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Genres: Game Setting Vs. Game Session (or “What I Learned From Star Trek”)

I have been watching a lot of Star Trek lately on Netflix [1] as I prepare to run my next campaign set in that universe. In fact, I am working my way through each episode of every series. Having watched all of the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and now working my way through Star Trek: Voyager I can say without a doubt that:

  1. I am in sci-fi geek heaven.
  2. My wife is one of the most understanding people on the planet.
  3. Star Trek uses a science fiction universe to tell stories from every genre.

Some episodes of Star Trek  are mysteries, others comedies, a few can be classified as horror, and with the plot devices of time travel and holo-decks the various series could introduce any genre imaginable for a single episode. The various Star Trek series are not the only nor the first television series to take this approach, but they certainly mastered the approach from what I have observed.

Why not apply the same techniques at the game table?

Use the “official” genre to establish the episode’s genre.

Whenever an episode of Star Trek strays from being a work of science fiction it uses science fiction to explain how the temporary transition into another genre is achieved. An alien might alter reality to allow for a an episode in a fantasy setting, or a malfunctioning technology causes the crew to get stuck in a Western setting. This allows the show to break the established expectations of the viewer by using those very same expectations to justify the change to the viewer. The transition back to the series genre at the end of the episode is achieved via the same method, but the bulk of the episode is firmly seated in the “invading” genre.

You can easily do the same thing with your typical RPG’s setting. How does a session of D&D where the PCs have to cross the trenches of a World War I battlefield sound? Just have a wizard cast a spell or introduce a magical portal that transports the PCs to that moment in history. Or maybe your supers game could use a haunted twist for a change. All you need is a super villain that can summon ghosts, goblins and other ghastly apparitions to  establish a horror game if only for a single session. If the transition is introduced and removed by a method aceptable to the series’ genre then the episode’s genre can be anything you wish.

Introduce the change early, but have it exit cleanly.

If you are going to switch up the genre for an episode of a television series you should do it no later then the end of the first act. Likewise the episode’s climax should be the event that returns everything back to “normal” with no serious long term consequences (such as creating alternate timelines to prevent altering history significantly due to time travel). The switcheroo of swapping genres works best when you do not give the audience time to think about what has happened. Get to the good stuff, and once the story has peaked get back to the normal mode of operations.

If you want to temporarily switch the genre of your game you should try to introduce the change within the first hour of play. During that brief period of bewilderment that the players might have as they contemplate the change in genre reassure them that the change is limited to the session and not the campaign. Establish the goal for the session that will get the campaign back on track and state it clearly to the players. Also make sure to clearly explain that while the characters may suffer serious consequences during the session (injuries, loss of items, even death) that the game world will remain intact if the goal of the session is achieved. This will provide both incentive and reassurance to the players.

Jump into the deep end.

If you are going to have Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock deal with prohibition era Chicago gangsters you might as well have the whole planet be nothing but prohibition era Chicago gangsters. If the heroes enter a mirror universe where the good guys are now bizzaro world bad guys then turn them into over the top really evil barbaric bad guys! There is no point in dipping your toes into the waters of a different genre, so you might as dive in head first and see what happens.

As a GM if you are going to use this technique you might as well go for broke. Take that idea of a D&D game that for one session is set in a WWI battle. You could play it safe and have the PCs just deal with a few members of the infantry, but why not throw in a tank instead? Have mustard gas launched into the trenches, and machine gun nests protected by barbed wire. Use the stats for equivalent monsters and spells or create your own, but take the best elements that you can think of from the “guest” genre and milk it for all that it is worth.

How do you switch it up?

Those are the tips and tricks that I have observed being used in Star Trek, and I have used them with some success in the games that I GM. What about you? Have you switched the genre of your game for a session or two? If so, how did you pull it off? Leave a comment below with your own tips and tricks to share with the rest of us!

(Want to provide anonymous feedback to me with the option to have me respond? Visit my SayAt.Me [2] page and have at it!)

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Genres: Game Setting Vs. Game Session (or “What I Learned From Star Trek”)"

#1 Comment By tezrak On February 10, 2012 @ 5:47 am

My girlfriend and I have been driving a bullet train through DS9. Not only is she understanding, she insists we watch as often as we can manage! We’re almost finished too–about 10 eps into Season 6.

After that, I really want her to see the feature films. I insisted she watch Trouble with Tribbles before Trials and Tribble-ations, and Data’s Day after they mentioned Miles and Keiko’s wedding aboard the Enterprise, but I’m not sure how much she’ll get into TOS or TNG. VOY might be enough like DS9 to peak her interest.

Watching all that Trek has given me the bug to run a Trek RPG campaign. 🙂

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 10, 2012 @ 9:57 am

[7] – Season 6 is my favorite for DS9. My wife is not a Trekkie by any means (and let me say that I prefer the term Trekkie when describing myself in case some people prefer the term Trekker), but she does watch the occasional episode with me and has a passive interest in the characters.

Watching each of the shows in the order that they were released has made me much more aware of how much attention to detail went into developing the Star Trek universe as a whole. I have really big expectations for this campaign. I’m even starting construction of a Constellation class starship bridge made of foam board and might buil other sections to use with miniatures for this campaign.

Man, I hope this campaign doesn’t suck! 🙂

#3 Comment By GeneD5 On February 10, 2012 @ 11:49 am

In my homebrew space opera game, one crew of Player Characters is on an experimental, quasi-sentient, biomechanical ship, similar to “Farscape’s” Moya or “Star Trek’s” Voyager. It travels faster than light by entering a quantum dream state, which has been a great plot device for side adventures.

For example, in one jump, the crew shared a dream of being in an old-school dungeon! The monsters they fought resembled classic D&D ones, but they also foreshadowed hostile aliens the group would soon encounter (because the ship had met these species, even if the Terran human crew hadn’t yet).

#4 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 10, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

[8] – That is a great example of how you might nest one genre or more inside of another! I really like how you not only have a way to introduce nested genres, but every time the PCs go faster than light they “risk” such an event happening. You can prep very cool material that way.

#5 Comment By Silveressa On February 13, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

Using such alternate genre adventures can also work great to test out your players enthusiasm for other settings without needing to create a full blown campaign in that genre.

This can prove helpful for choosing a new setting when your current campaign wraps up, or if your group decides they want to run another campaign in addition to your current one.

The most fun cross genre game I’ve ever run I’d have to say is Doctor Who, mostly because paying a quick visit multiple genres are an expected part of the setting, and the players have a clear exit point (their Tardis) once the adventure has run its course without needing any unique improvisation on the part of the GM to return back to the “normal setting.”

#6 Comment By Patrick Benson On February 15, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

[9] – That is an excellent idea for testing the waters before introducing a new setting. As for Doctor Who, well I didn’t include that game in this article after a lot of internal debate because nested genres is the genre of that game (or that is the bizarre conclusion that I came to). 🙂