In Genre: CROSSING GENRESby RJ Grady
In Genre: CROSSING GENRESby RJ Grady
In Genre: CROSSING GENRES
by RJ Grady
What Genre Are We In?
In a sense, a genre is a set of common characteristics shared by an arbitrarily decided group of media. The boundaries are not hard, nor is any genre a prescription for a story or game. Rather, genres exist because of the media they describe. They are labels. A genre arises when somebody takes elements from two or more things, then uses the new language they've discovered to create something similar. For that reason, a cross-genre is really only a cross-genre the first few times it's done; after the new form has been sufficiently elaborated, a cross-genre becomes a new genre.
Cross genre games essentially take the form of "two great tastes that taste great together." There are several distincts forms of cross-genre games. For the purposes of this essay, I will call them Tequila Milkshakes, Coyote-Dogs, Gumbos, and Deep Dish Supremes.
A tequila milkshake is a milkshake with a shot of tequila in it. Even if the milkshake is just plain vanilla, it's a startling experience the first time you taste it. Essentially, it's just a vanilla milkshake, but the tequila changes everything by its presence. The perfect example of a Tequila Milkshake is Shadowrun. It's essentially a campy cyberpunk game, but infused with genre fantasy tropes (like elves, dwarves, and wizards), urban fantasy (especially its Native American magic and the idea of forgotten magics), and even post-apocalyptic horror (the global information network collapse, along with the resurgance of magic and the social strife caused by new breeds of human have turned civilization into islands surrounded by hostile, monster-infested wilderness). Essentially, Shadowrun is about rebellious or even sociopathic freelancers sticking it The Man in a neo-Gilded Age.
Dogs and coyotes are closely enough related to breed. The perfect example of a Coyote-Dog RPG is Dungeons & Dragons. D&D was built on a foundation of swords-and-sorcery, but includes elements of epic high fantasy, mythology, and Arthurian romance. A Coyote-Dog is a genre of genres, created from the intersection of common elements in many genres. Obviously, though, such a combination involves a level of subtraction, since contradictory elements cannot be included. For instance, Tolkien's heroes were the few willing to do the right thing, while Leiber's were unrepentent scoundrels, and Moorcock wrote about brooding super-men intent on imposing their own will and sense of justice on the world. D&D cannot uphold all three moral viewpoints, and therefore, an alignment system was devised that encapsulated a variety of motivations. Hierarchical good had to be eliminated, as well, since Howard's Conan, Moorcock's Elric, or Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, if they inhabited the world of Middle Earth, would simply be wrong and misguided, and would probably meet sticky ends.
Gumbo is a stew-like dish made with okra or file powder. You can put all sorts of things in it. There are chicken gumbos, sausage gumbos, seafood gumbos, and chicken and seafood gumbos. There are dark roux gumbos and light roux gumbos, with tomato sauce or without. Every gumbo dish is different, but they all involve putting lots of stuff together. They have some common elements, but most are characterized by something unusual or especially pronouned. A Gumbo type cross-genre RPG is created by combining two or more things that are quite different, then simmering them together until something new and exciting happens. One good example is Deadlands, the archetypal Western gunslinger, post-apocalyptic, supernatural horror steampunk RPG. Another example would be Star Wars, a unique blend of Buddhist wuxia magic, samurai action films, space opera, swashbuckling, epic high fantasy, and modern military adventure.
The Deep Dish Supreme doesn't blend so much as pile things on. If two genres are good, three is better, but you're really not getting somewhere until you've combined about a dozen disparate, baroque genres. The two heavy-weight champs of this method are Torg and Rifts. Torg exists in a Hollywood-action type world, throws in some apocalyptic fantasy, and then allows characters to physically traverse from one world to another. Each world is itself a genre, and many are themselves cross-genre (like the theocratic, dark fantasy cyberpunk world of the Cyberpope). Rifts simply combines cyberpunk, superheroes, epic high fantasy, supernatural horror, space opera, swords-and-sorcery, classical myth, mecha anime, wild shinobi films, post-acocalyptic science-fiction, baroque science-fantasy, New Age supernaturialism, future dystopia, and much, much more. Individual elements clash, often to ironic effect, rather than blend. Where in Star Wars, spaceships engage in WWII-style dogfights while mystics battle with laser swords, in Torg, you can actually have Spitfires buzzing outside while two samurai armed with science-fiction weapons duel.
