A narrative genre is a set of prefab expectations. Whatever the medium, storytellers use genre to attract an audience. When you draw on a popular genre, you hope to capture a built-in audience that returns repeatedly to stories told in that mode. By signaling that the story we’re about to tell belongs to a given genre, we’re telling the members of our audience that we’re going to play with its associated expectations. Memorable effects can be created by subverting those expectations. But in the main, you’re promising to honor a good proportion of them. When you promise a genre tale but deliver something else entirely, a big chunk of your audience emerges from the experience feeling cheated.
Expectations are established before the story is told, in what we roleplaying gamers would call a meta level. A novel tells you what genre it is with its book design and back cover copy, not to mention the style and content of its cover illustration, if any. Films signal their genres with trailers, titles, posters, and promotional blitzes.
In roleplaying we can shorthand the genre signaling by identifying the game we’re running. If I say I’m starting up a Champions campaign or a Vampire one-shot, you tailor your expectations of that experience to your past knowledge of the game in question. If I’m running something new, or a game you’re unfamiliar with, I have to spell the genre directly: we’re running superheroes, or a contemporary horror story concerning the interactions of Machiavellian bloodsuckers.
Rules systems, as distinct from games, communicate no genre expectations. Tell me you’re running a GURPS or Basic Roleplaying game, and I’ll need to know the genre you’re running to start to imagine what might happen in it.
Settings contain highly specific genre information—by telling me you’re running Delta Green, you’re leading me to anticipate a mix of genre elements drawing on both the horror of HP Lovecraft and the techno-thrillers of Robert Ludlum.
Expectations become more precise as narrower genres are signaled. Broad genre categories suggest a tone, probably the emotional payoff you’re meant to feel at the end, and a very rough concept of the story’s structure. If all you know about a movie you’re about to see is that it’s a comedy, you expect to laugh, and probably to get a happy ending. Conversely, if you know you’re about to see a bawdy teenage comedy, you’ve plunked down your money for lots of gross-out humor and probably a plot-line concerning the heroes’ efforts to get laid. Specific cliché elements come to mind at this level. If the movie is set at a summer camp, you won’t be surprised when the third act revolves around a contest against the non-underdog camp on the other side of the lake.
Roleplaying often embraces specific cliché in a way you’d never tolerate from other storytelling mediums. Its more directly vicarious nature invites us to creatively enter and take part in our favorite works, reimagining ourselves at the center of them. If a new movie series features a two-fisted 1930’s archaeologist who chases relics and fights Nazis, and his name isn’t Indiana Jones, we’ll scorn it as derivative. But if a player shows up to a pulp-inspired game with a character clearly based on Jones, that’s part of the point of the exercise. If genre is the addition of ritualized repetition to narrative, roleplaying genre is to a great extent an imaginative interaction with the characters, situations and images from our favorite stories.
When genre suggests specific structural elements, or even stock scenes, a collision can occur between our genre expectations and our preferences as roleplayers. These preferences vary by player type. We tend to see the preferences of our own type or types as objective markers of the ideal roleplaying experience. Those connected to tastes we don’t share are, depending on our level of detachment, either annoyingly off-point or steeped in darkest blasphemy.
The degree of adherence to genre, especially to its structural elements, varies depending on the relative value you place on freedom of choice.
Storytellers, the group most likely to seek an overt interaction with a suite of genre elements, want the GM to steer the story toward key story elements. They value choices, except for those that keep them from engaging with the genre tropes they want to play with.
Specialists, who play the same character types every time out, want you to import their favorite images and story elements into every game, regardless of genre. Their choice is to be the ninja, the weird dude, or the winged cat bard. Genre elements are their bread and butter—provided their fave type fits the genre at hand.
Butt-kickers want to get to the next fight; stock story elements that move them to the next battle with a minimum of fuss are good. Choices that do not concern whose butt to kick are extraneous.
Tacticians maximize choice to minimize risk. They prefer to operate in a world informed by genre imagery, but without reference to narrative conceits. This type yearns for a world in which genre elements behave according to speculative logic. A GM who steers the story toward a key sequence messes both with their sense of cause-and-effect, and with their highly valued freedom of choice. That includes the choice to avoid drama, which is often the tactician’s goal.
Method actors may also place maximal freedom of choice, which allows them to identify with their characters and make choices from inside their headspace, over ritual adherence to a promised formula.
In some cases, you can get around this variable interest in recapitulated narrative elements by explicitly announcing that it’s what you’re up to. Warning the players that the dramatic logic of your Bond-inspired game requires their characters to be captured at least once per scenario may lower the resistances of players who usually chafe at this sort of thing. But more explicit recitations of the fictional contract you’re putting on offer only go so far. If what I want out of roleplaying bears no connection to this goal, I may need to sit out a game or session that revolves around it. By the same token, if I show up to a WWII game wanting an evocation of Hollywood war movies and instead get an open-ended experience with outcomes based entirely on simulative principles, I’ve made a category error. It will interfere both with my own enjoyment, and the players who’ve signed on for exactly what the GM is dishing out.