Reifying Genre Conventions

by John H. Kim

         This essay looks at a particular technique in dealing with genre in games, which I describe as reifying genre conventions. In short, this is taking something which is a story convention in other media -- but for the RPG explaining it as an explicit part of the game world. As an example of this, we can look at the adaptation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings into the movies. In the book, orcs are never innocents -- and in particular there is never description of orc women and children. In the recent movies, it is explicitly shown that orcs are created by a process from which they spring fully grown. The books have the story convention that orc innocents are never described to the reader. The movie makes it an explicit part of the world that orc women and children do not exist.

         As another example, in Star Trek there are a host of alien species which look very similar to humans. Originally, this was simply an accepted convention of the series, driven by limited budget and technology. However, at one point the writers decided on an explanation. The characters themselves discovered that long ago an alien race manipulated the evolution of many worlds to produce other civilizations which would look like them, including Humans, Vulcans, Klingons, and many more.

Adapting Genres to RPGs

         It is a tricky problem to adapt an established fictional genre from novels or movies into an RPG. It is similar to the problem of adapting a novel into a film, or any other change of medium. It is frequently possible to keep most of the essential features of the genre in other media, but there are also going to be differences. For example, high fantasy novels are going to be different than the high fantasy films, which in turn will be different than high fantasy role-playing games.

         One of the most basic differences of fiction to RPGs is that RPGs are interactive. Because of this, they explore the point-of-view of the protagonists far more thoroughly than most other fiction. In order to role-play, the players constantly consider risk-assessment, decision-making, and other thought processes of their characters. Because of this, an RPG setting often needs to be more completely defined than in other media.

         It is a tricky line of which conventions should be reified and which should not. In general, I feel that story conventions which are important for PC decision-making should frequently be reified. i.e. If there is a convention of how characters behave, you should see if you can come up with a way to reify it.

Universal Principles

         One way to reify a story convention is to make it a law of the universe. That is, everywhere in the game universe, events of that type behave just as if it were part of the story. Thus, nameless bystanders who see the convention occurring simply think that it is normal.

Example: In the martial arts genre, opponents will tend to fight one-on-one rather than ganging up on a single target at once. You can have this in a game by agreement: the GM usually sends in thugs one at a time, and the players agree to do likewise for the master villain. On the other hand, you could reifying this by defining a principle of combat that multiple attackers will tend to get in each others way and be less effective. This was the approach used in the Ninja Hero game. Each simultaneous attacker past the first meant a -1 penalty for all the attacks. This is not a principle explicitly stated by characters in martial arts movies, but it neatly explains their behavior. This makes the decision to attack one-on-one a logical conclusion based on consequences. Fighting experts will describe and recommend this, and smart generals will take it into account in their plans.

         The in-game mechanics for the game should reflect the conventions which you reify. Ideally, this will make effective behavior for the system correspond to in-genre behavior. Rather than asking the players in a martial-arts games to act ineffectively, you make it a property of the system to reward the behavior of fighting one-on-one. There are a number of mechanics which are often missed by many cinematic systems:

Extended Background

         Reification applies to background as well as to game mechanics. In general, novels and movies will only show a fairly thin view of a setting. i.e. Only what is most important for the stories. Thus, even if you want to match exactly the setting depicted in a series of stories, there are many aspects which you may need or want to extend in adapting the series to an RPG. Religion, philosophy, politics, social status, and/or family obligations are often skimmed over in fantasy and to some degree science fiction.

         If you want to remain faithful to the genre, though, the extended background should reinforce and mesh with the stories. The additional information may change players' view of the setting, and affect their decision-making. To remain faithful to the genre, the extended background should reinforce the expected behavior in stories of that genre.

Example: In the original Star Trek series, the captain and other high-ranking officers will frequently beam down to deal with problems. In some games, this is often hand-waved as simply silly behavior which is needed for the game. In my campaign, this was explained as an integral part of the Star Fleet culture. While the Federation respected life, there were trillions of member populations and only a few thousand officer positions defending them. Influenced by this, Star Fleet's policy was to encourage officers to push themselves to their limits and to lead from the front. Their effectiveness and especially the example they made was considered more important than their safety.

         Another example of this is the background of orcs mentions in the introduction. The film version makes explicit a part of the background never described in the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. The film visually shows orcs being created fully-grown, strongly implying that orc women and children simply do not exist. This bit of background strongly reinforces the attitudes which are present in the story, where the main characters kill orcs without compunctions. The extended background reifies the story convention that characters don't worry about orc innocents.

         The inverse to this is that extended background can be used to critique and twist the genre. By extending background in other ways, the RPG can serve as a commentary on the genre. As an example of this, one fantasy RPG campaign featured rangers inspired by Tolkien, who fought against orcs in a similar manner. However, in detailing the rangers' culture and background, the GM drew many parallels to 1930's Germany. To the players, it became clear that the rangers were fighting for racial purity. This is an extended background which runs counter to the established genre, adding depth to the game and commenting on the original.


         My aim in this article is simply to introduce the concept of reification, and in general the issues which present themselves in adapting an established genre to RPGs. I am certain that there are many other approaches to the issues, types of reifications, and techniques for doing so.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Wed Mar 5 13:09:35 2003