Alternatives to genre

Genre emulation in tabletop RPGs, as I understand it, is the attempt to write game rules that when followed result in play experiences congruent with the genre being emulated. More specifically, the fictional events that occur and stories generated retroactively should conform to various genre patterns and expectations. For example, the rules of Pendragon are designed to result in stories recognizably similar to Arthurian romance, the rules of Monsterhearts are designed to result in stories recognizably similar to young adult contemporary fantasy, and the sanity death spiral of Call of Cthulhu intends stories in the key of Lovecraft. This allows game designers, and so referees, to leverage shared meanings.

Despite this benefit, games that attempt to emulate genres flexibly tend to be somewhat bland. While this might read as a criticism, and it is to some degree, it should not be surprising considering that genre is, at some level, structure without flesh. The horror genre is the collection of structures and properties shared by, for example, The Exorcist, Psycho, and Night of the Living Dead. This means that the referee, or gaming group as a whole if setting and narrative responsibility is shared, must add this layer of aesthetic detail atop the genre-supporting framework or be satisfied with a more stereotypical or conventional realization of whatever genre is being emulated. Every dwarf gruff, every elf haughty, and every private eye cynically jaded. Even though such direct reliance on genre can sometimes result in elements of questionable uniqueness, the now widespread availability of many different genre emulators is a real advance for players desiring such tools.

However, for those not satisfied with more agnostic toolkit rule systems but also lacking enthusiasm for genre emulation, another option would to be prioritize what Ynas discusses as thematic concerns. Tabletop RPGs have always had aesthetically engaging settings such as Tekumel or Dark Sun, but this thematic approach, which may be somewhat recent, blends setting with rules while still building on recognizable frameworks. This approach leverages as many commonly known elements as possible to communicate setting flavor and may use rules to generate setting details rather than taking an encyclopedic approach. For examples, consider the character creation rules of a Thoroughly Pernicious Pamphlet and the tables constituting the setting of Yoon-Suin.

Some additional recent standouts taking this approach:

8 thoughts on “Alternatives to genre

  1. Gus L

    Thanks for the link – it’s funny because I see the evolution of HMS Apollyon’s current rules as a direct result of “genre emulation”. When I started I was using B/X but adding more bonuses and similar cruft to it, making a big complex combat system that ultimately made it very hard for PCs to die and focused on combat as the primary challenge. It was really only through playing other games and talking to other setting creators that the rules have reached their current state and make combat quicker and messier. This is choice to make the setting more ‘dangerous’ to characters and to shift focus and challenge to survival and exploration mechanics.

    I’m currently considering ways of revising the combat to abstract it even more – one minute combat rounds taken seriously, dice pool ammunition (even for firearms), largely simultaneous attacks, and similar embellishments that make combat even less desirable for scavengers.

    1. Brendan Post author


      Now with actual link to your recently posted rules document!

      I think the Apollyon materials you have published go way beyond attempting to model survival horror with a demonic flavor. Compare the content you have created with some other rulesets built around the idea of genre emulation. For example, The Warren (a PbtA game) includes lots of rules to help ensure outcomes similar to Watership Down and similar narratives, painted in broad brushstrokes. However, the level of aesthetic detail does not approach Apollyon.

      In general, I think there is some sort of structure versus content dichotomy going on here. A genre emulator can exist primarily at the structure level and not get much into content details whereas the kind of thematic concerns that I try to discuss above rely on a significant amount of content.

      1. Melan

        I agree with your point here about the importance of content. Looking at a lot of OSR games, they have an idea to do something with the rules, but do not actually follow through in a systematic way. The result is not a game experience tailored for, say, The 1001 Nights, but vaguely 1001 Nights-flavoured D&D, where D&D’s strongly embedded gameplay and structures will reassert themselves. Is that fine? Yes, absolutely! But sometimes, you want more.

      2. Gus L

        Perhaps this is something related to my objection to totalizing or systematized mechanics vs. esoteric mechanics. If the entire game is a system designed to create a single feel or genre maybe it has less space for the narrative of a session to disrupt or depart from that type of narrative. While a general system trying to more or less simulate a setting then allows for subsystems to be plugged in or filed off to create different types of narratives. I don’t know – I still like rules that work with game feel, but I lack the world to really explain it today.

  2. Melan

    Even though I like the basic idea, I have similar reservations about too rigid genre emulation. This goes especially for paint-by-TVtropes-style deconstructionist approaches, which are not just bland, but miss the forest for the trees, lacking both the dynamism (the moving parts of a system) and a sense of wonder (the openness of possiblities) that made the original genres so interesting. Taming the imagination is a dangerous thing.

    May thematic games fill a gap? I think so. There is a point where patchwork house ruling and reskinning no longer cut it. After using these techniques successfully for several years, I discovered this with my own Helvéczia. What was originally intended to be a sort of “Averoigne- and Grimm-flavoured D&D” soon started to write itself, and it became clear a brief conversion document would not cut it. There is a boundary where a game has its own logic even if it is ultimately built on familiar conceits, and it starts to reorganise itself into its own system.

    1. Melan

      This logic is not just integrated into the mechanics and the setting (the dreaded “crunch and fluff”), but distributed widely through the game and its peripherals. A lot of the “D&D logic” – the way you play D&D, the way you set up a session, or design an adventure, a game world or a campaign – is found in things like what is in the encounter charts, how you are actually meant to use those encounter charts in a game, what kind of dungeons you build with the game’s building blocks, and so on. Thematic games may offer the opportunity for “meddling” with this kind of stuff.

      (That is, if the people picking up the game actually read and follow the rulebook, and don’t just fire up their deeply rooted D&D routines and assumptions – a real risk, which is also why old school gaming can be a very hard sell to people who THINK they know old D&D, but don’t.)

      1. Melan

        It is interesting that you mention Tekumel as a setting. In my mind, it is a perfect blueprint for making a thematic game. It borrows liberally from D&D, but reconfigures D&Disms extensively. It also puts a lot of its ideas into game texts which are not specifically about the strictly understood rules, but they talk DO about setting elements which are very game-relevant, or which tell you how to organise a game (the practice of Ditlána, or arena combat, or the whole “migrant workers off the boat” campaign structure). EPT is written to produce a very specific kind of game experience, even if a lot of rules are slightly altered D&Disms.

        (And sorry for submitting my comment in multiple parts, but if I add the whole into this field, the “Post Comment” button disappears.)

      2. Brendan Post author


        I see what you mean about Tekumel and agree to a point. The rules are a nicely tailored version of OD&D that does capture many aspects of the setting, from what I have read and played of it.

        However, the Tekumel setting preceded the idea of EPT as a game and it was not designed with player-facing concerns as a priority. The presentation reflects this. It is internally consistent fantasy world first, with functioning fictional languages even, and game second.

        (No worries about the multiple comments.)

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