This entry is part 3 in the series Touchstones Of Unification


So we’ve looked at Themes, and we’ve looked at Concepts, and even touched on the relationship between the two. But now it’s time to address the elephant in the room – twin elephants in fact – Genre and Style, and how these modify that relationship, how it all comes together to form a unique fingerprint that identifies each and every campaign, and finally, how an understanding of that fingerprint permits the GM to enhance the campaign to produce greater enjoyment for all concerned.

Past Reference

I should start by reminding readers that this isn’t the first time that I’ve talked about the relationship between style and genre for RPGs. Directly relevant is Theme vs Style vs Genre: Crafting Anniversary Special Adventures, but it was a subject touched on repeatedly in the Reinventing Pulp for Roleplaying series.

But there’s a lot more to be said…


Genre is surprisingly hard to define well. The dictionary meaning of the term seems hollow and bereft of significance. The Wikipedia article on the subject is excellent in comparison; if anything, it goes too far in the other direction, failing to capture the essence of the term for all its detailed examinations of the way the term is used. I’m more or less forced to roll my own, then live with it. So let’s have a go:

Genre reflects a set of stylistic and content-related conventions and principles that are considered uniquely descriptive of a specific category or group of related works, and hence identify those works as being members of, examples of, belonging to, or representative of, that genre.

These conventions and principles need not be uniformly relevant to every work classified as belonging to a specific genre; it can be sufficient to say that to belong to the genre, the work needs to exhibit “one or more” of a list of specific characteristics. Each of those characteristics is generally considered to define a sub-genre, but there are overlaps, and a single work may be considered representative of a number of sub-genres simultaneously.

Occasionally, a work may be presented that does not fit comfortably within any of the accepted subgenre ‘family’ types, or which deliberately violates one or more of the conventions or principles that is regarded as sacrosanct within the primary genre, but which is nevertheless considered to be inarguably part of the primary genre. When this occurs, the definitions of the genre must expand to encompass the work in question, usually through the incorporation of a new sub-genre.

Genres are non-exclusive. A specific work can be representative of several genres simultaneously. Quite often, a specific sub-genre within one specific genre is defined exclusively by the relevance of another genre. This occurs because genre labels are an artificial system of classification. However, some combinations combine in a more felicitous manner than others, typically determinable through contradictions in the defining conventions and principles.

That last point deserves some amplification. The following combinations are all reasonable and have been the basis of successful works in the past:

  • Romance, Comedy
  • Science Fiction, Comedy
  • Science Fiction, Horror
  • Science Fiction, Action-Adventure
  • Action-Adventure, Comedy

Romance and Action-Adventure struggle to coexist, but it can be done – “Romancing The Stone”, for example. The same is true of Romance and Science Fiction (I have to admit, no examples leap to mind). But despite the degree to which Science Fiction can partner any of the other genres named, I have trouble picturing a Science Fiction Horror-Comedy Action-Adventure. The “Men In Black” franchise tries, but the Horror elements keep getting lost in the shuffle. You could argue that “Aliens” also tries, but aside from a few moments here and there, the Comedic elements go out the airlock.

One of great successes in popular film over the last decade or so has been the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, which successfully united the Fantasy, Pirates, and Comedy Genres – with a bit of the Star-Crossed Romance subgenre for good measure. Before The Curse Of The Black Pearl came along, no-one would have expected these elements to even be on speaking terms in the one film. So Genre remains slippery as a guideline to what does and doesn’t belong.

Core and Fringe

The way I generally think about Genre is to divide it into an inner core that is a “pure” example of a specific genre and a “Fringe” that overlaps or incorporates elements from one or more other Genres. Rather like the Earth’s atmosphere, it doesn’t have a hard boundary, it just sort of fades out with distance from the core.

There are some genres that naturally connect. Horror comes in three basic flavors, for example – there’s one axis that strongly connects with Fantasy (Dracula etc); there’s another that connects to Science Fiction; and there’s a core that eschews both and is just extreme violence – slasher fiction. You can think of the first two as polar opposites connecting to the respective genre that matches the flavor.

So any genre has a core of high purity, and a fringe that can incorporate elements from other genres.

Those foreign elements can interact with the core of the designated genre in one of three ways:

  • They can work together to reinforce each other, resulting in a genre representative that is superior to what a pure interpretation in either genre would have been alone;
  • They can simply co-exist without neither reinforcement nor contradiction, resulting in something that is acceptable in terms of either genre, but which is not as great as it might have been;
  • Or they can conflict, resulting in something that fans of either genre would find disappointing. This is often exacerbated if the raw ingredients and concepts are present that could have made the work exceptional.
Genre and RPGs

When we’re talking about something that’s even partially episodic, like a TV show or an RPG, we gain some significant advantages. While the core of the body of work needs to be appropriate to the specific genre or subgenre or genre combination that we have chosen, each episode has the option of touching on or even plunging into a side-genre. While most of these will still reflect an appropriate subgenre under the umbrella of one or more of the primary genres, it’s even permissible to completely leave those genres for something else entirely; it’s just a little harder, that’s all.

