B1 Series • #1
Role playing games, like any storytelling medium, often reside within the boundaries of certain defined themes and tones. This sort of compartmentalization gives rise to narrowing viewpoints and constrained story options. How often have you heard, or even thought, “I only play fantasy games” or something similar? Just looking on shelves in game stores lets us see what is, in all honesty, a kind of segregation in the hobby as the book covers featuring ray gun-packing and magic wand-wielding characters never mix. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Once upon a time, fantasy literature was pretty free with its comingling of themes and tones during the classic pulp era. (It is good to remember that “science fiction” is considered a sub-genre element of “fantasy.”) The amazing John Carter of Mars stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs are a prime example as technology, archaic weapons, high adventure and travel between worlds mix into an intriguing whole. It’s science fiction, it’s fantasy, it’s even romance all in one loosely-tied and pretty flexible package.
This sort of approach also pops up in the gaming hobby industry from time to time. In the old days, there was a grand setting known as the Wilderlands of High Fantasy that was pretty popular because of its detail and its scope. A component element, The City-State of the Invincible Overlord, gets the most memorials but there was an incredible amount of great material throughout the entire campaign world. One of the things that made it special was its embrace of the old pulp mindset. Sprinkled across some of the more remote wilderness areas of the map were ruins of mysterious and ancient technology. Be it strange machinery, weird weapons or even more “non-fantasy” things, there were ways to stretch beyond the traditional limits of the D&D milieu.
We are seeing this in the modern hobby age with the Numenera setting. Game designer Monte Cook and his team have melded fantasy, science fiction and even a bit of weird horror into a very flavorful whole. It is a dystopian world replete with fantasy tropes, albeit ones with a decidedly modern interpretation. But woven into all of that is an undeniably strong sci-fi vibe with all of the ancient relics of epochs gone by strewn about the setting. This mixing permeates all elements of the game’s story and mechanical elements with the result being a highly innovative advancement of the game storytelling process.
Even with all of these examples around us, it can be hard to move past the tried-and-true standards of genre confinement. It is difficult to reach past what easily comes to mind when writing an adventure or crafting a setting in order to grasp something new and unique. But the effort is very worthwhile because it stretches one’s creative muscles and because it widens the scope of what is possible in a game. By no means is this attempt to say that cool ideas cannot come from a single thematic principle! But introducing elements or flavors from another genre opens up more options for plot development, story progression and even character choice.
In the next few installments, the College of Gaming Micro-Blog’s contributors will be presenting their thoughts on genres and some examples of things they have done in their games. We hope that you come away with an appreciation of different genres and the inspiration to try some of your own experiment with them.
Until next week, peace and good gaming to you all!