Elemental Genres in RPGs

Learning from how authors deconstruct stories

Elemental Genres in RPGs

I have been loosely following the great podcast Writing Excuses which is full of great advice for writers. They focus on the written word, but much of the material applies to any kind of storytelling – including RPGs.

In Season 11, the hosts focus on what they call elemental genres. What they mean is a set of fundamental story elements that elicit specific sets of emotions. The theory is that every story focuses on one or maybe two genres as its core but can have many more for flavor. Listen to the first episode for a much better introduction.

The genres they propose are:

Keep in mind that this is most certainly not a definitive list, and that the Writing Excuses crew uses their own definitions. We also would probably want to add some genres specific to RPGs that touch on the interactive nature of gaming. Nevertheless, I think the concept and much of the concrete advice applies directly to designing stories/adventures for RPGs!

Some (sub) genres should be in every RPG: Ensemble, for starters. If we are talking campaigns, we expect Drama and Relationship. Other than that, my impression is that different games are designed to work best for different genres. For instance:

  • Das Schwarze Auge – Adventure
  • Demon Hunters – Horror & Comedy (it’s in the name…)
  • Numenera – Wonder
  • Shadowrun – Mystery/Heist & Thriller

This has led me to two realizations:

  1. If you want to experience emotions tied to certain genres, pick the right game.

    Myself, I have been missing something ever since my DSA days. Turns out it may just have been Adventure – no game I have played since then focused on that genre.

  2. Once you pick a game, tell the right stories.

    I realized that I was trying to shoehorn elements of Mystery and Adventure into the Demon Hunters campaign I run. Maybe I should just focus on the genres it has been designed for and maybe add some Thriller?

Which genres do you like most in RPGs?
Which are you often missing?
Which would you add to the list?