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Chop Shop

Genre-Bending

by Eric Brennan
Sep 16,2003

 

Genre-Bending

Before now in Chop Shop we've tampered with rules, conversions, and setting. We've mucked around with tiny pieces of rules and building totally new rulesets. We've done a lot, in a kind of fleeting, in-less-than-two-thousand-words-a-column way. So, what's left to mess around with?

Well, how about genre?

There's a school of thought that setting and genre should be wedded together--a fantastic pseudo-medieval setting should, of course, be wedded to heroic fantasy or sword & sorcery. And, typically, I agree with this. Experiments with bizarre genre and setting combinations tend to result in mixed results in all but the most extraordinary cases. On the other hand, sometimes, you've got to mess with genre. Sometimes, it's the right play. This column is about making sure that the right play pays off for you.

In the first place, you may want to mess with genre in an RPG because the genre wedded to the setting is played out. Case in point--a licensed game. Sometimes, players are just ready for whatever you throw at them in a licensed game, jaded as they are by the actual series or movies in question. In a Star Trek game, you can make the nose prosthetics and ethical dilemmas as cool as you want, but your players may just yawn and shrug. Listen to me, folks--the "yawn" and "shrug" are the kiss of death for any campaign. By messing with genre you may blow some life back into the RPG and its setting.

And finally, sometimes you want to mess with genre just a little bit--for a single adventure or two--because games, like television series, novels and movies, are the perfect place to do that. Sometimes, it's nice to throw your players for a curveball for a game or two. Instead of giving them a dungeon to crawl through in your D&D game, you'll give em a police procedural. If they can roll with the change for an adventure, it livens things up quite a bit.

So--how does one go about messing with genre? My advice is to look at some genres in your book collection, for starters. Your book collection is a steady indicator of what you're familiar with. Then, look at the games that the genre in question could fit. Think of images and scenes from the book and change the details in the picture until you've figured out what game setting might be able to accommodate it. Below, I've gone through some mental backflips trying to make this work for some of the games on my shelf.

A warning--this can be easier for some games than others. Some games are sniper rifles, and some games are heavy machine guns. Some game systems handle one genre very well, and some can encompass multitudes. The same thing goes for settings, separate from their rules--some can cope with a change in genre assumptions, and some just crack under the strain. Learn to recognize early on whether you're flexing genre and setting in a good way, or bending them to the point where they snap.

And following the warning, a bit of advice for you would-be genre mutilators--all of the skills and rules hacks discussed in previous columns of Chop Shop can help you out here. Sometimes, the genre doesn't fit the ruleset perfectly, and then the best thing you can do is look for ways to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate the rulebook until it does what you want, like a good little quisling. I highly recommend, for the amateur rules hackers out there, a look back at Hero Points and Madness Meters in previous columns, all of which can be tweaked to help make a genre change easier for a setting.

And so, without further ado--the settings:

Counsels Wise and Just

Looking at my bookshelf, I'm thinking of Brother Cadfael, and The Name of the Rose, and Sherlock Holmes. I'm thinking of the detective genre, of course, where a wise man can interject himself into a crime and find the perpetrators, perhaps while being ably assisted by those skilled in combat, or those more socially advantaged.

And then, looking at my gaming books, I see The Lord of the Rings RPG by Decipher. I'm struck by the image of an investigator in Gondor in the years during the Shadow's long rise to power just before the events of the Lord of the Rings--the Shadow's spies throng to mighty Gondor, the steward begins his decline, and in the midst of it all, skullduggery. Crime. Murder.

The investigator is aided by an outlander, a Rider of Rohan or a ranger from the North. He could also be assisted by bards, elves, dwarves--just about any kind of character could watch this investigator's back and assist him. Plus, the Shadow isn't ready to show himself; the intrigues around Minis Tirith will be the kind more suited to a man of genius and keen insight, not a warrior-prince or a swordsman, making a character built around problem-solving just as valid as a warrior or a wizard.

The beauty of this kind of genre-bending is that it avoids what I call the "Second Stringer" dilemma, which essentially posits that you can't out-hero the best. You don't have to worry about outdoing Aragorn or Gandalf anymore with this kind of twist--you get to literally play the best sage in Middle Earth, called hither and thither to solve murders and untangle intrigues. You make your own niche.

Plus, there's nothing in the Lord of the Rings RPG that would preclude one from running this kind of campaign, since the setting rewards wisdom and insight as much as orc body-counts, and the detective genre tells us that there's plenty of room for the occasional bit of heroism, swordplay, and last minute rescues.

Spilled Blood

This genre's not from the bookshelf so much as the DVD collection--the hard-boiled revenge story. I've got a whole library full of the hard-boiled revenge tales, beginning with the remake of the Count of Monte Cristo (rather heroic for a hard-boiled revenge tale, but one look at Jim Cavaziel's face tells you that he's in the same company as the grittier twentieth-century equivalents.) Following that, I see Terence Stamp in The Limey, Stallone in Get Carter, Michael Caine in the original Get Carter, and even Mel Gibson in Payback. If you need to know the literary antecedents, look no further than Ross McDonald, Andrew Vacchs, and Richard Stark, with their inspiration stretching back into the mists of history, all the way back to the Bible and Hammurabi: "An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth."

The hard-boiled revenge tale is utterly marvelous in its simplicity. A man is injured in some way, usually either by his compatriots, or some vastly over-equipped and more stylish organization. The man in question vows revenge, taking the Roman maxim, "Let justice be done though the heavens fall," to it's brutal and logical conclusion. It doesn't matter what the man lost, be it family or money or face--whatever it is, he'll go to hell to set it right.

