Users Guide: Genres in Gaming

The following article is the first in a series pertaining to the genres often found throughout tabletop role-playing. The lists and descriptions are meant to better explain the genres and create interest in players who do not understand what the genre is about. These lists will by no means be exhaustive but will attempt to discuss as many as possible.

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One common question that a Game Master may ask of their players is: What type of game do you want to play? The answer to this question can eventually lead to the experience that the players have and the setting the GM creates. Genres in Gaming will highlight the major genres while subsequent articles will focus on the sub-genres or specific setting types of those genres.

Probably the most popular genre found within tabletop role-playing, and undoubtedly the most prevalent, Fantasy finds its roots back to the creation of the original tabletop RPG Dungeons & Dragons. From that point on the Fantasy genre has flourished with a large listing of game systems, settings, and supplemental material. Fantasy contains elements of magic and medieval warriors without necessarily attempting to rationalize how magic and acts of heroism are possible throughout the setting. Humanoid races other than man are commonly found along with a large collection of fantastic, mystical, mythological, and elemental creatures or monsters. While it may not always make sense as to how these are possible, the Fantasy genre does not always attempt to explain it. To put it simply, this is what’s possible within the setting and that’s all you really have to worry about.

Fantasy finds much of its influential roots within the fictional writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and his creation of Middle-Earth detailing humanoid species such as Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and others. But along with Middle-Earth, Fantasy finds much influence from a long history of fairy tales, folklore, poetry, and ancient mythology. Certain aspects of Fantasy may also be influenced by the writings of Robert E. Howards Conan the Barbarian, the fictional magazine Weird Tales, and popular Children’s fiction writers like Lewis Carroll. While it may be hard to pinpoint a specific piece of fiction as the ultimate influence, it is easy to say that Fantasy has been around for centuries in one form or another and continues to grow and change as the years go by.

So why is Fantasy so popular? That I cannot answer, but I can form a couple of theories. One may be the opportunity to play a humanoid species other than man with new abilities and history. Another may be the ability to play a heroic character who can take his sword or axe and slay his enemies. Or maybe it’s the lure of the mystical creatures commonly found in popular Fantasy settings. Or maybe it’s just because everyone else is playing Fantasy too.

Science Fiction could easily be considered as the polar opposite of Fantasy. Science Fiction attempts to use technology to rationalize how things happen and why they have happened. With the use of either established or imagined scientific terminology, Science-Fiction creates a setting that is plausible and supposedly possible. While often being found in the future, Science Fiction should not be restricted to such an idea. After all, Science Fiction in a Victorian setting may seem low technology to us, but high technology to the Victorian age. It is the implementation of the setting that makes it Science-Fiction, not the period of time in which it is occurring.

While many may think Science Fiction is relatively new compared to Fantasy, it could be easily said that the thoughts and ideals of Science Fiction date back throughout all of history. Leonardo da Vinci put together designs and drawings that could be considered as Science Fiction of its time. While this may be a true statement, current Science Fiction takes most of its influence from fictional writings throughout the past 100 years. Early comic books and fictional magazines created a lot of Science Fiction ideas used throughout but published novels and TV and movie productions probably have a heavier influence. This, however, is very dependent upon the sub-genre of Science Fiction on where it most likely finds its influences.

Science Fiction often explores the entire galaxy, if not the universe, filled with alien species, dangerous space encounters, and maybe bits of chaos. While these ideas all have associated explanations, they still allow the mind to explore different areas it may have never thought before. Science Fiction also allows us to live places that normally wouldn’t be possible or build things that couldn’t normally be built. Things that normally wouldn’t make sense in any other genre, could easily be possible with a little logical reasoning in Science Fiction.

In itself, Horror is often more of a way to augment another genre rather than simply be its own genre. The underlying similarity between Horror settings is that the creatures or monsters encountered cause terror within the hearts and souls of the characters and are not to be taken lightly. These creatures and monsters are often significantly stronger than the characters and should be avoided when possible.

