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Genre levels


(I wrote this in mid-December, but for some reason never got around to posting it.)

In 1996, during my Wanderjahr, I ran a brief roleplaying game for a couple of friends. One of them really wanted to play a character from Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, and although I was dubious about having a non-original character in my game, I decided to allow it.

But I'd never seen the show, so first I had to watch an episode or two to get a sense of what it was like.

My first impression was that it was incredibly unrealistic. I mean, ninjas would show up out of nowhere and attack this guy all the time, and then fight him one-on-one, and then they would flee.

But then something clicked. And I realized that the show was not an inept portrayal of the real world; it was a good portrayal of a world with strong genre conventions.

If you think of the show as taking place in a world in which it's normal for ninjas to show up out of nowhere and attack and so on, then the show makes a lot more sense and is a lot more enjoyable.

These days I talk about genre conventions all the time, and when I run into a particularly implausible element of a published sf story, a little bit of thought sometimes convinces me that it's just a genre convention.

But the aspect of this that I don't seem to have discussed here is the idea that some fictional worlds are more heavily genred than others.

Every genre has its conventions. Romance, mystery, Western, technothriller, science fiction, fantasy--each has conventions, and each subgenre within those genres has conventions. Even mainstream literary fiction and its subgenres have conventions.

But some genre conventions are meant to be more or less mimetic, more or less imitative of things that happen in real life, and others aren't.

I tend to think of works in which the genre conventions are particularly important to the world or the story, and in which those conventions are particularly out of step with the real world, as being "heavily genred." (I sometimes say such a work has a high "genre level.")

This came up the other day when I was telling Kam about the roleplaying game Space: 1889. (In this entry, as usual for me, "roleplaying game" refers to tabletop/pen-and-paper-and-dice roleplaying, not computer games.) For those unfamiliar with it, it's Victorian adventure science fiction--Verne, Haggard, Wells. In my experience, it works well as an introduction to roleplaying, because it's a very heavily genred game, and because most people are familiar, at least in general, with the genre conventions. (Or at least with later pulp versions of those conventions, which are close enough for the purposes of the game.) Lost cities in Africa! Ancient crumbling civilizations by the fabled canals of Mars! Dinosaurs in the steaming jungles of Venus! British explorers keeping a stiff upper lip while wearing pith helmets and carrying the White Man's Burden to the savage heathens! "Ether-flyer" spaceships! Lighter-than-air galleons made of Martian liftwood! The game's tag line pretty much sums it up: "Science-Fiction Role Playing in a More Civilized Time."

And since the genre conventions are so strong as to be practically self-parodies, players end up having a lot of fun with it. And of course you can play a little with the constraints of the genre; for example, one character in a Space:1889 game that I ran appeared to be a dashing young British man who kept to himself a lot, but was really a young woman in disguise.

The original West End Star Wars roleplaying game is another one, perhaps the best example I've seen of a game's mechanics reflecting the genre conventions. I never actually ran the game, but when I was thinking about doing so at one point, Arthur E and I did some sample combat, and it was great--fluid and fast, and the stormtroopers couldn't hit a damn thing.

A lot of roleplaying games are pretty heavily genred--Call of Cthulhu, certainly (where you gradually lose your sanity as you learn Things Man Was Not Meant To Know), and Champions (stun damage vs. body damage, for instance, not to mention knockback), and Justice, Inc., and Toon, and for that matter even D&D. In such games, and in other heavily genred works, you can generally expect the "unrealistic" genre conventions to have a major role in how the story progresses; if you want to take the story on its own terms, it helps to think of the story as taking place in a world where those conventions are the way things work.

Another example: Firefly (specifically the TV show) was a heavily genred show. Lots of it doesn't make any sense at all if you try to think of it as plausible futurism. Six-guns and shotguns in space? Cattle in the spaceship's hold? A train robbery? Dusty desert landscapes? Fights in saloons? Fiddle music? A whorehouse run by a tough madam with a heart of gold? A former Civil War soldier, from the losing side, who still hates the Federales? Wait, hold on--that's not bad projection of the future, it's a Western! In space! If I hadn't known going into it that that's what the series was, I think I would have been really annoyed by it--though to be fair, the train-robbery episode that was the first one to air made it awfully obvious what they were doing.

(And as an aside, one thing I didn't like about the Serenity movie was that they seemed to lose track of what genre it was supposed to be. They discarded a lot of the Western elements, and too much of the movie felt to me more like a zombie movie than a Western.)

