Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Road Less Traveled

If I picked up anything from Adventure Burner, it's that setting can have a profound influence on the game. A lot of games, though, have settings so traditional they're almost trite. You have your basic proto-medieval fantasy, your basic proto-futuristic space opera (though fewer of those), your basic proto-four-color superhero world, etc.

But then there are the alternatives.

Setting, system, and dosage genre

To head off the likely semantic arguments, let's first pin down some terminology.

Genre refers to the general milieu of the game, be it fantasy, science-fiction, superhero, etc. There are some assumptions across each setting. For instance, in the fantasy setting, it's assumed that there will be magic and monsters. Generally. (The area of "fantasy" can be slippery.) In the science-fiction setting, you generally assume there will be advanced technology like beam weapons and spaceships. And so on.

There may be trouble and confusion because "genre" may be used to describe the conventions when used in a different setting. For instance, if you have a contemporary setting, that setting is referred to as "contemporary fantasy."

I present tone as the emotional coloring of a blend of genre and setting. I had noted in an earlier write of this piece that horror as a genre got around quite a bit. It had its roots in the contemporary setting, except when it worked as a fantasy game, or a science-fiction game, or what have you. Then it occurred to me: Horror got around too much, and was present in multiple genres and settings. So comedy, hope, and other base play styles would be represented on the tone axis.

And system refers to the game's rules and mechanics. Often there is a strong tie between system and other attributes. Does the genre call for wizards? Then you're going to need mechanics to handle the learning and casting of spells. Are you going to have spaceships? Sooner or later two ships will meet who want to blast each other out of the sky. Will you have Secrets Man It Turns Out Really Doesn't Want To Be Burdened By? There will be mechanics for fear, stress, and/or sanity loss. And don't get me started on the traditional superhero game. All these special cases need rules to match.

While genre and setting are independent and can be mismatched to interesting effect, more often than not they're joined at the hip. If it's in the fantasy genre, it's most likely a medieval setting of some sort. If it's in the science-fiction genre, a lot of it is the space-opera type. If it's in the superhero genre, more often than not it's contemporary and apes the style of the modern comic book. There's also quite a bit of contemporary fantasy, usually with a particularly dark tone ("contemporary horror" to its friends).

This is the situation, and I dislike it with a burning passion. Let us not speak of the clichés again, and instead talk about those places where things are different.

When a mere twist won't cut it

The blending of genre and setting isn't exactly a hard and fast rule, and for that reason other games aren't going to get talked about here.

For instance, Freemarket which I've reviewed here before and generally like is disqualified for this article. Why? It's a contemporary science-fiction game, and while it all takes place on a single space station with not a single spacship, it's still what I'd call futuristic science-fiction.

Likewise, even though I like a lot of the thought process behind the GUMSHOE game Mutant City Blues, being a primarily detective game doesn't rescue it from being a contemporary superhero game. I need to give the whole GUMSHOE line-up some review love, but not this trip.

Mix and Mash

Let's talk about some of those games which mix things up to good effect.

Catalyst Game Labs' Shadowrun got such a start. It was the 1980s, cyberpunk was cresting as a style, D&D was riding high, it seemed like a novel idea to mash them up. Fantasy races in a near-future setting? It was "cyberpunk fantasy." And it was popular enough to survive its first publisher. If there's anything bad to say about it in this discussion, it's that it gained such fame that it's practically a genre unto itself now. If the goal is to find interesting, quirky, weird little mismatches of genre and setting, Shadowrun may almost have missed the mark by hitting it too big.

Teenagers From Outer Space is another odd combination: a contemporary world with a high-velocity infusion of science-fiction level technology.

And Cthulhu Tech is an especially devious take on the horror genre: it features a near future setting, with the beginnings of space travel, combined with elements of horror. It's a future-fantasy setting.

Generally, though, you don't see a whole lot of examples of this. Unless you make them yourself, but that's for later.

Toto, I Don't Think We're in Eisengard anymore!

You can only get so much mileage out of atypical combinations of typical setting and typical genre. To really go places, and that's what I really wanted to talk about here, you have to start with a genre or setting (usually a setting) that is grossly under-represented.

