The topic for this month’s RPG Blog Carnival is Genre mixing in RPGs hosted by Shinobicow over at The Dump Stat. For more details about the RPG Blog Carnival, visit the archive of past blog carnivals over at Nevermeet Press.
In our modern geek zeitgeist it isn’t easy to satisfy the varied tastes of geeks. Even satisfying the varied tastes of your gaming group alone can be challenging.
Consider this array:
Aliens. Bothans. Cyborgs. Dinosaurs.* Elves. Free-Masons. Gunslingers. Hackers. Illithids. Journalists. Kryptonians. Lahnkmarians. Monks. Ninjas. Orwellians. Pirates. Quarians. Robots. Samurais. Taurens. Unicorns. Victorians. Wizards. Xenomorphs. Yetis. Zombies.
I know I am leaving out at least 1 thing that you would consider essential for this alphabetical noun string of geeky things.
*Dinosaurs enjoyed a narrow victory over Dwarves, with these boneheads tipping the scales.
One way to satiate the geek appetite is to play with genres. If a genre is merely a series of conventions, you could take some conventions that entertain you and mash them together, you can even take some conventions you like and dress it up as something else, or you could toss everything you like in a bucket and proceed to paint it like Pollock. We are going to ponder a few ways of bending genre to taste.
Ornately bent Out of the box.
If you haven’t decided on a game to play already, there are a number of RPGs* that are genre bending by default:
Wierd West is Sergio Leone meets Mike Mignola.
Shadowrun throws magic and meta-humans at cyberpunk.
Amethyst is future-tech and fantasy mixing like oil and water.
Eclipse Phase is post-apocalyptic trans-human conspiracy and horror.
CthulhuTech is the beast born of cosmic horror spliced with mecha anime.
Rifts is the classic multi-genre smorgasbord from the mind of Kevin Siembieda.
Gamma World is swords & sorcery & science fiction on a post-apocalyptic platter.
Not only do these serve as solid examples of how genre bending can be executed, but they are fun and can save you on a lot of work.
*There are likely a thousand other games that I am not naming. If there is one you love that was not named either know that it must not be named lest it rise and swallow the Earth, or drop me a line in the comments.
Masterfully bend the box.
If you have already decided on a game to play or can’t convince your players to try a new rule-set, discretely bend conventions in the existing game. Choose a single convention* or discrete group of conventions and weave them into a single adventure. Episodic TV shows routinely bend genre for a single episode by applying a zero-sum scenario (whatever changes occur will balance back out to zero by the end). Special episodes for Halloween often bend the show’s conventions to include horror conventions and Christmas episodes often include morality play conventions. You can make almost any idea fit.
Here are some conventions to consider bending with:
Stanislavsky gun – A weapon or item of power is introduced that temporarily changes the balance of things. It is introduced, waived about, alluded to and/or fought over a few times before it is actually used, but once it is used it is spent or destroyed. This convention came from drama / tragedy, but works well in space operas.
Somebody set us up the bomb – An unknown assailant has planted an explosive device (even if explosives might not normally occur in your game, magic can be a suitable substitute for a bomb)! You have to find and defuse it post-haste or escape the vicinity post-haste; either way, you are on the way to destruction. This explosive convention comes from thrillers but mad bombers can appear in any genre.
Mind-less Horde – Individually they are problematic, in numbers they are dangerous, as a horde they are unstoppable! Waves of mind-less malicious monsters are coming, destroying everything in their wake, plague and pestilence made manifest. Even the players may be unable to survive. This convention comes from horror, but has even been used in comedy.
*I would link you to that site full of tropes, but I value your sanity.
Fearlessly bend it into another box.
One of the joyous artistic discoveries of this era has been the modularity of content. The dadaists* and the post-modernists are secretly celebrating their victory as society has finally grasped how much fun it can be to put random things together like so many tinker toys. A Space Adventure + Western TV show, sure! Rock Legends + Hip-hop mogul, why yes thank you! Cadillacs and Dinosaurs? Of course! This is great for RPGs where imagination (or the GM’s patience) is the only real limit.
Here are a few genre combinations I have enjoyed:
Zombies + Anything – They haven’t become tired yet…
Cyberpunk + Fantasy – See Shadowrun above.
Paranormal Investigation + Local History (based on a true story) – It helps if you have a supposedly haunted mansion in your area, but most cities have at least one. A little truth goes a long way.
Fantasy + Portal Jumping (a la Sliders) – Carte blanche to use continuing characters in a setting / location of your choosing. Fantasy isn’t a necessity, but it allowed me to take a D&D group outside of their normal gaming habits, especially when the Star Wars Game sessions dissolved due to arguments over canon.
Steampunk + Pirate Adventure – Zeppelins. Add a dash of Errol Flynn for flavor.
Samurai + Dreamscapes – Zen warriors in the dreamlands, where will must be sharper than the sword.
* Da da da da da da da da da da da da da Stop @0:24 unless you are really curious.
Genuinely, you don’t need a box.
Be aware that when you add more and more genres and conventions into a mix, you start to end up with a pasty pastiche. If you have a light and flexible rule set then you might be fine, but some systems will buckle under the added weight. You will need to be selective about what you add unless you toss the box out the window, because for all the talk above about genres and conventions and boxes, remember that they are there for convenience and categorization. Genres help the GM and the players identify what conventions are in play, but even when using genres, a certain level of communication is necessary to put everyone on the same page. If that communication is there, an experienced group with a flexible system* could play a game by ear without even defining genres or conventions if they so desired.
A game with no limits might not be what some players are interested in or might confuse some players, so regardless of which way you plan to play, be up front in communicating your expectations.