August is RPGaDay month. Yep, a month solid of RPG-related posts, answering these questions:
Today’s question is this:
What is an RPG genre-mashup you would most like to see?
Ah, well, now we’re in dangerous territory, since the stuff I’d most like to see is stuff I’m working on, yes, as in projects I want to write and pitch and sell and get out into the world. I won’t say anything about those because, unlike in fiction, I think in RPGs an interesting and unusual idea is actually worth something, even if execution still matters more than idea.
Also, a lot of really interesting mashups have been done. For example:
- Bunnies & Burrows (or Watership Down) + Apocalypse World? (It’s called The Warrens. I haven’t played it but it looks amazing.)
- Spy Thriller (as in the Jason Bourne movies) + Vampire Horror? Yeah, that’s Night’s Black Agents, another Gumshoe game that appeals to me though I haven’t yet tried it out.
- D&D + Pro Wrestling + Reality TV? Yeah, that’s X-Crawl, a game about pro adventurers crawling dungeons as performers on reality TV. Great concept, though I don’t have the books. (I’m not really a 3.x/Pathfinder kind of guy.)
I feel like a lot of the possible mashups out there kind of have already been done. (Damn, we’re going to have to start inventing new genres, huh?) But here are some things I’d love to see that I’m not currently working on, and that I don’t think I’ve seen done:
Mentzer D&D Immortals + Mage: The Ascension + Chariots of the Gods (+ Gumshoe?). I’m thinking of a long poetry project (yeah, it was an epic poem: snippets here) I worked on years ago, in which the gods of various mythic pantheons turn out to be “ancient astronaut” aliens (like the kind that German kook Erich von Däniken wrote about in Chariots of the Gods and a bunch of other books), stranded on Earth and awaiting the mothership. They have transcendent powers—they may as well be gods—but they have to keep that stuff covered up from the populace, while fighting for a seat on the mothership, which is due to drop by again sometime in the next few years. A lot of the game would involve them investigating for evidence of the others (and assassinating them when possible). It’s be low-key most of the time, but occasionally explode into glorious action. I guess with the limited seats available, there’s even a kind of Highlander vibe to it.
The War of the Worlds + Fiasco. You play the aliens, invading the Earth—deciding why you’re doing it, strategizing how, and finally figuring out how it all unravels and goes wrong. I feel like this might be something you could do with some story game engine—Microscope, say—but I’m not sure that’s the best way to do it. Maybe it’s more of a board game, even, with cards from shuffled stacks generating complications, forms of resistance, and the players running the heads of various squabbling divisions or departments of the colony bureaucracy? Hmmm. Come to think of it, I need to learn more about what systems are out there: the specialization of playbooks in Apocalypse-powered games seems to fit this a bit, but are there games for running administrations and bureaucracies in an interesting way? (That sounds like Kingdom or Microscope.) I think some cards for inspiration might also be in order.
The Name of the Rose + Gumshoe. Medieval paranormal investigators of murders as well as eerie, weird stuff. Characters wouldn’t have to be monks, as in Eco’s novel, but they would have to have some kind of reason for having the freedom to conduct investigations, and for being literate (which I think is a prerequisite for the kind of investigations they’d be conducting). It’d be cool to have characters investigating murders among the aristocracy, of course, and also conspiracies against one or another head of state.
True Grit + D&D. I don’t mean, “Hey, your adventuring party walked through a magical portal and arrived in Boot Hill…” either. I mean a fully realized fantasy world that’s entered a stage of its history vaguely like late-19th century North America, with cowboys and cowgirls living in an an area geographically and sociopolitically like the Old West—with various human groups clashing and fighting and cooperating, but also dealing with supernatural antagonists, some degree of magic, and so on. I’m sure Deadlands makes for a great “weird Western” game set in some fantasy version of our world’s history, but I mean 2nd world cowboyish fantasy. Farmers getting shot up by drunks in town and then their daughters approaching the PCs to help bring the killer to justice, say. (Which is why I picked True Grit + D&D rather than, say, The Lone Ranger + D&D or Last of the Mohicans + D&D.)
