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In Genre


by RJ Grady
Jul 08,2004



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.


Tequila Milkshakes

Talislanta (Shooting Iron Games)
Essentially a classic swords-and-sorcery setting in nature, Talislanta adds in doses of planetary romance, age of exploration tall-tales, and post-acocapyptic fantasy to create a world that is fantastic, alien, and yet satirically familiar.

Shadowrun (FASA)
Cyberpunk with elves! Actually, a bit more than that. Shadowrun spices up cyberpunk with D&D style fantasy, urban fantasy, New Age-y mysticism, tabloid weirdness, and crime caper stories, all on top of an acocalyptic backdrop.

GURPS Technomancer (Steve Jackson Games)
Inspired fantasy-modern crossover in the vein of Operation Chaos, Magic, Inc., and The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump. Essentially, it is any real-world-based genre, crossed with high fantasy, with overtones of Hollywood horror. The CDC hunts vampires and tries to prevent outbreaks of ambulatory necrotic plague (i.e. flesh eating zombies), NASA is always in need of talented mages to assist in the space program, and the availability of youth elixir is raising some uncomfortable social issues.

Godlike (Hobgoblynn Press)
Superheroes in WWII. Talents seem more than human, but are nonetheless mortal. Basically a "get-mowed-down-by-machinegun-fire" type WW II action game, with superpowered beings as commando teams.


Dungeons & Dragons (Wizards of the Coast)
Dungeons & Dragons mixes vintage swords-and-sorcery, classical mythology, Arthurian romance, epic high fantasy, and planetary romance. It also includes Hollywood horror monsters, science-fiction elements, old Testament biblical miracles, historical romance (especially swashbucklers and gladiator movies), and B-movie brain-exploding psionics, but all subordinated to the general theme of knights, elves, priests, thieves, and wizards embarking on perilous adventure. Because of its primacy in the RPG market, D&D is a good example of a cross-genre setting becoming a genre unto itself.

Trinity (White Wolf Games)
Science-fiction game melds biotech, psionics, cyberpunk, mecha, Star Trek exploratory missions, bug hunt adventure, transhuman science-fiction, science wonder, and superheroes into something of a generic, kitchen-sink SF setting. The weakness is a diffusion of the elements. The strength is that there is room to tell just about any space-opera-inspired story you like, from Dune-like political intrigue to the raging battles of Starship Troopers.

Adventure! (White Wolf Games)
Pulp adventure. Weird science, two-fisted crime-fighting, and moral melodrama meet combine to create a setting in which psychics, sharpshooters, and strongmen team up to hunt down Oriental criminal masterminds and destroy technological horrors. Strong resemblances to the Nile Empire setting for Torg.

Witchcraft (Eden Studios)
Modern occult game mixes vampire stories, Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Practical Magic, Call of Cthulhu, and de Lint's fantasy stories into a versatile urban fantasy, adventure-horror setting. Candles, crystals, Cthonians, and cats.


Feng Shui (Atlas Games)
A cross-genre mix of gun opera, wuxia, historical romance kung fu, and near-future science-fantasy. Each of those genres is a time period linked together through mysterious nexi. Warriors from these times and places battle for control of sites of power. A modern-day maverick cop may team up with a cyborg oni and attack an instillation guarded by Ascended Animals.

Paranoia (West End Games)
Decidedly peculier dystopian science-fiction parody. You play a group of clones in a 1984-inspired world dominated by a computer (apparently designed by the same people who built HAL and the computer in Logan's Run), with homages to Star Trek, James Bond, and Platoon. Your job: to ferret out Commie mutant traitors and kill them. The humorous irony: you are a mutant, and are yourself conspiring against the Computer. The computer is your friend. Fortunately, each character has six clones.

Mage: The Ascension (White Wolf)
Strange blend of modern occult, urban fantasy, comic book sorcery, surrealist science-fiction, Lovecraftian horror, conspiracy theory, and Gnosticism relativism. Imagine Doctor Strange, the Sandman, Mulder, Scully, Buckaroo Banzai, Remo Williams, and Crazy Horse teaming up to take on the Men in Black, Robocop, the villains from half a dozen Kurt Vonnegut and Phillip K Dick stories, the warlock from Warlock, the bad guys from The Bourne Identity, and Cthulhu. All the PCs are architects of reality.