Take a superhero campaign, which is something I know very well, having been running one since 1982. There has been disaster movies, alien invasions, action-adventures, Gothic noire, Lovecraftian horror, space opera, pure science fiction, high fantasy, low fantasy, time travel, soap opera, war movies, historical and period drama, post-apocalyptic dystopias, courtroom drama, romantic comedy, political thriller, corporate skulduggery, horror, spy thrillers, political satire, treasure maps, pirates, animated cartoons, police procedurals, teen movies, and even a little Bud Spencer/Terance Hill – plus lots of superheroics! Heck, I’ve even referenced a couple of sports movies for inspiration along the way!!

Some of these challenge accepted notions of what works in a superheroic setting. They succeeded (when they did) by leaving out conventions of the superheroic genre that were incompatible with the accenting genre, or vice-versa, and they failed (for the most part) when that wasn’t done properly.

Gothic Horror can work in a science fiction genre either by translating the Gothic horror elements into a science-fiction setting, or by focusing on the Gothic Horror elements and setting aside the purely sci-fi elements that clash. And if you have a purely sci-fi character who is in the middle of this plotline, you either make it work by embracing the sci-fi and sacrificing the horror, or by playing the metaphoric “fish out of water” card. So long as your answer is consistent within the internal workings of that adventure, it’s fine. Getting the combination wrong – the “fish out of water” while embracing the sci-fi and translating the Gothic Horror into science-fiction terms – is disastrous, because the genre components are at war with themselves, a war that neither can win to anyone’s satisfaction.

Genre and Theme

It would be easy to equate “stylistic and content-related conventions” with themes, but that’s the sort of mistake that directors of B-grade movies made all the time back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s (and perhaps after, but that’s when I stopped watching anything worse than B+ grade). The correct relationship is to state that for any given individual work or selected group of related works within a genre may exhibit one or more themes characteristic of that genre.

Or perhaps, even more simply, that some genres have specific recurring themes that work within the genre. Those themes may not work with some of the subthemes, but they do fit one or more that are generally considered to be strictly associated with that genre. None of which has any real bearing on the themes of any specific campaign, TV series, movie, or whatever. A genre is more than an approved collection of themes and memes.

What is important is that the themes that any such work or collection of works exhibits falls within the parameters of the established genre, or at the very least, does not clash with any of the central traits of the genre. Genre constrains the themes that can make up the core of the campaign, which must be compatible with the core of the genre.

Genre and Concept

So Genre restricts the themes that are acceptable within the genre, in general terms, and therefore also restricts the core concepts of the campaign. Once again, there is no exclusive list of concepts that are definitively and exclusively part of one genre or subgenre, though there are some combinations that are more natural than others.

Don’t believe me? Try this one: A man falls in love with the painted image of a woman from a different era, and so travels back in time to woo her. Clearly, this is a romance concept, and a science fiction concept, But romance is definitely not a core concept in the science fiction genre, and time travel definitely doesn’t fit the usual mould of the romantic genre. Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with this concept. It’s a little shallow – it needs to be allied with either a comedic theme (star-crossed lovers again), with a dramatic theme (the romance occurs at the height of a violent and bloody period in history, whose events will sweep up both protagonists, or perhaps there are obstacles to be overcome like an arranged marriage or an opposed family), or perhaps with a tragic theme (the woman is doomed to die young). Put any one of those added elements into the concept and you could quite happily turn it into a movie or novel. Or, you could focus on the science fiction genre and make the opposition some form of Temporal Police, or – as was done in the classic Star Trek episode “The City On The Edge Of Forever”, a tragic subtheme in which the woman has to die for history to be put right.

Concepts resonate with some or all of the themes of the campaign, and are therefore classifiable as part of the genre core, or are forced to exist on the fringes of the genre in connection with some other genre that is not central to the campaign. Doesn’t mean you can’t use a given concept – just that some concepts belong at the heart of the campaign and others belong on its fringe as occasion divergences from the central genre.

You could almost say that Theme is to Genre as Concept is to Theme. Genre restricts themes, and identifies some as central to the overall story of the campaign while not excluding the occasional foray into fringe territory; and both restrict Concept, identifying some ideas as relating to the central themes while others are fringe ideas that can be touched on once but should not be a recurring element within the campaign. In order for a fringe concept to work, some aspects of the central genre may have to be (temporarily) discarded and replaced with aspects of the connecting genres; and any themes that are directly connected to those elements of the central Genre that are being set aside need to either be re-imagined within the context of the connecting genre or also set aside for the duration of the adventure or story.


