Thursday, May 13, 2021

Genre, Role-playing, and Children

Image by Aruns 232 from Pixabay
I was fortune enough to take a class on the topic of Genre in Art back in 1999. You wouldn't know it from the discourse in culture, but at the time it was a relatively new field of study, and easier to pin down because pop-culture was still produced in a one-to-many, top-down fashion that is much easier to parse.

When you are gaming with kinds one of the great disconnects that is going to occur comes from their ability to understand and engage with the genre of a given game, even more than the medium of TTRPG itself. 

A Quick Background in Genre

Genre as we understand it is a product of the late 19th century. Writers had discovered, as novels were first being mass-produced and consumed that repeated use of certain themes and tropes could build a dedicated and predictable audience. The writer that focused on one type of character and story could more successful Than the generalist.

And the audience was usually much broader than those who were interested in consuming Literature as High Art and expected writers to experiment constantly. 

Art Defining Genre

Specialized magazines dedicated to particular kinds of audiences could get more eyes on stories. "Pulp" started as a term for the cheap magazines that sold specialized stories to working- and middle-class readers.

It is worth noting, however, that the idea of a genre as we understand it is a by-product have this process. Magazines like Weird Tales and Abraham Merritt's Fantasy would not have asked for a "Fantasy" or "Science Fiction" tale. And Robert E. Howard might have written for a magazine of Wild West stories, but he would not have set out to write a "Western"... Only to write a story that would have appealed to the audience of the magazine he was submitting to.

It wasn't until the 1950s that we started to clearly delineate categories of art, literature, and music beyond lit that was "Literature", "Pulp", and "Gothic" or music as being something more specific than "Classical". "Popular" and "Folk".  At first, this mostly served as a tool for marketing and crtitics:

Once everyone knew what "Science Fiction" was you could sell a movie as "Science Fiction" criticize it as compared to other "Science Fiction" and reach a "Science Fiction" audience.

Genre Defining Art

Sadly, my copy is in sorry shape
But this has a very curious effect on our popular culture. Once we knew what "Science Fiction"  was, we tried specifically to write "Science Fiction". Creators tried harder and harder to keep inside the lanes of one genre, and not cross over into others. Genres began to balkanize themselves. And within Genres, subgenres were delineated and a huge amount of energy was expended on defining what did or did not fit into a given subgenre.

Bruce Stirling's Mirrorshades: the Cyberpunk Anthology was a watershed in this evolution: it was a book that collected a group of controversial science fiction pieces and identified them as a nascent subgenre, and spent significant energy defining what Cyberpunk was, why the stories in it were Cyberpunk and why Cyberpunk was relevant. In effect, Stirling invented the genre and created a manifesto and manual of style for it.

(He later did the same for Steampunk in the foreword to The Difference Engine, and then coined the term and concept of Post-Cyberpunk in his commentary oh his book Holy Fire. As a founding editor of boing boing and Wired, Stirling is likely to be remembered as one of the most significant writers of the late 20th century. )

Genre Creating Culture 

After Mirrorshades defining genre and subgenre as a means of evaluating and sharing work became an obsession. Generation X in particular made the obsession with genre more important. Gen-X has been infamously difficult to sell to. They have a generational culture of anti-consumerism and anti-corporatism that made it very difficult to get them to buy products in the same way as the previous two generations had. 

One thing Gen-X did consume was pop culture: they bought music, movies, books, and video games enthusiastically. Generation-X formed peer group bonds by sharing media together. Movie nights, hanging out to music, LAN parties, dance clubs, raves, and boardgame tournaments were defining social milieu. What you watched, read, and played determined your social group. Musical tastes, in particular, established your peer group, and fans of different Genres developed wider cultures connected to them. 

To wit: If the burnouts responded well to the themes of the music of Beck, you could study Beck's look, and the look of his fans and tailor engineer another Alternative Rock musician's appearance and style to match, and probably have that musician's popularity spread throughout burnout culture... and use that as a touchstone for marketing other things to the burnout crowd.

This video was a pop-culture phenomenon with people
my age and had a huge impact on art and fashion. 

Pop-culture media, sorted by Genre and tailor-made to sit comfortably in specific Genres became the driving force in pop Art. This had a huge impact of the then-embryonic media of Tabletop Roleplaying Games and Video Games. 

Appendix - N

At its inception, Dungeons & Dragons was intended to be a tool for simulating adventures from a range of Pulp sources. Appendix-N includes a large range of what - in the days before Genre became central to our discussion of Art - would have been called "Weird Fiction". Today, Appendix-N might be genrefied into 'an eclectic mix of science fiction, horror, Sword andSorcery , Pulp adventure, and mystery.'

Yet, while D&D was clearly intended to do a broad range of adventure types, the game-play structure favored Sword and Sorcery: Dungeons & Dragons scenarios are easiest when set in a self-contained and dangerous location (a Dungeon) and are easier to plan for if the character's access to high technology can be constrained. Both of which favor a Bronze Age- or Medieval-esque setting.

