Jumping Genres!

My last post was written mostly with humorous intent, but also was intended to get some thoughts churning. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I wouldn’t derail an existing and relatively serious,steady game so wildly as to put something like the Deck of Many Genres into play. That would be a rather gross abuse of the social contract between GM and players, really.

I would, however, shift genres in a game as long as that made sense within the context of the game… and I would also run a game where the very premise revolves around shifting genres/layers of reality/alternate dimensions where the players move from one genre to the next and possibly back again. It might work best with a certain pre-determined number of predesigned genre/setting/layers where the players will run genre-shifted iterations of the same character/soul/self. I think that could be really, really fun.

Originally I was going to go back to the last post and edit it to that effect, but then after my friend Terry made a comment on his repost that was very much in line with my thinking, I decided this might be better suited if I post it by itself. I’ll share a few specific examples of times I’ve experimented with the genre-shifting concept already in games and found it a satisfying pursuit, point out a few narrative media where this technique or a variant has been used to good effect. I’ve never run a campaign where shifting realities and genres was a major part of the premise, though I have done individual adventures in a couple different systems that explored the concept either seriously or otherwise.

My own latest two forays into genre shifted gaming narratives have both taken place within my crossover Werewolf: the Apocalypse/Mage: the Ascension chronicle, Awakening/ACWoD. One came about via magical means, one was nothing of the sort, but just a side story, an excursion to another place and a narrative with different expectations. I learned some lessons from each of these experiments.

Awakening: the Quiet Riot. The Awakening chronicle is a rather odd one, but one of its oddest jaunts took place in our fourth story, The City of Angels. Though this was the story taht first brought the Technocracy into view, the main conflict of this particular story was one of brother against brother, as Prof. Odysseus Onassis, our group’s resident Son of Ether, had to face down his elder brother Stavros, who had once been an Etherite himself, but had long since become a powerfully actualizing Marauder. When the group arrived at Hawthorne Plaza, the abandoned mall into which Stavros had retreated after his successive battles with one of the local chantries, the Hawthorne PD and then the strike team that the Technocracy had sent after him, they entered the radius of Stavros’ Quiet warp and accordingly entered his own private world, departing the traditional World of Darkness and entering a world where even the laws of physics operated largely as they would in a dystopian sci fi action-adventure film (up to and including a tendency towards railing kills thanks to Stavros’ command of Forces and the genre prevalence of ledge gravity). About half of the group fell victim to having their identities temporarily rewritten into suitable genre figures with suitably adjusted memories by Stavros’ Quiet, while several group members retained theirs but still perceived the changes and were well aware that what they were seeing wasn’t the real world they were used to. An abridged bit of the game’s log (we were still using a chat based format for main game at the time) that shows the transition follows:

Hal (GM):*As they drive up Hawthorne blvd towards it, they see that the plume of smoke is from a fire that is consuming most of the Hawthorne PD across the street. There are also a couple of fiery wrecks nearby as well, one in the middle of the street causing a traffic snarl as fire trucks pull up to try to take care of that, and the other in the middle of the mall’s ground floor parking lot, near the cavernous parking structures*

Rowena:Holeee crap!

Odysseus Onassis:What was he trying to accomplish, other than show how many people he could kill?!?

Linda:*Linda’s commentary isn’t remotely printable*

Amrita: Take a breath, people.

(snip to jump ahead to where they enter the Quiet’s radius)

Hal (GM):*The world and the city that you knew are gone, along with their memories. Instead you are in a world of neon, chrome, glass and steel where the roiling, polluted skies drop pattering rain that may not be heavy, but is relentless and oppressive. Where Los Angeles is forgotten, The Lower City squats about the base of the soaring art deco hyperstructure of Arcology Prime, better known as Angel Tower.

Nearby, about a block from where your hovercars are parked the shell of an IntSec precinct burns, having been destroyed in a brazen terrorist attack by Thought Criminals, as Control refers to the scattered members of the resistance that have thrown off or somehow resisted its ubiquitous mental reconditioning intended to reduce mankind into productive and docile cogs in the great machine that is the State. The perpetrator of this act is Prof. Stavros Onassis, but few know that name – rather he is called Prometheus for his mission of bringing the fire of freedom and revolution to the benighted masses as one of the most renowned and elusive of the rebels against Control. A pair of aerodynes (one of them apparently belonging to Prometheus himself) have been reduced to burning wrecks that block part of the street and a parking lot.

