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Genre Tweaking (Part 1)

Scope creep and the art of genre integrity

I'm constantly impressed with the settings other authors in the blog-places are dreaming up. Scott over at HUGE RUINED PILE is sharing out notes from his Thool setting, Evan at In Places Deep is talking about an "adventure-friendly" Underworld setting, and Al over at Beyond the Black Gate has a good Sword-and-Planet thing going with his Omegea setting.

Naturally, the lazy part of me wants to steal the best parts of all of these as ingredients for my own super-awesome-thrill-a-minute setting. But experience warns me against it, and not just because theft plagues my conscience. The biggest caution is scalability: You want to create a setting that not only interests you from the start, but keeps you and your players interested as it expands. For me, that means managing what we drones in the corporate world call scope creep.

Zardoz Exterminator

These guys will rip your campaign UP!

For example, I might read a great fantasy novel and decide it would make a wonderful campaign setting. Then I see a movie with a cool magic item that I decide also belongs in my campaign. Then I'll read up on some Greek history and declare (in non-sequitur fashion, as my wife can attest), "I need city states!" Inevitably, I'll come to realise that an Elric-type Chaos Lord is just what I need to spice up the campaign, and maybe a tribe of ~Sean Conneries~ all in Zardoz gear and hell, why not throw in a few Deep Ones? Before you know it, the players are confused, dogs and slaad are living together, and I've lost sight of what attracted me to the campaign to begin with.

What started as a solid foundation quickly turns into an unrecognisable mass, made unplayable by too many cool things that don't work together.

Terms and Assumptions

The key to scalability is establishing a flexible framework. In RPG terms, this means that the more general your genre, the more likely you can integrate new ideas with success. Put another way: Too much detail limits your options. So there's the first take-away for you right there—the less detail you provide, the easier it is to scale your campaign.

But that said, we're going to assume that you will be scaling the campaign. While you might start with a common genre and typical setting, I expect you're eventually going to twist it in some way or toss in a zinger. Which is part of the creative fun of roleplaying, so go for it. The purpose of this piece is to help prevent you from creating yourself into a corner.

It's also important to layout common definitions. It's been my recent experience that words like "genre" and "setting" mean different things to different people. Which I find odd, since words do have actual meanings. So, for purposes of this exercise, this is what they actually mean:

  • Genre: A category of story characterised by its content
  • Setting: The time and place in which a story occurs

Campaign Foundation

The first step is to consider a genre you (and your players) like—fantasy, sci-fi, a mixture of both, whatever—but leave it at that at the beginning. Base this decision on how well the genre's basic framework fits your general vision of the game you want to run. No genre is going to provide a 100% match to your vision, but for now, just think about the generalities your players will recognise and expect from the environment. If it's fantasy, you'll want fantasy-type characters, medieval technology, and some level of magic. For sci-fi, you'll lean toward space travel, futuristic technology, and aliens. At this early stage, think only of the campaign as a story category. For guidance, consider: What's the one word you would use to describe the campaign if you were allowed only one word?

The second step is to determine setting--the campaign's time and place. Some genres imply a setting, others are more flexible. Most fantasy campaigns occur in quasi-medieval times, whether that's on planet Earth or a world of your own devising. Conversely, sci-fi is generally a future time and place. Historical campaigns—unless counterfactual—are locked into a setting: Napoleonic France, Vichy France, the Caves of Altamira, etc. Similarly, modern campaigns tend to occur in real-world places.

At this stage, you can check your progress by building a phrase out of your genre and setting. A correct answer will read something like, "High fantasy set in a primitive jungle world," or "Sci-fi pulp set in Victorian London." Merely repeating that phrase out loud will trigger all sorts of ideas in your roleplaying head, which will make the next step that much easier...

Campaign Concepts

Zombie Tommies?

At this point, you're ready to make a list of all the ideas you want to incorporate into the campaign. This list can be as long and as fanciful as you like—leave nothing out. These ideas don't necessarily have to mesh with the genre or setting you've chosen, so be creative and—this is important—don't box yourself in. Remember, you want flexibility, and that means skimping on detail. So if your campaign is "Horror fantasy set in WWI Europe" and you like the idea of blaster pistols, don't worry about how you're going to rationalise plasma weapons in 1916 Verdun-sur-Meuse. Right now, less detail is better.

When your list is finished, assign each entry a value between 1 and 3, using the following scale:

  • 1: Ideas and concepts aligned with neither the genre nor the setting
  • 2: Ideas and concepts aligned to the genre or setting
  • 3: Ideas and concepts aligned to the genre and setting

With respect to "genre" and "setting," we're speaking in traditional terms, using the definitions above. If your setting is Mars, you're going to look at it through the lenses of your genre, such that "Sword-and-Planet Mars" is probably very different from "Sci-fi Mars." Meaning, a population of 4-armed, green-skinned humanoids might rate a "3" in Sword-and-Planet Mars, but perhaps only a "1" in Sci-fi Mars.

