Genre and Setting Simulation: Perils, Pitfalls, and Possibilities

by Steven S. Long

This essay is designated Open Game Content by the terms of the Open Gaming License by Wizards of the Coast. It was originally published as open content in the book Gamemastering Secrets, 2nd edition, published in 2002 by Grey Ghost Games.

         When a gamemaster sets out to create and run a gaming campaign, she almost always has inspirations from movies, fiction, comic books, and similar sources in mind. Her influences may be subconscious -- she likes the novels of Tolkien and Kurtz, so she tries to incorporate elements similar to theirs into her game without deliberately copying them -- or conscious -- she just saw the movies Stargate and tries to file off the serial numbers and create a virtually identical campaign -- but in both cases the influences exist. When gamers create and run games, they often try to simulate the media, settings, and genres that so fascinate them.

         There's nothing wrong with this. One of the things that pulls many people into gaming is the desire to create their own settings and worlds, ones as well portrayed, cleverly put together, and wondrous as the books they read the the television shows they see. It's only natural that our viewing and reading habits form interconnections with our gaming hobby.

         By the same token, however, games are not novels. Nor, for that matter, are they movies, television shows, comic books, short stories, or anything else. They're games, pure and simple, and though they may be influenced by mass-media entertainment, they don't follow all of the same "rules". Sometimes you can recreate a genre in a game with no difficulty. At other times a setting proves so unadaptable to RPGs that it's not worth the effort to try to carry it over to the gaming table. Most of the time games exist in a gray area where they can simulate some aspects of a genre or setting well and others not so well.

         The wise GM learns to work within the boundaries of genre and setting simulation. She takes advantage of the nature of roleplaying games to create her own stories and settings which , while properly reminiscent of the books, movies, and shows that inspired her, also make use of the unique strengths and attributes of gaming itself. This article examines some of the differences between gaming and mass-media entertainments and discusses their implications for creating enjoyable games and characters.

         Of course, this discussion assumes, at least in part, that the main goal of a roleplaying game is "story creation." That's not necessarily the case. One could argue that roleplaying games as they've been developed and played over the past 30 years have little, if anything, to do with "story creation" or "story telling" -- they're just an elaborate and unusual form of wargame. A true "story creation game" might not even qualify as a "game" as that term's commonly employed, but that's a subject for another book. For purposes of this article, "story creation" remains, at some level, a major if not preeminent, objective of RPG play.

The Free-willed Protagonist

         The most fundamental difference between RPGs and mass-media entertainments is that in gaming the primary creator of the story -- the GM -- does not control the protagonists -- the player characters (PCs).

         In a novel or movie, the author or director has full control over everything, but particularly over the main characters, who are the focus of the story. If he wants them to go to a certain place, they do. If he needs them to overlook an important clue (or deduce its meaning) so the story can advance, they do. If he needs them to remain uninjured, then no one hurts them. They jump when he says jump, zig when he wants them to zig, and in general behave themselves.

         Gaming is completely different. The players control the main characters, and the GM -- the equivalent of the author or director -- controls everyone else only. The players can, at least in theory, have their characters go anywhere and do anything, regardless of the story or plot the GM has in mind for a particular evening's session. They often refuse to jump, even when directly ordered to do so, and zag when the GM prefers that they zig. In short, PCs are free-willed.

         Since the GM doesn't directly control the main characters, it's necessary to have some mechanism by which she can indirectly control them. Random task resolution does that by allowing her to influence character actions (albeit slightly). It simultaneously gives the players a measure of comfort, because it assures them the game has some degree of objectivity -- a d20 player knows that rolling a 20 means a success almost all the time, regardless of whether the GM is skilled or unskilled, fair or unfair, biased or unbiased. But at any given crucial plot point, a missed or failed roll of the dice can drastically change what happens for the rest of the game, and often not to the GM's benefit. Ultimately, it's best to acknowledge this significant difference and accept it by erring on the side of "game fun" instead of "genre simulation".

The Disallowed Player Character

         In a novel, comic book, or TV show, you can have almost any type of character who fits the setting, genre, and story. More than once, readers/viewers have experienced the exploits of characters who could control time, were invulnerable to all (or nearly all) forms of attack, possessed mental powers vast enough to enslave worlds, and so forth. This works fine in mass-media entertainments, since the author/director can prevent the character from abusing his powers or using his abilities in ways that diminish the dramatic tension.

