Categorizing games by genre and setting
For many players, beginners or seasoned, discovering new horizons can be a challenge. But fortunately, our hobby’s landscape has more to offer than meets the eye. It isn’t always easy to see past the giants ruling over the modern world of pen and paper games. Many assume that the only game to play is Dungeons & Dragons. You could go as far as saying that some people think tabletop role-playing games and D&D are one and the same.
And while Dungeons & Dragons is indeed the most widely played and popular role-playing game out there, said games are not just D&D. So here’s the good news: whatever your genre preferences are, there is a game out there for you!
Before we elaborate more on classifications and ways of determining what is what, I would like to stress that D&D is still one of my favourite games and as I wrote in My Adventures in Middle-Earth article a while back, the 5th edition rules have the potential to be adapted and applied to any setting, including your own home-brew world. I will not talk about rules today, that is a discussion for another day and also one that is being addressed by others who I will mention in my closing comments. The mechanics of a game are just as important as its settings, if not more so. But today, I will be looking at the contextual aspects of role-playing games, and how a simple way to categorize them can help you find other games that you could be enjoying!
A way to find your way
It’s important to understand, however, that wandering off the beaten path is not reserved to outrageously hardcore players or the foolhardy. There are a lot of other games of different genres to discover that take place in all kinds of settings. Strangely enough, categorizing them seems to be an arduous and complicated task. When browsing the web and going through various online stores or databases, I marvel at the detailed and over-complicated ways people find for classifying games. When creating categories for every single nuance of a genre, one can end up creating the kind of monster that only makes sense in retrospect and because of a single burdening factor: legacy.
I would like to take a fresh look at the scope of what exists on the market today and how we could possibly navigate our way through it to find what we are looking for. It is not an exercise in giving each game a proper description, I mean it to be a way of helping you find a game that meets certain criteria. I don’t expect this could ever lead to being adopted or implemented anywhere else than here but, who knows, it might give some readers a few good ideas.
In the world of tabletop RPGs, genres can be classified in the same manner as the arts that inspired them such as literature, theatre and cinema; with maybe a few twists. My approach is to narrow the choices down to the strict minimum, for clarity as well as logic. This will lead me to introduce the use of attributes rather than resorting to extensive sub-sub-sub-genres. Those only lead to confusion and arguments. The goal is to enable you to find what you’re looking for, not argue about it fitting in a certain box or being given a label.
To proceed, it is also relevant that I discuss the difference between genre, setting, and theme.
When we look at the definition of genre in the dictionary, this is the most common definition we find:
Genre: a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content
It’s easy to see how, on the basis of this definition, one can come up with a myriad of genres for a particular medium of entertainment. Yet, for our purposes, it is primordial to look at what we are trying to categorize: tabletop role-playing games. While comedy is certainly a relevant genre in film, it is not as relevant in pen and paper games. The comedic elements would be dictated by the GM and the players. It’s an aspect of the game, and as such I will use comedy as an attribute, not a genre.
They define the world in which the game takes place as well as the people who inhabit it. Once again, the most fitting definition we can find in regards to games is as follows.
Setting: the time and place of the action of a literary, dramatic, or cinematic work
By accepting the use of setting, we can eliminate more unnecessary sub-genres such as post-apocalyptic or steampunk which really are settings for the Science-Fiction genre. Before anyone runs off in uproar, I would like to point out that everything will make sense in the end and there is definitely no need to get upset. Settings can be relevant to games of different genres. To make good use of this criterion, we need to look at the history of our own world. This gives us valuable reference points that make it possible to narrow down our preferences.
Finally, before we move on to how this is all going to work, there is the matter of theme. A theme is not a setting, nor is it a genre.
Theme: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation
Themes are not to be interpreted in the way that Lego classifies its products, for example. Super-heroes is not a theme. Redemption, resurrection, transformation, vengeance, innocence, justice, sacrifice, jealousy, friendship, fate are themes. In tabletop role-playing games, they help define the threads of plots. They can be the raison d'être of certain player or non-player characters. They are weaved into the game by either or both players and game master. For the purposes of classification, themes are irrelevant because any theme can be a part of any game.
How it works
Rather than browsing through pages of results, wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply do the following:
- Choose a genre: Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Historical.
- Choose a setting: antiquity, medieval, western, victorian, 1900’s, contemporary, post-apocalyptic, space.
- Choose one or multiple attributes: anime, anthropomorphic, cartoon, comedy, crime, cyberpunk, dark, dystopian, epic, espionage, gritty, high magic, high tech, horror, kid-friendly, low magic, mature, multiverse, mystery, mythology, occult, pulp, supernatural, surreal, swashbuckling, urban.
While these three categories are not exhaustive, they provide a framework that would make it so much more workable than browsing through pages of genres and sub-genres. With so many games out there, this would, in my opinion, make it so much more manageable. You might be surprised to find that terms like space opera or steampunk are not included. Your goal is to find a game not to put a label on something you don’t know is out there. There’s nothing more discouraging than wanting to join a hobby and feeling bad for not knowing about its terminologies and specific vocabulary. I am hoping that using plain english to describe what one is looking for is a better solution than scrolling through lists of unfamiliar terms and references.
For example, a steampunk game is basically: science-fiction (genre) and victorian (setting). Its flavour will be determined by how you will play it and this sometimes can be reflected in attributes you see that match your tastes. A space opera is basically: science-fiction (genre), space (setting), epic and high tech (attribute). Dungeons and Dragons is fantasy (genre), medieval (setting) and epic (attribute). Attributes can help include more aspects that interest you or that you feel would add to the game experience. They should help you make a better selection of specific games you would consider playing. Most importantly, this way of categorizing could help you discuss games with friends, colleagues or people at your local game store. It’s not so much about describing games in the best way possible. What I long for is a simple way of describing game genres, settings and themes. If it makes it easier for you to find the games you would want to play, I would definitely like to do more with this.
As I mentioned earlier, taking into consideration genre and setting is not the only way you should choose a game. It does help to narrow it down and once you have a selection of potential candidates, you can start asking questions about mechanics and rules, which will definitely further inform your decision making. To this end, I invite you to go read a great article from Unpossible Journeys about classifying games based on their rules and how you play them. I am sure you will find it useful. We’re all here to help you find a game that suits you and your gaming group!
If you have any questions or comments be sure to reach out and use the suggestion box to get in touch with me!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories.