Genre and the Modern Prometheus

Consciously, or unconsciously what we do as a group of players in a roleplaying game gives shape to a specific genre. There is no escape. In our quest for a good time, our actions and interactions as an amalgam of players, characters, GM, and non-player characters create a fictional world we own perhaps even more thoroughly than the thoughts in our own heads. Like a certain Doctor, we assemble our fictive campaigns from the parts of dead stories, and build on these common frameworks to create life… Life which does not always follow the expectations laid down for it.

Getting Real

When I took up the role of Keeper for Call of Cthulhu nearly a quarter century ago (SAN check, please) I initially found it easier to feel confident and comfortable about the world I was presenting for the players, than I ever did about the fantasy worlds, or the spy worlds, or western frontier worlds, or worlds in a Galaxy far, far away. There was so much information to draw from which gave a clear picture of the 20s and people in my family I could talk to who had lived through the period. I really got into trying to present as authentic a feel as I could for my games – but I didn’t realize that that was as much a part of the genre as the horror aspect listed right on the cover. Call of Cthulhu in the base setting of the 20s isn’t just a horror game, it’s a horror game where the culture and limitations of the post Great War society have a distinct and pervasive effect. When I had troubles finding my feet with a group of players, it was never the horror aspect which gave us trouble, it was always the culture. Eventually, I realized that. Eventually, I recognized that even a player who gets into the idea of the limited technology, who does not balk at those limitations, and who even tries out the lingo of the period, may still insist on dragging their modern perspective into the game’s setting in the past – or worse, try to play a ‘thief,’ ‘fighter,’ or ‘user of magics.’

For an example of this problem cast a critical eye at the recent attempt to demonstrate Dragon Age on TableTop.

Donning a Deerstalker

As an attempt to solve this problem by accommodating the players who I felt might not have had the opportunities or interest I had in the 20s and 30s, I began running modern scenarios, or more specifically, scenarios which were set in both the 20s and 90s – generation games. I really thought that these would work out better, and to some extent they did, however there were still things to refine and work out. There always are if you are acting with intention.

The first thing I noticed was the players’ general insistence on “bigger guns” and the Rutger Haur movie “Split Second” when it finally trundled along did not help this phenomenon in one-shots and intro games. The absence of such weapons in the 20s forced the players into a more intellectual or mystical line of thought from the outset, but the presence of big guns in the 90s setting seemed to obscure all else… until enough horror had fallen on the group that they learned to shift to more effective tactics. The second thing I noticed came on the heels of the first, the horror in the 90s tasted different. It was not the fear for one’s soul or one’s life, or one’s world, but rather fear of harm. It was a simplistic fear, not the cosmic one I found so compelling about the game.

Young Viktor, to Ingolstadt, goes

As an experiment, I took a group of players and set up a generation game running from the 1890s through to the 20s and on to the 1990s with investigators for each period. I set up a series of mysteries to be solved in each period, some which were limited in scope, and others which spanned the generations. The short mysteries were variations on a theme and were framed so that they could easily be misconstrued as involving an immortal serial killer, rising every few decades to hunt and then sleep. The long plot was of a cult with practices so vile that members were often lost to bizarre forms of madness – some of which included the depredations of the serial killers. The cult endured down through the generations, but the killers were often too sick to survive, caught by the investigators, or culled by the cult itself.

Depending on the generation chosen for play in each session, the mood of the game took on its own form. It was palpable. Violence was the first thought in the 90s initially, but it was soon replaced by a peculiar reliance on ‘telling the authorities.’ In the 20s and 1890s, the investigators took more risks, took more responsibility, and were frankly, much more heroic. What rewarded my experiment right off the bat was the observation that this was true even when the specific cultural elements of those periods were less-known to the players, and improved as we jointly explored more and more about them.

This was rewarding because it finally highlighted the problem as an error of omission. The problem was not because of something I was doing, or that they were doing, it was because of something we were not doing. We were not bringing the genre to life in the 90s, we were just allowing it to form itself because… it was the 90s. We let too much of ourselves and our attitudes bleed into the 90s characters because it should have been easy to play a game set in the modern world, right?

In a sense, it was easy – but it wasn’t good, and it wasn’t really what Call of Cthulhu is capable of accomplishing. Going through this process, and then discussing it over many donuts and assorted caffeine-laden beverages in our favorite, dark and shadowy coffee shops showed all of us what a potent and yet ephemeral force genre is. Playing in the earlier periods was harder, and required more character research, but it also allowed us to get into the spirit of things much more deeply. I could have dismissed it as  matter of taste, but actually running this campaign this way proved to me pretty conclusively that forgoing thoughts on shaping and embracing the genre of the game will lead to these sorts of outcomes all the time.

