Genre, Convention, and the Crunch/Fluff Divide

Casting Shadows has a great post up today about the way genre interacts with play at the table. He’s talking about players and playing the game. Well, hopefully you’ll take a moment to read it as well. I find that I feel very much the same way and I want to take what he’s driving at and take another tack at it.

Mutants and Masterminds illustrates what I hope to get at in an interesting way. M&M gives the GM tools to help emulate/enforce the genre conventions of superhero stories. It might not have been the first time a game did such a thing, but for me, it was the first time I really took it in, really explicitly understood the desire to have mechanics to shape the play experience in a way that goes beyond task resolution math. And the funny thing is — the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me.

I’ve run a lot of Amber games. Here’s the thing about Amber. Unless the players embrace the setting, embrace the notion of how they are drawn to Amber and that reality calls to them in unique ways, unless they embrace being an Amberite, the game is a lot less fun. And I know some will call me crazy but when I consider using some sort of “pay-as-you-go” reward dole to get players to embrace the genre, the setting… well, I can’t think of anything that would destroy the fun faster.

In the Casting Shadows post, he also makes the point that one of the barriers is that players will all have different conceptions of the genre they bring into the experience with them. What really is Pulp? What’s Steampunk? Expectations of play are a huge thing and clashes can certainly taint an experience if not well handled.

I don’t have any easy answers. And I know that for many people the M&M experience is exactly what they want. But I’ve always found the idea of handing out a reward for what should be a reward in its own right to be a strange thing. Of course, I like games with no dice, little advancement, and where a genre expectation is that your character will suffer… so, I’m not entirely sure that I’m a trustworthy source…


5 responses

  1. Awesome original post and great reply. I really, deeply thought about the same things the first time I saw Mouse Guard. Actually, my first thought was, “These game rules are incomprehensible.” Then I actually played it and thought, “These game rules are SO COOL for getting people to experience the world of the comics.”

    I wonder to what extent asking your players to share genre conventions before the game begins by, say, having a handful of movie nights, playing board games set in the genre, or reading short stories together might work. It’s asking a LOT of your players (and I have to admit that I haven’t done it,) but it strikes me as a good way to get at a shared sense of what a particular genre means/requires.

    Personally, I have put together short quicktime movies to get players into the setting of a particular scenario or campaign. It’s a lot of work, but again, it gives you the chance to set the tone and help players interpret the genre quickly but firmly.

    Also, (sorry for the long reply,) but I’d LOVE to hear about your Amber experiences. I’ll cast around the blog for them a bit. That’s the first non-D&D game I ever bought, and I’ve still never played it.

  2. Good tack~

    I didn’t want to talk about enforcing conventions in my post, but I am glad you did. Like you, points or mechanics which enhance a character beyond what the game normally allows, or provide perks with no cost to the character leave me cold. I came to like burning earned XP for in-game benefit over time, and Edge and Willpower points were easier to adapt to. Points awarded for being cool to use to be even cooler, even in the form of Force Points in WEG Star Wars D6 have never sat quite right with me. Liked or disliked, I prefer to survive challenges without using them, no matter how many I have accrued.

    As I started getting into Ubiquity, the Style Point was one of those things sitting in the corner, eyeing me warily. Like you mention, they can be awarded as a result of playing in-character, bringing your flaws and motivations to life, enhancing the play experience in appropriate fashion, and for meta reasons like aiding with set-up, creating props, and so on. Clearly, the means of earning Style Points reinforce both the assumption of one’s character traits in play, and adherence to the conventions of the genre (plus good manners). The difference I discovered in play is that the points are used to allow the character to operate as they should mechanically, allow the player to differentiate between emotional states and levels of investment in an action, and will flow back and forth without comment with a group who ‘gets it.’ As a perk, they make the underlying conceits of the game clear to those who ‘don’t get it.’ At the end of the day, though, the points don’t make the character ‘super.’ They are a part of the natural flow of the game’s interactions. A character without them under performs their normal potential. That distinction was important to me.

    To hit on your final comment… Did you ever read Rein-Hagen’s design notes for how the World of Darkness came about, particularly his notes on a game where the players were in Hell? 😉

  3. I did read that. The “game in Hell” thing was a crazy wild read.

    You know – it was a self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek comment, but I do often feel like I’m in a minority when I write about enjoying the kinds of games I do. Some of my fellow bloggers make me feel a lot better about that though…

    I find that immersing your players in the stories you want to tell helps. I often give my players a list of influences that set the tone for my games. It helps – yeah – but honestly, I’ve given up on trying to change players. If they aren’t willing to bend (and you as the GM have to bend too) and meet in the middle, well, the game won’t be all it can be anyway.

    1. You know, this and the original article over at Casting Shadows have got to be some of the best reading I’ve done in a while, so you can take that concern and tell it to take a walk in my estimation.

      For the record, while I’m in agreement with you on mechanics that force genre, I’m honestly a bit fuzzy in my own opinion on where I draw the line in the continuum of “this forces genre upon us” and should be avoided, and “this fosters genre emulation” and is okay as long as it doesn’t become a requirement.

      1. There used to be a fairly clear divide between games with and games without such rules, but it seems to be closing. Even my beloved Call of Cthulhu may end up with them in its next edition.

        I think I am growing to be more accepting of genre emulation bolstering rules the more people I game with who are unfamiliar with the genres I tend to use in my games.

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