         However, since a GM doesn't control her PCs, some types of characters, or character abilities, should not be allowed in a roleplaying game. If played they would "unbalance" the game (i.e., make it too easy for one PC, or the PCs as a group, to succeed, thereby robbing the game of its challenge and thus its enjoyment). In most games, this includes characters who cannot be hit by attacks or who are invulnerable to damage. Other examples of abilities that GMs rarely allow are the ability to travel through time at will, retrocognition and other abilities that make it difficult or impossible to run mystery scenarios, and some types of mental or psionic abilities. In fact, most abilities, if sufficiently powerful, can become so detrimental to the game they must be disallowed. Thus, gaming characters lack some of the freedom mass-media characters possess, but it's a restriction most players gladly accept in exchange for the power to control their characters in all other matters.

         Similarly, many GMs impose some restrictions on characters' mental attributes (whether they're called Intelligence, Intellect, Wits, or something else) and on related abilities such as deductive capacity. After all, the reasoning goes, how can someone play a character who's more intelligent than he himself is? By definition it's impossible; unlike, say, strength, you can't easily simulate superior intellect with dice rolls and the like. Moreover, even when you can, many GMs prefer not to. The game is a lot more fun for everyone concerned if the players themselves make the deductions, solve the mysteries, and reason through the difficulties their characters encounter.

Characters in Groups

         The GMs lack of direct control over the main characters and the events of the story also affects the composition of groups of player characters. In mass-media entertainments, authors and directors freely mix characters of vastly different capabilities since they can tailor the stories to make all the characters equally important. The Fellowship of the Ring includes Gandalf (the most powerful wizard in Middle-earth) and four hobbits (no skills or abilities to speak of), yet each proves vital to the story. In The Avengers comic book, the team can simultaneously feature relatively weak characters (Dr. Druid, Hawkeye) alongside the likes of Thor and Iron Man.

         Gaming, unfortunately, doesn't work that way. Because the players exert such influence over the story and the actions of the main characters, all those characters have to be relatively equal in power and competence, or else the player of the "weak" characters feel ineffectual (and rightly so). For example, in a d20 game, most of the characters need to be about the same level or else the higher-level characters eclipse their brethren. Similarly, characters belonging to generally weaker classes (e.g. bard) often play second fiddle to characters of the more powerful classes (fighters, clerics).

         It's possible to have a fun group of gaming characters that mixes weak and powerful, but only if you're willing to put in a lot of work to keep the game enjoyable for all the players. You can try, at least to some extent, to plan encounters and obstacles so that the weaker characters have their moments to shine. You'll find this much easier if the weak characters have some crucial skills or abilities the stronger characters lack entirely (healing magic, lock-picking, the power to walk through walls). Even then, the players of the weaker characters will probably experience some resentment or feelings of powerlessness from time to time.

Unusual Attitudes and Abilities

         In a novel or movie, the main characters always fit perfectly the story the author/director wants to tell. After all, they're custom-designed for that story (or the story for them). If they need a particular ability, gadget, or skill to get past some plot point, they have it -- if they haven't displayed it before, that certainly won't stop the creator from giving it to them, deus ex machina, when it's needed (Bat-Shark Repellent, anyone?).

         In games, since players generally have a high degree of freedom when it comes to creating their characters' abilities and attitudes, they may not fit the story as well. In fact, they may not fit it at all. Perhaps worse, they may fit it reasonably well but have some quirk or flaw (whether defined by rules or no) that leads them to derail the story or the campaign from time to time.

         For example, in one of this author's d20 campaigns, there was a gnome thief character with some illusionist abilities. The character had a penchant for turning invisible and just wandering off to explore whenever the mood took him. He never bothered to tell anyone, and it had nothing to do with the story; the player had simply decided "my character gets bored easily" and was roleplaying that. Every time he did it, he completely wrecked whatever story the group was in the process of telling. The other PCs had to drop whatever they were doing, however illogical or dramatically inappropriate that was, track the gnome down, and get him out of the trouble he inevitably got himself into. Adventures both hilarious and enjoyable sometimes ensued, but more often than not the gnome's antics were just a lot of bothersome interference. Once or twice other PCs even whacked him on the back of the head with a dagger pommel to knock him out and keep him from throwing the story into a cocked hat.

