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Genre and Game Systems: A Thought Experiment

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My last piece, “Only Bad Games Have ‘Crunch’ and ‘Fluff'” got some attention, and as I expected, I got a little pushback on a couple of issues. That’s kind of what I wanted to see.

One of the points I keep hearing is that, in spite of my point, there ARE generic game systems. Game systems you can simply port onto a setting and , chameleon-like, they adapt to the genre of whatever setting you’re running. GURPS is held up as one example. Fate is another.

Now to lay the groundwork here, I’m going to call genre, “Category of game categorized by literary technique, tone, or content. For example, action, crime, fantasy, romance, science fiction, western, inspirational, historical fiction, and horror.” I think that’s a fairly good working definition.

The argument I’m hearing is that, if you port GURPS onto a fantasy setting, it becomes a fantasy genre game. If you port it into sci-fi, it becomes sci-fi. The system follows the genre, not the other way around.

She’s a space witch. That’s like Star Wars, right?

Instead of breaking this down into specifics, instead I want to pose a thought experiment.

Star Wars. Consider a game set in the Star Wars setting. Think about one using True20, which is a fairly popular “generic” system. Think about one using GURPS. Think about one using Fate, which is another popular generic system. Think about one using Fate Accelerated. Think about one using Tri-Stat.

Are these all the same genre?

Now think about game systems that use a less generic approach, but are still used for a broad range of experiences. For example, Gumshoe. It’s used for vampire conspiracies, for superhero stories, for horror. Would a Star Wars Gumshoe game be the same genre as a Fate Star Wars or d20 Star Wars game?

Now, CAN you shoehorn them into the same genre? Of course. At the table, if you try hard enough you can do whatever you want. But do those different games communicate different genre by virtue of their gameplay mechanics, despite being the same setting?

Let me hear your thoughts in the comments.

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