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World Building I: When Genres Collide

Over the past few weeks, I have been contemplating the prospect of a world-building project for Neuroglyph Games.  It has been a long while since I considered doing serious world-building for any game system – and I do not consider my last project, adapting Toledo Ohio as a site for Champions Super-hero campaign back in my post college days, as actual world-building.

Venusian mapMy last time I did serious world building was in my late teens and early twenties, when I created a fantasy world based upon the idea that the planet Venus used to be livable, and was inhabited by a relatively typical selection of D&D monsters, races, and character classes.  The world society was fairly old, and was approaching a time of destruction foretold by great prophecy – which, of course, explains was why Venus is an uninhabitable planet today.  The campaign would be world-spanning, epic, and would end with the high level heroes rescuing some of the population by transporting them via an “artifact” to the next planet in the solar system – tah dah – Earth!  Coincidentally, my little cosmology also explained the reason so many cultures on Earth have stories of magic and monsters, being left over “race memories” from the time the settlers from Venus arrived, and started dating the local Cro Magnon guys and gals.

Just looking at a topographic map of Venus, and you could see how the plant’s awesome land masses and coastlines just beg to be used as a fantasy world map.   And it was hard not to be excited about Venus back in the day – the Pioneer space probe was launched my freshman year, and was sending back data all through my four years of high school!

Of course, some might point out that my world-building ideas contained some decidedly science-fiction elements, and the whole fantasy-world-Venus-to-Earth-chariots-of-the-gods campaign was definitely more than one genre.  And back then, the accusation would have infuriated the heck out of me!

A Separation of Systems and Genres

When I was younger, and first getting into gaming, I tended to like to keep my genres pretty compartmentalized, and was empress-externaleven a bit of a snob when my fellow gamers dabbled in mixing two or more genres together.  For instance, AD&D was my predominant fantasy RPG, and for science-fiction, I player Traveller.  For horror, I gravitated to Call of Cthulhu, and comic book superhero role-playing was handled by Champions.  So if my fellow gamers started mixing stuff up, like having a wizard appear on the bridge of my far trader in a Traveller adventure, or aliens making an appearance in an AD&D quest, it tended to annoy me to no end.  It was harder, of course, to be too bent out of shape when my Champions superhero would find himself squaring off against a demon – Marvel and DC had been throwing supernatural villains at almost every superhero they created for years – but when a “caped-crusader” showed up in our 1920s Call of Cthulhu campaign, I almost strangled our Keeper.

And yes, I cannot deny that back in the day, I thought Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was complete junk, and wondered what possessed TSR for writing such a ridiculous adventure!

Of course, in later years, I started loosening up about mixing genres, and looked back on my character’s experiences in the Barrier Peaks with a certain nostalgic fondness – even though my poor wizard had been laser-ed to death by a robot.  A lot of my change of heart came from finding that, more and more frequently, some of my favorite science-fiction, fantasy, and horror authors had no compunction about combining up to a half-dozen genres together, and producing some amazing stories as a result.

If it works for Stephen King…

The Dark TowerOne of my all-time favorite authors, the hugely prolific and successful Stephen King, has never shown any fear of mixing genres.  His short stories and novels pull in elements of horror, science-fiction, mysticism, and magic in an almost off-hand way, and yet I find his stories creep me out every time.  He even dabbles in Cthulhu mythos horror, and his short story, Crouch End, set in modern London, would have made dear old Lovecraft proud.

And in his Dark Tower series, King really pulled-no-punches, and fearlessly threw together almost every genre one could imagine.  When you create a post-apocalyptic science-fiction setting, full of mutants, high-tech, and magic, and with a hero that is a type of medieval fantasy knights that use cowboy-western slang and six-shooters, shooting up demons and vampires, with his companions pulled from our own world across dimensions, it is hard to figure out what genre –if any – that King left out!

Another favorite author of mine, Dan Simmons, is also pretty fearless when it comes to mixing genres, not to mention famous literary figures, characters, or both.  In his duology, the Hyperion series, he freely mixed super-advanced science fiction elements with elements from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and dabbling freely into areas of religion, philosophy, and belief that left the reader shaking their heads.  He even had the famous writer, John Keats, show up as a main character, albeit an artificial-intelligent clone of the original.

And I am currently wading through another Simmons mixed-genre duology, for a second time, Ilium and Olympos.  In some respects, it reminds me a lot of King’s Dark Tower, in that it is a post-apocalyptic world, but this one involves genetically manipulated humans, dinosaurs, the Trojan War along with heroes like Achilles and Hector, the Greek Gods, artificial-intelligent robots who revel in human literature, time-travel, and parallel dimensions populated by entities from Shakespeare’s The Tempest – including Propsero, Aerial, Caliban, and Setebos.  Yes – it is a lot to take in!

Where to Draw the Line

So as I contemplate starting this new world-building project, and considering my long-developing appreciation for mixing genres, the real question comes down to: “What do I want to include in the setting, and where do I draw the line?”

stampunkscapeReally, it is somewhat of a daunting task, considering that there are a lot of great elements and genres one could pull into a world-setting.  As a fairly well-read gamer, with a substantial collection of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror novels and short-story anthologies on my shelf – not to mention classics from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Homer – I could reasonably pull in elements from a considerable number of works to add into a world setting.  But admittedly, there must be a limit to what a world-builder adds to the mix – a good cook does not grab every ingredient in the kitchen, and then add every spice in the pantry to the recipe, or that chef would end up with nothing but an inedible mess to serve!

