Does A Game Have To Mimic a Genre?

By | May 30, 2015

Hi all,

This week I’ve been thinking about one aspect of game design in particular: the mimicking of genre.  There’s been a lot of talk about how “System Matters” (even from yours truly), and I definitely agree with that sentiment.  But I’ve seen a lot of folks talking about how this essentially boils down to a requirement for a good game system being to mimic some other form of entertainment.  Sometimes this is a category that’s fairly specific (-World games are designed to encapsulate the feeling of being in X type of situation, and no other), sometimes it’s more generic (Fate is generic enough that you can use it for practically anything, but anything you use it for turns into freewheeling adventure).

For my part, I think that the more specific a game is, the less of an audience it’s going to find.  I’ve seen several people turning to Apocalypse World to get their Mad Max on after seeing Fury Road, and responding to it with “gyah WTF?!” because AW is a lot more like “Apocalypse-flavored Soap Opera” than “Holy crap running gun battle!”  Meanwhile, the folks I’ve seen turning to Fate for that same purpose have generally had a more successful time.

I have a concern about the proliferation of games that do this one thing.  In a lot of ways, that strikes me as board/card/party game design, instead of roleplaying game design.  I think the strength of roleplaying games is that they allow you to immerse yourself in a world and take on the guise of another person living in that world.  So I can understand what people say when they take a look at “one thing only” games and say that they feel restricted by them – lists of “moves” feel gamey and limiting, not broad and open.  And adding a caveat that “you just take what you normally do and put them into these terms” is, I do not think, very helpful to folks used to reading a more traditional roleplaying game design.

Furthermore, “one thing only” leads to, in my experience, a whole lot of repetitive or “imitation-only” play wherein players don’t add anything new to the story or adventures or world because that’s not the way it was generally done in the source material the game is based on.  The new Star Wars games, for example, don’t offer a lot in the way of what I’d call “empire-building”:  making relationships, building webs of trust and deception, forming organizations, etc.  That wasn’t done in the movies, so the games have no rules for them, so there is no structure telling you how to do it.

Which means that if I want to play in the Star Wars universe as a Hutt who’s trying to build up his own criminal enterprise during the chaotic times after the murder of Jabba by a group of galactic terrorists, I can’t use the Star Wars rules without relying heavily on GM fiat.  And to be clear, a game that relies heavily on GM fiat does not need a rulebook, because the rulebook is always and inevitably “what the GM wants.”

And ultimately, that’s why it’s taking so long to develop Forthright Open Roleplay.  We’re specifically not trying to mimic a genre, and we’re specifically trying to provide tools that can be used to play in any genre without overloading the whole system with a bunch of minute and finicky rules (the GURPS way of doing things).  Because in the end, I don’t think that roleplaying games that do only one thing are going to stand the test of time, because tastes change and what’s hot at the moment is going to inevitably shift.  I want to build something that can weather those shifts and still provide a clean experience.

These are just some thoughts I’ve been having.  Feel free to yell at me in the comments 🙂