Those are the mashup ideas that come to mind.
Oh, one more niche I haven’t really see, which isn’t really a mashup but which would likely entail requiring mashed-up systems or a whole new core system: a game system designed for near-future, hard-ish SF games. Cyberpunk was a genre hit it big in the RPG world, but the RPG world’s idea of cyberpunk is often pretty far from the literary genre as practiced by fiction authors. It’s funny how hard I think it would be to find a system one could use for running games set in the worlds in which many cyberpunk or former-, proto-, and post-cyberpunk authors’ books take place. What system would you use to run a game in the world of Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, or Rudy Rucker’s -Ware novels, or Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Proto- and Post-cyberpunk books also come to mind, like The Stars My Destination and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.
The difficulty here is that hard-ish SF is about ideas, not about setting: fantasy, horror, investigative… these are games in which the setting defines the tasks needing doing for the characters: fantasy games are set in worlds filled with monsters needing killing and dungeons needing exploring and clearing out; horror games take place in constrained spaces suffused with evil things or an evil being that characters need to survive, outrun, or outwit; and investigative games play out in a series of locales that need to be rich in setting and potential barriers to investigation, while also yielding up clues to the inquisitive player characters.
But hard-ish SF is about some concept—a technology that changes the world, a scientific discovery that prompts some necessary action—and as such, it’s really hard to design an open-ended system that can handle the full range of these… after all, each scientific discovery or new, worldchanging technology is going to impact on the world in some unique way, right? The internet of things could literally give rise to dozens or hundreds of settings, depending on how it’s implemented. The invention of faster-than-light travel could launch a dozen very different campaigns, from corporate espionage to time travellers trying ot avert the end of the world to would-be imperial rulers setting out in search of places to colonize.
I mean: I like the concept of Holy Fire, for example. Your player characters start off as elderly people, the day before they’re scheduled for their various rejuvenation treatments. How do they spend that last day? (What they choose to do will have implications later on, of course, as will the types of treatments they opted to get.) You play out that last day, and figure out also what the connection between the characters is. Then they have their rejuvenation treatment, and wake up in the hospital that their research contracts stipulate they need to spend the next decade inside. Do they stay? Do they run away? Either option would make for an interesting game: if they stay in the hospital, maybe it’s an investigative game, as they uncover secrets about the rejuvenation business that nobody wants getting out. Or maybe it’s survival horror, as things go wrong outside the hospital and finally they’re released when everything’s fallen apart. Maybe after a year or two, they get tired and want out, and end up having to barter away their contractually-stipulated time served as R&D guinea pigs, in exchange for running espionage missions for the companies that gave them their treatments? Or if they run away, what do they get mixed up in? Political revolution? Crime? Dropping off the map in some backwater region where they’re less likely to be tracked down right away? While I think it’d be hard to run a game right off the novel—possible, sure, but most people wouldn’t want to just play out, “my neo-young picaresque future hanging out with sexy artists and designers and weirdoes in Europe”—I think the setting offers a lot to players interested in ll kinds of games.
The reason I think of this as a “mash-up” is because the rules system would probably have to be some kind of mash-up, fundamentally, deep down—something built to accomodate and facilitate the building of futures off specific technological developments or scientific discoveries. I guess there’d be a Worldbuilding system, akin to the Planet generation system in Traveller and Stars Without Number, or something. How exactly that would work, I don’t know, but I think it’d be an interesting, if daunting project. Or maybe it’s already been done? There are lots of generic-universal type RPG systems out there. Maybe the key is a flexible system and then well-thought out supplements?
(I’m sure someone out there is ready to insists this is a problem that GURPS or Fate already solved years ago. And maybe it has: I have no experience with either system.)