Design Essentials: Genre Engineering


Installment-3 in the series of general game design discussion. An old interview of Sid Meier provides some "topic seeds" on taking play elements from one type of game and employing them in another format. The subject is developed with examples from Gamegrene contributors actively cultivating ideas on genre-splicing game designs.

Previous: [ I ] | [ II ]

Genre Splicing

Before Sid Meier programmed his first computer game hit he played a lot of board games and was, in his own words, "into Avalon Hill". While he doesn't credit inspiration to A.H. in the chapter 2 interview of Game Design: Theory & Practice (Amazon) Meier admits to gaining "seed ideas" from board games. Those seeds sprouted game titles that are now of legendary status; F-15 Strike Eagle, Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, Civillization and many more.

What the board games provided, according to the prolific computer game designer, was distilled research and a framework of what is fun and compelling about a topic. Not coincidentally Gamegrene's own prolific adventure designers -- and Time's Person of the Year (we are legion) -- Whutaguy, Cocytus, Scott Free, and others I haven't discovered -- also employ cross-pollination techniques.


Based on the seed ideas comment it is no surprise that Sid Meier starts with a topic before deciding on a genre for a new game idea. We make take that the category of game is flexible while the play subject is the critical focal point. It may seem backward to adventure writers who are creating for a specific game format, but Scott Free's suggestion on Cry Havoc! could be taken differently. The examples are clearly cross-genre solutions.

Why Cross-Design?

So why bother with juggling game elements at all? In the most general of terms, nothing exists in a vacuum. It is the nature of humans to test their environment, to play with things so to speak. Complex games are more susceptible to "improvements" through adaption and refinement than simple ones, so adaptations of various RPG systems will be more common than chess versions, but no game is immune.

Some more specific reasons:
1.) Solve problems
In the "Cry Havoc!" example my motivation is to distinguish different gameplay phases for D&D characters. Early on, individual character development is at the forefront in D&D. Rolling up a character can be a very involved (and frustrating) process but once it is complete the task of developing or refining the character is much simpler. At no later point will more detailed traits (abilities, feats, skills, story) be set or changed in one instance than at creation. Along the standard development path each subsequent level increases the ratio of established traits to gained attributes.

At the same time the characters are growing in relation to the game world in an opposite arc. Enemies and challenges are growing more complex. The characters move from common rat-zingers (apologies to the Pope) and progress to more substantial targets like dragons and liches. The question of basic survival transforms into what epic mark they may make on the world.

One specific cue for me was the Leadership feat. Whether or not the specialization is selected, characters should be gaining notoriety, power and influence on par with the feat. Their nemeses will certainly be attracting followers and utilizing hirelings. At this point characters take their first steps past the micromanagement stage and into macro-management territory. To promote the feel of that shift, I wanted to mix in mass battles with the individual encounters, to move them from saving themselves to "saving the princess" to saving whole kingdoms.

The immediate problem was large scale conflicts were clunky with the edition of D&D in use. I tried D&D Miniatures with some success but was limited by newness of the product at the time, the randomization marketing strategy and my own limited purchasing power. There were some orcs, for example, but not all the types of orc troops I needed. Learning the combat system, however similar, helped eat up a whole evening on one battle. Switching between mass-battle rules to standard D&D rules was a problem in sevral instances.

Fusing parts of a game like Cry Havoc into D&D could have created a nice, seamless solution.

2.) Focus on or emphasize different parts of gameplay
The D&D Miniatures game itself is an example of genre-splicing. Characteristics from D&D were melded with a minis wargame category. It focused on the action and tactical parts of D&D and eliminated rolling of characters entirely, a very refreshing change for some, but still shallow enough not to displace the role of the mother game.

3.) Creating new gameplay
Toying with the interplay of mechanisms and systems for new and interesting experiences is game design at its bleeding edge.

