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MASS Part Two – Genre and Generic


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Or, what’s a Generic RPG anyhow and why, when someone says Genre, do I get the screaming heebie-jeebies?

This part has a lot of questions and answers. The format is a little stilted, but it represents my thought process more or less.

There are so many games out there that do an amazing job of putting flesh and bones on a setting. Given my Narativist / Gamist bent (see part 1), this kind of focus on setting and style is both daunting and intimidating, and the capability of people to create in this space fills me with awe. I could only hope to emulate, and even then, the amount of work involved is prohibative.

Harking back to my original impetus, and the design aspirations I had estabished, I realised that this wasn’t even a concern I should be entertaining. What I wanted to focus on in terms of adding something new was in the areas of play style and game focus. I would leave settings and simulation to the vast array of supplements and systems out there that do this so well. And if I can tap into them, so much the better.

So how would the game system manifest? How would I tackle the concept of setting in such a way as to key into the simulationist drive without having to replicate or create huge swathes of setting focused material?

The obvious answer was to focus on the core rules and make them generic. But then, what did I mean by Generic? That it could be played in any setting? Sure, that seems doable. There are plenty of setting agnostic game systems out there, and the default state is that a generic system might have a toolbox to allow it to address setting specific considerations and thus emulate a setting better. That it might support any playstyle? Well, that’s is an aim in my head, but it seems that by their nature game systems are built to a particular play style. So how generic could it actually be in this regards?

So I parked that thought, with the fundamental decision that the objective was a core rule set that would have a layering of setting options and specific rules to assist genre emulation.

But that triggered something else. Whenever I read the term Genre, I have a heady bout of cognitive dissonance. It took a long time but I finally figured out why. So many genre elements that are bandied about try to apply classifications based on setting or type of event or plot within a story. And they conflate and confuse setting with plot and with tone. Realizing this was enough for me to grok that the word was being used at different times to mean different things by different people. So I wondered what the point of Genre was, to me.

My answer came from determining that I wanted to split out the word based on the media it was describing. So for me there is Film Genre, Book Genre, Art Genre, and naturally enough Role Playing Game Genre. And these things actually had differing assumptions that were built into each of them and meant different things. The term genre in and of itself was nothing more than the highest level of classification of ‘kind’ of media or game and held no value save to try to convey some expectations about what the medium was ‘like’.

So then I thought about what games I have played and ran historically, and tried to classify them into the biggest, simplest buckets I could, so as to figure out which of my games were ‘like’ eachother. And I ended up with only five big buckets.

High Tech

But then I realized there was a subtle difference between assumptions of what I meant with these buckets. Some of my horror games were set in fantasy worlds, or far future situations, or were about horror genre characters like Vampires, but were actually action based or political games. Some of my supers games were fantasies without much combat. The word fantasy meant something specific in RPGs but then my games conflated it. I tried again, but this time I tried to eliminate the setting elements all together, and think only about the style of game. What were the players doing in each session? What were they expecting the game was about? It didn’t matter if the setting was fantasy or supers or mundane or high tech. And I ended with four buckets.

Action: This meant that the focus of the game was combat. Larger than life, combat has little consequence or over-come-able effects for main characters, and is the default state for dealing with problems.

Horrific: Investigation and discovery, ending badly. Meeting the unexpected and it doesn’t like you. Combat is deadly and has terrible consequences. Character removal from the game is commonplace (worse than simple death in most cases) and there is buy-in that a player might have less power over the outcome or that the outcomes are tragic.

Mundane: Crosses over with Horror in terms of game play, but with no supernatural elements and less risk to sanity, and more risk to status, or relationships or accoutrements. Game play revolves around survival, investigation, social interaction with characters and dealing with mundane problems and situations. Combat is infrequent and dangerous.

Fantastical: Broader than fantasy (which is more of a setting nowadays) the fantastical covers stories in which the rules of reality are substantially different. Cartoons and animation are a good lead in to this idea, as is the presence of the supernatural in a less mechanical (levels of magic) kind of way. Combat is present and often occurs but isn’t the game focus. Exploration of the world and possibilities, interaction with the unusual elements and social interactions are a focus.

So for example, taking my Hi Tech games, I had played some that were action based (A cyberpunk one stuck out in my head), some that were horrific (a first contact post humanist one stood out in my head), some that were mundane (a political game in the same genre as Babalon 5 stood out) and some that were Fantastical (a star trek inspired exploration game). I found resonance across pretty much every one of my games with one of these core game genres. DnD or Champions et al tended to Action games, with focus on combat and conflict. GURPS at its heart seemed a mundane simulation game, allowing for many settings to be applied. CoC and the others of that ilk were obviously Horrific. The entire World of Darkness, and in many Sci Fi games are actually Fantastical in basis.

This classification system enabled me to take a step back away from setting and think more about what players are expecting in a game and what they are doing in each session.

So that was my first game definition. I determined that the system would be Generic in terms of supporting these different game play Genres. And I would need to define what game rules supported and reinforced the kind of game play that the Genre was aimed at exemplifying.
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