Thursday, January 21, 2021

On Capturing Genre in RPGs, or, How to do JJBA RP Like You Always Wanted To

Hey! I haven't blogged here in a minute. In part it was due to 2020 being 2020. However, much moreso, it's been because of the work I've been doing on Dungeon Bitches with Emily Allen and Sarah Carapace. (which, if you're somehow at my blog and haven't seen, we launched our Kickstarter last week!)

So this is an essay I wrote in December for Legendary Vermin's #GameDesignEssayJam on itch. If you want to tip me for it, feel free to pay me for it there! It's some of my thoughts on writing genre in games, and mostly uses my Dungeon Bitches supplement The Crooked Mile and my in-progress game SUPERLUNARY to explore my thoughts through example.


Who doesn’t love genre fiction? A neo-noir thriller is gripping as it saunters through its story, a shonen battle series reaches intense emotional highs at its climaxes, and a creeping horror gives you a sinking feeling when it’s been quiet for a little too long. They’re all unique in the feelings they give us and the tropes that they’re littered with, not to mention how specific stories may choose to tackle those tropes. So, as people who play RPGs, or in other words, people who tell collaborative stories, many of us have likely attempted to set a game within a specific genre.

However, anyone who has attempted this feat has no doubt noticed that it’s difficult to properly capture a genre’s essence. This is doubly difficult if you’re playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons, where ultimately your attempt will just leave you with D&D with an aesthetic paint job. Why is that, though? Furthermore, how can we capture genre in games if that isn’t enough?

Ultimately, what we need for the game at our table to feel like it belongs to a genre is two things: for everyone at the table to buy into it, and for everyone to act within the genre. That second part, the need for everyone to act within the genre, will prove to be much more difficult than it might sound at first. After all, the way a character acts isn’t only defined by the player. Let’s take a thought experiment into a specific example to explore this idea, so that we can explore what might cause us issues.

Why Doesn’t D&D Work for Shonen Battle?

Consider this: why does the hypothetical “D&D but make it shonen” just feel like D&D slapped some Naruto stickers on its rulebook? What is it missing (besides being a good game) that is stopping it from truly feeling like a battle series does? I would argue that it is because of how players interact with the game. Look at the mechanics of D&D - it’s centered around combat, has a frankly bizarre collection of stats which seek to “realistically” map physical and mental qualities, has no mechanics for emotions, has horrendous social mechanics, and has a list of odd, random Skills which rarely matter.

This is important, because a game’s mechanics define the parameters for interacting with it. Definitionally, they tell us how to play the game. They determine what we can do, and how we go about doing things. They shape the way we think about moving through the world of the game. And what D&D’s mechanics tell us is that we need to care about tactical combat and physicality, but it doesn’t pay attention to emotions, or to notions of growth beyond stat growth.

Now, you might first believe that a focus on combat fits for shonen battle series - after all, bombastic bouts are so much a genre staple that battle is in the name. However, this would be to miss both what matters in those fights, and how those fights operate. Firstly, despite many series such as Dragon Ball Z caring about physicality and strength so much that they even create systems by which to measure it, they don’t care about physicality in the way that D&D does. Where a character in D&D needs to know what their strength modifier is to take actions, and know their strength score to see if they meet the qualifications for a feat, a character in DBZ doesn’t care about any of that for a second. Where stats are literal limitations in a game like D&D, they are only theoretical limits in a battle series - determination and grit allows heroes and villains alike to push past their limitations and reach new heights. Hell, it’s so prevalent, it’s a trope of the genre.

The second issue with the focus on tactical combat for an attempt to do shonen battle is that shonen battle also doesn’t care about war tactics. The battle system of D&D is ultimately still tied to its wargaming roots. It’s a tactics of troop formations and strict movements and attack ranges, of victory and absolute defeat. Shonen battle, on the other hand, cares about a different kind of tactics. In a good shonen battle series, there is a level of tactics to what characters do, but it’s never about moving and swinging in order. Rather, it is about understanding the personal limits of each character’s abilities, their strengths and weaknesses, and working out new and creative ways to use their strengths and create advantages without falling into their opponent’s traps. In this way, to do a shonen fight within the battle system of D&D or any game with a similar system would be to miss the entire technical appeal of a shonen fight.

