RPG Talk: Genre Mash-Ups

Our next question comes from Zachariah Von Fang on Twitter. He asks: "Genre mash-ups?" You've come to the right place to ask such an open-ended question, good sir, since I am the multi-genre master! But first, definitions.

Multi-genre is not necessarily a mash-up. In Torg for example, the genres co-exist on the same planet, while a time travel campaign will allow you to multi-genre consecutively, doing a western one week, sword & sandals the next, and space opera after that. What makes a game a MASH-UP is that two (or more) genres' tropes are interwoven in the same setting.

The most common of these is putting high fantasy (magic, maybe Tolkien races) into another genre. Shadowrun is Fantasy+Cyberpunk. Spelljammer is Fantasy+Space Opera. And so on. Horror is also another fairly easy one as the tropes work whether you're in summer camp, or a starliner, or a prehistoric cave. RPGs have also done a good deal with Cyberpunk, which merely requires body implants, some form of "decking" (hacking with your mind) and the proper style (GURPS CthulhuPunk, Torg's Cyberpapacy, and again, Shadowrun). 1920s gangland with spellslinging hitmen? Been there. Cavemen with super-powers find Lost World dinosaurs? Yep. Steampunk mecha vs. Moby Dick and the Kraken? Why not? It's really about knowing each genre's tropes and making them shine through in whatever OTHER genre you're playing.
While there are dozens of options on the market for mash-up settings, you might want to create your own. Maybe you don't want to invest in a new game/system. Maybe you can't find a specific combination. Ok, sure, it's not that hard. In most mash-ups, one genre will act as setting (a fantasy world, outer space, the old west), and you will 'port over tropes from another genre. Those tropes might be:
-Fantasy: Magic, Tolkien/D&D races, swordplay
-Space opera: Ships that fly from world to world, dogfights, high tech, aliens, possibly psionics
-Horror: Monsters, Lovecraftian Elder Gods, slashers, spells and curses
-Cyberpunk: Implants, decking, faceless corporations, a punk attitude
-Supers: Powers, costumes and code names, over-the-top heroics
-Steampunk: Steam tech, Victoriana, colonialism
-Espionage: Secret terrorist organizations, casinos, stunts, death puns
-Western: Gun fights, horse wrangling, wanted posters, saloons, horses
-Cops 'n' robbers: Procedurals, heists, the partner retiring and getting killed, car chases
And so forth and so on. It's up to you to distill the essentials of any given genre, whether that's the Arabian Nights or Indiana Jones-style Pulp. For flavor, you can also throw in some of these tropes: Anthropomorphic animals, mechs, pirates, kung fu, robots, a particular mythology (Norse, Greek, First Nations...), modern attitudes, etc. They can provide a new spin fairly easily. Anthropomorphic ninja turtles fighting supervillains, anyone?

One thing that absolutely needs to be addressed is tone. Some genres are pretty neutral when it comes to tone, while others are more dominant. Horror, for example, suggests a sense of dread, while you could easily imagine Space Opera as comedy, action, horror, thoughtful, etc. But it need not be true. It all depends on what you 'port from one genre to the other. If all you want are vampires and werewolves, you don't need to bring the Gothic mood with them. You can have your happy action comedy about vamps trying to make good by becoming nocturnal superheroes (where every villain is a Universal monster). I once ran a long series of one-shots each in a different genre or genre mash-up, but I would say the tone was almost always Pulp - action adventure daring-do (Torg, though multi-genre, is really a Pulp game, according to its rules and premise for adventure scenarios). In other words, you can impose a tone ON TOP of any given genre mash-up and it doesn't even have to come from either of the genres you're mixing. Horror, humor, -punk, cinematic, gritty, four-color... Use whatever your group is comfortable with, or create a contrast on purpose. What if that Cthulhu Western game used a comedy filter, for example? Or you steampunk sword & sorcery setting was a gritty procedural?
At this point, you may start wondering how much work this is MECHANICS-wise. Could be a lot, could be very little. Obviously, it all gets a little easier with a universal system. GURPS 3rd is great because there are so many sourcebooks, so you can grab that Celtic Myth stuff and plug it into your World War II campaign easily. Depending on the level of crunch you want, you could use anything from Fate to Savage Worlds to d20. Some games have lots of sourcebooks to help you, others are so streamlined you can create almost anything from the tools provided. If all else fails, 'port over rule patches along with the required tropes. Your favorite Espionage game doesn't have psionics? Adapt the system from AD&D 2nd or GURPS Psionics or Blood of Heroes. Whatever's closest in terms of character generation maybe, or less ideally, whatever you have on hand. Above all, don't overthink it, and dare to tweak it between games. Tell your players you're experimenting and address bugs as soon as you can even if it creates discrepancies between sessions.

Final advice: In a mash-up, you're always threading the line between surprise and familiarity, so be careful with your ingredients. If the tropes are obscure and/or buried too deep, the players won't even notice it's a mash-up, which means you've missed the point. The JOY of a genre mash-up is recognizing you're at an intersection, then actively using (and this is true of GMs and Players alike) the tropes as a story and action engine. The players need to find your world familiar so that they can then enjoy the surprise. And indeed, you do not need to start a game off as an overt mash-up. Let them believe their Roman legionnaires are in a military campaign for a bit before springing an alien invasion on them. Why did Rome fall again? Obviously, in that type of game, players will not immediately enjoy the cool powers that might be 'ported over (cyberwear, magic, etc.) but depending on the setting, they could get them later after they discovered the truth. So decide WHEN you want to surprise them. As early as character generation, or a couple sessions in?

Ready to make that mash? Show your work!


Drinkplentyofmalk said...

If you're still taking suggestions for articles, I'd love to see something on emulating TV shows for campaigns. Specifically Doctor Who, but I'd still appreciate general tips as well.
I've already read most of your articles on the subject (and I did make it pretty vague) so for something I don't think I've seen you cover, how about more exactly emulating 'seasons' and how it'd work in the context of a RPG?
I might be GMing a Doctor Who game at some point in the future and (assuming it's what the players want to play) would like to do something like that.
I'd like to hear stuff like doing involved seasonal arcs in the vein of the Key to Time and Trial of a Time Lord seasons. Also I feel like I'll want the advice in terms of story arcs forming naturally as the players... well, play, which I'd imagine would work a bit more like Bad Wolf.
Something else I've been mulling over is a bit meta in terms of capturing the flavour, the Time Lord's player could 'sign on' for three seasons and 'renew their contract' if they don't want to regenerate yet, a companion could do the same for a certain number of stories/a season and have an ending to their personal arc and then the companion's player could start playing a new one. As an aside, I'd LOVE to play this kind revolving-door companion role in a campaign, the fact that a companion's story can actually have an ending is something that makes them more tantalising to play to me than the Time-Lord. Well, assuming the campaign's emulating the show in that way.

Of course a 'season' could be anything from one story to a hundred, I'd aim to keep them around four to ten. (I'd ask the players if this is what they'd have fun playing before setting anything in stone, of course).

Sorry for any spelling mistakes/bad phrasings (as well as the fact I probably suggested a million different things by accident), it's late where I am.

Siskoid said...

I think the best seasons are 6-10 episodes, though one could stretch to 12. 8 is probably the sweet spot.

I'll put this in my suggestion box and see what comes out. I know I've covered the topic in some ways, but not in others. The "season" is pretty much my standard now, or maybe I might say the "mini-series" since we don't always have a follow-up. I should be able to come up with something in future.


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