Saturday, 7 June 2008

Genre Emulating Mechanics: Risus and Burning Wheel

There's some fascinating stuff here about genre emulation.

I'm all about genre in the sense that I like my games to have a clearly defined one - be it Sword & Sorcery or Space Opera or Cyberpunk - and to remain within its bounds. (Genre-busting has never interested me in the slightest.) But until now I've never given a huge amount of thought to how mechanics support genre - there have just been mechanics I've liked and mechanics I haven't, and I've taken the ones I've liked and tried to crowbar them into different genres depending on my mood. To wit: I once ran a game, for example, which mixed Lovecraftian horror with Australian Aboriginal mythology, but used 1st edition AD&D mechanics to do so.

Needless to say that sort of thing is pretty unsatisfactory, and if it is to work it requires a lot of effort that I frankly don't have time or inclination for anymore. Risus - and I suppose other games like FATE and SOTC - strike me as a better alternative, because their core mechanics (Cliche in Risus, Aspects in FATE and SOTC) are so amenable to genre and to what genre is trying to do. This is especially true of Risus. That is to say: genre is cliche, and as that game's mechanics revolve entirely around cliche it should be a perfect fit.

(For example, if you want to play a Superhero game with Risus, you can emulate the genre very easily by giving characters cliches such as "Evil Genius", "Stronger than 10 tigers", "Well brought up small-town boy", "Snazzy suit", or "Reluctant hero." (Hooks also help you do this.) If on the other hand you want a swashbuckling pirate game, you can come up with cliches like "Rope-swinger par excellence", "Looks good in a cod piece" or "Bloodthirsty maniac".)

But then you read a post like this and you think, hang on, these fellows could be
onto something:

An example [of how Risus isn't perfect for genre emulation] could be Cold War spying - you could use Risus and cliches would help create a specific mood of betrayal and cloak-and-dagger, but you're still not getting the direct mechanical oomph that a Trust mechanic like Cold City uses supplies - in that game, the more Trust in each other you have, the more effective you are, but at the same time the more vulnerable to betrayal. Everyone also has Hidden Agendas which give bonus dice too, so you have a system-supported tension between trusting one another and betraying one another to achieve your agendas.

You could end up with exactly the same amount of double-dealing and subterfuge in a Risus game, complete with secret agendas, but with Cold City you not only have player expectation and the flavour of the traits/cliches pointing you in that direction, you've also got the system nudging you towards those kinds of outcomes and stories.

Coincidentally, I was listening to an old Godzilla Gaming Podcast today in which the guys interviewed Luke Crane, creator of the highly successful Burning Wheel family of games. He spoke very forcefully about the future of RPGs and made it clear that he believes (to paraphrase) that said future will involve games "which do a specific thing, but do it very well" - i.e. games that take a rather narrow concept (politicking in Heian era Japan, to use the example of his new game, Blossoms are falling) but which allow you to do that concept to the max. (He said at one point in the interview that Blossoms are falling allows you to be, say, a Regent trying to manipulate a child emperor and competing for influence against a retired emperor, and that such a situation won't come about by accident or in spite of the rules - it will come about because that sort of thing is what the game is designed for.)

This is heady stuff, and makes me wonder about the value of my relentless attempts to fit the square peg of AD&D/Classic D&D into the round holes of Aboriginal Lovecraft, Amazon Exploration, Pacific Island Myth and Arthurian Legend. Should I not be designing specific rulesets to support those 'genres' rather than relying on existent but unsuitable mechanics?

Probably. And yet there's still a part of me that keeps whispering, "It isn't about the system, it's about the setting, the DM and the players," because broadly speaking that is what I think, fundamentally. What does the system matter, at the end of the day, if the DM and players are all singing from the same hymn sheet regarding what they want the game to be? And I worry that increased genre-emulating-mechanics will result in greater balkanization in the role playing community - because who wants to learn a brand new set of mechanics every time they take up a slightly different game?

Still, food for thought. Let's get those Risus rules whirring into action and see what we can come up with vis-a-vis Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and go from there.


  1. I think you're both right!

    Er, you and you, I mean. ;)

    If everyone is on the same page, then you don't even need rules. If you and your friends all have the same idea about what a game of feudal Japanese intrigue should be about, and you're all working to make that happen, you could adjudicate any randomness with coin tosses and be happy.

    Where a rigorous and focused set of rules really shine is when people don't really know what they want, or don't have the discipline to stick to theme. If your idea of a Gawain and the Green Knight game is different from mine, a strong set of rules could also help us reach and reinforce a compromise position.

    - Brian

  2. That's a pretty good two paragraph snappy conclusion to my incoherent page-long rant! You're 100% right.

  3. If you do decide that rules-designed-for-a-genre is the way to go then you might want to look at Pendragon to get your Arthurian chivalric game off the ground supported by a specific ruleset.

  4. Terry: I like Pendragon, but I think it's too Arthurian. What I'm aiming for is Arthurian Chivalry mixed with Norse Mythology and a grab-bag of other things that take my fancy. Still, it would definitely work adequately with a bit of rejigging.