Synthesizing a Milieu
Does your cross-genre game involve a mixing of physical settings? Many do not. For instance, an epic high fantasy setting is more or less the same as a swords-and-sorcery setting; both are derived from popular imagery of Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance-era civilizations and technology. A Western/Horror crossover is probably indistinguishable from your basic Western setting, at least on the surface, since horror, as a genre, is highly portable. On the other hand, Shadowrun drops elves and shamans in the middle of a megacorporate cyberpunk universe, and Star Wars pits swordsmanship against blasters, sorcery against robot minions.
All games have a history. If you combine a more fantastic genre with something historically based, the historical timeline is usually the basis for the imaginary history of your world. But Star Wars has a backstory, too: the foundation, ascension, and decline of the Republic. So time and place are both important. How did this mix come about?
When designing your own setting, it is up to you to decide what elements are incongruous or not. Shadowrun, Urban Arcana, Wyrd is Bond, and Bloodshadows all combine high fantasy with mean streets, but the results are entirely different. In Shadowrun, the designers decided to make shamanism the most influential form of magic, the power that began the age, and the power behind the dominance of the Tribes. The result is a world substantially different than if an ancient necromantic curse broke the barrier into the world of magic, putting civilization under the shadow of mad-wizard-kings (in sunglasses). Native American shamanism has a minor influence on D&D, but when creating Shadowrun, the designers considered how they could bridge our world with the world of magic, and decided the way was through folk tales, legendry, and urban myths, such as the Native American mythos, high magick and spiritualism, and Bigfoot.
As a player in a mixed-up setting, it can be hard to get a handle on things. Character creation is fraught with peril. For instance, a player new to Shadowrun might design a private detective who "doesn't believe in that magic stuff," not realizing that magic in Shadowrun is not only prevalent, but ubiquitous. Not believing in magic would be like not believing in rubber. Another might try to create a modern-day Paladin, unaware of his collision course with the sociopathic decker in the group. If you are working from a published game, learn its setting well. Every game world is worth taking in entirely, but with this sort of game, it is vital, because you can't lean on your knowledge of existing media as much. If you are working with the GM's own creation, take time to understand what he wants to do with the setting. Work in accord with his design, but make an effort to make the setting your own. For instance, if the GM has laid out a Western/Horror world, you might like the idea of playing a "coloured" cowboy, bringing your social sensibilities to the table as well. Genre expectations are great tools, but they are large tools for large work. Your character should be three-dimensional, not just an extrusion of a genre, but an origional creation within it.
Having it Both Ways
What themes will be involved? Moreso than the setting, this is where the different types of hybrids diverge.
In a Tequila Milkshake, one or the other genres will dominate the themes, ethos, and mood. Secondary genres can color the themes. In Shadowrun, for instance, the game is essentially a cyberpunk game with themes of rebellion, resistance, thrill-seeking, dehumanizing technology and economics, and games of high stakes. However, from urban fantasy, Shadowrun borrows themes like magic revitalizing a dried-out office worker, supernatural predators like vampires and werewolves, "the magic has returned," and the inability of institutions to hold back the power imagination, to keep people from dreaming. Some fantastic themes, like the power of the soul, the battle against a well-emplaced enemy, and cosmopolitan groups of adventureres, reinforce the cyperpunk genre.
In a Coyote-Dog, the primary themes will be the ones that overlap. In Dungeons & Dragons, identifying and killing enemies and seeking out power and glory are strong themes, because they are common to the stories of Howard's Hyperborean Age, the tales of Middle-Earth, and Moorcock's Elric and Corum stories. Monster-slaying is a shared theme in both classical mythology and chivalric romance. Both Howard and Leiber love to tell the tale of a rogue, so thievery, the attainment of wealth, and dangerous pranks are also facets of the D&D style of adventure. Then there is the element of the Divine. D&D fuses the dualism of Middle-Earth and Moorcock's universe, and sprinkles in Greek polytheism, Hindu and Norse hero-deities, and Celtic legend, resulting in a wide variety of deities and forms of religion. Finally, there is the idea of a personal code, a core of pride the motivates the adventure. This could be Conan's challenging spirit, a knight's rules of chivalry, religious faith, or a powerful politcal conviction. This is represented at the most general level by a character's Alignment, qualified by his class, personal outlook, and quirks.
