Going Beyond the Genre

In many ways, Dungeons & Dragons was the first “licensed” RPG in that it was based off a fictional property, quite a few of them, in fact. Gygax and Arneson made no secret of the works of fantasy fiction that influenced the development of the game and their own campaigns. They listed them, in fact. Many forums of Old School gaming—such as James Maliszewski’s Grognardia—have spend considerable time deconstructing said influences.

A recent thread on RPGnet asked about “dream RPGs” and I was struck by how so many of the responses were essentially licenses, that is, some fictional intellectual property (novel, film, TV show, etc.) the respondent wanted to see as a game setting, often for an existing rules engine. Given Steve Long’s recent op-ed on licensing in RPGs, I thought it was interesting how many gamers considered a license their “dream game product”. How many game designers and developers have had the same reaction?

I recall a discussion at an Origins Game Fair some years ago where a colleague said how the newly revived James Bond property would make a great RPG. I countered that James Bond was actually a terrible license, for two primary reasons:

  1. There’s the classic problem of living up to the property. Who gets to play Bond? Is there an expectation that someone plays Bond, or a character like him and, if not, in what way is the game based on the fiction? Do you base adventures on the original Flemming stories (which true fans already know) or try and create ones in a similar style?
  2. More importantly, I argued, any modern espionage RPG worth its die modifiers could already function as a perfectly sound “James Bond RPG”. If it couldn’t, then I submit there’s something wrong with it.

While most early RPGs weren’t licenses, they were efforts to emulate particular genres: fantasy, far-future and post-apocalypse sci-fi, espionage thrillers, superhero comic books, and so forth. They were inspired by key elements of those genres. While Champions and Villains & Vigilantes (or Mutants & Masterminds, for that matter) weren’t licensed DC or Marvel games (although M&M now is) they were all looking to emulate the stories and characters DC and Marvel established as staples. Likewise, Top Secret wasn’t the 007 RPG (we’d have to wait for Victory Games to get to it) but it was certainly aiming for the same target, along with source material like Mission: Impossible and The Man from UNCLE. D&D is certainly not a Lord of the Rings RPG, but Tolkien is part of the game’s DNA, as are the works of Howard, Leiber, Anderson, and even Lovecraft.

Now, the interesting part is when these big genre-blenders manage to move beyond pastiche and begin adding their own elements back into the genres from which they sprang. It’s difficult to estimate just how much of an influence “D&D-style fantasy” has been on the genre of fantasy fiction; big enough that the expression “D&D-style fantasy” seems to hold some meaning for fans and readers. Similarly, it seems to me the superhero RPG convention of characters with a suite of attack/defense/movement capabilities has taken greater hold in the comic book in the past few decades and you see more heroes and teams who could be characters from an RPG as much as a comic book.

The real elders of the RPG IP field have been around long enough to become sub-genres unto themselves. D&D has “iconic” and “signature” elements that started out as goofy Monster Manual pictures, throwaway lines in modules, and sci-fi rip-offs. Similarly, it was the strength of the Champions setting and characters that gave Hero Games licensing muscle. How many did Call of Cthulhu introduce to the Mythos, and how big an influence was the game on the addition of Great Cthulhu and his kin to popular (geek) culture?

One thing RPGs (and RPG creators and players) seem good at is taking sometimes contrasting or cliche elements, combining them in novel ways, and producing new story elements and stories out of them, which can in turn be recombined to fresh effect. A sort of fictional evolution out of the primordial ooze of all the various character, plot, and setting elements thrown together into the bubbling stewpot of a roleplaying game.

I’d suggest some of the best RPG properties (that is, fictional elements, not rules systems) start out aiming to emulate the source material of a genre, but then push past their origins and break through into territory uniquely their own. I actually think this is true of both licensed and non-licensed games. West End Games Star Wars RPG, for example, was often at its best when it put aside slavish devotion to the films and looked at other parts of what is now called “the Expanded Star Wars Universe”. Dungeons & Dragons started out as a patchwork of pulp fantasy but established its own sub-genre. Traveller took the conventions of Imperial SciFi and built a universe with them. Shadowrun copied some of the conventions and language of cyberpunk, but added its own fantasy spin and developed in its own direction, just as Vampire might have been the Dracula or Lestat RPG, but grew beyond that to create its own mythos.

I think it’s an interesting approach for RPGs to provide the genre elements and framework, to serve as systems for making up and trying out new worlds. The Diaspora game with its cluster-creation system (almost a game unto itself) is an interesting example, not unlike the random world design of Traveller that helped inspire it. Games of the imagination are often at their best when they challenge us to create new things out of old rather than look for ways to repackage experiences we’ve already had and opportunities to argue the same details of fictional canon over and over. The place for creatives—both designers and players—to reach for is the synthesis where the whole is greater than the sum of just its (randomly rolled) parts.