log in or register to remove this ad

 

General Genres and Campaign Settings, and why D&D is not a Work of Literature

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Moving somewhat tangentially from the previous 3,804 threads on Greyhawk (numbers are approximate), I thought I'd go more deeply into a discussion about why there is a limit to analogies regarding campaign settings and genre. While this topic originally came up regarding Greyhawk and "Swords and Sorcery" (S&S), I thought I'd first look at why this is necessarily a limited discussion by examining a slightly different campaign setting .... Eberron.

1. Eberron as a Noir Setting.

Brief primer- Eberron is a campaign setting designed by Keith Baker. When people discuss Eberron, one of the main descriptions they use is "noir." We see multiple people refer to it as such here:
@The Mirrorball Man "Eberron is a noir and pulp fantasy campaign setting in which magic has been harnessed to fuel an industrial revolution."
@doctorbadwolf "My players are about to get their first real taste of that in a while in my Eberron game, which is normally more grounded and noir/pulp inspired."

The reason why these statements are so universal is because they are accurate, and because that's how Keith Baker describes the setting.

"Eberron is designed with two story poles in mind: pulp adventure and noir intrigue."
Source: (no title)

So there is almost universal agreement that Eberron was designed with "noir" in mind and is a "noir" setting. But what exactly does "noir" mean? Now we get to the confusing part. We can look to Keith Baker's own brief definition: "[N]oir intrigue thrives on shades of gray, uncertainty, and on questions that don’t have simple answers." "One of the basic principles of noir is that the system is unreliable—either corrupt, blind, or toothless." Okay! But what does "noir" really mean? Where did "noir" come from?


2. Noir as a Genre in Film.

A film noir (black, or dark film) was a descriptive term to describe a particular set of films that emerged from Hollywood during and immediately after World War 2.

The biggest problem with defining film noir as a coherent body of film is that there are certain aspects that define it (noir-esque) but none that are exclusive to the genre. While most people, in common parlance, might think of such signifiers as "Detective" or "Femme Fatale" or "Urban" or "Amorality" as markers of the genre, none of these are required.

For that matter, while many would look to visual signifiers as well (use of black & white film, chiaroscuro lighting, use of blinds and other elements to create shadows and/or obscure elements on screen including characters' faces), this also isn't universal.

Finally, there is the assumed given that film noir has a pessimistic outlook. As Keith Baker put it above- the system is corrupt, blind, or toothless. Nevertheless, most of the classic film noirs reject moral ambiguity in whole or in part because they were filmed under a production code that required the triumph of virtue. If you think about a canonical film noir, like Double Indemnity, it is dark; and yet, at the end, the system isn't corrupt, blind, or toothless, and amorality (and immorality) is punished.

The entire story is framed around a confession; despite the so-called "perfect crime," the investigator eventually uncovers the truth and the people involved, while not brought to justice, die. The system was not corrupt- while the film is certainly dark, the "system" prevailed.

But here's the thing- despite the amorphousness of the concept, it is still possible to have intelligent conversations about "film noir." It is perfectly possible to discuss both The Third Man and Double Indemnity as great film noirs, despite differences between them; one can easily see how Chinatown is a noir (or neo-noir) even though it is in color and has other modernist flourishes; it is certainly possible to see Brick as playing with the genre conventions of the noir even though it is a thoroughly modern movie set in a high school. For those keeping up with current television, the reboot of Perry Mason borrows heavily from noir elements.


3. Noir as a Literary Genre.

Noir, in terms of literature, was largely "borrowed back" from the film term. So you had a film genre, some of the films being based on detective novels from the likes of Raymond Chandler (the creator of Phillip Marlowe, memorably played by Humphrey Bogart) and Dashiell Hammett (creator of Sam Spade, memorably played by ... Humphrey Bogart) that was called noir, and then that term was later used to describe a certain type of literature- but not the "hardboiled" detective literature that had been adapted for film noir. When you exclude the hardboiled from literary noir, you are left with something more akin to Baker's description- systemic corruption, lose-lose scenarios, incredibly flawed heroes (verging on "anti-heroes"), and extremely dark subject matter.

Noir is no right or wrong, just shades of gray. As James Ellroy, probably the most prominent practitioner of noir fiction, put it, noir "indicts the other subgenres of the hard-boiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.”

But here, too, we see the inherent problems with the genre label. It's a feel, not a rote recitation of factors. The Postman Always Rings Twice, No Country for Old Men, The Tell-Tale Heart ... they are all "noir" by many definitions. Then again, so is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.