Let us return to the question in an earlier topic about whether repainting a Monopoly board qualifies as game design. If the repainted board added more streets and some stoplights, incurring new game mechanics, and new character capabilities were added beyond roll, move, buy, sell and otherwise exchange money, then we would have a budding game in development. Defacing or enhancing an opponent's properties and neighborhoods with graffiti, homeless and drug dealers.

4.) [ Your answer here ]
What reasons do you have for tampering with a game's set-up? "House rules" are universally recognized but the reasons are not often discussed.

A to B and Back Again

A lot of your games seem to be inspired in part from board games. But, as you just said, Civilization would never really work as a board game.
--Rouse to Meier in the GD:T&P interview

Whether or not the the Civ game works as a board game I can't say, but they are certainly selling it. Board games seeded the Civ series which in turn inspired a board game.

Other games such as the Axis & Allies series made excellent conversions to computer versions and later a miniatures game (link). Could those software versions in turn inspire board games?

Pencil and paper RPG inspired MUDs to MMOGs, some of which inspired d20 rule sets and campaign settings in return.


Genre-changing generally goes beyond additions and enhancements. Gameplay "radicals", portions or parts of gameplay, like mini-games and puzzles, can be used to add flavor to a game without changing the category outright, the only risk being whether the addition is a bonus and not a distraction to the original gameplay.

  • What reasons do you have for genre engineering?
  • Which comes first for you, genre or topic? Something else?
  • What other reverse-genrengineering examples are present or possible?
  • What games are choice for adoption or genre-engineering?

The reason that this hobby of ours is so great and different from all of the many others is the freedoms it allows us. The whole concept behind roleplaying was the idea that one could have an experience similar to reading a novel, watching a movie, or playing a video game that was much more interactive. Rather than just viewing the story, the players could CREATE it. The use of a Game Master helps us to separate the story and events from the characters.

Roleplaying is unique in that is probably the best medium to process the actions and reactions of individuals. Because the person who created and controls their character only has the knowledge that the character does (in theory, anyway), RPG characters are more likely to flesh out as actual people and less likely to become pawns of the storyteller, fit for only pushing the story forward.

That being said, I tend to view roleplaying more as a creative exercise than simple entertainment, although it also fulfils that requirement. We as human like to push the envelope, explore new frontiers, see how far we can bend the rules before they break, and craft new rules when the old ones have shattered.

With the entire purpose of roleplay being the desire to craft a world and a life in our liking, is it any wonder that "house rules" and customization of popular rules systems are so common?

What are the reasons for "tampering with a game's set-up"? There are many. Humans have a penchant for doing things simply "because we can". In general, we also prefer our own solutions to somebody else's, and we revise rules to a way that fits our personal tastes.

Sometimes an idea or rules mechanic sounds and looks great on paper, but never quite functions as ideally as it was envisioned. Usually playtesting catches most of these bugs, but the occasional oddities always manage to slip through the cracks. Streamlining a game to the GM's and his players' liking increases the enjoyment factor for that group of people, and who doesn't like joy?

Other times a rules mechanic simply doesn't mesh well with a GM or a player. A great example of this is myself: I love the versitility and point-buy system that GURPS offers, but when it gets down to the way advanced combat and magic are presented, I find the rules to be too clunky for my tastes. For this and other reasons I will discuss later, I'm considering creating my own revised system of magic to use with GURPS.

The rules system also contributes greatly to the feel of a game. I have played fantasy genres in both d20 and GURPS, and while the setting for both games was fairly similar, the tone and mood of these two games were very different. Often times the rules used don't quite create the feel we are looking for, and so we tweak things.

The Dark Sun campaign setting for DnD is a wonderful example of this, particularly the once third-party, now officialized conversion to 3.5 ( While still using a core DnD engine, some core classes were eliminated entirely (the sorcerer, paldin, and monk mainly), some were changed massively (bards and wizards), and some were changed to a lesser degree (clerics). Existing races were changed pretty drastically (elves are nomadic raiders, and dwarves are hairless!), and some new ones were added. Both arcane and divine magic functions differently in Dark Sun, and the addition of psionics introduces a new flavor to the mush that is Dungeons & Dragons. All in all, Dark Sun's authors have created a very different feel that is still inherently DnD.