EM vehicles have arrived on the scene and are casting their flashing red and white lights in all directions as fire crews and medical teams strive to contain the damage and save what lives they can. Meanwhile, A team of Peacemakers from another precinct has just arrived and awaits the signal that it is safe to move in on the wreckage to inspect it and the bodies that are strewn about.*

*Each of you looks like you would have were you in Los Angeles, but dressed more appropriately for the area around Arcology Prime. Fashions here are somewhere between art deco, ’60’s sci fi with lots of form fitting bodysuits, Blade Runner and Equilibrium*

My players leapt into this with gusto and cheerfully embraced this crazy time jaunt, with those whose characters were oblivious to the change gleefully running with it and acting in between their usual characterization and characters from such a story while the others played out the baffled folks that were trying to suss out how to avoid falling into the traps inherent to the genre that they quickly figured out they were operating within. The basic premise of this new setting of Angel Tower was that Control (IE the Technocracy) had mind controlled the populace into compliance and that only a few daring rebels knew the truth and escaped that programming, yet that Prometheus (Stavros) was a particularly violent and aggressive rebel who employed his deprogramming techniques to free the minds of others. In other words, he used mind control to make people see things his own way rather than Control’s way, which he defined as ‘freeing their minds’. Basically, my inspiration for the character of Stavros was asking myself the question: “What if, in The Matrix, Morpheus was a villain rather than a hero?” So our group, other ‘thought criminals’ set out to rein him in and a conflict commenced. The setting operated on rules something like a cross between Blade Runner, 1984, The Matrix and Bubblegum Crisis while doing so with an art deco flair. 

While the players didn’t expect this change in genres, it was not so jarring that I lost them, and it was fun for the whole group and brought out a lot of both pathos and high flying action from the protagonists, especially poor Odysseus who ended up having to cap his own brother in the head. I had carefully designed this setting to work well with this group and specifically for Odysseus’ player, since for this part of the story he was definitely a focus PC. It’s good to do that once in a while, gearing part of your game to a particular player and their character, and then doing the same with another in turn. It helps everybody feel important and wanted and a contribution to the game’s overall fabric. I thought this one worked well.

Awakening: Mexico. The next genre shift wasn’t as mystical, and took place during story 8, which thanks to some real life factors involving player schedules caused the group to split, with one part staying in LA and one part to go south of the border to a little town in the Sonoran Desert called La Rumorosa. The latter group left the ‘default’ World of Darkness and entered what Alesia called a ‘mexiwestern’, IE a modern western set in Mexico and as envisioned by somebody like Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino. Accordingly it was highly stylized, cinematic and violent. Below is the four members (two PCs and two NPCs) of this sub group’s arrival at a cantina controlled by the Santana Cartel, the gun-runners with whom their antagonist Socorro AKA Slow Burn was affiliated. They march right in intent on finding out where she is and making a statement to the cartel in the process.

Los Cuatro walked in through the open doors of the nameless cantina as if they owned the place, two abreast, Chases and his girl first in. The tall, powerfully muscled Indian’s Rage and presence filled the room from the moment his booted foot crossed the threshold. Though the two women were clad in paramilitary, tactical attire, Joseph had no need for that. Rather, he wore black jeans under which his muscles rippled with each step, a tight shirt and a black jacket. Charms and talismans decorated the jacket, and one hand was gloved in leather while the other arm had a bracer on under his jacket sleeve. This imposing figure with the pale woman in the cowboy hat at his side seemed not only to own the space but to belong in it as if the place had been built just for his patronage.

 

He looked neither to the right nor the left at the hard-faced cartelistas that occupied the place as he strode in, his boots ringing on the stone floor tiles, trusting to his three companions to watch his back. The seated bald man in the patchwork coat looked up from his cheap beer as Los Cuatro trooped past him on their way to the bar. Every eye in the room turned to the door by the time they were half way across.

 

“Socorro,” Joseph said to the bartender in a low, deep voice full of understated authority and menace, speaking flawlessly in the local Spanish dialect as if he had been born here, “the woman they call Slow Burn. We are looking for her.”

 

As they figured, the few townies who weren’t involved with Hang Fire and the cartel cleared out almost immediately at this. Only the bald man remained, and a boy about 10 years old, who sat on the floor at the end of the bar, playing with the settings on his digital camera. The bartender exchanged a glance with a man at the bar with hair as long and black as Joseph’s, but whose face was hideously pock-marked and scarred. Neither said anything, they just looked at the four who stood between them and the front door, calmly waiting for the next move.