Deep Dish Supremes

Torg: Role-Playing the Possiblity Wars (West End Games)
A game inspired by Hollywood blockbuster action. Earth has been invaded by other realms, not only with their own culture, but their own reality, defining what is scientifically possible, what is socially plausible, and what powers of the supernatural exist. Aysle is a dark fantasy realm, combining Arthurian romance, classic swords-and-sorcery, and Warhammer style "blackpowder fantasy." Orrorsh is a Victorian horror realm, mixing Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, The Dunwich Horror, Chucky, Hellraiser, Black Robe, and Heart of Darkness into something resembling a unified theory of death and despair. The Nile Empire is like a teamup of Indiana Jones, the Shadow, Dick Tracy, and Doctor Who, battling evil in a mythic Egypt over-run with fascist stormtroopers using machine guns. The Living Land is sort of uncategorizable, a mixture of At the Earth's Core with Land of the Lost, King Kong, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Jurassic Park, and ... something else. A rubber-monster world in which technology does not work, and a living Goddess pervades all. In Nippon Tech, shadowy conspirators from another Earth have taken over Japan, much of the northern Pacific, and LA. Rising Sun anti-Jap conspiracy meets near-future, megacorporate science-fiction with gangland action and ninjas. Yes, ninjas. The Cyperpacy is a bizarre combination of cyberpunk, medieval theocracy, Gothic fantasy, and information-age authoritarianism.

Rifts (Palladium Books)
The nine-hundred pound gorilla of this type, the only to achieve and maintain mainstream success. Essentially a post-acocalyptic, giant mecha, demonic horror, cyberpunk, superhero, techno-fantasy, swords-and-sorcery, military adventure, dimension-hopping, "wandering ronin" adventure game. With Nazis.

GURPS (Steve Jackson Games)
While GURPS itself is a generic toolkit, the optional core setting that comes with the 4th edition promises to be an expansion on their Alternate Earths work and will include familiar GURPS setting material. Tech levels and mana levels collide.


Adams, Robert. Coming of the Horseclans.
Post-apocalyptic science-fiction, swords-and-sorcery crossover series, featuring mad wizards (NASA scientists), cannibals, axe-wielding warriors, telepathic cats, mysterious deities, pirates, and salvaged technology. This book introduces the series.

Asimov, Isaac. David Starr, Space Ranger.
First in the juvenile series, Lucky Starr. Space opera in spirit, hard science-fiction in content. Asimov teaches about navigating our solar system while Starr hunts down space criminals.

Foster, Alan Dean. Into the Out Of.
Supernatural horror, folk magic, modern fantasy, action-adventure. African demons are invading out world.

Heinlein, Robert A. Magic, Inc.
Short novel. Waterfront gangland meets cantrips and magic carpets.

Tepper, Sherri S. A Plague of Angels.
Post-apocalyptic science-fiction nightmare with Judeo-Christian themes, an unlikely hero who rises up against evil, and lots of uncategorizable weirdness.


Star Wars (1977)
George Lucas' epic, inspired by Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress, assembled from spare parts collected from Buddhist fortune cookie philosophy, WWII action romances, Flash Gordon serials, Ben Hur, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and action-melodramas, using instructions from Joseph Campbell's popular psychology-philosophy and lessons from his study of visual cinematography to stitch it together.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
Buckaroo, scientist, surgeon, test pilot, rock musician, and Buddhist philospher, leads his team of prodigies against the Black Lectroids, imprisoned in a world on the other side of our reality. B-grade science-fiction, melodrama, surrealist, campy, philosophical, crime-fighting, neo-pulp strangeness. A must-see.

The Eliminators (1986)
The adventures of a runaway cyborg and his pals, a roboticist, a boat captain, and a ninja, as they battle against a time traveling mad scientist. A more 80s action movie has never been made.

Robocop (1987)
Maverick cop plus cyberpunk plus superhero. A wonderful, satirical, touching film with a great punch line.

Ghost Dog (1997)
Gun opera explores the common themes of Bushido and the laws of the Casanostra. Ghost Dog himself straddles the fading world of the crime families, modern urban street culture, and a timeless view of the samurai he carries in his own mind.

The Fifth Element (1997)
Space opera film with a retired military man as its hero, Enochian magic, epic high fantasy, kung fu, and a few musical numbers. Complete with shapechanging aliens, guardians from the Angel galaxy, and costumes by Gautier.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Comedy dramatization (in the style of Amadeus) of the making of Nosferatu is also itself a sendup of the vampire movie genre, as well as a "parlour comedy" of strange characters and a third wall discussion of film-making with the audience. Willem Dafoe is amazing. It's like Dracula mixed with the first half of Singin' in the Rain.

Shanghai Noon (2000)
Slapstick Western, historical romance kung fu crossover. Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson star. The sequel, Shanghai Knights, sends up Hollywood silent films.

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