Mix Genres, Open Doors


Halfling gunslingers toting lasers. Shape-shifting druids in an age when magic has been made obsolete by science, Dragons attacking nomads in the concrete jungles of a post-apocalyptic world. Oft times, mismatched technology can spawn player disinterest, killing the game. However, with a good GM balancing these factors, mixed genres can bring life and encourage greater storytelling than any undiluted game

In my brief history of role-play, there is one game in particular that stands out to me more than any other. Our cliché fantasy party was tromping through a cliché fantasy dungeon when we happened upon a very strange hallway. About every ten feet or so there were depressions about 5 square feet in size along the left-hand side of the wall. Upon closer inspection, we realized that these were merely an extension of the hallway, like walk-in closets missing humongous doors. Being suspicious, we determined to investigate every one of the protrusions, and we quickly learned that they served a purpose other than the architectural idioms of a deranged mind. We stepped into one particular member of the strange hallway protrusion community, and a large block fell from the roof.

It was trapped!

In short, we found a .48 caliber pistol in a fantasy dungeon.
Various other clichéd (and, therefore, highly entertaining) traps were sprung, including spring-loaded poison darts. After avoiding some traps, and taking considerable damage from others, we determined that there was a mystical SOMETHING that was being protected here. The party discovered a small chamber in the wall of the protrusion, and inside of it was the strangest object we had ever laid eyes upon. It was an L-shaped, metallic object, with one leg of the L appearing to be shaped to fit a hand, and the other leg being a tubular structure. Also including in the chamber was a pouch full of small metal objects, mostly cylindrical, but coned at the top. In short, we found a .48 caliber pistol and ammunition in a fantasy dungeon. No one knew how it got there, or even what it was or how to use it. We spent 38 of our precious 50 bullets figuring out how the dang thing worked, and even then our thief (the party's assigned marksman) couldn't hit a whale at 15 feet.

I'll never forget this pistol we found, or the ensuing adventures. One time in particular, we stumbled across a small, young, sleeping dragon, and figuring we could take it, crept into the room as quietly as possible. Plotting to seriously hamper it, we decided a head shot to the sleeping dragon was in order. However, the terrified thief's muscle control went ballistic,(Ouch, that was bad. Couldn't help it.) and he managed to bungle FOUR shots in a row (amazingly crappy rolls), and our ragtag little group barely managed to escape with our lives.

What made this experience so memorable? The addition of out-of-place technology changed the game drastically. Our GM could have given us a wand with 50 charges that functioned exactly the same as a pistol on paper, but that would not have been nearly as much fun. Not to mention that the question of how this gun came into our world opened up a plethora of (piñatas.... no, wait) new directions for our story to go. The party could learn of a wizard with the power to summon objects from alternate universes, or discover a wormhole in space that could take us to never-before-seen lands? Or, it could be a ridiculously ahead-of-his-time blacksmith/tinker? The possibilities are endless.

Perhaps the most widely-known example of the success of mixed genres is none other than the Star Wars series. "But wait," you may say, "Star Wars is hard-core science fiction!" According to just about every definition of movie genres I can think of, Star Wars falls neatly into science fiction category, and none other. However let's take a quick look at the major driving faction in the story: The Jedi Knights. What are Jedi, but samurai transplanted into a foreign universe, endowed with abilities that would, in any fantasy setting, be known as magic? The Jedi call it The Force. I call it great storytelling.

Star Wars incorporates many different themes...
The key to the widespread popularity of Star Wars is that it incorporates many different themes that all, characteristically, have their own genre. The forbidden love of Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala is all too common in the romance/soap opera theater. The small, righteous rebellion against the large, menacing Empire is a popular perspective told throughout our own history. And where would Star Wars be without the mythic cliché of Luke's sudden discovery that the most evil being in the universe is his father?

So, why even bother with a mixed genre? I mean, it functions pretty much the same on paper as any solitary game, right? There are many advantages to such a system. One, for example, is that more specialized anything gets, the smaller the market for that object becomes. Expand your market by expanding your product, a combination of several different genres appeals to a larger crowd. People are more likely to try something new if it contains familiar elements. Fantasy buffs, Cyberpunk enthusiasts, and Horror fans all come together to play Shadowrun.

