generally signals the end of a movie, but for us it can be just part of an eternal beginning. For us, it can signal the evolution of the genre in our hands, or the creation of an entirely new one. What’s past is prologue, and we have no editors hanging over us demanding our table-wrought tales conform to page counts, acts, beats, or anything else but the truth of how they flow from us in honest play. To get there, though, we need a place to start which constrains and defines our characters in ways which make them move.

A journey is measured not by merely moving, but rather by how much we learn about ourselves and others on the way.

9 Responses to “Playing to Type: Genre Fidelity and Growth”
  1. Kevin says:

    I could fill volumes articulating the number of alternate genre games I’ve played (and used to run) that were honestly little more than glorified dungeon crawls in a different system.

    And that’s not to disparage dungeon crawls in the slightest, but to run a world of political intrigue (for example) in the framework of a dungeon crawl emphasizes the wrong things. Things emphasized create feedback loops and lead to players choosing actions for the wrong reasons because they’re rewarded for playing to the expectations of the underlying framework.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for commenting, and the challenge post on your site.

      When and how did you break the cycle of genre-blindness?

      • Kevin says:

        Honestly I’d say probably only a decade or so ago I made the break from a single framework to rule all genres. Though my evolution has been long coming and displayed itself in fits and flashes along the way for longer than that – I simply failed to recognize the significance of the change in myself.

        I don’t know I can pinpoint when I made the break, but I do know it became quite apparent when I realized that while I wanted to try new genres and games, my core group of friends only really wanted to play D&D (even when playing in a different genre or system) and never wanted to expand their gaming landscape.

  2. Excellent piece, sir.

  3. Hrmm. I’m not sure I buy it. “Genre’s” are just too subjective and nebulous to define. Unless you take a TORG approach (rules enforce genre) then how are you going to get players to ‘understand’ the genre? Give them a Thesis to read? And then you are really only giving them the GM’s view of the genre. The decision of when to shoot Greedo isn’t a “genre” decision – it’s character decision that expresses something about the PC. Ultimately, unless you give specific XP rewards for certain behavior, you’re going to get what your going to get as far as players go. Some will dungeon crawl anything, some with method act anything and some will ‘get it’ and play to the genre. RPGs are themselves a very specific genre (ensemble action-adventure) that by definition doesn’t match most of what we think of as ‘genre’ (movies, books, tv). I’d like to see more implementation specifics! 😉

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for commenting. This post wasn’t so much a ‘how to’ as it was a description. Some of the answers to your questions are in the post itself. The others I will address a little below. There are a few other posts on this blog, and my YouTube channel which are on this topic, and if you are interested they also touch on what you ask here. In particular, I would recommend the video ‘Genre is Rule 0.’

      In a nutshell, you do ‘get what you get’ from the group. If the ostensible intent is to play a specific genre and have the characterizations and/or story which emerges from play reflect that choice, then the group must play with a shared understanding of that genre. GIGO, afterall.

      How they can reach that shared understanding might be as simple as already getting it (like most groups my age with Star Wars) or no more challenging than a movie night with a selection of classics. It might mean more than that. Whatever it takes, the end result is in the hands of the group to choose to implement, and in their hands to actually do so.

      They are under no obligation to be pure or constrained by typical literary or cinematic conventions, nor do they have to preserve the genre – being true to it does not mean that it cannot evolve and grow like their characters will.

      How these things play out is in choosing a perspective on which to base decisions and choices. Technoir makes this very evident through its resolution mechanics. XP awards for behavior are a very limited form of genre-reinforcement which requires an arbiter in a position of power and at a step of removal. Mechanics which are a part of play and both conform to and enforce the desired genre tend to have better effects. Decisions can be rooted in the player’s PoV, in their perception of the character’s persona, or in their perception of what is good for the story, or in their perception of what a character like that would do in a story in the chosen genre.

      Han’s character is different and his unrevealed thought process is different if he fires as a reaction or if he fires preemptively. I see those things as not simply decisions, but as decisions filtered through the chosen genre. What would I do if I were in Sam Spade’s position is not the same question as ‘What would I do if I were Sam Spade?’ or “What would I do if I were Sam Spade in a Sam Spade story?’

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Shadows has a great post up today about the way genre interacts with play at the table. He’s talking about players and […]

  2. […] Take a bit of time to navigate over to Casting Shadows and read Runeslinger’s newest article on Playing to a Genre. […]

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