4. Genre is Hard to Define.

A conversation...

Achilles: What is the difference between a comedy and a drama?
Tortoise: A comedy has jokes, a drama does not.
Achilles: Ah, I see. Who is your favorite character in the new show, Raised by Wolves?
Tortoise: Father. I like that he tells jokes in a semblance of humanity.
Achilles: So, Raised by Wolves is a comedy.
Tortoise: ...this is going to be a long conversation.

Genres are necessarily hard to define, both because any list of concepts that define a genre cannot be exclusive and exhaustive, and because there will be countless examples of works that are on the outermost edges of the genre, or play against the genre types. Does a work that specifically subverts its genre (Scream, Unforgiven) also belong to the genre it subverts? At what point does a work that lies between two genres become a genre to itself (dramedy, romantic comedy)? What about genres that necessarily overlap (film noir, drama, melodrama)?

I say these things not because I have answers, but because the questions themselves should show the difficulty! Looking back at some of these threads, we know that "Swords & Sorcery" was a term coined by a specific author (Fritz Leiber) to describe the stories of REH's Conan (to show how everything is related, Leiber used the term to rebut Moorcock who said that Conan was "epic fantasy") and later, his own Lankhmar stories. Of course, given the vagaries of time, popularity, and Arnold's biceps, the term is now most closely associated with REH's Conan. I always thought that this attempt at going through the differences (that we have all had our own issues with) to be most helpful:

The point is, genres (and subgenres) are difficult to define. And the more works you try to put in there, the more elusive it becomes; just take Conan, please. (heh). Conan has 17 published stories by REH, an additional 4 "complete" and more unfinished- before getting into issues of rewriting and other who wrote within the world of Conan (the Hyborian Age). Of course there are difference between some of these stories, such that some universal maxims (stakes are small ... stakes are large) could not apply. And that's before getting into numerous other stories that traditionally make up the S&S canon.

It's the same with almost any genre. If I have a friend who likes comedies such as Airplane and Anchorman, and they ask me for a recommendation for a great comedy, and I tell that friend that one of my favorite recent comedies is The Lobster ... they will probably end up confused and/or upset ... at the very least, questioning my judgment ("How can that be a comedy? I didn't laugh one time!"). But absurdist dark comedies are still comedies- just very different. This is why discussions of genre among people generally familiar with the topic can be enlightening and helpful, but when the discussion lacks salient information, it can be less helpful. Imagine the two of us attempting to describe comedies to each other in order to define what a comedy "is", if his only frame of reference was Airplane and mine was The Lobster; hardly a productive conversation.


5. Why this Matters for Campaign Settings.

At a sufficiently high level, all basic D&D campaign settings are the same genre- they are all fantasy. The primary difference between a campaign setting in a TTRPG like D&D, and a text (such as a film or a book) is that the text is written; it cannot be changed. It was conceived as being something (a plot) and that plot was carried through. There was not uncertainty, or die rolls.* Elmore Leonard does not set out to write a great noir book, and then at the end realizes he has somehow written a screwball comedy.

On the other hand, while "meta plots" and adventure paths are common in D&D today, it is still the case that the PCs can go off the best-laid rails. It might not be zero-to-hero, it might be zero-to-dies by an unfortunate series of events at second level. And while the "world" might be constructed in noir, or S&S, or steampunk, or some other fashion, it will always be the case that players and their PCs will be able to find some part of the world in which to have an adventure that doesn't belong to it. Perhaps they are hard-boiled, amoral adventurers on Toril. Or maybe they are swept up in defeating Iuz on Greyhawk. Perhaps they are just do some regular hobomurder play in Eberron.

In that way, I don't think it's helpful to think of a campaign setting as dictating play. Instead, I view it as follows:

A. The creator is influenced by genre. An individual (Baker, Gygax) is influenced by genres (Noir, S&S). The campaign setting will reflect some of that influence. For more ... corporate settings (Theros) we can ascribe it as well (Heroic, Greek).

B. The campaign setting is conducive to certain styles of play. This is a more nebulous concept, but if the setting reflects certain influences, then it means that it contains the material to reflect those tropes in play, if the DM and the players choose to engage with it.

* I am excluding certain experimental forms, such as William S. Burroughs' use of cut ups.