One of the major advantages of a combination game is that it opens doors for greater storytelling. Players will usually reciprocate the level of creativity that they feel the GM is putting forth, not necessarily the creativity that he actually is. A whole new world, so to speak sparks enthusiasm in both character creation and actual gameplay, while a world that appears to be the same as the last one with different nametags will stunt originality, even with a different string of events. A world that appears totally new, but somewhat familiar will catch the player's interest. A higher player interest almost guarantees a deeper interest in a player character, leading to more interesting characters, leading to a more interesting game.

Try this with your next game, be it a one-shot or a long campaign. Have a discussion with your players on what type of game they'd like to have in the future, including genre, what ideas are being explored, and generic activities. Find out which genre seems to be the most popular, and have that as the basis. Take every other genre mentioned and incorporate elements from it into this new game. If you'd like to introduce them to a new style, go ahead and throw that in too. It's often entertaining to combine a number of clichés from different styles into one game. "The groups of heroes, chosen by birth, are on a quest to retrieve the magical plot device/artifact in order to save the galaxy from the evil demon warlord, who happens to be the head of the largest religious cult of the universe. To do so, they strap on their blasters and head for Planet A, where they find that the plot device/artifact is actually the crown/scepter/senatorial paraphernalia/puppy dog of Planet A's leader. Taking the palace/manor by brute force is nigh impossible, but a stealth mission may succeed. Or, perhaps, PC's could infiltrate the leader's society enough to befriend him/her persuade him/her to give the plot device to the party.

Glaring contradictions in technology can be humorous.
Glaring contradictions in technology level can be humorous and highly entertaining. Ninja Burger, for example. Why in the world would you need an undercover fast-food chain with employees trained in the elite ninja arts? Because it's funny. However, a more serious game often has little room for obvious clashing technology. One of the more entertaining parts in creating a mixed world is attempting to disguise your blend. Again, another shining point of Star Wars, the simple question of "How do I make a sword work in high-technology?" led to the creation of the lightsaber, possibly the most endeared piece of technology in all of fiction. Turn a magic spell into a gadget that does the same thing, or have a magic sword. The assimilation of such things into a foreign setting can also open doors to higher creativity and originality. Decide what you want to happen before deciding how it actually does. This is one of those moments that a makes the GM's role worth all the work, the private joke. "Ha! My Horror-loathing players are smack dab in the middle of a horror adventure, and they don't even realize it!"

The possibilities of a role playing game are endless. However, a mixed genre facilitates the discovery of some of the more obscure and entertaining ones. Stuck for ideas? Try it, you'll like it.

All that being said.......

"And after it rains, there's a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It's not that the colors aren't there,
It's just imagination they lack"
-from Simon & Garfunkel's "My Little Town"

Reminds me of the early days of Gamma World, when it came out.

Wow, it's quiet in here.....

::crickets chirping::

Any thoughts? Comments? Feedback?

"And after it rains, there's a rainbow
And all of the colors are black
It's not that the colors aren't there,
It's just imagination they lack"
-from Simon & Garfunkel's "My Little Town"

Still summer-time. Gonna remain quiet for a bit.

I think genre-blending can be fun and disruptive. I do enjoy adding some non-characteristic elements into certain campaigns. I use Cthulhuian monsters in my fantasy games, and have, in another game, a barbarian with power armor and a force sword. I have written articles for this site crossing TV shows with other shows and genres. Conversely I really got tired of battling Ninja and werewolves in a western game.

Whether to cross genre boundaries depends upon the GM, the players, and the campaign expectations. If a setting crossed traditional lines, as the Star Wars example, it is not really a genre shift. This is similar to Gamma World or other lost world games, where tech exists, but is rarely found, owned or used. The Wheel of Time series by Jordan uses this also. Blue Planet is not Sci-Fi Pirates, it is the Blue Planet setting. This is different from finding a pistol in a fantasy game. First contact situations (Star Trek or Traveller) where the PCs must behave like more primitive folks is also not mixed genre. Its a part of the setting.

That said. A GM can give out too much High-tech equipment and ruin the game, players can abuse the tech and ruin the game, and if players are expecting pure X, Y may ruin it for them.


One last thing. Star Wars has never been considered (by me at least) hard core scifi. It is Science Fiction, but like most, it has a lot of fantasy rolled in.

I think that the idea is awesome, but it would take quite the GM to be able to pull it off. I mean the more doors that you open, the mores places you leave for the player to go to and pull solutions from. It leaves it so that they can totally deviate from the course that the GM may have in mind if the GM isn't careful.