Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:
The next item on the checklist is genre.
- Statement of your genre. What “kind” of a show is this? A drama? A sit-com? A science-fiction show? A reality show? A documentary? An anthology? Then break it down further by setting. Is it a medical drama? A legal drama? A family drama? A mystery? A police procedural? Is it a romantic sit-com? A workplace sit-com? A family sit-com? If it’s a science-fiction show, does it take place in the present? The future? On earth? On a distant planet? On a starship or space station? The more specific the descriptor you have, the better. Historically, certain genres have been more successful than others. Since the beginning of broadcast TV, these have been police procedurals, medical dramas, detective mysteries, and legal dramas. What do these all have in common? All involve characters who work in the service of others. This makes them instantly sympathetic, regardless of their individual personality quirks. Who cares of a character is an abusive, arrogant asshole as long as he/she can save your life?
Our Roger and I had a bit of a discussion about genre last week, in the aftermath of a discussion of favourite genres for RP that took place on a different forum. Together we bemoaned the fact that the well-known genres that have been established by the marketing departments of publishing firms and film and TV studios are act as constraints on the creators (“write another one like your last good one, exactly the same but different”) and shelving instructions to the retailers and renters. Because of that the established genres drive the production of extruded genre product (rote fantasy etc.), and make it difficult for most writers to get the original, creative material that they actually want to write published. Which might not be defensible if the constraint actually came from readers’ preferences, but isn’t because many readers are likewise starved of the varied and innovative stories they are looking for. They also lead to e.g. hard SF idea stories being bound and shelved in such a way as to deliberately disguise the fact that they aren’t stock adventures tricked out with space fighters and blaster guns. Which is a nuisance to both the readers who want something like The Martian and the readers who want something like a Timothy Zahn SWEU novel.
The first issue is not, I think, as big a a problem in the RPG hobby. Many GMs want to run, and many players want to play, a fairly steady diet of what you might call extruded dungeon-crawl product. They want fresh variations all the time, but variations on a comfortably familiar theme. Established brands such as D&D and Pathfinder suit them well, and do no harm to anyone else. For most of us hobbyist GMs, those of us creating our own campaigns and therefore interested in this discussion thread about how to do so, there are no editors nor marketing executives standing between us and our art. Genres don’t (I think) restrict creativity in the RPG hobby. (It might be an issue in the industry, though. Perhaps those of us who have written commercial RPG material might like to share their feelings. Can you get your good stuff published?)
Anyway, is genre important to GMs who are devising their own campaigns? Is it as important as Allen Ury tells us it is for writers creating new TV series? Is it important for the same reason? What is genre for in RPGs, when they aren’t going to be shelved in a bookshop? Those questions aren’t entirely rhetorical. I think I have at best partial answers to them, and would like to hear from everyone else.
One thing that I think a statement of genre does for an RPG is to help promote the campaign to the correct players, attracting the interest of those who are likely to enjoy it, and steering away those who are not. In that way it acts a bit like the shelving of books by publishers’ category in a bookshop or library. Another thing that I think it does is to establish for character players a guideline as to what sorts of characters they ought to generate, and what sort of things those characters ought to do in play. It’s not just a hook for the marketing, but also an axiom for the writers’ room, one of the keys to harmonious collaboration. It’s a component or perhaps an aspect of the campaign ethos, of the X and Y in “the PCs are X who do Y in setting Z”.
This brings us to my reason for having emphasised the sentence “[t]he more specific the descriptor you have, the better” when quoting Ury at the top of this post. As a guideline to character-players in their creative contribution to the campaign, the statement of genre has do be a lot more specific than the kind of marketing category that includes 2001: a Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Marketing categories are designed to lure in as many punters as possible; the statement of genre in for any RPG campaign ought to rule out as many inappropriate characters and behaviours as possible. (Without, of course, ruling out too much that would be, perhaps unexpectedly, appropriate. The statement has to be not just specific but accurate.)
If that’s right we ought to be able to see that some of the conventional genre distinctions that have been erected by marketing executives, critics, and theorists are not the categories that we want when we specify our campaigns. Even some of the distinctions that are important for RPG systems are not incisive for RPG campaign specifications. For example, one of the suggested genres in the discussion that Our Roger and I discussed in the conversation that I mentioned at the beginning of this post was “Historical”. “Historical”, or better some narrower band of historical such as “late Victorian”, might be be a well-chosen specialisation for a set of RPG rules, helping to limit the lists of skills, weapons, equipment, social traits etc., it really doesn’t give players even a hint of what characters they ought to generate and how they ought to play them. Even without elements of weird fiction, SF, fantasy, or horror as you might add to the retro setting, realistic adventures set 1869–1901 might easily include cozy murders, police procedurals, espionage thrillers, westerns, travel adventures, romantic dramas, graustark adventures, even variations on the hard-boiled crime story. Those might all be covered by the same historical rules set, but for the purposes of character concept and actions during the adventures those have a lot more in common with works of similar content in a contemporary or even futuristic setting than they have with each other. Earlier this year I ran a James Bond 007 adventure set in October 1957, in which the setting in that months was not trivial or superficial but centrally important to what was going on in the adventure and what the PCs had to achieve. Nevertheless I think that Professor @MichaelCule would agree that it was more important to play it as an espionage thriller than as a period piece. Last month I ran a ForeSight adventure set on a distant planet 950 years from now, and I think that @RogerBW would agree that that played more importantly like a hard-boiled mystery than like a sci-fi.