Similarly, a new rules mechanic can be useful to explore new themes. I referenced a new magic system in the works of my head earlier. One thing that had occured to me was that culture shock is a rather overlooked element of adventure-style RPGs. People tend to stick with the ideas they grew up with, even in the face of disproving evidence. In an effort to raise the level of culture shock in a campaign, I am working on a magic system that changes with the perspective of the individual using it. I planned on using a system of magical "schools" to influence this, with each wizard being restricted to a single focused school. For example, a magic-user from a merchant community of a fantasy empire may have a fairly traditional division of schools, such as Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, perhaps specializing in Water. A hedge-wizard from a farming community, however, might devide magical effects into seasons, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring, specializing in, say, Spring. The hedge-wizard would be blown away by the fact that the merchant wizard could use magic to both freeze water and melt ice, for those events clearly fall (pun intended) under different seasons. The merchant wizard understands that both freezing and melting have to do with water stuff, and it's this understanding that allows him to do so. Even after having seen it done, the hedge-wizard would not be able to replicate the magic, as he was raised with the idea that these are two very different events.

Reverse-genrengineering? The biggest example I can think of is the Warcraft series. Warcraft began as a real-time strategy game, and slowly added more and more RPG elements (I mean that in the video game RPG sense, and not the tabletop sense) , including spells for magical units, and, eventually, "heroes" that could become stronger by gaining experience and gain more abilities. Then came the massive MMORPG (or MMOG, if that offends fewer people) that is World of Warcraft, the board game, and, eventually, the tabletop supplements for various systems, including on created specifically for itself.

So yeah, those are my thoughts. Did I forget anything?

"Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life."
-Terry Pratchett

So yeah, those are my thoughts. Did I forget anything?
If you did you are more than welcome to post a round 2!

It will take me some time to fully digest your post (I'm a bit slow) but you've hit on some really interesting ideas. One that occurred to me is exploring how to leverage the unique aspects of the hobby that you pointed out. There are many articles on GM issues in tabletop RPGing but not so many of creating from the player position (that I know of). I've definitely experienced the new heights that can be achieved with creative players. So from a designer's perspective, how could that be facilitated or enhanced? Good food for thought.

Thanks for the link and other leads too.

For this and other reasons I will discuss later, I'm considering creating my own revised system of magic to use with GURPS.
I'm really looking forward to this.

I think that genre is about expectation and metaphor.
When we identify a genre we are identifying a set of expectations and a set of images that will accompany it. Horror, for instance, has set of images: blood, darkness, moon, wolves, bats, spiders, creaking, gothic architecutre, mirrors, fog, candlelight. Each of these images is more than an object but a connection back to the theme -- darkness, fog, mirrors, and candlelight have a common connection to the obfuscation of reality or barriers to percerption that are essential to horror. The writer can interchange these elements or compound them to explore the concept of the setting. Genre works with methaphor because the audience realizes how the metaphor works to enchance the theme.
A good writer always gives a reader what they want, but in an unexpected way. Mixing genres allows a storyteller to bring archetypes forward to skew the value judgements of the audience. Firefly, the TV series, is a good example of this. Whedon (the writer) uses wild west imagry within a science fiction setting. The reader is asked to place frontier concepts of hardship, injustice, and violence into the science fiction setting. I believe he does this because he expects the audience to have experienced Star Trek - a space frontier exploration lacking in the three elements listed above. If he didn't use the wild west images he would be fighting against the concepts of "science fiction television genre" and the audiences preconcieved notions. With television you have so little time to "reform" your audience. I thought Firefly was wonderful.