Every GM has his own style, though a lot of GMs – perhaps even most – would be very hard-put to actually describe and define exactly what their own style is.

You could give the same campaign concepts and themes, both occurring within the same genre structures, to two different GMs and they would produce radically different campaigns, no matter how similar both appeared at the start. Even if you had the one writer doing the plotlines for both, you would still end up with different interpretations and outcomes from individual stories.

In more practical terms, each GM’s style is defined – at least in part – by his strengths, his weaknesses, and his preferences, in all sorts of different areas. Everything from the way combat is handled, to the way NPCs are portrayed, to the way unscripted improvisation takes place within the campaign, to how strongly connected one adventure is to another (serial vs episodic campaigns), to the way morality (and alignment, in some systems) are portrayed and enforced. I haven’t done much (read: “any”) convention GMing, but I have playtested adventures for conventions a couple of times, and one of the things that always struck me was how differently two GMs could interpret the same adventure, and that is a manifestation of this principle.

A Side-note: That’s why the authors of Convention adventures should never be the only GM to playtest their work. There are too many assumptions that they make simply because it never occurs to them that anyone could interpret things differently. Sure, they could run a first-playtest – but at least one playtest should be run by someone who’s never seen the adventure before, while the author sits back and makes notes.

Heck, even if the GM was exactly the same and could reset his memories to exactly the way he was before first running the campaign, simply having different players would produce a somewhat different style because an RPG is so interactive between players and GM.

Style and Genre

Style functions as a filter, or it should do. It should exclude genres and genre elements that play to the GM’s weaknesses while enabling him to draw upon his strengths. Style is the traffic cop, directing game traffic into a subset of the totality that’s (theoretically) available.

Some genres will work better for a given GM’s style than others. Identifying which genres and genre elements will suit a given GM’s style is one of the hardest questions a GM can ask themselves. I’ve tried – hard – to think of some way to shortcut that process, and have to admit that I’ve failed utterly. In this, there is no substitute for inspiration and experience.

Every time I thought I had something, I was able to find an exception of sufficient magnitude to disprove it. For example, I thought at one point that it had to be a genre that the GM had read. But then I realized that I co-GM a Pulp campaign and have never read more than one or two era-correct pulp novels in my life. And even if I expand it to include things like the Dirk Pitt series, it’s still a number I can count on both hands. Yet, the campaign is very successful.

Perhaps its because I understand the pulp genre, as shown by the positive commentary the articles on the Genre here at Campaign Mastery have received. But I would question how much of that understanding I had when I started; my major contribution was not knowledge of the pulp genre but knowledge of the basics of good storytelling and campaign structure. Where I succeeded was in adapting the genre conventions to a modern era, drawing upon the Indiana Jones movies and such as the primary reference sources. You could say that I succeeded as a Pulp Co-GM by ignoring a number of the conventions of the pulp Genre.

And so it went for every criterion I could think of, save one: A GM’s style suits a particular genre if the GM is comfortable GMing that particular genre. And that’s not very helpful.

Style and Themes

There are also going to be some Themes that suit a GM’s style more than others. Here, at least, I had some greater success at finding some objective way of measuring suitability.

A Theme that works within a GM’s preferred style is one that the GM can think of many ways of expressing. The more different ideas that you have, the better-suited to running a campaign using that Theme.

And that’s such a simple measurement criterion that it’s possible to use Theme Suitability as a measurement by extension for judging Genre suitability:

“A GM is suited to a Genre if it contains Themes that the GM is suited to expressing in different ways within different adventures.”

Unfortunately, it’s not quite right. There are two aspects in which this measurement of suitability of Theme fails.

First, there is the question of quality vs quantity. You can have all the ideas in the world, but if they are all or even just mostly rubbish, do they really out-value one really good idea?

And then, there’s the question of originality. Does a middling-good but completely original idea count for more than a really good idea that is very similar to ideas that other people have had in the past?

And the problem is that both of these are very subjective measurements, which rather eviscerates our objective measurement criterion. However, it’s a reasonable supposition that the more ideas that you have, the more likely you are to have a Good one, and the more likely you are to have an original one. So while the original answer is less robust than it might be, it is still at least somewhat reasonable.

Genre and Concepts

Another way of phrasing that criterion, and one that gets to the heart of the relationship between all these elements, replaces the somewhat vague term “ways” with “Concepts”:

“A GM is suited to a Genre if it contains Themes that the GM is suited to expressing in different Concepts in different adventures.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to the number and quality of the ideas that you have for adventures within a campaign, and your ability to express those ideas successfully. Themes are recurring concepts within separate adventures, and Genre is an artificial classification system that can be used as a guide to the successful integration of Concepts and Themes into a coherent plot.