And looking at my game shelf, I can't help but think you can't find a more stylish or over-equipped organization than a city's vampire population, thus leading me to hope against hope that someday I'll be able to run a hard-boiled revenge tale set in the world of Vampire: The Masquerade. Picture it--pretty Kindred, loyal and cunning ghouls, political maneuvers, the Masquerade--and then, drop a guy looking to take some bloody revenge into the mix. (A note: It could be several guys looking for vengeance, or even gals--the number doesn't matter, what matters is that it's time for somebody to get some payback.)

This is a game where the Machiavellian games of the Elders take a back seat to the most personal of issues, namely, "Whose gonna get it?" The delicate balance and political interplay of a city's vampires is turned on its ear by a man who'll bargain and maneuver only if it takes him closer to those he perceives as the party that wronged him.

The best part in my mind, of course, is that you get to let players play the empowered underdogs who are willing to blow off the pomp and circumstance of vampiric society. It's good to play the part of the Revenge Machine, I think, and it allows the players to see the world of Vampire from a wholly different perspective. And if you need a cue on how your PC should look, check no further than Desson Howe's Wasington Post description of "The Limey:"

"We can see that anger immediately, as he sits on the plane to L.A., eyes blazing like an idol whose temple has just been ransacked. Does this man ever blink? Is he just an agent of retribution or does a heart beat in there somewhere? The eyelids never seem to close over his smoldering blue glare. We don't know exactly what he intends to do. Perhaps he doesn't either. But his unyielding gaze--the one that could reduce Medusa to fish-tank sand--tells us there's hell to pay. Despite ourselves, we can't wait for Dave to meet the poor SOB responsible."

That's the stuff, folks. Let this guy loose in your Vampire games.

Stargate: SG Zero

I'm going to take this one in reverse order, describing the game I want to use first and then musing over an alternate genre.

I love the new Stargate: SG1 game from AEG, and highly recommend that everybody who can like a d20 game, who likes the show, or who has liked Spycraft (on which the ruleset is based,) check it out. The problem is, I've only seen a few episodes of the series, and several prospective players in my group are big fans. That means that if I'm going to run the game, I either have to try and out-Stargate them, which is risky, since I don't know every episode--or I can twist the whole thing on its head, keeping the heart while tweaking the genre enough to make it my own distinct thing.

Looking at my bookshelf, I see a copy of Rainbow Six that I'm reading in preparation for my upcoming Exalted: The Sidereals game, as well as some Stormwatch comics. I decide that the black-ops techno thriller (a genre which RPG.net Open forum readers know I love) is perfect for Stargate. Instead of the heroes of SG-1, you play the unsung dirty-tricks unit of SG-Zero, a completely deniable asset that works beyond the wormhole, doing the less-than-heroic deeds that need doing. SG-Zero also works on this side of the wormhole, though--they take care of people who know too much, or who are aiding the Goa'uld on the home front, or who are too close to unlocking Stargate technology for themselves. These are the Men in Black of Stargate, doing dirty deeds no one else will in order to save the world.

This model is a perfect example of the "throw the players a loop when they think they know what to expect" problem, above. The players get to look at the Stargate universe from a new perspective and I-as-GM do not have to worry about competing with six seasons of stuff airing daily in reruns on the Sci-Fi Channel. I can carve out my own path in a unique genre that leaves the setting wholly intact.

Rex Mundi

And finally, I throw a bunch of different settings and genres into the pot in order to create a big, epic campaign.

The book I'm looking at here is Return of the King, and the genre is, of course, epic, low-magic fantasy. The game I've got in mind seems almost a perfect fit for epic, low-magic fantasy: Green Knight's Pendragon. But wait--I'm going to toss is another genre... historical fantasy, with the Byzantine Empire as Arthur's rivals for Europe.

And wait--I'll add in yet another genre...Lovecraftian Mythos horror. (Yes, I first tripped on this cool idea in Ken Hite's Suppressed Transmission column. All hail Hite, buy his books, and read his columns.)

So what do I have in this bubbling cauldron of genre and setting and myth? I've got Rex Mundi, a campaign for Pendragon, in which King Arthur stands against a Byzantium ruled by a corrupt Justinian and his Mythos-tainted wife. Where Arthur's rise to power over the length of the campaign leads inexorably to a war for all of Eurasia and Africa, where Arthur faces down the tragically flawed Belisarius on the fields of Italy. Belisarius, whose only sin is loyalty to an evil tyrant.

Pendragon and its ruleset remains unchanged--there's really no need to change anything, unless you want to add in Call of Cthulhu's Sanity rules, or make your own Madness Meter... Europe itself is changed, though, and the genre elements of Lovecraft and his fellow Mythos writers makes everything darker--are the pagans in the valley just worshippers of nature, or followers of Shub Niggurath? Are wizards and their ilk to be trusted, or do they call on the same dread powers that fuel the intrigues at Justinian's court? Will Merlin's knowledge corrupt him? Can Belisarius be swayed to Arthur's side, even as Lancelot and Gwenivere cuckold him? What powers of light and Christianity can Arthur marshal to face down the Empire of the East as the fate of the world hangs in the balance?

The whole thing brings us back to Return of the King and Tolkien-esque fantasy, with the wise and the just struggling through a dark time where all of mankind stands to be destroyed or enslaved by an ancient power whose time may have come. Focus on the rise to power of Arthur and then the journey across Europe to gather allies and defeat enemies in preparation for the final showdown outside of Constantinople.

Conclusion

What, 2,500 words already? I guess that's it for me for a while, and that's it for Genre Bending, for fun and profit. Feel free to post in the forums if you feel I got my ideas across, or even if you didn't and I'll see you in thirty.

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