Some games fail to be all that they could be, not because of a lack of engaging play, or clever players, but because of a lack on one or both sides of the GM screen of understanding of the genre being attempted.

Examples of this failure include:

  • The Stormtrooper with a face, tired feet, and bills to pay
  • The Lawful Good Paladin advocating Pre-emptive Strikes and Genocide
  • The Archaeologist 'tomb raider' selling items on the black market to pay for drugs and whores

What is an effective method of establishing the tropes and boundaries of a particular genre and – secondarily – helping the group to see the genre in a creative sense (we can play this!), not in a restrictive sense (you can't do that!)?

What are effective methods of establishing and communicating the genre of a game to the players so that their game buy-in is for the same game genre as everyone else?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I took the liberty of editing the Q to emphasise techniques for communicating and establishing genre, and explicitly put playing buy-in as secondary but still essential to the Q. I hope my edits reflect your intentions, and if not, please do tweak them or roll them back. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 21, 2011 at 13:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good edits, thanks~ It is about as clear as it can get, now \$\endgroup\$ Jun 21, 2011 at 16:16

4 Answers 4


There are two situations where the genre can be broken. One situation is when the players are unaware of the what the genre is, and the other is when players decide they want to break away from the genre. For each, there is a different sollution.

1. When the players break away from a known genre:

I think the only way that I would be able to do this properly is with plentiful scattering of the word "stereotypical".. i.e, "Are you guys up to playing a stereotypical star wars universe game?", or "Ok, when creating your characters, lets try to make them interesting within the confines of a stereotypical fantasy campaign."

The more you use the word, or its synonymous the more it will subtly put a constraint on what the players come up with. You'll be less likely to get players thinking "outside the box" when it comes to backgrounds. On the GM side, you need to make sure that your puzzles and characters also fit within the stereotypes else it might throw the players off.

The other way is to be overt about it, but I think that fails your "restrictive sense" clause.

2. When the players break from an unkown genre

I happen to have some personal experience with this situation when I was itnroduced to DnD via the Dark Sun encounters campaign. I had little to zero knowledge of the dark sun universe. Here is how the problem, I believe was solved well.

At the beginning of each session, the GM would give a recap. First, the GM would give an overview of the world: "Last time, you traveled through the sands of Arathis, a world sucked dry from the mages who used the life magic of the planet.. etc." In other words, the GM would sprinkle relevant world genre tropes into the basic description of the scenery and past events. Then, the GM would also give an overview of the politics in our situation: "The elf destroyed the halfling archer, while the Thri-kreen ironically looked upon him as food, in the same way that the halflings looked at the rest prisoners."

These types of 'off topic' remarks, gave us a really good understanding of the Dark Sun world without requiring us to read any materials before the game started, or between sessions.

Another suggestion is to try to get your hands on the DnD encounters modules, and look at how they introduce each session. I think they do a really good job of explaining the genre and tropes to the group, without any expectation of prior knowledge.

To prevent the situations mentioned in your original question I would suggest the following.

1. The Stormtrooper with a face, tired feet, and bills to pay Perhaps remind the player that the empire takes care of all of their needs, and they have been bred from birth for war. Or make some reference to the clone wars.

2. The Lawful Good Paladin advocating Pre-emptive Strikes and Genocide An omen from their patron's symbol showing disapproval or if the players can handle it, you should remove their status as a paladin and make them go classless.

3. The Archaeologist 'tomb raider' selling items on the black market to pay for drugs and whores Shock from the black market supplier that such a respectable archaeologist would even consider contacting them, or if the players can handle it, have a them get blackmailed!

Thank you gomad for the suggestions for 2 and 3. You make a good point.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You're going awfully easy on #2 and #3. I would ruin them. Let that paladin plan and advocate anything he wants. But when he deviates from his sworn code? Bam. Loss of Paladin status. Enjoy your levels of commoner. And the archeologist? Once your pushers and procurers know they've got a customer with something to lose, what do you think they'll do? How long before he's pressed to steal precious objects from his own museum to avoid having his tastes and proclivities made known to his genteel superiors? From such things are tales of redemption (and awesome RP!) born. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Jun 21, 2011 at 16:38

A very effective way is to let the players define them. Or at least help define them.

In some games (e.g. Diaspora), you do this as a group before play. In others (e.g. FATE), players can spend points to narrate things about the world.

