Enforcing Genre Fidelity Mechanically

For the sake of sanity and brevity, I do not want to get into the distinctions between being true to a genre to varying degrees, and caricaturing a genre. If you see me doing that, please stop me. I would like to remain briefly sane… wait. Nevermind.

“I am gonna send you to a deep, dark place, and I’m gonna have fun doing it!”

-Eddie Dane, Miller’s Crossing

Some things just ooze the essence of their genre, no matter what genre it is. Some things just limp along and are vaguely recognizable as the genre they are purported to be. Others create something totally new – good, bad, or indifferent. In games, as we have discussed before, genre is that inescapable element of play which draws people in, pushes people away, and happens whether anyone is aware of it or not. It is the purpose of some games and the by-product of others. Regardless, genre is an inextricable part of any story ever told. When we intentionally seek it out, be it to play Ghostbusters and laugh, or to play Song of Ice and Fire to scheme, what in the games themselves helps us to find our way when we know it not?

System Matters!

In most cases, mechanics alone can aid a group in presenting a certain genre, but in my experience they rarely try to actively regulate character action to conform to the chosen genre of the game. I am always on the look-out for exceptions to this rarity, so please feel free to contact me with examples you know about. Does system matter? Darn tootin’ it matters, Hoss – but sometimes it matters more than others.

The Moll, The Driver, and the Fence

An example of aiding and abetting genre can be in things like Ubiquity’s Style Points, Vampire: The Masquerade’s Willpower Points, or A Time of War’s Edge Points. Lots of games have such things, and each is primed to encourage a specific style of play. The effects they have, and the means of regaining them set the player up to enjoy and desire to perform those actions. They do not, however, in and of themselves, curtail actions which waltz over the chalk lines of genre fidelity, nor do they ever need to be drawn upon at all. Their  use or disuse are purely in the hands of the players who may never opt to bring them into play at all, or who may keep them limited to very basic applications. I remember as a player of the original WEG D6 Star Wars I used to hoard my Force points like they were going out of style. Fortunately, I did not need the lure of their effects to have me choosing Star Warsy actions, but you get the point. Given the option, I did not take the game up on its offer of this carrot. In our group, this was normal and I imagine it ties right back to having just decided to expand beyond the resource management horizons of early AD&D. We saved our Force Points for the threat we “knew” was coming at the end of the adventure, instead of for ramping up the wild ride to get there.

The lights were on, but no one was home

If I were to return to that game now, the games would be much, much different. This is not to say the games were not fun, nor that we did not stay true to Star Wars philosophy, but rather to say that we failed to embrace the wild fun of space opera. We played Star Wars with all the seriousness and threat assessment of background characters like C-3P0 or whatever Rebel Commander is required to give exposition about important stuff the heroes are supposed to do. I am pretty sure that other groups got it right away, but we didn’t. The universe was around us, and we acted within it, but we did not embrace the stirring music. We didn’t know how, the game didn’t have a way to teach us, or the teeth to enforce anything.

The Enforcer in the slick suit

A game that turns this on its head is Technoir. We have mentioned it here before and no doubt it will crop up again. I have posited that Genre is Rule 0 and by that I meant something along the lines of, “this ye shall always have.” In Technoir, however, this is turned up to 11 as if you are not in step with the dystopian future noir genre the game will grind you down and spit you out. It will be kind about it, because you are punk and deserve pity, but it is no less true.

As I examine the game and the effects of playing it, I find myself wondering at times if it makes up where all the above mentioned Points leave off. I wonder if it guides players into running characters which conform to the game’s genre, or if it only rewards players who run characters which conform to the game’s genre. Ultimately, for those that enjoy the genre and the stories the group is creating, that will be the same thing as the successes of those who ‘get it’ will set up an observable positive feedback loop for those who almost get it, and for those who don’t get it. If the group starts out with no one getting it, though… what happens? This is something I cannot test with Technoir as I am deeply into what it is trying to bring out in play.

I have run Technoir with a full set of players lacking any sort of knowledge of noir, and limited to no experience with cyberpunk. The result was a head-on collision between their actions and the mechanics. When they were in sync with the genre the game flowed smoothly, there was great banter and interaction and the story moved like a bullet train. When they walked off into action movie territory the whole game ground down into a sense of confusion. That first time, none of us knew how the game would deal with “genre violations” (yes, I am chuckling as I type that) and more to the point, I did not know how deep or shallow their knowledge of the genre really was.

A second game with that particular group would spend more time on fleshing out the connection between the game mechanics and the genre, and walking through how their character ideas could work with or against both.

Leaving off with that group the reactions were that they understood what the game wanted of them, but not why that approach would be desirable. It is not success, but it is progress toward understanding, so I would have to say it looks like mechanically the game can cause a change of behavior if the players like the direction that change takes them. By that I mean, if the players discover they like this genre about which they used to know very little or nothing at all.

The more things change…

The next game I want to explore along these lines is Dogs in the Vineyard. The problem there is that I think that the genre expressed in the game is much more accessible to a wider group of players than Technoir. This experiment will probably not take me in directions I hope to travel, but should – if I am right – be further confirmation of what Technoir has shown me.  That doesn’t suck, but it does preclude progress in the investigation.

If anyone knows of any other games which work to enforce their genre, please do let me know~


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