It would also be missing what I believe is the real appeal of a shonen fight - the battle happening between ideals, between principles. Rarely do we reach a fight in a good shonen battle series where we don’t understand what both sides want or their histories with each other. A hero giving everything they’ve got and more to stop a villain from destroying what they care about. Two old friends who’ve strayed apart, and now stand in the way of each other’s goals. A fight between an idealistic antagonist and a protagonist who can’t abide by their methods. The importance of a fight is never merely the spectacle itself - in the best fights, it always rests in the emotions behind it.

In those same series, those great fights also always change the hero, or their rival, or even the villain, because of the meaning behind the fights. They cause growth, for good or ill, and that growth is not just in their strength. Rather, the growth of their abilities is merely a representation of their growth as a person. A game that isn’t concerned with emotions or emotional growth, with ideals beyond a meaningless map or morality, isn’t going to allow us to capture those feelings.

So What Does Any of that Have to do With Getting People to Act Within Genre?

In short, everything - I believe that illustrates something through example: that the mechanics of a game tell us what matters, and for a game to capture genre well, those have to be the things that matter to that genre. In our case of battle shonen and D&D, those things were nearly at odds with each other. That’s not to say you couldn’t spend a lot of hours hacking D&D to do the job right, but at that point it would essentially be a different game.

Really, this issue is going to appear in any game not made for a specific genre, even those which attempt to do any genre, like FATE. I simply chose D&D because, beyond being the largest ttrpg, I hate it with a fiery passion and wanted to take it down.

Making Mechanics For Genre

So, to get people to act in genre, we need mechanics which reinforce what’s important in that genre, because the mechanics tell us how to interact with the game, and we want players to interact with the game within genre. There are so very many creative ways to handle this for any genre, but this is my essay, so I’m going to use my in-progress game, SUPERLUNARY: Fight with Feelings, as an example.  

SUPERLUNARY is a game which attempts to capture the feeling and aesthetics of shonen battle series (which is why that is the genre I chose to go into earlier). So, how do the mechanics of my game reinforce what matters for the genre? Well, since emotions and ideals are what fuels action, and since physicality largely only matters in aesthetic, I decided to make the stats of my game all emotional - they give an idea of a character’s personality, how they tend to deal with situations. Additionally, rather than describing literal physical capabilities, (or in other words how a character does something) through describing a character’s emotions, they instead describe why a character does something. This means that players need to think about why they’re doing something, because it affects the outcome. Thus, the stats of the game reinforce that what matters isn’t just what happens, but also why.

Decisions like this permeate every mechanic of the game, from tying character growth to beating (and being beat by!) villains and rivals, to giving characters the ability to put themselves on the line to help their friends or push themselves past their limits. Each mechanic continues to reinforce the attitude of the game, continues to tell players how to interact with it. Ultimately, this is why I personally think that the best way to capture genre is to make a game which explicitly is built for it. You want the game to, from the ground up, be built to get the player into the right mindset.

This isn’t to say you can’t hack a game with new genre mechanics and call it a day. You certainly can work from the base of another game, but in this case I suggest that you consider what all of the mechanics already present tell the player. Do they teach the player to interact with the game in a way supportive of what you’re going for, or do they hinder your goal? If you only add new mechanics without doing this, you may end up with a game which, at its core, still works against you.

Getting Everyone to Buy In

Getting the table to buy into telling genre fiction is actually rather easy, especially compared to getting the game’s mechanics to work for you. Populate the world with NPCs which play with notions of tropes, either playing into them or deconstructing them. Play with a table who is excited about the idea of the genre you’re going for. Use little flourishes from the genre in the way characters act or things are described. For a shonen-inspired game, talk enthusiastically about your ideals, don’t be afraid to wear your character’s emotions on your sleeves. For a neo-noir, describe the mundane details of a room and of the taste of the coffee in that character’s hands. For a horror game, make everything feel unsettling and keep your players off-balance.

Ultimately, I really think that these tw-

WELCOME TO THE SECRET ESSAY, or, How to Take Lessons for Collaborative Stories from Authored Works

So the point at the core of the first essay is that games should be built with the intention of evoking the desired feelings and behaviors in players. However, it still leaves us with unanswered questions. How do we find out what the feelings we want are? How do we capture them once we’ve identified them?
I’m not going to answer those questions here, because frankly there are no right answers. However, I want to offer a strategy for going about taking inspiration for these answers from things outside of RPGs, particularly from art and media. I want to talk about this largely because it plays a big part in my works, but also because we can learn very interesting things by looking outside of RPGs or even outside of games.