Conclusion

While I think discussion of genre can be helpful, the fuzziness of the definitions of genres (and especially sub-genres) and the lack of applicability in certain situations with regard to TTRPGs can lead to more heat and less light.
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Aaron L

Adventurer
Very cool and interesting essay. It made me think of my brother's new(ish) campaign setting, with which I give him some small advice, in which he purposefully included different regions in the world that are conducive to running different campaigns of various sub-forms of Fantasy. As just a few examples, it has the Old Kingdoms, a region of classic faerie tale European-style kingdoms in which to conduct heroic Epic Fantasy campaigns; the Undisputed Territories, a region of sandy wilderlands full of marauding barbarian tribes and also dusty adobe city-states full of thieves, in which to run down and dirty Sword & Sorcery campaigns, and even the cursed Ruemorgue region, full of undead and werewolves, in which to run Gothic Dark Fantasy campaigns.

And almost everywhere there are deep undercurrents of secret, tentacled alien menaces with insane cultists worshiping them, scattered here and there across the world, in order to allow for Lovecraftian Weird Fiction campaigns, or to include elements of that style in campaigns based on one of the other styles (because he knows how dearly I love that sort of thing.)

But any of the campaigns he runs in this world, regardless of where they started and in which subgenre style they begin, can (and eventually will) also cross over into some of the other regions of the world and other flavors of Fantasy subgenre, so that dusty, amoral tomb robbing barbarians from the Undisputed Territories could at some point eventually find themselves in benighted Rumorgue, becoming entrenched in Byzantine struggles against elegant vampires.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
Great essay!

Indeed "genres" are useful categories that help us discuss and understand each other, but as all categories they only go so far before fading into the next. They are more like flavours, sometimes a flavour is dominant (a proper "horror" movie) and other times the same flavour is just an ingredient of a bigger recipe, like horror being added to an adventure (Indiana Jones), a comedy (Beetlejuice) or a sci-fi (Alien).

Incidentally, thanks for the illuminating insight on noir. I like many noir movies but it made me realise that my favourite noir movie (which I never labelled "noir" before today) is actually Blade Runner :)
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It is weird to me; there was a time when"genre" was a codeword for trashy or disreputable. It doesn't take a genius (or someone to go on about Cahiers du Cinema) to recall that bookstores traditionally had a "literature" section for the "good" fiction, and then separate sections for the genre/pulp traditions (Westerns, Sci-Fi, Mystery, etc.).

Now that we are more happily in a post-modern age of genre-blending, it seems both more interesting to try and discuss genres, more relevant given their prominence in both mass- and highbrow* culture, and less possible to do so effectively. :)


*Okay, middlebrow.
 

Remathilis

Legend
To be honest, I prefer "tropes" to genre.

Tropes, (defined as; a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize) are the building block of genre. Certain combinations of tropes form specific genres (for example, dark hallways, thunderstorms, and 'is anybody there?' are all tropes of the suspense genre). But tropes aren't married to one specific genre all the time (dark hallways are common in both murder mysteries and slasher horror) and tropes get added, removed and remixed to make new things all the time.

A setting (like a D&D setting) often takes tropes from a few different sources: fantasy (the magical pseudo-medieval setting), the game mechanics (clerics heal, wizards blast, rogues sneak, fighters... Fight) and whatever "genre" of Fantasy it wants to emulate. (High, epic, pulp, dark, etc). Baseline D&D itself is a thick mixture of tropes from different genres (wuxia monks fighting next to pulp barbarians) which further complicates the matter.

I think the biggest problem with trying to give a setting a genre is that people attempt to distill the genre for purity. Which leads the the problem mentioned. The designer is tempted to prune everything that isn't a trope of the genre out and only keep the "pure" genre tropes. Which is really the opposite of how a setting should work, it should add the tropes of a genre as appropriate and only prune that which absolutely doesn't not work (that is anethema to the genre).

For example, a dark fantasy/ horror setting like Ravenloft or Innistrad should take the traditional D&D tropes and add horror tropes like near constant darkness, isolation, supernatural monsters, curses, hauntings, etc. It's really easy to look at D&D's stew of tropes and say "ya know, holy knights don't fit the horror genre so they should be cut" rather than say "what would horror look like if a holy knight's special gifts don't give him an advantage against the monster of the story?" Curse of Strahd doesn't emulate Dracula perfectly, but its tropes are there for D&D to play with.

All this is too say, adding the tropes of a genre isn't the same as emulating the genre. Eberron is D&D with pulp and noir tropes, but doesn't emulate either genre. Ravenloft is D&D with horror tropes. Dark Sun is D&D with apocalyptic and sword and sandals genre tropes. Theros is D&D with greek myth tropes. Etc, etc. They are all still D&D underneath.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Great essay!