The Campaign Fingerprint

An infinite field of possible concepts from within allied genres, selected by suitability according to the GM’s individual style, shaped according to an infinite field of possible themes also selected by suitability according to the GM’s individual style, and all manifested through a collaboration with a unique group of players, means that every campaign is going to be different. Two campaigns can be from within the same genre, can have the same themes, and can even start with some of the same concepts, but they will still be completely different if they have different GMs or players. No matter how similar they might start out being, they will inevitably diverge.

The combination of GM & players, theme, and genre therefore uniquely identify a campaign in exactly the same way as a fingerprint identifies a unique individual. And, believe it or not, that’s actually something very useful to the GM.

Practical Application

Let’s say that you have an idea for a new adventure for your campaign. Having your list of themes (described in part one of this series) at hand, you can go through them looking for ways to express those themes within the adventure concept. Having a list of the core concepts (from part 2) permits you to look for conflicts with the new idea, and decide how to resolve the incompatibility. And finally, knowing the precise Genre(s) of the Campaign enables you to look for conflicts between the genre of the undeveloped idea AND offers guidance on how to resolve all these conflicts.

The fingerprint, in fact, is a checklist for the selection and integration of a plot idea into a specific campaign. It’s a technique for identifying the additional plot elements that you need to incorporate in order to mesh your idea with your campaign. There’s no longer a need to achieve this with intuition and abstract reasoning – because the Themes, Core Concepts, and Genre “Rules” provide a practical framework for doing so more rigorously, more easily, and more accurately than these stone-age plotting techniques.

And it works for other game elements as well. Locations. Gadgets & Devices. Enemies & Characterization. The nature of the setbacks within an adventure. The stylistic approach that a plot needs to adopt. Cosmology. Applied Theology (in a game where the Gods are real). Even House Rules can be assessed in terms of the genre that is being simulated.

Defining the Campaign Fingerprint defines the central spine of the Campaign, and that becomes a tool for the assessment of everything else that you consider implementing within that campaign. And if that’s not of practical value, I don’t know what is.

An example

Let’s say that I want to integrate that romantic time-travel idea into my superhero campaign. First, I can say that a romantic theme is not a great fit for a superhero plot, but time travel works in that context. Of the choices available, we need opposition appropriate to a superhero campaign, and the Time Patrol have already established themselves as hostile to the PCs organization, though the PCs have no direct first-hand knowledge of the Time Patrol. We need the temporal paradox / star-crossed lovers combination. At the same time, we have established in the campaign physics that destiny is not immutable, it can be changed if enough effort is put into that change. So the adventure, from the PCs point of view, has to be to choose between the lovers and the destiny that is under the protection of the Time Patrol – or to find some other solution to the problem. All that’s left is to find a way to introduce the PCs to the problem in the first place. A typical intro might be a high-speed chase in a commandeered vehicle down a packed roadway with Time Patrol officers riding anti-grav sleds and taking potshots at the vehicle. When the PCs show up, they are attacked from the vehicle because the occupants think they are more Time Patrol Officers. The team telepath can sort that out, leaving the capacity for the couple to play on the PCs sympathies. That puts them on a collision course with the Time Patrol – again – and the basic plotline more or less writes itself from there.

One of the key themes of the current campaign is that Victory has a price. Right now, as this plotline stands, the PCs have no personal involvement, and can be dispassionate. So, in terms of complicating factors, we need each of the possible “future history” outcomes to have a negative impact on one of the PCs, or someone that one of the PCs cares about. We then need a way for that information to get into the PCs hands. The Time Patrol can approach one of the PCs privately and enlist them, so that’s one information vector dealt with. One possible approach would be for the team telepath to extract the information from the time-traveling romantic, but she already has a key role in the plot. Perhaps the time traveler has an iPad or equivalent from which he has carefully wiped information about the future – some of which can still be retrieved by the team’s tech-head – except that they don’t really have one of those at the moment – or by a clever use of magic. The effect is that one way or another, one of the team members will pay the price, and that makes the dilemma personal.

All that’s left is to come up with a twist or two, add a super-villain or two trying to capture the time-travel technology, and make sure that the solutions are clearly mapped out, and the plot outline would be ready to go. Of course, some time looking to connect other campaign themes with the plot would not be wasted effort, but this example clearly shows how you can take a plotline that shouldn’t work in this campaign and makes it fit like a glove.

For those who are interested in keeping score of such things, this is the 600th post here at Campaign Mastery!! I’m incredibly grateful for the ongoing support of our fans and regular readers, and wish absolutely everyone who reads these words all the best :)

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  1. Touchstones Of Unification Pt 1 – Themes
  2. Touchstones Of Unification Pt 2 – Concepts
  3. Touchstones Of Unification Pt 3 – The Big Picture (Genre and Style)