So somehow, I need to take my long list of favorite genres, and edit them down into short list that I can use to start world-building from:

  • Swords & Sorcery
  • Psionics
  • Post-Apocalyptic themes
  • Medieval Fantasy themes
  • Steampunk themes
  • Gothic Horror (ie. Dracula)
  • Outré Horror (ie. Cthulhu)
  • Outer Space/High tech
  • Victorian adventures
  • Cyberpunk themes
  • Parallel Dimensions
  • World-Ending Prophecies
  • Wild Westerns
  • Classic Literature
  • and (what the heck) Dinosaurs

I think I need to consider no more than five or six ideas off this list for my project, and I already have a couple that I think would work really well together.   But deciding on a set of genres, and in what measure they will be included, seemed like an excellent place to start building a world.  And I plan to publish more blogs as I develop my project along the way – hopefully, eliciting some ideas and feedback from my Readers to help the process along!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!


About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

Comments

6 Responses to “World Building I: When Genres Collide

  1. Great post. Looking forward for next in line.
    And you’ve got me seriously thinking. I want to run so many different genre games, why don’t mix them together? Thank you. And now I’ve got my own list to make :)

  2. I think that’s a good selling point for the mixed genre campaign setting – why just limit yourself to heroic fantasy, when you could mix it up with a liberal dose of another genre like gothic horror? Even the new D&D cosmology has opened the door to allow DMs to add other genres to their campaigns, even if they are using the stock WotC “official” settings, by adding the demi-planes of the Shadowfell (gothic horror) and the Far Realms (outre horror). Of course, the official settings are primarily heroic fantasy “sword & sorcery” genre, so those other genres are more like a “spice” than a main ingredient in the world-build recipe – which makes world-building with larger portions of four or five genres added together a pretty exciting prospect!

  3. Svafa says:

    I’m currently building a homebrew setting for a campaign I want to hopefully start running in two or three months. I’m doing a mix low-magic with medieval fantasy and post-apocalyptic. That last bit is my personal secret for the campaign as a whole, so hopefully none of my potential players are savvy enough to stumble upon my post and recognize it for what it is. I may be throwing some steampunk and dinosaurs in there as well. But mixing genres can be a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to see the expressions on my players when they run into a major piece of lost technology for the first time, whether it’s a golem who can operate without magic or a wand that fires explosive pellets at high speeds.

    Anyway, I’m interested in seeing where you go with this. Hopefully it’ll give me some good ideas for my own settings as well. :P

  4. @Svafa – Sounds like a fun setting – just riffing off your base ideas, steampunk and medieval fantasy can be blended fairly well together, and there are definitely a few steampunk-ish elements in the Eberron campaign setting. And there are some interesting possibilities as to what caused the apocalypse – could be technological (atomic war, biological war, etc), and then magic and steampunk arose from the ashes… RNA-designers brought back dinosaurs and they overran the planet… there are all kinds of directions to go with it!

    I’m leaning toward [steampunk-gothic horror-sword & sorcery-outre horror] for my campaign setting, and looking at creating a cold war between tech (steampunk) and magic. Which leads me to another element I want to include, and I will likely be doing a more involved blog on it in a few days, is the political friction that occurs between republics and empires. Our own history has shown us that republics and empires make bad neighbors, and I would envision some really fun campaigns based upon characters working the “front” of the cold war as spies, agents, revolutionaries, or just plain old privateers.

    Thanks for your interest in this blog series, and check back, as I’m sure that I will have several more to add as I progress in my own campaign setting.

  5. Svafa says:

    I’m actually going zombie apocalypse for my setting. Likely going the viral/medical zombie variant from trying to make humanity immortal and it going horribly wrong. From that end, many of the races and monsters will have origins in DNA tampering. And maybe magic will as well, but I’m not sure I want to determine where magic comes from or why it exists. All of that is far history and likely won’t ever come up into direct play, but those are also the details world builders thrive on. :P

    Privately I was hoping you’d go outre horror when I saw it on your list. Sounds like an interesting setting. Have you read Gaiman’s ‘A Study in Emerald’? It’s blatantly Lovecraftian, but is what I instantly thought of when you described the cold war setting in a slightly tech-ish outre/gothic horror setting. If you’ve not read it, it’s well worth the read. I believe there is a pdf version in periodical format (which only makes it so much better) on Gaiman’s site.

    Anyway… need to stop geeking and get back to reading the new post… >.<

  6. @Svafa – Now who said I haven’t gone for “outre horror” as one of my genres? Actually, so far I have avoided saying exactly which genres I’ve picked for my new campaign world, but I will be bringing the list up in a later blog. But as a teaser, I will admit that I am including both “Steampunk” and “outre horror” as genre elements in my new campaigns setting. In fact, the idea of “esoteric orders” of wizards and sorcerers will be part of the outre horror element, and I am still working out the logistics of how I want to use them in the setting.

    And I really appreciate the reference to the Gaiman site and his short stories. I’m a big fan of his novels like “American Gods”, “Anansi Boys”, and “Neverwhere” – and now that you’ve mentioned his website, I’ve gone and downloaded “A Study in Emerald” and his other short stories – thanks again for letting me know about it!

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