         "But wait!" you may cry in a rage. "The player was just roleplaying. There's nothing wrong with good roleplaying, is there?" In the abstract, no, of course not. Good roleplaying is to be encouraged -- but not as an end in itself. Gaming is not performance art. In a roleplaying game, which is about a group of friends creating an adventure story together, good roleplaying only helps if it contributes to the process of story creation. Good roleplaying that isn't dramatically appropriate, detracts from the story, or interferes with what the group as a whole wants to do, is, far more often than not, a bad thing.

         To a certain extent, this is another of those problems so inherent to gaming that you can't completely solve it. Player freedom means that you, as GM, can't control the main characters the way an author or director does. However, you can take steps to minimize the problem. First and foremost, don't let players create their characters in a vacuum. Give them guidance -- tell them what sort of stories you're planning to tell (and get their input, so it's one they want to tell, too), and make suggestions for characters (and character personalities) who fit the story. Second, don't let the players create their characters by themselves; get them together n a group for a character creation session. That way they can feed off each others' ideas, creating a group of characters with solid backgrounds who mesh together. This gives them a reason to go on adventures as a group rather than pursuing their separate agendas.

Character Perfection

         In novels, movies, and comics, characters are rarely, if ever, perfect. They have flaws ranging from short tempers to cowardice, to loved ones to look after, to greed, to enemies hunting them. It's in overcoming these imperfections that they show themselves to be true heroes. It's not hard for the perfect man, unflawed and unhindered, to accomplish some great deed. A true hero struggles to overcome internal and external difficulties and triumph in spite of them. It makes for great stories.

         In roleplaying games, players often strenuously resists any attempt to impose flaws and complications upon their characters. Some games, such as the d20 system, pander to this desire for ubermensch-hood by ignoring the concept of flaws as part of the character creation process altogether. Others, far too many to name, bribe players to give their characters imperfections by providing extra game goodies for each flaw taken -- more points to spend, extra skills to choose, whatever. Except in the hands of mature and dramatically aware players, the result tends to be characters of immense power who are physically, psychologically, and socially crippled in ways that make no sense for the story. That's because players are choosing flaws for the reward, not out of a sense of dramatic appropriateness or a desire to create a truly heroic, well defined, and intriguing character (how intriguing, after all, is perfection?).

         Fudge stands out from the pack in this regard. It provides for character flaws and, depending on how you as GM set things up, can even require players to take one or more for their characters. The players get nothing tangible in return: no extra points to spend, no skill boost, nothing -- except the satisfaction of creating a great character.

         Overcoming this problem is simply a matter of GM planning and oversight. Before the character creation process begins, let the players know that you expect them to build characters with intriguing flaws (or "story hooks" as some GMs aptly call them) -- for no particular reward. The reward comes in improved play and story creation. Also let them know what types of flaws are appropriate for the campaign and which aren't. "Tends to wander off," the flaw possessed by the gnome described above, probably isn't appropriate for any well run or tightly planned game campaign.

         Your best touchstone for evaluating character flaws is this question: "Can I see a character in a book, movie, or TV show having this flaw without ruining the story?" If the answer is "yes," then you can probably find a way to work the flaw into your story. If the answer is "no" -- as with "tends to wander off" -- then explain to the player why you can't allow that flaw and tell him to come up with something else that fits better.

Demon Practicality

         In mass-media entertainment, characters take risks. They do all sorts of dangerous, impractical, foolish things in pursuit of their cherished goals. For the sake of true love, they put their lives in danger to obtain the magic rose they need to awaken the princess from her enchanted sleep. To obtain riches (and thus personal freedom or the ability to pursue other goals), they undertake perilous quests to slay dragons. To restore the true king to the throne, they place themselves in the path of the usurper's army, the most power in the land. The fact that these actions and goals are socially or physically harmful to them, outrageously expensive, or virtually impossible to achieve doesn't matter one whit. What matters is accomplishing that goal, practicality and "the safe road" be damned.

         Furthermore, as they pursue their goals, mass-media characters don't always do the practical thing. They don't check every corridor or door for traps and secret passages. They don't arm themselves with five types of weapons. They don't try to formulate a back-up plan and carry the proper gear for twenty-seven possible different contingencies. Only in genres where this sort of behavior fits, such as some espionage and military-oriented stories, do you see characters act with such exquisite practicality.