Allow me to briefly work from example again, this time with my in-progress horror mystery module, The Crooked Mile: Horror in the Margins. The inspiration for the game comes from countless sources: the works of Guillermo del Toro, Riot Grrrl and Queercore, Bound, Scooby Doo!, in particular Scooby Doo! and the Witch’s Ghost, my own upbringing in the American Rust Belt, Dungeon Bitches (the game it’s being made for), and most notably David Lynch’s work, but particularly Twin Peaks. It is, to say the least, an eclectic gathering of inspirations.

However, it is through all of them that I synthesized my emotional goals with the module. It’s through Dungeon Bitches and Guillermo del Toro’s work and Riot Grrrl and Queercore and the Rust Belt that I get the source of the horror in the game - the monsters in control of this unjust world. It’s through Bound and Scooby Doo! and Twin Peaks that we find the player’s source of power - their ability to work things out, to gather information and then improvise when things go wrong. And it is from Twin Peaks and Lynch’s general visual style which I found one of the module’s most powerful tools, in narrative and mechanics and even in advice for GM’s - the power of making the mundane unsettling, of making the players uncertain of everything.

Taking many disparate influences is always going to be a powerful tool. Through finding their similarities, or through juxtaposing them against each other, your imagination has plenty of room to synthesize new concepts. Here, I want to zoom in on how I took concepts from art and media to come to narrative and mechanical concepts. In particular, how Lynch’s visual style influenced my notion of how to handle truth and narrative.

David Lynch has a knack for making the ordinary seem so produced, so fake, that it ceases to even feel real. It becomes so ordinary as to be unsettling. In Twin Peaks, not only does he use this, but he also makes a lack of certainty a key part of the story. What’s real and what isn’t is a meaningful question for both the audience and the characters.

I chose to go about making the players feel unsettled in their reality through a few means. The most notable of which, I believe, is through the Narrator. The Narrator is a meta-character played by the GM, who runs the game rather than the actual GM themselves. In my test of the module, I’m playing with people who I’ve done multiple RPs with, and so to further offset them, I use a voice which is not my own while I am running the game as the Narrator. The Narrator communicates to characters, comments on their actions and thoughts. And, without me ever needing to say that they can, the players decided to have their characters communicate back. Even better, each character has their own rationalization for this odd voice in their head.

Now, I believe it’s obvious that these two things are quite different. Shot composition and deliberately unnatural acting choices are quite different from what I’m doing in my game. However, they both accomplish the same goal - they put the viewer, or in our case, the player, into a space where they feel more prepared to be uncertain of what they hear, to come to their own conclusions about reality. This has the added benefit for this mystery game, since the players quickly become accustomed to their characters making their own assertions about the truth.

Let’s take another example, at how I took inspiration from the Riot Grrrl and Queercore scenes for mechanics. Both of these musical scenes originated as offshoots of hardcore punk centered around women and queer folks respectively. In the case of Riot Grrrl particularly, the movement came largely as a response to the way women were treated in the punk scene.

So, in The Crooked Mile, the players’ band has a real piece of shit manager. He’s a dirtbag, he’s a pig, and he has the potential to gain more power over the band whenever they fail at a multitude of rolls. He’s the exact sort of dude they wish they could avoid, but he books their gigs (which don’t even cover the costs of their van, leading to their solving mysteries).

In general, the game positions the players’ characters as being the victims of a culture and a system larger than them, one which is crushing them. The game also sticks true to the attitudes of these 90s acts - it never posits a solution to their issues. Rather, it takes the cruel world they inhabit as a given, and grant them the ability to rebel against it, without granting them the power to change it. It’s bleak, which suits its nature as a horror game.

The Secret Conclusion

Ultimately, pulling thematic inspiration from other mediums comes down to interrogating your own reactions to media. What does something do to you, and how? What can you think of that could evoke the same feeling, but which operates within a game instead of a visual or auditory medium? There’s never going to be wrong answers to these questions, but there are always going to be new and interesting solutions which you can find through this sort of reasoning. 

I’ll also admit that what I’m suggesting here isn’t novel, and I certainly didn’t invent the idea of being inspired by something. However, I think it’s important to remember that we can look not just at what something does, but what it does to us. That is, ultimately, the best piece of advice I can hope to offer in this essay. If you want something to feel a certain way, you have to break down what makes you feel that way. It’s not always easy to be introspective in that capacity, but it’s crucial to making evocative games, to my mind.

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