Making Different Games

By | August 1, 2015

Science fiction and horror were a much stronger influence on me than fantasy as a child. I read books by Alfred Bester, Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury before I ever picked up The Hobbit. The EC Comics reprints of Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science thrilled me as a youngster.

My first forays into tabletop RPGs mixed science fiction, horror and folklore to create new cities and planets each time I ran a game. I never ran anything based on an “official setting” until the D&D Starter Box for 5E. I was fortunate to have players who enjoyed many of the same things I did for so long.

But mixing genres isn’t always popular in tabletop gaming, which strikes me as a bit odd. Weird mental powers, gruff fighters and deadly magic were mixed together in varying amounts in many of the stories that shaped D&D.

The Dying Earth stories by Jack Vance, the namesake of Vancian magic, mixed technology and magic enough to make distinctions almost pointless. Even the formulas for spells used in those stories were implied to have ties to lost science. And as Arthur C. Clarke told us, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Some old modules have crashed spaceships on otherwise fantasy worlds. RIFTS famously has everything and the kitchen sink. Spelljammer put galleons in space. So why is the idea of mixing genres in RPGs not the default state?

I’ve heard many explanations over the years. Some point out concerns about learning a new set of rules. Others worry about unintended consequences after adding unfamiliar abilities in an established game. These same issues can be found with a spell system, so those cannot be the only reasons.

There are arguments that mixing magic and psionics violates suspension of disbelief. Meanwhile, magicians, mutants and mentalists have shared the pages of comic books for decades. The Marvel movies have tech geniuses drinking beer with gods who are actually space aliens after fighting off an interstellar invasion. So that can only explain some, but not all, of the concerns.

There’s no real point in arguing over a cause. Gamers should play the settings and systems they enjoy. My concern has more to do with the products gamers have been offered than anything else. And that means the real answer likely comes down to something as mundane as money.

Companies that made a variety of content looked at what sold well and then made more of it. Smaller companies copied those trends because who wants to risk making a product that reaches a smaller audience? The failure of TSR, the company with so very many settings, reinforced fears of straying from what was believed to be profitable.

That’s why I’m so glad to see indie products and OSR products breaking away from this old way of doing business and winning awards for doing it. New products zoom in on specific parts of fantasy or horror, while new creators are sharing their specific visions that can mix genres any way they like.

Business for smaller publishers is about making things you love and sharing them with the world. That’s the attitude that started this hobby so many decades ago. That spirit helps energize GenCon this weekend. And that, ultimately, is the reason we’re working on making a game of our own.