Indeed "genres" are useful categories that help us discuss and understand each other, but as all categories they only go so far before fading into the next. They are more like flavours, sometimes a flavour is dominant (a proper "horror" movie) and other times the same flavour is just an ingredient of a bigger recipe, like horror being added to an adventure (Indiana Jones), a comedy (Beetlejuice) or a sci-fi (Alien).

Incidentally, thanks for the illuminating insight on noir. I like many noir movies but it made me realise that my favourite noir movie (which I never labelled "noir" before today) is actually Blade Runner :)
I often find the easiest way to understand the difficulties in separating out genres (especially subgenres) is to try to do it yourself in an area you don't understand very well.

I am pretty good with music, but I really struggle when someone is trying to explain all the various sub-genres of electronic music; dubstep, EDM, breakcore, ambient techno, and so on. I'm just like, "But it all goes utz utz utz utz, right?"
 

The thing about genres is as soon as you start trying to make a hard definition it's easy to start finding exceptions. Because everything is it's own thing.

Really, all you can do is cite examples, and say "stuff similar to this". The old literary party game as retelling one story in the style of another is a good way to try and get your head around what makes things distinct.
 

I think that genre and setting are separate things, really. They certainly can inform each other, but I don't think that they must always align. Certainly many settings are designed to handle a variety of genres for stories told within their world. Look at the Marvel Universe.....there are noir type stories set there, there are also adventure stories and war stories and so on. Look at Star Wars....most would kind of fall into the epic fantasy genre, but something like Rogue One is a war story, and something like The Mandolorian is kind of a western/noir.

I think genre is a choice that's made. In the case of a RPG, it's made by the GM and (hopefully) the players. "We're going to run a campaign that's all about war" or "we're going to play a thieve's guild game, so it's going to be about heists and capers", and so on. Then you decide what setting would suit, or what setting elements would work to support such a game. I think that generally, any setting could be used to tell any genre story, although I'm sure there would be some possible exceptions, where perhaps the setting elements are simply too different from the genre expectations for the combination to make sense.

Certain settings (or setting elements, at least) lend themselves to certain genres, for sure. So some settings are going to make a lot more sense for certain types of stories. But a lot of times, it's the juxtaposition of setting and genre that can make a story dynamic.
 

ChaosOS

Hero
Supporter
I do think it's important to note how Eberron also pulls heavily on pulp tropes, even if D&D's pulp heritage makes them less obviously distinct. The ancient and alien horrors that are still punchable, the archaeological approach to ruins, the direction to including escalating scenarios - all hallmarks of pulp.
 

MGibster

Legend
Years ago, when you walked into Barnes & Noble or some other book store they would often have a horror section. But at some point the horror section was removed and those books by Koontz and King were placed in the regular literature section. In some ways, I think the move to categorize books into specific genres was just the publishing world's way to make it easier for them to market their product. And it worked fairly well. I knew to go to the Science Fiction/Fantasy section where I could browse through the books and find something I wanted.
 

Mort

Hero
Supporter
Interesting post.

I think it's deliberately difficult to pin down most campaign settings into a genre - because they actively try to be many at once.

Gygax was trying to appeal to a wide group - he wanted many different elements in there. Heck, one of his players loved westerns (Boothill) so he let him play a cowboy and threw in some Western into Greyhawk.

Greenwood was the same way. He put in many elements to the setting because he was trying to appeal to a wide base.

Sure some setting are more focused, but even there - it all depends on 1. how the DM presents things and 2. How the players choose to approach and play the game.

That's one HUGE difference. A moviegoer can't influence a movie by how they view it, a reader can't influence a book by how they read it. But a group can absolutely define a game by how they play it.

And in a campaign - it can change from session to session. One session is a rousing adventure story, next session is suddenly a horror story. Sure, changing too much too often can give players narrative whiplash - but the point is world can be different things to different people and groups.

I think that's one reason it has been so hard to pin down the Greyhawk in that prior thread. It was different things to different people. Especially since its heyday was prior to the internet homogenizing some of the play experience.
 
Last edited:

While I think discussion of genre can be helpful, the fuzziness of the definitions of genres (and especially sub-genres) and the lack of applicability in certain situations with regard to TTRPGs can lead to more heat and less light.
I feel like you're as guilty as anyone else here, Snarf, given this thread.

You just took hundreds and hundreds of words to say:

"D&D settings are influenced by genres rather than being of those genres".

I don't think anyone is asserting Eberron "is" Pulp except as a shorthand, for example. It's a common shorthand, but a shorthand.
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
I feel like you're as guilty as anyone else here, Snarf, given this thread.

