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© 1998-2001 Dru
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Genre: Writing the Fantasy
"genre" is a "category of artistic, musical, or literary
composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content"
(Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition). Roleplaying genres
are very similar to novel and cinematic genres—they fall into the
same categories and are marked with the same motifs. Examples of common
RPG genres are western, detective/spy/mystery, horror, science fiction,
fantasy, and superhero. Many of the genres have subgenres, such as cyberpunk
or steampunk under the science fiction genre, splatter and monster under
the horror genre, and so forth.
There also exist metagenres,
such as noir—we can imagine westerns noir, detective noir, horror
noir, and so forth. (For those unfamiliar with the term, noir works tend
to be dark, brooding, and filled with moral conflict.) Comedy, tragedy,
and romance are also, arguably, metagenres.
The intelligensia have
traditionally looked down on genre works because they are not unique works
of art—genre material relies on common themes, motifs, stereotypes,
and cliches. The very best genre material uses them but also rises above
them, such as Clint Eastwood's superb movie "Unforgiven," which
calls on the western stereotypes but simultaneously investigates them
from the point of view of an older, experienced, more world-weary and
bitter man. However, most of us without such pretensions to high culture
simply enjoy genres for what they are—unassuming, entertaining,
familiar fare with its own history and tradition.
Every genre revolves
around one central theme—the Hero's Journey. In the Hero's Journey,
the protagonist travels through some sort of ordeal, physical or emotional.
In RPGs, there are multiple protagonists—the player characters.
They are called to the adventure, receive help from allies, pass tests,
and attempt to defeat the enemy, gain some sort of reward, and return.
The genre determines the trappings of the journey.
The Genre and Subgenres
The fantastic is that
which compels the reader to accept the paranormal, supernatural, or magical
as an explanation for events. Sometimes the fantastic offers two possible
explanations for an eventnormal or paranormalsuch as in stories
that involve dreams, hypnosis, and illusion. Other times there is no normal
explanation offered, or the paranormal is the normal, such as in
stories about alternate worlds. This latter case is usually the setting
for fantasy roleplaying games. Most fantasy RPGs are set in another world
entirely, such as D&D's Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, Columbia Games'
Hârn, Chessex's Jorune, and so forth. Some are set in alternative-Earths
or future Earths, such as Dream Pod 9's post-demonic world or Erick Wujcik's
Some subgenres in fantasy
RPGs are swords
'n' sorcery, heroic
fantasy, historical fantasy (based on the real world with the addition
of some paranormal event or power), and urban fantasy (based on real cities
with the addition of some paranormal event or power).
Themes, Motifs, Settings, and Events
In fantasy, the Hero's
Journey is usually a quest with a specific goal at the enddefeat
the enemy or retrieve the [insert object or person here] are the two most
common goals. The dangers are usually physical and the common ending is
for the heroes to suceed against the opposition.
The heroes can usually
call on paranormal tools for this journey, however. Magic is the most
common in fantasy RPGs, although mental powers are sometimes also used
with or as a replacement for magic.
The setting will differ
from Earth. There may be nonhuman sentient races, sentient animals, and
places or things that defy the normal laws of physics. In general, although
not always, the more Earthlike the world, the "lower" or more
mundane the level of fantasy. Thus, urban fantasies tend to be low-fantasy.
They take place in some city and have a bit of magic attached, but the
characters still have to deal with the problems of everyday life in a
city. The less Earthlike the world, the "higher" or more fantastic
the level of fantasy. Heroic fantasy is often high fantasy, in which the
heroes care little about mundane problems and deal instead with earth-shattering
threats. High versus low fantasy also depends on the level of power at
play a game in which magic or mental powers is relatively hard or
complex to use or difficult to find and small in effect is usually a low-fantasy
game, and vice-versa.
A number of motifs
exist in fantasy. Some common trappings are: dragons, elves/fairies, swords,
magical items, spirits, prophecies, wizards and witches, monstrous beings,
castles and towers, dungeons, mazes, and rituals. Some common events are:
- Fights in a
- circular staircase
- dark forest
- remote wilderness area
- villain's stronghold (usually the final ordeal)
- Search for a
- magical or precious object
- kidnapped person
- prophesied person
- lost place or thing (e.g., ruin, ship)
- solution to a puzzle
- solution to a trap
- Escape from a
- collapsing cave or building
Although not every
GM will want to cross a genre in a campaign, sometimes an adventure that
has another "feel" is a welcome change. Most players will be
familiar with the motifs of these other genres and will recognize what's
happening as the GM introduces them. In general, players are happy to
have their characters fall in with a particular genre for a while. An
entire campaign could be cross-genre, too, if the GM and players are interested
in pursuing such.
- Set the game in a dusty, remote plains setting
- Create NPCs who are herders (cowboys), natives ("Indians"),
- Replace guns with hand-held bows or knives
- Rely on typically western plot devices, such as a rivalry between
two ranches, between settlers and natives, between settlers fighting
for land or water rights, between desperadoes
- Create fantastic versions of typical western events, such as
a bar standoff between two inimical mages.
- Set the game in a city or court
- Create NPCs who are spies, spymasters, plotters, conspirators,
and femmes fatale.
- Replace James-Bond gadgets with fantasty equivalents (magic items,
grappling bows, etc.)