         All too often, game characters are nothing like this. They approach everything from the perspective of practicality. They want to minimize every danger, plan for every possibility, equip themselves with one of everything listed on the game's price charts, and search everything -- everything -- for items hidden or valuable. They don't act like characters in novels and movies at all. They act like commandos sent into enemy territory to take out some important target. In other words, they all too often completely miss the point of the story.

         Weaning your players off practicality is a twofold process. First, explain the problem to them. Many players aren't aware of it; they're merely behaving in the way that seems best to them -- after all, they want to protect their characters, and they themselves probably do the practical thing most of the time in their daily lives. Second, and more importantly, when they do the dramatically appropriate but impractical thing, don't penalize them for it. If they skip on checking for traps to keep the story moving along, don't spring traps on them -- that just encourages them to check for traps everywhere they go. If they decide to go somewhere lightly armed because it would look stupid and detract from the story to wear armor and carry swords, make sure they can handle any opposition they meet with the weapons they have at hand. If they find themselves unable to fight effectively when lightly armed, they'll wear plate armor and swords wherever they go, and justifiably so.

Dramatic Results

         Other than lack of direct creator control of the protagonists, perhaps the main difference between mass-media entertainments and roleplaying games is that novels, movies, comic books, and the like describe character actions in terms of dramatic results, whereas games depict them through numbers and rules. In a book or television show, a character in combat doesn't stop to think, "Okay, I'll use the Two-fisted Firing combat maneuver, and I'll dive sideways to cut the penalties in half, and I'll aim for the torso to achieve a +1 to-hit bonus." All that's running through his mind is, "I've gotta beat this guy, and to do that I need to ..." (shoot him first, push him off the cliff, get to the gun before he does, solve this puzzle more quickly, or what have you). He doesn't stop to add up modifiers and pick maneuvers, he just does the best he can to get the job done, and the author or director describes what happens.

         To cut down on the numbers and increase the drama in your game sessions, try to think in dramatic terms. Consider tossing out all the maneuvers and modifiers and other game impedimenta, and instead think in terms of dramatic actions and outcomes. Don't ask a player, "OK, it's your turn, what maneuver are you going to use?" Instead say, "Your turn, Bob -- what's your character going to do?" Bob, in turn, shouldn't say, "He's going to spend one action aiming at the rope, another action to make a Two-handed Strike with his sword, and if he succeeds, spend 2 Fate Points to make the chandelier fall on Dr. Grimaldi's head. How much damage will the chandelier do if I hit?" He should say, "I'm going to cut the rope and knock Dr. Grimaldi out with the falling chandelier!" In other words, Bob is thinking, and describing his character's actions, in dramatic terms. He's forgetting the numbers and rules and just trying to have fun telling a story. He tells you the result he desires, not the series of actions he plans to take. You as GM can then assign one big modifier to the whole action (based in part on how difficult it is and in part on how it contributes to the story). Bob makes one quick random determination to see if he succeeds. If he does, great! Dr. Grimaldi collapses unconscious under the ruins of the chandelier. If not, the fiendish professor remains awake to fight on another round.

         Fudge, with its simple, freeform character creation and task resolution mechanics, suits this style of play very well. A Fudge GM can easily wrap everything up into one "dramatic modifier" if her players can stop thinking about rules and think more like people crafting a story. They may lose a rule advantage or two along the way, but they'll gain much more enjoyment and satisfaction from the gaming experience that it'll be more than worth it.


         What all this philosophizing and suggesting boils down to is this: You're playing a game about story creation, you're not writing a novel or creating a movie. If you hold simulation of novels and movies as your ultimate goal, you're likely to be disappointed, because games aren't mass-media entertainments -- they're games. You can do a lot to make your games more like mass-media entertainments than they are now and in the process improve them, perhaps dramatically. But you shouldn't ever lose sight of the fact that they remain games and thus follow different rules. Try to get around those rules and you're likely to become frustrated and aggravated when your games don't measure up to your favorite books and shows. If you stick to those rules, you'll find your games fun, exciting, and enriching in and of themselves.


The following text is the property of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. and is Copyright 2000 Wizards of the Coast, Inc ("Wizards"). All Rights Reserved.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Thu Apr 24 23:34:22 2003