You just took hundreds and hundreds of words to say:

"D&D settings are influenced by genres rather than being of those genres".

I don't think anyone is asserting Eberron "is" Pulp except as a shorthand, for example. It's a common shorthand, but a shorthand.
Yeah this is very much true... this essay definitely feels like a response to criticism of the "Greyhawk is S&S" or "Greyhawk is Low Fantasy."

Obviously a campaign setting does not dictate play; despite a lot of people saying Greyhawk is more gritty and hard-boiled than Forgotten Realms (and I largely agree) you can play an extremely light and comedic Greyhawk, using some pretty funhouse dungeons like White Plume Mountain.

Still, when your picking a campaign setting, usually you want it to match the tone of your game. Sometimes people enjoy clashing tones, but most of the time people want consistency. So assigning campaign settings a genre is completely fine, as long as you recognize the PCs may completely screw with it (like everything else!)
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I, for one, do not like the title of this thread, which is not what the body of the OP is about.

I have seen sentences in RPG material that definitely challenge the concept of ttrpgs not being work of literature.

"At some point in your past you decided you didn’t need it anymore"
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I, for one, do not like the title of this thread, which is not what the body of the OP is about.

I have seen sentences in RPG material that definitely challenge the concept of ttrpgs not being work of literature.
D&D (the playing thereof) is not a work of literature. If you think that is inaccurate, that is fine! But as you correctly point out, that’s not really the gist of the post, so you should probably expound on that excellent thesis in a lengthy thread of your own ...

about Greyhawk. ;)
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
D&D (the playing thereof) is not a work of literature. If you think that is inaccurate, that is fine! But as you correctly point out, that’s not really the gist of the post, so you should probably expound on that excellent thesis in a lengthy thread of your own ...

about Greyhawk. ;)
ha!

But seriously speaking. D&D - the rules, the adventures - are written. Clear, evocative and concise writing very important. There are some ruleset I gave up on exploring because... the writing was bad. It takes skill to do this well.
 

D&D (the playing thereof) is not a work of literature.
Playing D&D is an exercise in collective storytelling, and is therefore literature.

Worldbuilding, adventure and character creation are also literary tasks.

Genre labels can be unhelpful and misleading to the understanding literature of any type, irrespective of if it is a campaign setting or a novel.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
But seriously speaking. D&D - the rules, the adventures - are written. Clear, evocative and concise writing very important. There are some ruleset I gave up on exploring because... the writing was bad. It takes skill to do this well.
Well, that is why I normally try to use more the more general term 'text' than literature, because the term 'literature' too often carries the associated baggage of the normative value of whether something is "good" (sure, that comic book is fun, but it's not ... puts monocle firmly in place and crinkles nose LITERARY).

And then there is the separate issue of how technical writing can be good, or bad, and how technical writing is different than fiction writing- with different goals and different markers as to what can be considered 'good'.* Which would bring up the interrelated issues, given that D&D, and other TTRPGs, necessarily mix what we call "crunch" and "lore" about the best ways to present and mix the two.

But that would be the subject for a completely different, exceptionally long post! Probably about Greyhawk.


*Dude, I love that ruleset! It reminds me of Pale Fire, what with the unreliable narrator. I don't even know what die to roll, or even if the game uses dice!
 

Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
Well, that is why I normally try to use more the more general term 'text' than literature, because the term 'literature' too often carries the associated baggage of the normative value of whether something is "good" (sure, that comic book is fun, but it's not ... puts monocle firmly in place and crinkles nose LITERARY).

And then there is the separate issue of how technical writing can be good, or bad, and how technical writing is different than fiction writing- with different goals and different markers as to what can be considered 'good'.* Which would bring up the interrelated issues, given that D&D, and other TTRPGs, necessarily mix what we call "crunch" and "lore" about the best ways to present and mix the two.

But that would be the subject for a completely different, exceptionally long post! Probably about Greyhawk.


*Dude, I love that ruleset! It reminds me of Pale Fire, what with the unreliable narrator. I don't even know what die to roll, or even if the game uses dice!
Definition of literature is "written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit."

Playing D&D obviously isn't a work of literature.... but it is often a work of storytelling, which I think is directly tied to your points about genre.

I think it's hard to argue that something like Critical Role isn't a body of fiction, especially when it is being adapted right now to television (as is the Adventure Zone). Yes their not literary fiction, but I'd argue the difference in genre from a novel to a book is little more than stylistic changes that are necessary due to the change in written vs. visual media.
 


COMING SOON: 5 Plug-In Settlements for your 5E Game

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top