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The Importance of Genre Conventions

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

In thinking about small endings, I ran into this idea about genres, which I’ve been mulling over since then. Stewart and I have been discussing the next campaign I plan to run and over the course of that discussion, I have become more and more aware of genre tropes and how aiming at them can really improve the feel of a campaign. The first thing that solidified this thought in my head was a thread on the Steve Jackson Games’ roleplaying forum where a new GM was asking for advice. In that thread, a poster called Brett said:

My very best piece of advice is to make sure that the players are supported by a clear understanding of genre expectations. This is particularly important when anything is new: GM, players, game system, setting. When I start a new player, or a new game system, I would ideally like to be able to show the players a movie or a TV show and say “Help me make it turn out like that, [except…].”

This has circled back around in my head on and off since I read it as I’ve thought more about the next campaign I plan to run, which will be set in the Firefly universe and try to capture the tone and feeling of the show. It is the first campaign I’ve run where I really could point to a TV show or movie as source material. It may be the most clearly defined genre for any campaign I’ve run, as well, which is a bit of a funny thing to say about a scifi/western.

However, consider my current campaign, Kjemmen. It’s nominally a “dark fantasy”. What does that even mean? I’ve taken inspiration from Lovecraft and Howard, George R. R. Martin and myriad other fantasy sources. But because it’s so cobbled together, I can’t create a picture in the minds of my players of what the campaign genre is without showing them in play. And that’s fine, but it means that I have to do all the work of making it feel like I want it to feel. They are doing nothing in particular to contribute to the “dark fantasy”ness of the campaign, other than playing characters that I helped them create in a way that would fit well into the setting.

Before reading that thread, it never occurred to me that there was another way to do it. It seemed immediately obvious, and I realized that I had heard other GMs obliquely refer to doing this kind of thing, but never saying it outright and so I never saw it: They’re asking their players to cooperate in creating the feel of a campaign. This can be sort of hard, but if you have mature, intelligent players who’re verse in the genre you’re trying to use to tell your story, it seems like a very, very good idea. So I’m going to give it a whirl with my Firefly campaign.

In thinking about this (note this is all theoretical at this point), I’ve identified a few points I think are important. Firstly, the players and you have to be able to reach an agreement of the genre at issue. Pointing to an existing work of fiction works very well, but a subclass could as well (It need not be Chinatown, but could be “noir private eye fiction”).

Secondly, the players have to agree to make choices and have reactions in line with the genre. If you’re doing a who-dun-it, then they should be expected to look for an opportunity to have the parlor scene and reveal everything. Likewise, the GM has to give them the right opportunities. This is sort of railroady, but also sort of not. You’re all agreeing to play with the same genre, which, when you get down to it, is a sort of formula of story bits. Or maybe, since I’m a linguist, a vocabulary of story bits would be a better term. The point is, you’re agreeing to use these units of story ahead of time, so expecting the players to use them seems reasonable to me.

Maybe this will seem like an obvious thing to do for some, but Stewart and I haven’t solved this GMing thing; we’re chronicling our exploration of techniques for being better at it. If it seems like I’ve made any naive assumptions here, or like I’ve missed a salient piece of advice regarding this, please point it out in the comments. I’m going to try this out with the next campaign and I could use the advice.

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