Lessons from a TV series bible. #2: genre

Continuing the discussion from How to write a series bible:

The next item on the checklist is genre.

  1. 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.

Looking at my current prospectuses, I see that I tend to use two different techniques for achieving greater specificity:

Phrasal descriptors: not “science fiction” or “fantasy” but low fantasy, contemporary fantasy, dark fantasy, pulp science fiction, hard science fiction, streetlevel supers, four-color supers.

Compound descriptors: mentioning several different categories that a campaign falls into: hard science fiction/alternate history, near future weird/dark fantasy, alternate history/swashbuckling/martial arts, realistic fiction/workplace drama/soap opera.

It seems to me that the category of “genre” as used by publishers, bookstores, and libraries is based on several different classes of attractors. There is the presence and nature of fantastic elements, as in “science fiction” or “fantasy.” There is the kind of emotional appeal, as in “horror” or “thriller” or “romance.” There is the type of plot, as in “mystery” or “erotica.” A marginal case is the historical setting, as in “Western” and “Regency romance” and perhaps “steampunk” (which isn’t simply fiction with fantastic elements, but fiction with fantastic elements that is set in a specific historical period)—a lot of historical settings are not broken out as distinct genres in this way, but simply lumped into the broad category of “realistic fiction,” which is not usually considered to be “genre” but which for the purposes of RPGs probably should be so regarded, not least because it’s a minority interest that needs to be called out as such. This perhaps exemplifies a broader point that not all of the categories of “genre” in print fiction or film/television/video are equally useful for defining an RPG campaign.

In GURPS, for example, there is a category that could be called “genre books,” meaning guides to how to adapt the core system to specific genres: fantasy, horror, science fiction (in GURPS Space and the soon to appear GURPS Future History), supers, or the perhaps narrower categories of action/adventure, dungeon fantasy, monster hunters, and postapocalyptic. I think the existing books cover most of the viable categories for gaming (the previous edition had a genre book for cyberpunk, but I think that has largely died back or been merged into science fiction again). At least, I find it hard to think of new genre books to propose that would be likely to have wide appeal. I’ve played with the concept of GURPS Utopia/Dystopia—fiction whose fantastic elements are justified not by appeals to science nor to myths and legends, but to ethical ideas—but I’m not sure this would have wide enough appeal to be marketable. Though it does occur to me that a “workplace drama” book (the large category that includes police procedurals but not so much other mysteries, and that also includes series about hospitals, law firms, and even taxi companies and radio stations) might be of interest to a lot of GURPS aficionados—but it would need someone with broader experience than mine to write it.

I have to note that science fiction critics used to point to this sort of thing as a failure mode for science fiction: the Western, or detective story, or romance, or Graustarkian adventure that was transposed to another planet, but with no actual scientific ideas that went beyond terminology (“call a rabbit a smeerp,” as TV Tropes has it). I wouldn’t want to say that doing this is necessarily a failure, but I’d like to see some discussion of how to avoid that kind of failure. For example, I lately picked up Malcolm Jameson’s Bullard of the Space Patrol, which I read back in the 1950s, but I found myself bogging down, largely because it became evident to me that Jameson was telling stories about naval service (for example, one about white mutiny) with a veneer of science fiction.

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Well, first I’ll take dcarson’s line from the SJGames forums:

“Genres don’t have edges as much as they have landmarks. If you can see lots of landmarks from one genre, that’s probably the one you’re in. But there are places where you can see landmarks from several genres.”

I don’t expect a campaign to fit neatly into a single genre, but sometimes it does.

There’s the question of what “genre” actually means. I think that for TV shows more than for RPGs there’s a set of constraints: money men like things that look familiar and generally won’t fund anything else, while for players there may be a chance. Even “a sci-fi sit-com” would for many years take them out of their comfort zones: sci-fi meant a Star Trek or Star Wars rip-off to appeal to teenage boys. Some RPG players only like the familiar, but the ones I know will give almost anything a try.

Ury likes phrases too: “a workplace sit-com” etc.

This is the very high-level view: the next few points cover parts of it in more detail. This is not even the full elevator pitch, but the start of it: “hospital soap opera on a space station”, “The Dirty Dozen in fantasy Japan”. Going no further than that would be the smeerp, of course; but the things which justify the non-mimetic setting don’t need to be visible from here.

A side note worth keeping in mind: Lovecraft didn’t write Depression-era period pieces, he wrote stories set right now sometimes including the latest scientific advances. Because of the success of Call of Cthulhu we’ve come to associate the era with the subject matter. If one’s justifying a setting, one should probably use here-and-now as the baseline whatever the style of story one has in mind.