Pinnacle Entertainment Group's Deadlands is a fine example of a nonconventional setting. It started with a genre that has hardly been touched upon—the near-antebellum western setting—and beat it roughly with the twin bludgeons of fantasy and horror until it became the delightfully misshapen lump that it is today. It didn't so much outlast its first publisher, but it did outlast its printing. If you want to get the original rulebook which used cards, multiple dice, and poker chips, you'll have to get PDFs.

Another grossly under-represented genre is 1950s Cold War Germany. World War II ended, but then someone retconned in all these horror elements, giving rise to the treat that is Contested Ground's Cold City. The elements of conflict between the nationalities of character on the Reserve Police Agency, contrasted against the horrors of science unhinged makes for some potentially interesting play as you can't really trust anyone.

Colonial Gothic gave the American Colonies in the run-up to the Revolutionary War an especially mean twist: A variant historical setting rife with fantasy with a few dashes of horror. For that "variant" part the author expressly uses the term "secret history" to obscure a history rife with conflict between supernatural agencies, obscure brotherhoods, and political aspirants.

The combination of fantasy and horror and early American history seems to be rising. You have the early 1800s western sensibilities of Dogs in the Vineyard, and if you go back farther into the late 1600s you can pursue horrors in Witch Hunter.

Grimm is an obscure little ditty with a fairy-tale setting (the title describes both the source and a bit of the style). The player characters are children. They're not necessarily children in The Zorceror of Zo, which ganks its hauntingly familiar and ill-defined setting from a certain other "Spellcaster of A Kingdom With Two Letters In Its Name" series of stories, but the setting is pretty openly defined, which makes for potential. A fantasy setting, perhaps, but rescued from the cliché bannination this trip because any medieval trappings are ersatz, chunky, and could just as easily feature anthropomorphized animals or be made out of candy.

Fill in the Blanks

Some games try to fill the genre without the setting. Or they describe the setting and leave the genre open for you. And admittedly, some do a better job of this than others. D&D is supposed to be fantasy roleplaying without pretense of setting, but then they have the assorted setting books, and that collection of monsters hasn't changed significantly in the past twenty-some years, etc. It practically has the lock on the medieval fantasy combination, so for this reading, screw them.

Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, and Rolemaster aspire to more generalized fantasy. They let the GM (and/or the players in the case of the former) come up with the minutiae. They're going to be fantasy games, but whether they're medieval fantasy or something cut from refreshingly different whole cloth is an option available to the GM and players.

shock is a generalized science-fiction game where as part of play the players decide what kind of world they're going to play in. The campaign can change with every play. Space Master (a science-fiction cousin to Rolemaster isn't quite as flexible, but it does allow for play in whatever science-fiction setting the players wish.

Cartoon Action Hour is worth mentioning here because it theoretically allows for any genre and any setting (the GM can fill in all those details), but actively encourages a particular style and tone of play: the half-hour toy commercials of the 1980s. (No, really.) The genre and setting are left up to the GM and players to hash out, but the rules pretty much encourage the playing of one particular tone, to the point that they say the rules will need modifying before it can handle cartoons from the 1960s and 1970s. Admittedly this was a trick first played by Toon, which is still available, but Cartoon Action Hour will typically play a relatively serious genre with tongue firmly planted in cheek, making it a drier kind of humor.

For a trip in the other direction, Dread will take any genre and setting and give it a nightmarish horror twist. Low fantasy? High fantasy? Science-fiction? If it's a genre where you count success by surviving the adventure, this is a good choice of game. However, it may be a bit of an acquired taste, since all mechanics are run through a Jenga game.

And sometimes you want rules that will stand up to anything. Any system sufficiently flexible to handle multiple genres will also generally handle multiple settings and tones too. GURPS is a very well-known generic system, and rightly so. HERO has strong roots in many forms of contemporary play, and is well-adapted to powered (superhero or fantasy) play, but really the system has aimed for generic in recent generations and should be counted as generic too. If a system can benefit from world books, call it generic.

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