Against genre

I find the idea of genre emulation in RPGs inherently boring. The thing that excites me most about RPGs, as a medium, is that the possibilities are wide open. You are not constrained by diffident principles such as Chekhov’s Gun or other devices of dramatic progression and resolution.

This is not to say that genres as descriptive categories have no value. In fact, I often describe games in terms of certain setting and genre characteristics, because that helps align player tastes and develops initial buy-in. Accepting that this is a starting point, not a constraint, opens up the possibilities of genre shift as a game progresses, which is another thing that other forms of media do poorly. Attentive players (and remember the referee is a player too), cognizant of each others’ feedback, can drift a game in one direction or another. This requires some degree of sensitivity and attention, but then so does all social activity. Such drift keeps a campaign interesting and fresh, where serial fiction could (and often does) stagnate.

Since this is the Internet, I must acknowledge explicitly what should go without saying, that of course others need not share my preferences in this matter. But for me, I feel as if the unique potential of tabletop RPGs is sidelined by mechanisms which force only genre appropriate outcomes. I thrill to the possibility of an Independence Day where the aliens are triumphant, or a King Lear where everybody does not die. That is a big part of what “play to find out what happens” means.

Below is quoted from Apocalypse World, pages 108 & 109.

Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game’s fiction’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside.

The reward for MCing, for this kind of GMing, comes with the discipline. When you find something you genuinely care about — a question about what will happen that you genuinely want to find out — letting the game’s fiction decide it is uniquely satisfying.

5 thoughts on “Against genre

  1. Alex Chalk

    Do you think it possible to have genre-agnostic mechanisms? It seems to me that any resolution mechanics espouses a certain idea of how things ‘should’ resolve, even if only tacitly, which in turn involves some kind of aesthetic idea.

    Eg. Playing D&D without skill checks involves a certain common-sense fantasy naturalism where the capacities of a PC are assumed to be those of a fairly competent human being. Dungeon World and later edition D&D tend to assume fantasy heroics, where the characters are good at certain things to a degree that approaches superhuman, and that assumption is baked into the resolution mechanics. LotFP assumes you’re bad at pretty much everything unless your class explicitly provides that you’re not, reinforcing the horror feeling by making pretty much everything dangerous.

    That said, I do hate it when RPGs throw genre in my face, or instruct me to consider genre conventions as a part of task resolution.

    1. Brendan Post author


      I wrote the following in a conversation on G+, but I think it applies here.

      Surely every ruleset has influence (some more, some less) on the possibilities of play. Rules concerned with guaranteeing (or heavily favoring) genre-consistent outcomes are what I mean by genre emulators. I do not think all rulesets behave in this way. Traditional D&D does not, in my experience.

      One could claim that D&D is itself a genre, but I don’t think so (and would point to the many different ways people play the game, all within a reasonable understanding of the rules, even not looking across editions).

  2. Holland Oats

    Has the concept of genre emulation changed? Not trying to single you out at all, ’cause I’ve seen others do this too, but it seems like it’s become more inclusive than how I’ve traditionally understood (or possibly misunderstood) the term. I always thought of it like a game’s trying to feel like a type of world, rather than a particular medium’s portrayal of such a world. Things like level of lethality, or a common trope such as bad guys with poor accuracy. Something like pacing, plot immunity or Chekhov’s Gun sound more like media emulation to me, which I’d agree to be a bad idea. Tabletop RPGs are their own medium and need to be respected as such

    1. Brendan Post author


      My understanding is that genre emulation is usually concerned with making sure the right kinds of things happen, not that the right trappings exist.

      It seems to me that (to pick a few arbitrary examples) cannon fodder enemies that can’t hit the broad side of a barn and plot immunities are both potentially elements of genre emulation built into game systems.


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