Genre is Rule 0

Now available in audio form with commentary from 2020

Casting Shadows Podcast

I watched a video clip yesterday evening which asked “Why?” in connection to the disparity in numbers between those who will choose to respond to an ad looking for D&D or Pathfinder players as compared to the number who will respond to ads for other roleplaying games – mainstream or otherwise. The thoughts which followed intersected with other thoughts I had already been having in connection with Technoir and a discussion I have been gearing up to have about it with another member of the YouTube RPG community. Both sets of thoughts kept circling the idea of genre. The resulting tangents of those thoughts plus a long hot shower (where all the best thinking occurs) were this post, and a short clip posted to my YouTube channel.

I have talked about genre fidelity before here, and in a Shadowscast episode but these thoughts took the idea further…

What if the ultimate rule underlying all others is not ‘Do what thou wilt’ but rather, ‘Genre is as Genre does’?

With Technoir as a framework for discussion we have a game where the very structure and success of play is so dependent on the players’ comprehension of and willingness to portray the noir genre that play will break down, or at the least be rendered flat, by its absence. While an extreme case, it is often these which most quickly demonstrate a point. Moving to less extreme cases we can see the same effect in heroic pulp, swashbuckling, investigative, horror, or pretty much any strongly thematic game at which you can throw a set of polyhedrals. Is the same true of fantasy? In particular, is the same true of the style of fantasy represented in games which are made from the same mould as Dungeons&Dragons in its various editions and forms?

Has the evolution of D&D-style fantasy created a genre which is so fluid that playing it requires so few concessions to genre conventions as to seem as easy to play as one set in every day life?

Is it this which makes the appreciation and preference for games in this style so prevalent?

A character in a two-fisted pulp action tale ought to be defined at least in part by a strong moral core and some beliefs which many of us living in these Hi-Def and overly familiar times might not only not understand, but perhaps have never even experienced. The bleak heroics of the wasted heroes of noir may compel or bore modern viewers equally, but without study or connection through the voices of the time are they ever real enough for such players to internalize and incorporate them into believable and satisfying play? Is it surprising that the generic fighter in fantasy games is so ubiquitous and embellished as a vehicle for wish-fulfillment while the character quirks and class restrictions of the Paladin are so often only endured for the sake of the ‘kewl powerz’?

When genre-fidelity requires a little work, does it doom the game built around it to a meager half-life supported only by those who tend to dream in that direction already?

Twenty-some years ago Vampire rocked the RPG world as have a few other games which broke ground in one aspect or another and like D&D it had a genre that was easy to swallow and lick like sweet nectar from our fingers. Not everyone could get behind playing the monster, but the combination of adolescent drives, gothic angst, societal rebellion, and the church of immortality made it pretty easy for a huge swathe of the gaming populace to climb on board a train and head off into the World of Darkness. Games like Blue Planet, Aces & Eights, Wraith: the Oblivion, and all the others which offer great gameplay but have a higher price of admission in the form of getting the setting and adopting a role have not fared nearly so well, nor is it likely that they will ever drink so deeply of the bloodstream of gamers as those games which strip genre buy-in so completely from their adoption.

Genre is Rule 0. At the end of the day the way that we play, from the way we engage the mechanics to the way that we engage our roles, dictates and defines the genre our game presents. Even among those who play the world’s most popular games this holds true as the fantasy spawned in my game of Dragon Warriors or Dungeon Crawl Classics or Basic Dungeons & Dragons will not be the same as yours. You and your group collectively and unconsciously color the genre to the same degree that my groups and I do. Those of us who choose to play with genre know that it plays as much a part of a successful game as the characters and the rules – even when left to the pure chance of being a by-product of play unconcerned with such lofty ideas of what sort of tale our play will create.

Genre is Rule 0. It exists whether we knowingly and purposefully create it or not.

Doesn’t it?

7 Responses to “Genre is Rule 0”
  1. Shadowacid says:

    I think you make a really great point. I’ve passed on running a bunch of games for my group based on this. I think the easiest example of this would be trying to run a game set in an established setting like Mass Effect, Game of Thrones, or Star Trek. If someone in the group isn’t experienced with the setting the entire genre set-up for the game won’t make sense to them and you will either have to spend lots of time on the front end educating the player in the conventions of the setting, or lots of time in game trying to make sense of things for them. Or just run Pathfinder were there is no genre knowledge entry requirement.

    I’ve had a Mass Effect game in the back of my brain for years, but have never been able to run with it since there is always someone in my group who hasn’t played the games at all.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I feel your pain~
      The expert on the genre in the group can be a hurdle as well, as it can create tension in the rest of the group to ‘work’ to ‘get it right’ and few groups have members who match each other in intensity and investment in any given thing.
      Hopefully, you will – perhaps via G+ Hangouts – be able to recruit a set of players for your Mass Effect setting before too long~

  2. llanwyre says:

    Brilliant post. Was just thinking about this yesterday, as we played this weekend with two very different groups of gamers–one silly, not very bound by genre conventions, etc., and the other seriously committed to furthering the underlying feel and argument of the game. The experience of playing the two games couldn’t be more disparate. I think you’re right to bring up the idea of wish fulfillment; it’s much harder to fulfill your wishes if you’re operating in an alien world that requires you to have goals and dreams that probably wouldn’t be like your own.

    Much food for thought. Thanks!!

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for the kind words~
      Out of curiousity, would you say there was a disparity in fun had by each group as well?

      • llanwyre says:

        Huh. What an interesting question. I’d say I have more fun with the more serious group, but I’m not sure that the members of the silly group would have more fun in it. Then again, there are some varied backgrounds here; the group less focused on genre conventions comes from a boardgaming background. They find mechanics and battles inherently interesting. The other group consists of much more experienced RPers, who tend to find exploring character and altering the game world much more rewarding than worrying about the mechanics or tactics of a particular battle. It’s difficult for me, then, to judge player satisfaction based on the genre of the games alone, since player background ends up dictating the differences in types of play.

        All that being said, I have noticed that part of it comes down to a player’s willingness to tell stories at the table that leave him (as a player) vulnerable–vulnerable not to game mechanics, per se, but to others having a real sense of his intellectual and emotional workings. I’ll probably write something on that in the near future on my own blog, but I will say that I think the silly group avoids that kind of vulnerability (again, largely because of player background, but that’s its own novella.) I do think a concerted effort to stay within genre conventions can sometimes make your own intellectual/emotional struggles more obvious. My own impulse can sometimes be to step aside into vaudeville when things get too intense, but not all games/GMs allow it–and then I’m forced to look at what’s making me nervous and really cope with it, which I think makes for a better game. I’m not sure that answer wholly articulates what I want to say just yet, but perhaps you catch my drift. I’ll have to ponder it some more. 🙂

        • Runeslinger says:

          I will look forward to a follow-up post on it!
          Fun is in the eye of the beholder (in the humerus of the player?) of course, but I wonder about what translates the experience for one person into gaming being a life-long hobby, and into a temporary diversion for others.

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  1. […] and the game if not the collaborative genre we were realizing was taking shape around our play (Genre is Rule 0) , he was looking to use his time for other projects that were clawing at his […]

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