In a Gumbo, what happens when you mix the elements is anyone's guess. Deadlands' unique blend of steampunk, gothic horror, atomic horror, and gunslinging manifests itself in a unique visual style, a "Western" ethos and vocabulary, and a strange hodge-podge of themes, often related to wandering, morally compromised anti-heroes. It's a game of Things Man Wahr Not Meant to Know, But Knowed Himself Anyway. Star Wars melds a Buddhist spiritual philsophy with an almost completely antithetical square-jawed action style. It embodies the inner conflict of Samurai bushido, but also wanders far affield, into prophecy, redemption, peace, justice, and a highly personal path to redemption. Han and Luke take different roads, but we know each has found his true nature. Mace Windu and Anakin are both fiery, headstrong Jedi who revel in challenge, but while Mace has found his peace with the Will of the Force, Anakin is descending into personal darkness. Star Wars is a world where "a Jedi craves not" adventure, but heroes strap on their blasters and go personally charging into action wherever evil stirs. As reluctant heroes go, the heroes of Star Wars are less reluctant than most. Return of the Jedi showcases a magnificent battle between huge fleets of warships, but no less important is a personal struggle between Luke, Vader, and Palpatine. Because a Gumbo blends the flavors of its different ingredients, the themes related to one story element blend into the stories of another. That is why we have Luke noting that he "should not have come," using his mystical insight in a special ops scenario, while his duel with the Emperor is prefaced by Luke gloating that the battle was already won for the Rebellion, reflecting the war romance viewpoint of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.
If a Gumbo is complex and unpedictable, a Deep Dish Supreme is often reductive. At any given time, it tends to resemble one genre or the other. Cross-genre themes appear as "what-ifs," along the lines of, "What if an honorable ninja were sent on a mission to spy on daring computer hackers, but came to sympathize with their cause?" or "What is Superman appeared in a post-apocalyptic Earth and started smiting evil?" This is exmplified by Torg, in which characters travel to different stories as they travel to different Realms. While they are in the Nile Empire, they fight battles of Good versus Evil to the tune of machine-gun fire, rayguns, and ancient curses. When in Nippon Tech, they become subtle conspirators, seeking out allies, knowing whoever they find is likely to betray them in the end. Rifts tends to swing back and forth between Yojimbo type stories and anime-inspired demon hunter stories. Depending on the setting, the characters, and the situation, it could play like future-fantasy dystopia Akira, a Western gunslinger involving mecha and explosive arrows, or a fantasy wonder story about the terrors and magic of Atlantis. Deep Dish Supreme Games tend to be fairly episodic, united in outlook more than a certain type of story. Rifts, for instance, is based mainly on action media, so it tends to involve reluctant heroes, crusaders, hotshot pilots, worldly mercenaries, and idealistic zealots. But any given session could, at any moment, turn into a vampire-slasher, a demonic horror piece, or a gangland shoot-out, depending on the GMs inclinations. Because it is not rooted in traditional genre "hooks," it is more difficult to integrate character motivations and genre conventions in a Deep Dish Supreme. For this reason, there is a risk, to be avoided by both GM and players, to reduce characters to cardboard cutouts. Truly, action heroes don't need to be deeply nuanced, but 1) they should be individual and interesting, and 2) they should have a reason for being, a motivation that drives them from one scenario to the next.
Notes on Media
As I said in the introduction, genres are essentially arbitrary, although useful. For this reason, I have concentrated less in picking games and other media that are cross-genre, and rather endeavored to explain what elements make up the ones I picked. Many "cross-genre" settings actually exist in a fairly well-populated niche, but remain outside the mainstream. We have yet to see, for instance, a formulaic Vampire-Hunting Badass movie, although Blade, Van Helsing, John Carpenter's Vampires, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all fall comfortably into this category. New entries draw more on outside media than other films within this genre... at least, at the time of this writing, but perhaps not next year.
Talislanta (Shooting Iron Games)
GURPS Technomancer (Steve Jackson Games)
Godlike (Hobgoblynn Press)
Dungeons & Dragons (Wizards of the Coast)
Trinity (White Wolf Games)
Adventure! (White Wolf Games)
Witchcraft (Eden Studios)
Feng Shui (Atlas Games)
Paranoia (West End Games)
Mage: The Ascension (White Wolf)
Deep Dish Supremes
Torg: Role-Playing the Possiblity Wars (West End Games)
Rifts (Palladium Books)
GURPS (Steve Jackson Games)
Adams, Robert. Coming of the Horseclans.
Asimov, Isaac. David Starr, Space Ranger.
Foster, Alan Dean. Into the Out Of.
Heinlein, Robert A. Magic, Inc.
Tepper, Sherri S. A Plague of Angels.
Star Wars (1977)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
The Eliminators (1986)
Ghost Dog (1997)
The Fifth Element (1997)
Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Shanghai Noon (2000)