The short answer will be a resounding “no”, but that would make for a very dull blog post indeed, so allow me to go into more details. If I pick up an RPG set in a fantasy world, I would expect the game play to be a bit more than the generic, cliched, predictable fantasy. One of the many things that the TV show The Big Bang Theory gets wrong about role playing is when the guys are playing Dungeons and Dragons, and when they go into a dungeon they encounter a dragon (don’t get me started on the horrendously inaccurate talk about girls playing D&D at all).
One character complains, saying that “it’s a little on the nose”, and is rebuffed by the line, “if you’re playing chutes and ladders, do you complain about all the chutes and ladders”. You know what, if I was playing any board game, I think I could go in with an expectation based on the name, or maybe a quick descriptive bit of text on the back of the box. Role playing games aren’t board games though. The stories they tell aren’t limited by the genre they fall into, and even traditional gamers in the mood for a dungeon crawl would almost certainly expect something a bit more exciting than crawling through a dungeon. Preferably something a bit more unexpected than a dragon.
So with that in mind, how do we apply it to our own games? To help, I’m going to invoke the literary hero that is Joe Abercrombie. So far the chap is six novels into his genre fiction career, plus I’m sure a whole bunch of short stories that I have yet to discover. The first three – The First Law Trilogy – were great, but were in terms of story and style, fantasy at heart. They quite rightly get compared favourably to the works of George R R Martin, as they can be read almost as works of historical fiction based on medieval politics, with a hint of magic rubbed on for flavouring. Do not take this as a negative; they’re amazing books, and he is a consistently impressive author.
What he does remarkably well though, is to take genre conventions down unexpected avenues. The three books he has had published since the first trilogy have all been set in the same world, and have even had recurring characters (I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but when a familiar face turns up in the latest book, it gave me goose bumps!). What they’re not, is a continuation of the theme of epic fantasy. The first was a story of revenge that would have worked fantastically well had it been directed by Chan-Wook Park. It was down and dirty, and you just knew that come the end of the story, no one was going to be happy, even if they managed to get everything that their stained little hearts desired.
Following on from that, we were given a war story. Next to no hint of magic or fantasy elements in this bad boy, but some of the best written depictions of war your humble blogger has ever read. The chapter that jumps a narrative shift as each previous narrator is killed by the next until we finally land on a character we know and hope to hell doesn’t die is a true pleasure to read. Along with a rather excellent TV show, this book played a massive role in inspiring me to run my next campaign; an original Deadlands campaign where all the players are part of the armed forces.
And finally, we have a western. Although it is true that a lot of western movies have similar tropes to that of revenge flicks, this does stand on its own, as it also explores themes of exploration and the importance of family, and a past that will always catch up with you.
All of these ideas would work perfectly in any genre role playing game that I could think of, so next time you want to tell a certain story, don’t worry about fitting it to a system, or setting; instead you should find a game you love to run, and use it to tell the story that you want to, rather than the narrative that is expected.
If you’ve already done this, and had some success/failures, then please share them below.