The Motif Way 2: Genre Rooted, Themes Supreme

Genre Rooted, Themes Supreme is the 2nd in a series of articles about “The Motif Way”,
the philosophy & design principles behind the Motif Framework and Runs On Motif games.

Let’s cut right to the chase: What the heck are we talking about? “Genre” means the general type of story. Survival horror, utopian science fiction, and classic romance are examples. “Themes” are the topics or recurring concepts in a story. In a post-apocalyptic survival horror game, you may have themes like isolation, paranoia, struggle against nature, and yearning for community. So “genre rooted, themes supreme” means grounded in the type of story with the recurring motifs heavily emphasized.

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Motif games do not necessarily assume a well-defined setting. In many cases, the setting details will be determined during play. However, they always have strong genre assumptions and resonant themes. For example, No Angels Live Here is a neo-noir occult detective RPG with themes of struggle against evil, determination, temptation, corruption, and personal horror. Before knowing anything else about it, chances are you can already think of numerous possible stories.


Fluff vs Rules Illusion

A common distinction in RPG discussions is between “fluff” and “rules”. The rules are the literal rules of the game. “Fluff” is said to be more or less everything else. Setting descriptions without mechanics are the iconic example of fluff. We reject this distinction.

The fluff provides as much play guidance as the mechanics. Bribery is a very different thing in a world of corruption or struggling survival than in a well-ordered science fiction city or a well-meaning utopia. There is no defined dice mechanic. But such world facts or practical realities clearly influence play and results.

Arguably, fluff is what provides meaning for actions and rolls. A roll by itself is just some numbers on dice. Even with Motif or another system providing meaning, the roll is still meaningless without context.

OK, say the roll is to inflict harm. On who or what? The werewolf? Can what you are attempting even harm them? Why are you trying to harm the werewolf? What is going on?

These are questions answered by the fluff. We know werewolves exist, which is a setting detail. What harms them in that game depends on the setting. Is it dogwood? Wolfsbane? Silver? Similarly, why you are attacking a werewolf is based on the setting and player characters. Are you poachers hunting them for parts? Heroes battling a monster?

The setting and tone are as much rules as spelled out mechanics. They are the source of meaning and define play. Take a game about the crew of a spaceship. Whether it is about space pirates, explorers, licensed privateers, or galactic secret agents is going to result in an incredibly different game, even with similar mechanics. In the same vein, a background setting of a mostly utopian galactic government is going to be quite distinct from one of collapse ruled by system warlords and warring old houses.

That fluff informs the game as much as any formal rule. The setting is part of the rules and the shared agreement of the game.

Concept = Genre + Themes

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Ideally, the concept of a game spells out or clearly implies the genre and themes of a game. If not, rephrase the description from that perspective. Here are some examples of brief descriptions with their genre and themes:

  • high adventure in space RPG about pirates surviving in the Outer Worlds. (sci-fi action/adventure with piracy, survival, lawlessness, and peril)
  • weird fiction indie film game where players portray the good-natured but tempted descendants of demons in college. (weird fiction lit fic with nobility, temptation, school tropes, and family history)
  • classic RPG fantasy story focused on would-be heroes taking on evil kings. (heroic fantasy with adventure, corruption, tyranny, justice, and rebellion)
  • trippy magic world-hopping journey where we explore spiritual evolution and prophethood. (surrealist magical realism with spirituality, alternative worlds, psychedelia, and great responsibility)

Look over them again and pick one where you know the genre pretty well or the concept really resonates with you. Reflect on it for just a minute, thinking about those types of stories. Think about typical characters, common tropes, recurring plots, popular villain archetypes, common missions or predicaments, and so on. You probably already did to some degree the first time you read the list.

At the best, we are consciously aware of that knowledge and the assumptions that come with it. Such awareness can be very useful in both roleplaying game design and as an RPG player (including GMs). That knowledge and assumed common features are why offering to play a “zombie survival horror” or “off the wall cartoon comedy” game is meaningful.

Others understand what they are, at least to some degree or in the broad strokes. The questions they ask will be based on their genre awareness and what they assume are the themes. A game concept is most meaningful and informative when it conveys the genre and themes.

Setting Genre Roots

Assume what your genre assumes, except when you clearly mean otherwise. Twists and playing against tropes are common ways to make things novel or interesting. But those are exceptions to the general narrative. A slasher movie with smart or genre aware victims is still a slasher movie. While the twist on the victims may be interesting, it is only meaningful in context of slasher horror. The genre, even with subversions, is still at the root.