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Fair enough. Saving Sinjin Edda depended a great deal on the planet having gross cultural features that no society on Earth has ever had. Because of obstacles the PCs had to overcome, and because of things that the villain had to work around to effect her plan, and because of the legal and cultural peculiarity that she exploited to become one of the richest people in the universe despite the PCs shooting and capturing her, that story could not have been told in any contemporary or historical setting. SF hard-liners don’t have any respect for economics and sociology, but I don’t mind that adventure being classified as “soft sci-fi” by a hard-SF purist.

So as not to derail this thread, I shall continue discussion of Saving Sinjin Edda in a separate thread devoted to that adventure.

Well, on one hand, and as the simplest point, I’m going to say that I don’t propose to reject “social science fiction” as not being science fiction. (In fact, I don’t even reject space opera as not being science fiction, though I want to note that the meaning of the term has changed; back when it was coined, such works as the Lensman series would have been contrasted to space opera, but now they would be taken as exemplars of it.) At most, it illustrates the need for more specific labels than “science fiction” or “fantasy” or “realistic fiction.” “The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

But on another hand, if the legal and economic institutions of an exotic society, and the scientific analysis and prediction of how they work, are essential to the story, then I don’t think you can just say “hard-boiled mystery” and have done. If you do so, your players might be taken by surprise, just as a mystery fan might have been taken by surprise had Asimov’s The Caves of Steel been shelved with the mysteries with nothing to signal such fantastic elements as a humanoid and sapient robot or an Earth with an incredible eight billion inhabitants. I don’t think what you’re describing is “call a rabbit a smeerp,” but then I don’t think it’s merely cosmetically SF either; I think it’s mystery/science fiction, or more precisely hard-boiled mystery/social science fiction (or “heterotopia,” but that’s not a widely understood term). Once you start talking about the physiology and ecology of smeerps, they cease to be rabbits.

On a third hand, I think there can be such a thing as hard social science fiction—for example, Stross’s Merchant Princes series seems to be hard science fiction based on development economics. But that’s really extraneous to the question we’re examining; I just mention it to clarify my point of view.

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Well, no. But I don’t think I did.

We both end up endorsing Ury’s point that it is best to be really specific about your statement of genre.

So does that make three separate usages?

  • like “soap opera” or “horse opera”, extruded SF product
  • grand-scale adventure with space travel as a significant component
  • from ~2000, “with big operatic-type themes and characters”, perhaps an accidental reinvention from people seeing the term used without definition and working out a meaning from context.

More generally, the point of a genre label is to set people’s expectations, and thus it is more important to be understood than to be technically correct.

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More generally, there’s a style of argument that might be called the “etymological fallacy,” in which a term is interpreted on the basis of the meaning of its constituent subterms, taken literally, rather than on the basis of how it’s actually used. Or, even worse, on the basis of someone’s incomplete knowledge of the meaning of the subterms.

But more specifically, I think the real break may have been between the first and second usages. I’ve heard the usage “new space opera,” but it seems to me that the people who came up with it tended to be familiar with classic space opera (in the second sense) and to be trying to do something analogous with more contemporary scientific tropes. But the change from a derogatory term analogous to “horse opera” (the specific example given was a one for one transliteration of Western clichés into outer space clichés) to a more or less neutral term for (a) action/adventure stories (b) on a grand (operatic) scale with (c) larger than life characters was practically a reversal of meaning.

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Certainly, and I think my practice indicates that I largely follow that advice.

I was responding only to your statement that

and my point was simply that it would not do to label it simply as “a hard-boiled mystery”; it really needs the “social science fiction” label (or something comparable to that phrase) to place it properly. Which it seems you in fact agree with.

Ah, the “New Space Opera” wasn’t really part of my list; you could wave it at David Pringle and M. John Harrison (The Centauri Device) and Colin Greenland, but really I see that as “let’s do space opera in the second sense, grand-scale adventure, but with better writing and characterisation and stuff than what people usually think of when they use that label”.

OK. I don’t see that as a change of genre but as a change of approach. For comparison, I call one of my proposed campaigns “soap opera,” which is often taken in a derogatory sense, but I don’t mean it that way: I mean that it’s intended to be about people with sufficient wealth to have some freedom of action getting tangled up in complex personal and professional relationships—a sense in which, for example, Dream of the Red Chamber might be called “soap opera.”

Yes, I agree; I was just trying to make it clear that what you mentioned above re “new space opera” was not my third usage, which I’ve seen mostly from newer fans.

Oh, okay. I’m not familiar with that usage, and probably not with any of its authors.

I used to know Colin Greenland quite well. He certainly saw Take Back Plenty, his first space-opera novel, as being along those lines. Iain M Banks’ early Culture novels were influential on that; he was very interested when I pointed out a similarity between the central characters of Take Back Plenty and Against a Dark Background, which raised the possibility that he had influenced Banks.