What’s Your Genre?

Back to genre basics

I've been juggling several campaign ideas, many of which fall into the "This Is A Cool Thing" category. But I'm seeing some possible collisions—in my mind Vikings with great bows are cool, and howdahs on war turtles are cool, but Viking archers on war turtles will be only briefly cool before turning silly and unusable.

So I decided to set these various ideas aside and take a few steps back. By concentrating on the genre itself, instead of its trappings, perhaps I might achieve some clarity.

Genre Basics

In RPG terms, a campaign's genre typically sets basic expectations, both for things the GM can (or should) include and for the things PCs can (or should) encounter. But these are only high-level concepts, not details. For example, the Apocalypse genre has to include some man-made or natural catastrophe in its back story—that's a high-level concept—but the catastrophe's exact cause, form, and precise effects are all details that.

For those starting new campaigns, I suggest starting with the high-level concepts first, then puzzling out the details later. Not only does this save you time, but it gives you more flexibility when piecing together the various trappings you opt to include.

But more about that next week. For now, here are my high-level definitions of various genres:

Lords of Light!

Apocalypse: The world after a major man-made or natural catastrophe, typified by a severely reduced population, extensive ruins,  partially functioning technology from the "Before Times," and a population of beings somehow altered by the catastrophe (e.g., mutants, humans forced underground, or zombies). The nature of the catastrophe dictates the campaign's flavour. For example, a world ruined by nuclear war probably will have lots of radiation hot spots, ruined military installations, and mutants; a world ruined by a pandemic probably will have disease zones and horrible biological experiments gone wrong, but the infrastructure will probably be intact.

Fantasy: Common trappings include magic, dragons, knights, priests, fabulous treasures, gods, demons, wizards, and enchanted artefacts. High fantasy promotes magical and swashbuckling aspects of the genre, while low fantasy puts more emphasis the grit and reality of medieval life. Settings are typified by patches of civilisation separated by expanses of (dangerous) wilderness, usually in ancient or medieval periods.

Historical: Campaigns are founded on real-world places in specific times, and PCs either operate against the backdrop of major historical events or actively participate in them. Historical settings don’t have to match the historical record; so you can develop “what-if” paths leading in all sorts of directions (e.g., what if the Black Plague never happened? what if Napoleon succeeded in Russia? what if the Normandy invasion failed?). This is probably the richest genre possible, because you can throw a dart at an historical timeline and run with it, either as straight-up history (if it's interesting enough) or as some counter-factual thread of your own devising.

Horror: Classic spookiness can be disturbing or scary, merely unnatural, or actually terrifying. Horror settings include undead, lycanthropes, supernatural beings, forbidden lore, and Things That Should Not Be. This is not a genre per se, because there is no setting wherein something real or imagined wasn’t terribly frightening to someone. But I include it here because there are horror trappings that can easily find their way into any other genre.

Modern: Any setting based on familiar contemporary society, but with focus on some over-arching goal that almost invariably takes several sessions to resolve (e.g., fleshing out spies, hunting down terrorists, vampire-hunting, chasing UFOs, revealing a government secret, collecting artefacts for the Smithsonian, or defending your city against a Cloverfield beast). Characters are usually agents hired by an overt or covert organisation, who galvanises the PCs into some manner of special-ops squad to carry out a particular mission. On the plus side, it's easy to develop a campaign like this—there are maps, pictures, and written resources everywhere; on the downside, it's too "real" for some to enjoy as an RPG setting.

Pulp: Not so much a genre as a theme, pulp trappings include swashbuckling adventure, thrilling chases, nick-of-time rescues, over-the-top villains, and dashing heroes. Good and evil are clearly defined, and those with a will can usually find a way. Pulp works in any setting, so long as you don’t take the campaign too seriously and your players can shrug off some realism. Most “high fantasy” settings and the so-called space opera genre are pulpy. Modern detective yarns, stories of freedom fighters in WWI and WWII, and many contemporary espionage tales also fall into this category.

Science-fiction: There are several sci-fi sub-genres (cyberpunk, steampunk, hard science, and space opera) but a common theme is the prevalence (and reliance) on technology. Trappings include energy weapons, robots and androids, spaceships, faster-than-light travel to distant stars and planets, cloning, fully developed AI, suspended animation, and alien cultures. Settings often encompass wide reaches of space, which allows for a varied range of races, technology, and danger.

Superheroes: You know the drill: regular guy is blasted by atomic rays/bitten by atomic insect/gifted with ancient artefact or technical device and gains super-human powers as a result. Bad guys use this gift to control the world; good guys use this gift to stop bad guys. Supernatural abilities characterise each hero, who is often typified by one generalised power (e.g., super strong, controls metal, can hear worms burrowing through the earth, et al.). This genre is usually associated with a modern setting or may even be intertwined with the Modern genre, above.

Sword and Planet: Arguably a pulpy flavour of science-fantasy, wherein you get dashing heroes on distant planets fighting horrible monsters so they can save The World and get  in the strappy pants of some Frazetta model in the process. The genre supports a mixture of old technology and new (e.g., fighters armed with swords and radium pistols) as well as a bit of magic (disguised as psionics or super-high-tech).

Western: Heroes riding and shooting in the desert. Sometimes the fight American Indians, mostly they fight each other. Trappings include digging for gold, robbing trains and banks, investigating American Indian legends, raising the posse to hunt down the bad guys, and (of course) gun fights. Magic can exist as American Indian rituals, practiced by "medicine men" and tribal elders.

Mash-up: Campaigns of this sort mix two or more genres, like fantasy elements in an historical setting or horror in a sci-fi universe. For example, consider a campaign where the PCs are star-faring explorers who land on a planet inhabited by medieval peoples who know the secret of creating golems, or where Horatio Hornblower captains His Majesty's ships against Cthuloid sea beasts (summoned, no doubt, by the French in advance of invading the British Isles).

Mash-ups can be fun because the combination of disparate genres can be interesting, but the real question is sustainability: how long can Hornblower battle the Deep Ones before the theme gets played out. As the Cockney Hitcher warns, a mash-up combines two elements to make something not quite as good as either.

Final Words

This is a quick and dirty overview of common genres—what I want to know is what I'm missing. What are your favourite genres? What do you like about them? More importantly, how do you breathe new life into the tried-and-true themes?

Please share in the Comments section. Next week, we'll talk about tweaking genres to taste, hopefully with the aid of your input.

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