- Reply on typically detective/spy devices, such as murder, theft
of important documents, rivalry between two countries, etc.
- Create fantastic versions of typical detective/spy events, such
as the shootout with bows, the seduction/assassination attempt,
breaking into a foreign castle, etc.
- Set the game in a remote town, abandoned ruin, or cemetery
- Create NPCs who are spooky old men and women, serial killers,
ritual murderers, black magicians, and monsters.
- Emphasize the use of fire, stakes, silver weapons, or ritual
to defeat the enemy.
- Rely on typically horror plot devices, such as creation of a
monster while delving into secrets humans were not meant to know
and use of supernatural means to murder others.
- Create fantastic versions of typical horror events, such as the
investigation through a haunted house or cemetery, the chase through
the night, the sense of being stalked, confrontations with skeptical
- Science Fiction
- Set the game in a secret government installation, strange laboratory,
or on another world
- Create NPCs who are government Men in Black, aliens from another
dimension or world, killers from the future, mad scientists, etc.
- Emphasize the use of steam- or magic-driven technology, offer
magical versions of science fiction weapons (wands for lasers, force-swords
- Rely on typically science-fiction plot devices, such as government
cover-ups, secret experiments, contact with other planets, investigation
into other times.
- Create fantastic versions of typical science-fiction events,
such as first contact with an alien species, discovery of a twisted
government plot, invention of a world-destroying device, and so
- Set the game in a city
- Create one or more NPCs who run around in masks and costumes
and give themselves fanciful names (Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel);
at least one should be a villain
- Emphasize the use of magic or mental powers to be flamboyant
either in attack or defense, use stilted superhero-talk and silly
- Rely on superheroic plot devices, like attempts to take over
the city or world
- Create fantastic versions of superheroic events, like the big
fight in the street or in some villain's hidden warehouse filled
with catwalks and vats of bubbling acid.
be used sparingly and, usually, consistently. Players might get confused
or annoyed if one game is noir and the next comedic and the next romance
and the next tragic. Remember that each metagenre will have a lasting
effect on the character and the campaign. Usually a fantasy RPG campaign
will always be noir, or always comedic. Few campaigns are always tragictragedy
is only good in small dosesand the use of romance in a campaign
should depend on the players' preferences.
- Emphasize darkness, rain, fog, and pollution (yes, many medieval
cities were polluted as a result of soot from fireplaces)
- Create characters such as the corrupt politician, the cop on
the take, the femme fatale, the hardboiled but moral investigator
- Emphasize corruption and double-crosses, and use slang-filled,
cynical, snappy dialog
- Rely on low-impact plots, like murder, theft, graft, blackmail,
and so forth
- Emphasize investigation and confine combat to ambushes and the
- Emphasize sunlight and settings where there are specific expectations
for behavior that can be broken with comic results (high-class party,
- Create characters such as the nagging in-law, the doting suitor,
the crotchety elder, the puffed-up rich man, etc.
- Emphasize slapstick (the lowest but easiest form of humor in
an RPG) and/or verbal humor (if you and your players are witty)
and incongruous events; possibly mistaken identities.
- Rely on plots that revolve around one or more of the characters
but that won't have a highly dramatic effect on the character's
life; don't use plots that could end in tragedy
- Emphasize silliness, stereotypes (or wildly broken stereotypes),
and good-humored acceptance of setbacks. Try to end on an upbeat
note, with everything falling in place in the end and everybody
getting their "just deserts."
- Emphasize catastrophic events, such as storms, droughts, war;
use metaphor like a drought accompanying the struggle to find the
rightful ruler of a realm.
- Create characters with both good and bad sides; no matter how
good the individual, s/he must have a tragic flaw that will lead
to his or her downfall. (Player characters with such personalities
are excellent for this metagenre)
- Emphasize a spiritual or moral struggle that accompanies the
physical struggle. If possible, have the player characters break
some sort of moral law or standard.
- Rely on plots that revolve around events that will force PCs
or NPCs to face their tragic flaw and the consequences of their
actions, especially if they broke some sort of moral code.
- Emphasize things falling apart or coming undone, the struggle
to understand ethics and morals, and unhappy endings in which people
die, are imprisoned, go mad, or fail to succeed at some goal. Note
that tragedy should NOT be used often in RPGs!
- Emphasize settings in which the two people who are to become
romantically involved are close together (note that running romance
indicates that a player is willing to have his or her character
involved in a romantic relationship; don't force this on a player!).
- Create a romantic possibility who is good-hearted and good-natured,
proactive, ethical, courageous, treats romantic interests with respect,
and doesn't fold under pressure. Romantic interests might be shy
or cynical at first, but should "break through" with the
- Emphasize a common struggle that will pitch the characters together
in which they will come to see each others' best sides. Put obstacles
in their way but make the obstacles surmountable.
- Rely on plots that throw the two together often but add a rival
(or perceived rival) for the NPC romantic interest's attention,
perhaps one particularly galling or annoying to the PC.
- Emphasize positive values, the healing power of love, and the
growth that two people can help each other achieve. Note: A good
romantic plot does not make one person a victim, but makes both
equally strong and equally vulnerable. Adjust the NPC's power level
originally written September 15, 2000
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