Table Reflection: Genre and Style

I’m a featured reviewer at DriveThruRPG, and while I haven’t been reviewing a lot of games recently because of schoolwork, I’ve been getting ready to get back in the saddle, so today’s writing will be about what I’ve noticed when playing games, namely the difference between genre and style.

I game with a group of people who have very broad tastes, so when I ask what sort of game they want to play they usually shrug or give a dismissive “I dunno”. And part of this is because of a difference between genre and style.

Genre, in regards to tabletop games, is the stereotypical trappings of a game. Dungeons and Dragons is Fantasy. Games don’t necessarily respect just a single genre either; Shadowrun is Fantasy Cyberpunk. Genre’s one of the most flexible things ever in terms of games, but games typically have a fair deal of mechanical specialization for genre. There are even games that are inherently genre-less, like Savage Worlds, so that players and Game Masters can put more of a focus on the game and less on the trappings.

Style, on the other hand, is often more important with gamers. I’ve played Dark Heresy with my Shadowrun group, and they try to shoot every last thing they see. Style’s more diverse. We typically recognize it with descriptors like “high”, “low”, and “gritty”, as in “Low Fantasy”, “Gritty Western” or “High Space Opera”. Style can be applied to any genre, although it makes more sense in some than others. For instance, Bill Coffin’s Septimus is “High Transhumanism”, while Posthuman Studio’s Eclipse Phase is “Low Transhumanism”. Horror as a concept can also be a style. It’s the taste and feel of a particular implementation of a setting. Look at Warhammer 40k; all the video games take an action style, even the strategy ones, in a setting that can be gritty and dark and futile, the games choose an enabling power-fantasy perspective because that’s what most gamers (especially myself) enjoy.

So what’s so important about style? I’ve found that I have massive difficulties with style, but not so much with genre. I can run a science fiction game, a fantasy game, and a post-apocalyptic game in a single night, so long as they’re all in a style I can do. I do action-packed styles, such as high fantasy or action cyberpunk. If I try to do a gritty or low setting, I often have difficulty with it, not necessarily because I’m sunshine and unicorns, but just because I don’t narrate as well, and the like. My personal tastes even go for a low style of gameplay, but I don’t do it well so I stick to more action-packed things.

So what’s the takeaway here? Learn style and genre separately. Just as Paranoia has different styles of play within a mostly similar canon, to run a game you should contemplate the effect of everything you do. Watch a few movies, read up on a few conventions and tropes. If you want to do a cyberpunk-noir setting, make sure you know how to do it effectively. Learn to narrate scenes. I like to play a video game, and stop myself every once in a while to describe the room and some recent events with a particular voice.

“The robot hovering in front of me extends one of its thin arms, holding a bottle of water. It’s clean, unlike the haphazardly rearranged furniture and grimy floors. I take it to give to the guy outside the gates. I head up to the locker to deposit my stuff, and contemplate sleeping in the bed before deciding that there’s more crucial things to do right now.”

Guess which game that’s from? Fallout 3, the Megaton house. As you can see, my narration isn’t perfect here, but that’s the way things go. However, as an exercise, it’s great, because I’ve started touching on things that I may want to bring into another game. In addition, you’ll notice that I embellished some of the stuff; the Mr. Handy isn’t animated and rigged so that it can physically hand my character a water bottle, but in game terms I got a water bottle, and I’ve always thought that Mr. Handy units had really spindly arms, so I worked that in.

Similarly, when your players are on an adventure, be sure to give them flavor, some additional bits of stuff to glean the style from, and you’ll give them a more meaningful experience than genre alone provides.

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