Conclusions on the ice

When we consider what sort of game we are sitting down to play, and the themes and atmosphere it will involve, we do ourselves and our game a disservice if we do not also consider other boundaries of play. This isn’t about table banter, or having light vs serious play, this is about what happens in the game itself – exclusively. It is about, genre. If you sit down to play a game of cosmic horror, or a game of political intrigue, or a shadowy underworld hardscrabble for existence, and not all the players are fielding characters that put that forward, or the rules are not interpreted to bring that forward, then you will be playing something else.

For some GMs, the quest for a certain kind of game experience takes on shades of the hunt for the unicorn. The impossible hunt which so often ends in failure. Had I believed this sort of quest could not succeed I never would have given Hollow Earth Expedition a try and I would have missed out on games and a game system which has completely revitalized me creatively. The analysis of games that missed the mark can so easily overlook this small aspect of play as to lead us into considering the failure a purely personal one: “I can’t run pulp games,” or “I can’t do comedy,” or horror, and so on.

Looking back over past games that haven’t quite succeeded the answer may simply be that an assumption of understanding was made about what constituted the genre of the game you were going for that was not in fact what you as a group attempted in play. People pulled and pushed in different directions and played earnestly and well – fun was had – but at the end of the day that which was created was not that which was intended, and beautiful or bestial, it has haunted and hunted you to the ends of the Earth, demanding satisfaction.

All it wants is understanding, and a little love.

The tale does not have to be a tragedy. It can be a tale of hard-won triumph over an inimical foe.

9 Responses to “Genre and the Modern Prometheus”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    This has always been an issue for me. I’m one of those guys you are talking about up there who always feels like I’m chasing the white whale of “that game I want to run.”

    Another great post – and I enjoyed the read. While I agree with you, what do you do, in a practical way, to make this happen though? I mean, you can do the research, you can do the prep work, you can set a mood, but really, as you point out with the Dragon Age TableTop, really, unless your players are willing to join you (or you as a player are willing to do the joining (forgive the dragon age pun)) then there is little chance of success – practically speaking.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I wish I could reply with a snappy infomercial full of sage advice on this one, but all I have is a fistful of dice, a look of determination and some hope. I can say from personal experience (touched on above) that groups can come to get it if they cover the groundwork and move from an attempt at the “great game” toward the actual “great game.” I have found that I have learned to love the interview before starting a game mainly because of this realization, and I am far more willing now to terminate a game or system that isn’t working as we intended than I was before. I have found exerting that sort of control – with the group – over play reduces a lot of the frustration that can crop up if things go south. I still find it a bit of a challenge to automatically assess new characters critically because like everyone else I want to play, and for my own sanity I’d like to think that the players get the concept from the start. The difference when I do versus when I don’t, however, has shown me that it has to be done each and every time, and that using the first iteration of a character concept to verify and ensure that each player (including myself) is on the same page as the others in terms of what we are going for is a non-confrontational and developmentally useful tool for getting that done.

      If you can lay the groundwork for the game you want with the group before play, the interview and the review of characters will show that. Now characters will grow, change, or modify in play and things may drift from the original conception, but that is not always a bad thing and being in tune with the group’s grasp of the original concept from the start makes assessing that shift easier – and makes it feel less like failure. In my gaming at any rate, I want to be surprised by the story, but I want to game with intent. I don’t want events to be surprising because the game elements and character actions are based on randomness and whim. I want the game to evolve before our eyes like life does. Sometimes we know what is coming, and sometimes we don’t.

      I don’t imagine that any of this really answers your question. I have run great games recently that created the exact mood I wanted, but have also had to drop players or switch campaigns in that same period…. Hmmm – I can hear a certain Kenny Rogers tune… 😉

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    This is an issue with all games, except a moden game with nothing changed. The difference is that fictional worlds aren’t so picky on the details. In real life, a historical game often feels different to somebody who knows more about the era. I’m not much of a historian, so I have a hard time with this. In most fantasy and sci worlds, you know enough to get by. But in worlds about a specific property, this can some up if there’s specific issues about the world that you aren’t as familiar with.

    • Runeslinger says:

      That is one way it can start, but it isn’t limited to in-game cultural details, it can stem from miscommunication or miscomprehension of thematic and stylistic elements and the like. This can actually be harder to spot in a modern setting (such as Beyond the Supernatural, Smallville, Twilight 2000, etc) as it should be easy to just ‘get it.’

  3. Laraqua says:

    Ahh, that “authentic ideal” experience. The one we’re always after…. For me it would be high-stakes investigation though my players aren’t investigator-types and tend to get super-anxious-and-grumpy when I try high-stakes investigation. Right now I’d settle for “Flow”, that moment where all moments collapse into that state of simply gaming…. Too often as the Storyteller I feel myself jolted this way and that.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I guess we need to remember to be careful what we wish for. 😉 On your other point, what sorts of things are jolting you from a smooth flow of gameplay (or are you referring instead to things interfering with immersion in one or more of its aspects)?

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