Welcome back to the Zurn blog! In our past posts we discussed how characters and plot fit together in driving a roleplay campaign, and today we want to pick up on those thoughts with a critical discussion on genre. In my experience this tends to be the place where most roleplay groups drift, and it causes both problems for the plot down the road, as well as a shift in expectations for the players.
We will start by talking about different genres for campaigns, and end with the important "Rule of One" as regards genre selection.
I. Genres: The "Class Selection" of Roleplay Campaigns
We're all familiar with the concept of a genre. When asked for our favorite movie, song, book, or play, we find it impossible to compare them all to each other because "they're not the same." This is because different genres stir different emotions, and this makes it impossible to put them on the same level.
Roleplay campaigns are the same way. Not all roleplay campaigns are created equal, in part because of design, structure, etc., but also because of genre: some genres resonate more with some people than others. So when you build a campaign, one of the things you should think about is the genre.
Now, the list of genres for movies, for example, does not translate directly to roleplaying (the Science Fiction genre comes to mind: in roleplaying it mostly folds into Action or Drama), but a lot of them still work. We'll walk through seven of them here.
1. Action: For Combat Characters Only
The action genre is one we are all familiar with: lots of fighting, explosions, exciting getaways, and thundering music. Action stars tend to be the most recognized Hollywood actors, and tend to be top sellers in every medium (books, movies, etc.).
For roleplaying, Action campaigns are excellent for people who like combat (magical, ranged, or melee): it promises lots of combat rolls, so a character built for combat will thrive in this campaign.
This does not mean that the "Charm Cannon" character has no place in an Action campaign, but it does mean that he faces challenges. Charm characters will often serve as either the party mouthpiece up until combat occurs (and then resort to hiding), or as comic relief in battle, helping to keep the situation light amidst the carnage (more on this when we talk about comedy later in the post).
Players who like to play high-Charm characters have two very viable options in an Action campaign, though, if they want to avoid these two scenarios. Zurn offers the opportunity for a Feint attack, allowing high-Charm characters to fake out an opponent while attacking, making it harder to parry or dodge.
Another option is to play a beastmaster, using a Taming roll to take command of wild beasts and using them to fight instead (as the character is probably more fragile than the beast). I've played a few beastmasters in my time, and this is rapidly becoming my go-to character because it is so much fun to play. You have to start small (you will not likely be able to tame a dragon or a hippogryph at the start of the campaign), but it is an enjoyable ride (literally) to play as a beastmaster.
As the game master, discern whether your party would enjoy an old-fashioned action story. If yes, then start mapping out your campaign (more on that in the next post!). If it's a close call but you think they'd find it boring, the next genre will likely be a good fit for you.
2. Adventure: The Crux of Roleplaying
Adventure campaigns are the staple of roleplaying: a small group of adventurers meet in a tavern, get a prompt from someone mysterious, and they go on an adventure. I'd also argue that the default genre for most roleplay campaigns tends to be Adventure, if for no other reason than it leaves a lot of room for the GM to act.
Now this comes with a host of advantages: you can write almost anything into the campaign, as long as it makes sense within the journey. This is excellent for testing new content (most of our development campaigns for Zurn have been Adventure campaigns, as we are testing new content for new sourcebooks), and for dabbling with new ideas.
The drawback of the Adventure campaign is tied to its strength: because almost anything can fit into an Adventure campaign, it is the hardest to nail down expectations among the players, as there is a varying level of gravitas, hilarity, etc. in the content of the campaign. Combine this with the nature of a campaign that is constantly "on the road," and you can easily stray from the original plot.
So when building an Adventure campaign, I have one major piece of advice. Don't forget the point. If you lose focus on the goal, the campaign will drift, and that can cause a host of issues for your group. Remember what we talked about in the last post: your plot should have a point, and that applies to all genres, including the next one.
3. Comedy: Monty Python Adventures
Now, for some plots, the "point" is going to be, well, fluid. An excellent example: Monty Python & the Quest for the Holy Grail. Is there a plot? Yes. Kind of. Does it "progress"? Yes. Kind of.
And that's not bad in roleplaying; if the campaign is character-centric (and this is true of Monty Python), it works. And not all comedies will be like Monty Python, and that's okay. But for the purpose of a comedy, note that having a character-centric focus will help you maintain your genre focus.
Now, it is worth noting that comedies can (and should) have serious plot points, and there should be consequences tied to those plot points. We see this in TV rom-coms all the time. The trick, and what makes it comedy, is that while there are serious crises, 1) the aim of the plot is not just the suffering of the characters, and 2) there is a happy resolution. And this is attainable if the characters make an attempt to accomplish the task of the campaign.
And as a warning: just be aware that this genre has the most fear of the players running the campaign off the rails. If you tell everyone, "we're doing a comedy," then they will kick back, have a good time, and cut loose. And that isn't bad - it's actually a lot of fun to watch. But just be aware that they may not take the plot as seriously because it's a comedy. So be wise.
Which, coincidentally, is the opposite of the next genre.
4. Drama: Realism in Roleplaying
Epic stories (Lord of the Rings, for example) and Westerns, among others, fall into this category. In the realm of movies it is probably best to separate Westerns from other dramas, but for roleplaying they are one and the same. The point of the drama is a stirring, inspirational story, designed to invoke a, "Wow, how satisfying" response when it is done.