But you don't need the game's permission to do this. Just invite the players to contribute and build on each other's ideas.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That is good advice for running a successful game, but if I understand you correctly is actually pretty much the opposite of what I am getting at with the question, however. Running a game in an established genre for the purpose of experiencing that genre, really cannot happen if the players define the genre themselves.... right? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 21, 2011 at 0:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ It can and does... but it might not be YOUR interpretation of the genre. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Jun 21, 2011 at 4:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @aramis I am responding to the use of words like define, contribute, and build. I don't believe a genre can be totally pigeon-holed into a right way to play, but at the same time, it can have clear-cut boundaries. What I am asking about is an effective way to help players make informed choices about the genre so that it is actually explored, and so that fun is maintained. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 21, 2011 at 7:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Runesinger based on this comment... Are you concerned about a group of players that don't know what a stormtrooper is, or are you concerned about players who want to make a stormtrooper studying to become a jedi? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMNoob
    Jun 21, 2011 at 7:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GMNoob Much more the former. Buy-in for a completely understood genre is really a Y/N proposition. When some in the group just do not know what the genre contains (and does not contain) things tend to go off into other territory, and that can cause problems with those in the group who do. The question is about how to effectively express what is being attempted to facilitate comprehension, acceptance, and enjoyment. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 21, 2011 at 9:45

I appeal to the Movies and TV! [And, to a lesser extent, some books...] This is partially because I'm not a very visually imaginative person, and so it's an important crutch to my narrative style.

"We're playing in a [Lord of the Rings|Star Wars|Lost|Babylon 5|etc] -like universe..."

All of my NPCs and monsters perform 95% within trope, modeling the behaviors desired from the player characters. I constantly cite scenes in movies as reference for in game events "like that scene where Luke and Leia swing across the Death Star." Most of the players get into it and also start describing scenes, borrowing from our shared media experiences.

I'm fortunate, I always game with people who I know well enough to know what media exposure (and therefore tropes) we share in common. That seems to be key - shared understanding.

Likewise, if a PC acts out-of-trope, my world responds appropriately: ranging from strange looks and social withdrawal to ostracism, imprisonment, or banishment. But it never goes that far in my groups - before that happens, the other players always intervene...

I always give the PCs more leeway to adapt: Keep in mind that Han Solo started strictly following the rogue/scoundrel trope (fired first!), but morphed to a heroic general over time. But if there isn't enough wiggle room, it's time to role up new character(s) and/or world to match the way my group wants to play.

A concrete example: my D&D 4e group's Knight was chafing a bit for the lack of trope in his chosen class. (Yes, I know a class isn't a trope, this player is just not into creating character backstory - he only pays attention to the combat table and powers) So he was recently "converted" to a Cavalier and now has a bunch of Holy powers and a Lawful Good alignment to hang his trope-roll playing hat on. :-)


The best way, in my experience, is consensus. First thing first: The group is everyone involved in the potential play: GM, Players, Harlequins, and routine audience members.

  • Ask the group what tropes they feel define the genre or subgenre.
  • Ask the group what tropes they feel break that genre
  • ask the group if any genre standard tropes need to be ignored
  • once everyone's gotten their input, pare them down
  • Put the answers on a sheet of two lists...
    • list 1 is "Tropes to be enforced"
    • list 2 is "Tropes to be prohibited"

Then, having an idea of what they feel the key tropes ARE for the genre, see if you are capable of running within those boundaries. If so, everyone signs off on the tropes contract. Yes, I said CONTRACT.

If they break it, they don't get to play. If you break it, everyone gets a set of rerolls.

The combination of putting the tropes into writing is proof of buy-in.

On an editioral note, however, my experience also says that examples like:

  • The Stormtrooper with a face, tired feet, and bills to pay
  • The Lawful Good Paladin advocating Pre-emptive Strikes and Genocide
  • The Archaeologist 'tomb raider' selling items on the black market to pay for drugs and whores

Are players who are subtly telling you they don't respect your genre choice, or possibly even don't respect you. The contract mode may discourage them from play.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Ha~ You go to a dark place fast! Regarding the examples, these are all real, but also real cases of just not getting it, rather than actively trying to sabotage it. I see what you are saying though, and have been in games where that has happened as well. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 21, 2011 at 10:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ The negative connotations of a contract can be avoided if the "Yes/No" list can somehow be incorporated into the setup process of the game as just normal play. Microscope RPG includes exactly this process as part of its setup steps, for example. For a game that doesn't include it in the rules (native or hacked-in) it would be more difficult, but possible to make it just a normal part of the GM's house rules, say. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 21, 2011 at 13:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ A player "not getting it" that badly either has no knowledge of the setting, or is intentionally being a jerk. Stormtroopers are clones, and that's been "known" since the late 80's. It was made clearly canonical in the later Ep II & Ep III. Tomb raiders on drugs are simply anti-heroes; that's inherently an "I want to be a jackass" kind of character concept. LG arguing genoicide is arguable as ignorance, but 5 minutes with ANY of AD&D 1E/2E or D&D3E PH's should cure them of that, as should the sudden loss of all paladin-specific abilities. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Jun 22, 2011 at 7:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely... hence this question about how to effectively communicate the standard conception of a given genre in such a way as to promote comprehension, acceptance, and enjoyment~ \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23, 2011 at 0:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Which is what the Unacceptable and Enforced Tropes lists do, Runeslinger. Because you put the tropes out to begin with, you can include, "Antiheroes are not PC's" as a trope to be enforced... and see if they vote it down. If they do, find new players. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Jun 23, 2011 at 0:30

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