Early Dungeons & Dragons material featured crashed spaceships, rocket packs, planet-hopping Wild West gunslingers, disintegrator pistols, Alien radiation, bio-engineering, villainous AI, and killer cyborgs. But the core books offered mostly giants and goblins, swords and bows, and magic spells. To those who wanted to put it in one of the newly-important Genre boxes, that meant calling it "Fantasy" and holding it to the same metrics as The Lord of the Rings, or The Chronicles of Narnia

Don't get me started... 
As our culture shifted to put Genre first, these stopped appearing to the audience as being a normal part of the Weird material that D&D came from.  Instead it seemed like a violation of the Fantasy expectations of the audience. 

I have a suspicion that this is part of the reason why Dungeons & Dragons discarded the Greyhawk and Mystara settings in favor of the blander Forgotten Realms: the Realms have never departed from the formula of Heroic Fantasy with a splash of Eldritch Horror. And why TSR was then inclined to crank out genre-specific settings to make a "D&D but as  Fantasy plus [Genre] game", like Spelljammer (D&D plus space opera), Dark Sun (D&D plus Post-apocalyptic survival, or Ravenloft (D&D as Gothic horror).

This cultural shift has been reflected in Table-top RPGs from the earliest iterations, for good reason.

Context and Structuring TTRPGs

In an article earlier this week, I wrote about the major components of a Roleplaying Game's structure:
  • Task Resolution System
  • Protocol
  • Rules-Established Constraints
  • Context
Of those, Context relies heavily on Genre.

To repeat my idea as succinctly as possible,  Context is the use of things like genre signifiers, art, and semiotics - as well as past player experience - to add more information about how a game will be played without the need to write it out.

To use the same example as before, let's look at the minimalist one-page TTRPG Lasers & Feelings by John Harper. (right)

The game itself is very simple. It does not explain in any detail how the GM should run the game. It assumes that this will not be played without at least one player who knows how these games work, and will simply use past experience to help them interpret things like the "+1d" notation.

It also uses specific elements that are Genre specific: "Intergalactic Scout Ship", "cryo-sleep", "androids", "aliens", "psychic entities" to place itself within a specific genre. Lasers & Feelings does not declare itself to be a "Sci-Fi Adventure Game" like Traveller does, but it clearly establishes itself as a space opera game by using them.

Moreover, it uses the visual design of the Raptor, the inclusion of the word "Feelings" and the suggestion of sex being an included mode of play and character motivation, to signify that this game is going to derive a lot of its content from Star Trek.

This means that players will expect characters to have access to things like weapons that stun, tricorders, and teleportation devices. Inuding any of these in the game would not be remotely jarring, because they are expected in the genre.  On the other hand, a clan of spell-casting goblins riding gryphons or a faerie curse would be quite jarting.  They are not consistent with the Genre being emulated.

The Context of the game within the field of genre (Trekkie Sci-Fi) and Medium (Tabletop Roleplaying Game with a Storygaming bent) does a huge amount of the heavy lifting for the game. It only needs one page to give you a clear sense of both how to Play (tales of visiting strange worlds and getting entangled in local affairs) and how not to (battling goblins to lift a faerie curse.)

Our experience as adults who have been immersed for decades in this cultural milieu makes this all easily engaged.

Children and Context

But adults is the key word there. Because Context is often lost on children.

Genre in particular is something that often will not compute when you are dealing with kids. Most of them don't get a clear idea of the conventions of a genre until they are getting towards nine or ten and have had the opportunity to absorb enough pop culture to translate convention into expectation.

Children have no idea what fits with what, and this can either be a disadvantage or liberating depending on the moment.

Mirdon packs peacemakers 
these days. 
For example, were I to play Lasers & Feelings with my son of five, he would be at a distinct disadvantage in a scenario where he was searching for a missing person compared to an adult playing the game. As he has never seen a single episode of Star Trek, he might not know that ships have powerful sensors he could use. He definitely wouldn't know what a tricorder is and ask to bring one on the search. The idea of getting off the ship on an away mission to refine the search might not occur, and he definitely would not know who to bring on such a mission. All of which are so embedded in the structure of classic space opera like Star Trek that these stages of the average Lasers & Feelings game would seem like a given to an adult.

And they have no idea what fits within a genre, which can be good or bad for immersion.  On the one hand, my son thinks nothing of putting drones, guns, rocket-launchers, or cool video games in treasure hoards. Not that the rocket launcher didn't come in handy, but it certainly wasn't an immersive way to kill a dragon in a D&D game.

On the other, hand, that freedom from convention and genre can lead to some of the most amazing concepts for adventures: like a scenario my son ran where I played a helicopter pilot who had to use his charter chopper to save a remote community during a volcanic eruption.

Poster for "The Secret of Monkey
Island" ©1990 LucasArts
Or the time that he made up a pirate scenario after watching me play The Secret of Monkey Island, in which my wannabe pirate had to outwit a band of nasty cuthroats and prove his worth to the Pirate King.

Or the recent Octonauts-inspired deep-sea adventures where I sought sunken treasure among the geothermal vents of the Midnight Zone to end up facing an alien robot using forgotten pirate magic.

When a kid hasn't got a clear idea of what D&D is for, they can make it into some incredible things. Especially if you roll with it and help them make the rules serve their imagination, rather than as an adult initiated into the illusory constraints of Genre.

It is a fun way to keep the hobby fresh. 

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