People love stories and narratives. It is deep down in our bones. Not everyone is a librarian and film scholar. So, they may not have the “proper” language for different genres and types of fiction. Nevertheless, the average person can describe dozens, if not hundreds of genres. Sometimes this is by relation, such as framing it as like stories by certain authors. People just intuitively get the concept of genre, the idea of types of stories.

When you make genre assumptions, a ton of heavy lifting for worldbuilding is done for you. For most of the general world details, you can easily imagine them based on the story type. In a high school drama, it is easy to fill the setting with mean girls, the cool teacher, the bully, and so on. Similarly, the natural flow of events is intuitive when you lean into the genre. The school is having an anti-bullying campaign. “Of course”, there will be a bully storyline.

Tropes are amazing RPG tools. Tropes are all the common things in stories. Every genre is loaded with tropes. All Just A Dream, Elves vs Dwarves, and Evil All Along are common tropes. The killer may relentless advance in slasher horror. The mean girls may show up right as you decide to run for class president in a high school drama. Those are easy story beats to know and follow because they are common genre tropes.

Setting down genre roots to support the rest of the game is simply leaning on the genre. Let the type of story and its common pieces provide the foundation. Use common assumptions and recurring motifs except when you intend to ignore or subvert them.

Spotlighting Your Themes

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Many themes flow from genre, but even very specific genres can express different themes. Sometimes, this is a matter of choosing tropes. Are the horror characters hapless victims or monster hunters? A lot will flow from such basic choices. However, there is still a lot left to define things and that is where your themes come in.

A science fiction action-adventure story focused on outlaw bounty hunters paying off debts can mean a lot of things, even if it is evocative. Does it lean into themes of betrayal, redemption, and confronting villainy? Or are its themes more like thrill-seeking, high stakes risks, and found family? Those are very different games, but they both fit the description. A big part of the distinction lies in the direction, the themes of the RPG.

However, the same base themes can be put to a variety of uses. The same roleplaying game can emphasize varying sub-themes or approaches. They may even be different genres. For example, the post-apocalyptic weird fiction world of NEVER Stop Smiling can officially support “straight” or “serious” play, surrealist and absurdist approaches, or a comedic or satirical tone. However, it has unifying genres and themes. The relationship between comedy and horror is commonly recognized. The unique combination of genre and themes is what makes NEVER Stop Smiling what it is in any play mode.

Which exact themes you choose to use and highlight will define the shape of your gameplay and direction of your story. When designing or playing a game about vampires, what is it you really want? Immortal intrigue, personal horror, struggle for survival, temptation, wild supernatural action, dark mysteries, or…? Spell it out. It will determine the shape of your world and characters. Use them as constant reminders and the shape of your story will evolve naturally.

Mechanics Should Follow Genre and Theme

Game mechanics can work against the expressed setting and themes. This often results in a lot of dissonance and play that emerges much differently than promised. It is a recurring topic in roleplaying game discussions.

Essentially, such a game has broken mechanics. The pieces do not fit together properly. It is no different than if a pair of rules contradict each other. If it is supposed to be a gritty grind but staying alive is trivial, something is out of place. If you expect a game of big damn heroes but it is difficult to do anything successfully, the experience will be unsatisfying. Everything must work together.

The mechanics of the game should emphasize the genre and themes. In NEVER Stop Smiling, themes of decay, instability, danger, dark secrets, and post-apocalyptic society are baked into the rules. There is a system for instability and madness. There are also resource “stones” for favors and secrets. But placing them front and forward on the character sheet and making them key mechanics, the entire shape of play is influenced. It also encourages players to feel as though those themes matter.

Even “universal” mechanics are best suited to certain types of RPGs. The rules in Runs On Motif games are not good for combat simulation in “objective” settings. They are good for open world and sandbox games that emphasize themes and focus on player characters as the lead protagonists and scale reference.

Each implementation of a rules system should emphasize the genre and themes different ways. In some cases, this may be a simple case of reskinning the rule. What measured weirdness now measures general chaos, for example. In other instances, this means more substantial changes to rules options and/or character builds. The scale of a single damage level in a kaiju game should be a distinct thing from the same in a street level RPG with regular people. We address this more in the next entry on roleplaying game focus and flow.

The Motif Way Series

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