Horror could possibly trace its roots all throughout history. For as long as there has been an unknown, there have been people trying to explain it away as demons or other horrific creatures. Many of this can be found within the ideals of Vampires, Witches, or the Undead. In a more modern sense, the influences can be traced back to popular Horror fiction writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and possibly Stephen King. Wherever the influence, these creatures and monsters can range in size, stature, shape, and mannerisms. They may be intelligent in nature creating fear in a mental state or they can simply be disgusting and horrific and grip your emotional and physical fears creating a sense of ultimate terror.

Historical is possibly the most broad of all the genres as it covers a multitude of settings. Historical refers to any setting that takes place during an actual historical event, period, or era within Earth’s time-line. This could range from the Dark Ages to World War II. These settings are based on actual historical references but sometimes choose to interject their own changes. When a historical reference is changed it now becomes Alternate History.

Alternate History is pretty much the same as an Historical Setting except the designer has decided to alter the results, event, or locations in a way that make them different and possibly more interesting. While some aspect of the setting is changed, the overall framework and time-line are the same.

Being that the historical genre can be placed within any possible time period of Earth makes for a wide range of possible settings that could all be very different from each other. This brings about a wealth of unique gaming experiences instead of playing within the same type of setting perform the same mundane tasks. Another benefit to Historical gaming is the already published list of source material available. Considering these events actually happened the material discussing them has already been published.

One thing to keep in mind when looking at Historical (or Alternate History) gaming is what period interests you the most, what type of society would you like to participate in, and what changes have been made to the actual History that make the game more interesting.

Pulp came about from the pulp fictional publications during the first half of the 20th century. While the original term “pulp” referred to the type of paper these publications were produced with, it sparked an eventual unique style of games which don’t directly resemble Fantasy or Science-Fiction. Pulp fiction often contained a superhero or heroic figure performing fantastic feats through whatever means the fiction wanted. While this could be the super-gene of Captain America or the heroic deeds of Doc Savage, they all resemble one thing: heroic deeds have no bounds.

I have seen pulp referred to as High Adventure thinking back to the Indiana Jones movies and how exciting they were. While High Adventure may be a common theme, not all pulp needs to contain major action or adventure, but it often makes things more interesting. Pulp heroes can find themselves in all sorts of situations and locations typically taking place across the known and fictional locations within Earth.

Pulp is inherently flexible in that the hero may come across all walks of life and not think twice about it. It may be a heroic detective that tracks down horrific villains or an archaeologist that has stumbled across a lost land where dinosaurs still roam. Whatever it is, the story is often the important part along with the heroes ability to survive and make it action-packed and filled with interesting plot.

While it may feel like another Historical setting, the Modern genre does not need necessarily take place surrounding any type of Historical reference or event. It is simply a game set within the backdrop of the modern age using known places to travel within or items to utilize. Espionage and Investigation games are often set within the Modern genre drawing on technology and geography of 20th and 21st Centuries.

The Modern genre gathers influences from many different sources and plot-hooks can be found almost everywhere you turn. The benefit to this is that with each passing day, you gain new possible source material or ideas for an adventure or campaign. This could be basic fictional writings, the newspaper, a television series, or the latest movie.

So why isn’t Modern part of Historical? Because it doesn’t carry specific references to any historical event. The Modern genre is part of the backdrop or the setting, but does not necessarily dictate who or what you find throughout. I’m truly surprised at the lack of Modern settings, but maybe it’s because people don’t really want to role-play in a world they already know and experience every single day.

Initially, Cyberpunk was considered as a sub-genre of Science Fiction. I do not find this to be the case anymore. While its roots may lie within 1980’s Science Fiction, much of what Cyberpunk originally was has become more Modern in its thinking and thus does not require that Science-Fiction aspect. As such, I am placing Cyberpunk within its own genre.

Cyberpunk was traditionally near-future relying heavily on information-technology and artificial intelligence. But lately I have seen Cyberpunk implemented in a different way. The underlying theme is that Megacorporations are controlling the power of society rather than governments or there is a dystopian nature leading to the breakdown of society. Considering how real information-technology is compared to when Cyberpunk was first coined in the 1980’s, makes you think that the Science-Fiction aspect has been torn down a bit and possibly made more realistic. There are still Cyberpunk games that push the near-future setting out further so that new technology can be created, but you could also place these ideas in the near-past or an alternate universe. For all this, Cyberpunk has grown from its original Science-Fiction roots.