I'm not a fan of mixing genres in RPG's as much. Your audience has time to aclimatize to your world. You have time to invert whichever metaphors you like. Therefore you should be striving to define your own genre. I would argue that d20 D&D fantasy is pretty much its own genre. Proliferation of mundane magic, clear definitions of good and evil, and the vagrant social class (adventurers) being highly respected and extremely wealthy, are not elements of fantasy -- but derived from fantasy RPG's.

Part of the allure of games like GURPS and Rolemaster are their opportunity to break some other d20 game expectations that I didn't list (I am sure there are a pretty handful).

I really like the example of Dark Sun from above as it also supports my point. The authors of the game had to break some D&D rules to step out of the game just a little bit and create something with its own flavour. They didn't re-invent the game rules, so it is still recognizably D&D.

Excellent article Aozora! My take -- mixing genres is difficult and dangerous. Most people who do it will fail, because they do it to be "clever" without realizing that they may have brought more than they bargained for into their game. You can't just bring a colt revolver into the game without bringing in a metaphor for imperialism, industrialization, and frontier justice. The item is connected to many things and evokes many ideas. It can also bring Earth into your game. A colt revolver is specific to a time period in our history. Do you want to make that connection?

Sure, my players met a great Dwarven toysmith named "Tonka" who built industructible carriages and chariots from metal. It is a game. You should have fun with it. As a very side tangent I don't think it threatens the fabric of the game. It suggests a connection between our world and that of the game, but doesn't transplant elements.

Can I stir some controversy in the Halls of Gamegrene by saying "NO" to mixed genres? One vote for genre segregation.

In response to Gilgamesh'comment saying no to genre-splicing, I say yes with a but.

The very popular Shadowrun is a positive result of this technique. It successfully mixed fantasy with cyberpunk (itself a hybrid). Inversely there are a great number of failed splices (or at least less popular) such as Space: 1889 (actually not a bad product, just not for me).

I think there is more to be discussed here than straight splicing (oxymoronic, I know). While technically included in genre-splicing, there is also anachronism, cross-over, and flavoring.

Joss Whedon used western flavoring on his sci-fi work. This is not to say that his universe could not support a western show with sci-fi flavor, but it would have been a different set of characters in a entirely different show.

Cross-over is more Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Teen movie crossing into horror. As a side note, I've not watched the TV series, I speak only from the movie. The X-Files had real crime crossing into alien conspiracy.

Anachronism is more Brisco County Jr. where he was always looking for things to come, or many "historical" pieces where someone is set against slavery is inhumane, despite owning several.

Sadly it is easy for cross-over and anachronism to get out of hand and change the flavor of a game. Knights with light-sabres and fusion-bikes seems like a cool idea, but gets stale quickly (unless your group is all munchkin, then they need to be FLYING fusion bikes).

I do think that skillful splicing is where the next big seller comes from. Star Trek is largely Drama with action flavoring, and WWE is Soap Opera spliced with Action.

I did find the idea of defining a genre by its characteristics intrgueing.


My apologies if I've rambled a bit. I tend to wax long-winded when I get excited about what I'm writing.

Wow, looking back over my post, I think its about as long as the original article. Hmm....

"I'm really looking forward to this."

Right now the idea is just brewing in my head. I've detailed it briefly in my previous post, and I plan to one day put it down in rules mechanics and submit it as an article here on Gamegrene for revision and possibly playtesting. Who knows when/if that will happen, though....

"Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life."
-Terry Pratchett

No apologies needed, please ramble as you feel the urge.

I'm still basking in the sun of the "when I get excited about what I'm writing" comment.

Can I stir some controversy in the Halls of Gamegrene by saying "NO" to mixed genres? One vote for genre segregation.

I sure hope so! Some controversy is often is a good dynamic. Gives perspective on things. I will have to think over the implications of how I applied the ideas to RPGs.

In any case, you're caution about mixing genres should be taken before every attempt. Thanks for the great examples too.

(P.S. Do you have a picture of Tonka?)

My design vocabulary is expanding with every post. This is great!

The degree of adaptation makes for a huge amount of difference.