 

“We know that she is in La Rumorosa,” Chases said then, his eyes boring into the barman’s as he leaned in closer, placing his hands on the bar’s edge, “Slow Burn. Where is she?”

 

“Who wan’s to know?” The bartender asked, tonguing his toothpick to the other side of his mouth.

This led directly, of course, to the obligatory cantina shootout and kickstarted the conflict between them and the Santana Cartel. True to the genre, this conflict was grinding and nasty for all participants, with its share of overkill from both sides and plenty of desperate moments for our protagonists. I thought that the exercise of writing the same characters in a very different genre, one that had such different expectations than the one this chronicle normally runs on, was a lot of fun. Also, part of the intent of doing this was letting one player that would have an extended inaccessibility on our usual session times keep playing, and letting me also put more character focus on a couple of the characters that had stayed behind in Los Angeles. The writing was fun and a great exercise but results were ultimately mixed, in one significant part because that scenario I ran back in LA to focus more on the main group’s other characters? Well, it ended up a near-TPK, killing two out of three PCs (Odysseus and Nightwatcher, the Akashic/Virtual Adept guy that I had been really hoping to give a bit of time in the sun with this one) due to a combination of poor planning on their part and adversaries that adjusted their own plan of action to take advantage of same when they saw what was going on… that can be frustrating. The chronicle as a whole got wounded but looks to be in process of recovery, which is encouraging.

Existing Media

When I began thinking about this follow up post, my mind went back to various media where related things have been done in interesting ways. I’ll share a few here, though I could go on and on.

One existing webcomic that handles shifts between a number of established genres/realities/layers with style and panache is Decrypting Rita, by Margaret Trauth (I do like this one a lot, though I’ve fallen far behind in reading it). This story’s protagonist, Rita, interacts in various guises with several different narratives, and the people that she knows in each are reflected in a modified form in the others, sometimes as friend to Rita and sometimes as foe, and the whole forms one narrative that is fascinating and heavy on mind screw and existential questions. Some of the realities here are sci fi, some are fantasy and some function on video-game like (specifically MMORPG-style) rules, and the whole is a lot of fun. One of the distinguishing features here is what kicks the story into gear: the different realities and iterations of Rita and her cohorts begin intersecting with their own alternate iterations as realities start to cross over and become aware of one another. Well worth checking out.

I wasn’t a fan of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series so I only saw a handful of episodes, but by many accounts its periodic excursions into different styles/genres (such as the infamous musical episode and the episode where everybody was a puppet) worked well enough that people are still talking about them in a good way.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: this is one of my favorite movies, and is Terry Gilliam at the top of his game. It follows a little girl in her adventures alongside the Baron, who is larger than life or even than the truth itself. One of the most quotable movies I’ve seen in many years, It rapidly and deliberately shifts between a dingy and desperate place that may or may not be the real world and a world of absurd tall tales that also may or may not be real, and may just be the lurid imaginings and narratives of the old man himself told on stage to a bunch of frightened people whose city is under siege by the Turks. These “realities” interleave sometimes subtly and sometimes not. The closer to the realm of ‘normalcy’ he is, the older, crankier and more bitter the Baron is and the less colorful and hopeful the setting of the film is, but inject a bit of adventure into his veins and he’s young, dashing, heroic, witty and the very definition of awesome, and he’s surrounded with colorful gods and titans. Also, while it gives plenty of implications, it ultimately refuses to directly answer little Sally’s query: “It wasn’t just a story, was it?” For a somewhat related concept exploring imagination versus reality, see either version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Plus, Munchausen has one of the most Mage: the Ascension lines of any movie ever: “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.”

Amber – I mentioned this in my discussion with Terry. It’s very much not for everybody, but it’s really quite the endeavor: a story about one big screwed up family that have the ability to travel through/create/whatever the seemingly infinite dimensions/worlds/layers of reality that emanate out from the city of Amber itself, and in those journeys they can select shifts in reality to find/create/whatever worlds according to their own specifications, so they can essentially shift genres more or less at will. That’s a gross oversimplification, but the stories are grandiose, mythic and magical in their way. I’d say they’re worth at least an attempt at reading.

Doctor Who has a classic episode (The Mind Robber) taking place in the land of fiction characters where the Second Doctor and the Master of the Land had a mental duel in which they summoned beings and situations from various fictional settings to do battle with one another. It’s not exactly my premise, but it’s a fun example of how one might work genre-crossover and a conflict between reality warpers into a game.

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