So with those guidelines in mind, here's a sample list—just off the top of my head and in no particular order—for a "Horror fantasy set in WWI Europe" campaign:

  • Platoons of Undead (2)
  • Demonic commanders in old castles (2)
  • German vs. Allied infantry fighting in trenches (3)
  • Allied commandos (3)
  • Alchemical potions (1)
  • Zardoz cave and requisite ~Sean Connery~ guardians (1)
  • A sect of demonic cultists (2)
  • Tricked-out zeppelins that serve as aircraft carriers, gun platforms, transports, and high-altitude exploration vehicles (2)
  • An ancient fighting order dedicated warding demons (2)
  • Magic weapons designed to defeat undead and demons (1)
  • Dungeon crawls(1)
  • Teleportation gates (1)

There might be more, but this is enough to start with. Your list might be longer (or shorter)—what matters most is that you assign the right value to each. As a general rule, the more "normal" the concept, the higher the value. And, in this case, the converse is also true—assign 1's to weird crap.

Next Steps

The next step is to wait until next week, when I show you how to put all these ideas together, using "math," in a way that won't punch you in the dice bag when you roll out your campaign.

Shameless tease? Perhaps. But for now, your homework is to concentrate on your campaign's genre, setting, and idea list.

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  1. November 18th, 2010 at 04:57 | #1

    I look forward to seeing where you are going with this approach, Erin.

  2. deimos3428
    November 19th, 2010 at 13:48 | #2

    Bah! I had a big long rambling post last night, with a killer joke and everything — and then I closed the browser accidentally.

    Shorter version: I’m somewhat skeptical that careful planning can protect against disastrous campaigns — but I’m willing to suspend judgment and go along for the ride.

    Oh, and just like any other cheesy 70s boardgame…the one-word description is “FUN”!

  3. November 19th, 2010 at 14:47 | #3

    @Da’ Vane : Hoping to deliver on the goods, Da’Vane. Hoping to deliver.

    @deimos3428 : I’m sure your response was brilliant–a model of its type–that cut through the dross and stabbed at the heart of the matter like Kahn’s hatred for Kirk.

    Skepticism noted, though I disclaim any pretense at foolproofity™. I can’t say this method will prevent a foobar campaign, but if you follow this approach, you will do much to avoid it.

    With that, I hope you enjoy the ride. Next week we’ll satisfy my OCD and use the numbers above in new and very different ways. Also, it involves geometry. Really. How could it not be good advice?

  4. November 20th, 2010 at 07:50 | #4

    @Erin D. Smale Actually, if I am following the theory correctly, it’s actually using statistical analysis, including what seems to be some sort of inverse square deviation formula. Not really geometry, although I’m willing to accept visual calculus…

    You can expect me to be riding your backside to make sure your math is accurate – I want to satisfy my OCD too!

  5. November 20th, 2010 at 09:31 | #5

    @Da’ Vane : Nothing so complex. Funny story…

    Before Chimera, I created an FRPG called Jabberwocky, which was my answer to 2E D&D. In hindsight, it was also the equivalent of 3 math credits at any state college. Lots of formulas, modifiers, and such. Too many. I got the hint when I found myself taking 15 minutes of game time to explain to the players how to calculate the geometric mean of their “to-hit” probabilities when launching a coordinated attack against…a sealed door.


    The moral (for me) was not to require any math that a couldn’t be done in one’s head. Simple division is about as far as I’ll go…maybe the occasional exponent, but any flavour of calculus is right out.

    Only 5 days to go…patience, Grasshopper.

  6. deimos3428
    November 22nd, 2010 at 11:18 | #6

    I recall sitting up one night calculating the probabilities for each outcome of an unusual 4d6 method for my game, to be sure that I’d have smooth sigmoid splines. Because that’s critically important when designing an RPG. Not setting or anything like that. Good splines.

  7. November 22nd, 2010 at 20:23 | #7

    It worked for the Sims… They can’t seem to get enough of those splines…

  8. deimos3428
    November 23rd, 2010 at 11:28 | #8

    Yep. And they’re beautifully reticulated, if I do say so myself.


  9. November 23rd, 2010 at 11:53 | #9

    @deimos3428 : Jebus…you are a nerd. I got nothing on you.

    What would really clarify this is a cut-out of each PC’s head positioned at the appropriate point along each spline–much better for quick reference.

  10. November 23rd, 2010 at 14:00 | #10

    Maybe weekly updates just aren’t enough, Erin? Hint, hint… Please save us from more splines…

  11. November 23rd, 2010 at 14:19 | #11

    @Da’ Vane : No dice…unless you’re working on my clone? Hint, hint…

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