And I think that one good way to get readers/viewers into the right frame of mind is to set their genre expectations appropriately from the very start. The new Zorro movie does this (though not quite in the way I'm talking about): the opening title sequence (flaming words, whip-cracks, hoofbeats) is so over-the-top dramatic that Kam and I were laughing with delight even before Banderas appeared onscreen. Similarly, the James Bond movies always open with an over-the-top action sequence that sets not just the mood but the genre expectations. (Though one of them a few years ago backfired in that regard for me--it featured a blatantly unrealistic falling scene, which instead of making me expect that this was a world where gravity doesn't work the way it does in the real world, I just got annoyed. So different members of the audience may react differently to a given "unrealistic" item.)

There are certainly times when you want to mess with or subvert reader expectations. That's fine. But if the world of your story is going to be heavily genred, it's often a good idea to set that up at the beginning; it can save you a lot of trouble later.

P.S.: Space: 1889 appears to be back in print, from Heliograph Games. If you ever want to play it, I recommend ignoring a lot of the game mechanics--I found the character stat system and the combat system nigh-unusable--but it's a lot of fun to play if you apply your own streamlined system to it.

Heliograph was also, as of early 2005, planning a game called Zeppelin Age: Pulp Era Roleplaying: 1900 to 1940. It sounds like fun, but it's apparently been in the planning stages since 2002, so I'm not holding my breath.


How does this fit in with your earlier post about economics and efficiency as motivations in fiction? Most of the things you cited as examples of inefficiency were standard genre conventions. Would you say that, as an editor, you are looking for works that are less genred? (Or, at least, less genred than what you look for as a consumer of movies and roleplaying games?)

Hi, Ted -- my entry on economics and efficiency as motivations was meant to focus on things that I don't consider to be genre conventions. At the end of that entry, for example, one of the things I considered a valid justification for a particular "implausible" plan/approach was "it's a genre convention." I probably should have made my distinction between genre conventions and other kinds of implausibilities clearer in that entry. But on re-reading that entry, I would still argue that my examples aren't genre conventions. --With the possible exception of "solve the population problem by moving people off-planet"; I was probably over-broad in my depiction of that idea, 'cause I might agree that some instantiations of it are following genre conventions. But other instantiations of it, I think, are authors who intend their work to be more or less scientifically plausible but who just aren't thinking carefully about the economics.

Interesting question about what I'm looking for as an editor. I think that by and large (both as editor and as audience member) I find less-genred works more emotionally compelling, and more-genred works more fun. I'm perfectly happy to publish heavily genred over-the-top fun stories, as long as either they're very true to the genre or they do interesting things with the genre. But I'm more likely to think of such works as entertaining fluff than as great works of Literature.

I guess another way of putting it relates to Ben's "sources of reader pleasure" thing: if a story doesn't engage me emotionally, I'm unlikely to be interested in publishing it unless it provides me with other significant sources of pleasure. (Heavily genred stories can engage me emotionally, but often don't. I love it when they do, though.) For me, genre conventions can become a source of pleasure in themselves, but usually only when the work really embraces and celebrates, maybe even exaggerates, the conventions.

On a side note, I should make clear that although I've enjoyed all the RPGs I listed, the RPGs that I've really loved have generally been darker and more serious and less heavily genred. Space: 1889 is lots of fun, but the thing I love most about roleplaying (as with fiction) is emotional identification with a character, and that's much more likely to happen (for me) in a more serious game. Same applies to movies and TV, though I'm slightly more appreciative of genre conventions in those media.

One more side note: I forgot to mention that in the RPG I started this entry by talking about, which was a multiverse game in which the PCs could travel between universes more or less at will, my friend did end up playing a Kung Fu: TLC character. And my other friend played her ongoing character from a much less genred world. And the two characters met in a world somewhere in between, a world that both of them found kind of improbable in some ways. It was kind of fun as a GM to explicitly play with the genre levels of the world--to have one character who thought it was normal for ninjas to attack out of nowhere, and another character who thought that made no sense.

Regarding combat-modelling in role-playing games: I have it on good authority that in at least one Doctor Who rules set, the accuracy of Daleks is inversely proportional to their number. Encounter one Dalek, and you're dead. Encounter fifteen, and you're laughing.

I get attacked by one-at-a-time ninjas constantly.

It's just how I roll.

I totally agree about West End's Star Wars game. That and the original Call of Cthulhu are two of the best gaming systems, in my opinion. I'd put Castle Falkenstein in that group, too, with its playing card mechanic and storybook rules. They capture the mood and style of their genres and the rules make so much sense because of this. I also recommend looking at Unknown Armies if you haven't -- they mold their system around the Tim Powers genre, and are quite successful.

Thanks for the Space: 1889 plug!

Zeppelin Age should actually see print this year, barring disaster. But remain skeptical ;-)

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