Now it is important to remember that a "drama" is different from a "tragedy": while these are the most likely to have tragic elements, they are not the same. As we will see below when we discuss tragedies, a drama is distinguished by its plot having a host of high and low points, all moving the action in a dynamic way, whereas the comedy and the tragedy tend to work in a steady ascent and descent respectively.
Dramas generally require more time to build on the front end than a standard campaign (as we're asking the question, "What is so important about this quest or task" with greater force than in another genre - such is the nature of the epic quest), but for those who like building an immersive, rich campaign, dramas are hard to beat.
If you are planning a drama, also remember to keep everything on the "grand scale." Don't fight over a little town unless that little town matters (Ironclad is a great example of this; The Magnificent Seven also comes to mind). Your players will want to feel like their actions have meaning on a grand scale, so give them that.
5. Horror: When You're Actually Out to Get Them
Now, for those who have read the last two posts, you know that in my school of thought for game mastering we're never "out to get the party," even if we are writing horror. So take the tag line with a grain of salt. What we intend by this is that the horror genre, especially in the realm of roleplay, should be character-centric in that characters never feel safe, constantly under threat of being eaten, killed, or transformed into something horrible in order to maintain the feel of the genre.
This genre, like all genres, will appeal to some more than others, so pick your players well for this campaign. Traditional roleplaying gives a host of options for content, with zombie apocalypse campaigns being the most common. But you could even do this in a Wait Until Dark-type campaign as well. So you don't have to have zombies to have a good horror story.
6. Noir: Mystery over Mechanics
So, the noir genre works best in movies, but roleplaying can still do it well. The typical strength of noir filmmaking is the mysterious, black-and-white film, and while traditional roleplaying loses the color scheme, it offers a host of fun options for campaign plots.
Mystery campaigns are the biggest advantage of this genre: having a "Sam Spade" feel for your campaign is good fun, and invites both creativity from the game master in designing the campaign, and ingenuity from the players in solving the mystery. It has limits (how much do you want to leave to dice rolling, being the big one), but those limits are overcome if you have foresight toward how you want to run the campaign, and talk to your players accordingly (see our previous post).
I've run one mystery campaign before, and I tried to go for more of a noir feeling for it, and it went over pretty well. In this case, the campaign I designed had a Harry Potter feel, following students at a magic school solving a mystery. So there is room for variety in the noir genre.
The biggest challenge is keeping the intrigue and mystery going in the campaign. Noir films (and campaigns, I'd wager) really only work if you spend a lot of time thinking through what you want to communicate in the story. If the story lacks the nuance of the noir genre, it will feel like a slow action story or an esoteric drama. So be prudent in using this genre.
7. Tragedy: The Hardest Genre
One of the most well-known genres in all of literature, a tragedy is possible in roleplaying (as evidenced by the fact that I'm writing one right now, hence the prompting for this series), but it is hard. While we've all seen/read tragedies before, I think it is the hardest story genre to write generally, and the hardest to accomplish with roleplay. And the reasons for this tie into the strengths and challenges of a campaign.
First, a tragedy must, by necessity, have a tragic ending. In roleplaying this can take several forms: in the campaign I'm designing, it's the destruction of five elven villages and the death of 50-80% of the elves that live there (with the margin decided by the party's actions), but it could also include the death of party members, the death of loved ones of party members, etc. And this can rub adventurers the wrong way if they are not aware that they are playing a tragedy, or don't understand the depth of the tragedy when the campaign starts.
As we mentioned earlier in the series, we're not sadists: the aim of the campaign should not simply be the destruction of everything the party has spent the campaign building, as this only leads to trouble.
Second, tragedies give utterance to the deepest human emotions, which means people expect the most from tragedies. There is something about the tragedy that garners more scrutiny, be that in the form of wanting a story with more meaning, or in the, "but if I'm an active storyteller too, why can't my character stop X from happening" variety of questions.
And this is the unique challenge of roleplay: how do we properly build a tragedy while still making the actions of the players meaningful? More on that in future posts. For now, the takeaway for tragedies is that they have to be more than just a sad story: a good tragedy should have a plot steeped with deep convictions behind the actions of the active parties, making for critical decisions that precipitate the tragic plot.
II. The Importance of Genre, and the Rule of One
Choosing a genre for your campaign is critical to setting expectations. If the expectation is an action story, players will know to build action characters. If the expectation is that we are doing a noir campaign centered around mystery and detective work, players know to build a character who can investigate.
All of this goes to the general discussion on theme, a topic that we will revisit later in this series when talking about NPCs, session design, and the flavor of the game session. But for now, just know that everything in your campaign will linchpin off of the genre, so taking time to choose a genre is critical.
It also leads to a critical rule for campaign creation, which I call The Rule of One:
Only choose one genre for your campaign.
I know that there are ideas in your head from almost all (if not all) of the genre discussions above, and that is good. But don't throw them all into one campaign. Use them in a campaign with the right genre for that content, or the story will feel disjointed, and the expectations that your players will have for the campaign will be confused (if not shattered).
Write multiple campaigns. Start up a second group if you really want to test your ideas. But do yourself a favor (that I did not do for myself when I first started GMing): choose one genre for your campaign. It helps a lot.
In our next post we will discuss pacing in the campaign, both for the campaign as a whole, and how that plays out in each session, as this will help you with planning, and avoiding potential pitfalls for the gaming group as you progress through the campaign.