There are influences out there for Cyberpunk consisting of fictional writings and TV and Movie productions, but a valubable influence could be found within simple modern news with a significant twist. Cyberpunk is a creative way of taking Modern Society and tearing down the social walls to configure them in a more interesting way.

Like Cyberpunk, Post-Apocalyptic was initially categorized as a Science Fiction sub-genre. I completely disagree with this assessment. Considering many Post-Apocalyptic settings strip the world of technology, this doesn’t sound very Science Fiction to me. The underlying principal of Post-Apocalyptic is that the civilization that was is no longer due to some cataclysmic event. But this event could range from a nuclear fallout, to a massive volcano eruption, tear in the chaotic realm bringing demons to society, or even a giant meteor with destructive powers. So thus I am giving Post-Apocalyptic its own genre.

All throughout history people have prophesied the end of the world. Whether it be a rat plague or an alien invasion, there are always people who believe it will happen. Post-Apocalyptic is the setting after this cataclysmic event occurs. Society and civilization has changed so that most people are merely struggling to survive. While this may bring about new technology it may also bring out the resurgence of old technology. The basic principal is that Post-Apocalyptic could be a blend of almost any genre with some destructive force creating this new civilization. One could even take a campaign they just finished, change the ending so that the heroes didn’t thwart the evil forces, and you have a whole new setting to interact with.

With all these possibilities, it’s no wonder why this genre has substantially grown away from its Nuclear Fallout Science Fiction roots and into its own genre.

The Superhero genre is possibly one of the easiest to define. It takes the majority of its influences from Comic Books and Graphic Novels but often takes those ideals into new directions. One common theme in the Superhero genre is to create Superheroes that were actually present during a known Historical event. The basic principal of a Superhero game is that you character can perform fantastic feats without worrying about why. Characters are created by using an unlimited imagination and can from an almost indefinite list of powers.

Many aspects of the Superhero genre can be found throughout Fantasy, Science-Fiction, and Pulp. What’s different is that this genre brings all of those together and never worries about the odd collaboration between such different heroic powers. This offers maximum flexibility and encourages maximum creativity. Thus it is possible that one of the biggest draws for the Superhero genre is that you can create almost any character than can do almost anything imaginable.

Humor can be considered as both a genre and a way of augmenting another genre. While the simplest form of humor could be taking the form of talking animals that do somewhat silly things. A more complex form of humor would be taking an existing genre and adding some form of satire to it where the overall setting is the same but the results are meant to be more humorous than heroic.

Influences on humor can be virtually anything from a comic book to a parody of your favorite movie. The fun part about humor (or satire) gaming is that characters are meant to attempt great feats even with a high risk of failure, such is the purpose of the game. Humor can be a great escape from the norm or even a good way of playing games as a family.

Possibly one of the least common genres is Anime. Anime takes its influences from Japanese Anime and Manga and often alters or augments another genre. Some of the common ways this is done is an Anime-style Superhero or Fantasy game. So how is this different? Anime is often more over-the-top in the way actions are performed and the art style is typically much different in how it looks and feels compared to other genres.

While being a bit hard to describe but easy to identify visually, Anime is styled differently than similar games of other genres. There are often heavy martial arts influences and the action is typically meant to be cinematic and very animated.

Fictional is not a genre but rather an umbrella term I’m using to describe how a setting is constructed. While most non-Historical settings are fictional, this term is referring to the specific fictional works where the setting was derived. This could range from a series of published fictional writings, an ongoing TV series, or a trilogy of movies. The basics is that the PCs, NPCs, Monsters/Creatures, and/or locations are all extracted from these fictional works and placed within the setting. Some popular fictional settings are Middle-Earth, Star Trek, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

The appeal to creating a setting from existing fictional works is that the fans of those fictional works are now being given the opportunity to step within the world they know and enjoy and become a part of it.

Following in this series of articles will be in-depth looks at each genre, and its associated sub-genres, and identifying associated role-playing game. Feel free to post your comments or discussion points concerning genres in gaming.

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