Setting vs Genre

Right now I want to talk about a distinction I recently came up with between setting and genre. Both get used pretty interchangeably with respect to RPGs, with setting usually having a slightly narrower focus. And either one is usually considered fairly separate from rules issues. But in a discussion of whether it was better to have specific rules for every game setting, or to have a great set of generic rules to use in whatever setting, I realized something about the interaction of the game rules and the game world that I think warrants a distinction in terms.

I realized that game rules have more to do with what the people in the world can do, and what sorts of things are likely to happen. More focused on the action and tone than on the physical places, objects and people. Pretty arbitrarily, I decided 'genre' fits this category.

Separate from genre, then, is setting. By setting here, I mean the actual physical characteristics. The scenery, the playable races, the technology level, and so forth.

Of course, these two categories interact and overlap to a fair degree, but some examples might help to clarify what I mean, and then I'll go into why I think rules affect genre more than setting.

Let's say you have two games with similar settings. Both take place over many planets, have people and aliens with spaceships and guns, and include faster than light travel, lasers, and psychic powers. But in one of these settings, psychic powers come from tapping into a dangerous and largely hostile alternate dimension, humanity is xenophobic and backwards, technology is little understood and maintained by a semi-mystical priesthood, and there is only war. In the other, psychic powers represent the next step in evolution, humans interact with aliens in a number of ways, including trade, diplomacy, and war, technology is basically an extrapolation of what is currently understood, and one piece of it is the last, best hope for peace.

As you can see, the physical elements of both settings have little to distinguish them, but what those worlds *do* with these things makes all the difference in the world. While both have 'space' as a setting, one has a genre of 'gothic science fantasy' while the other might be called 'hard science political drama' (or, you might call one 'Warhammer 40,000' and the other 'Babylon 5', but you get the idea).

It is my suspicion that game rules have more influence on genre than they do on setting. I'm pretty sure that if you made a space game with minimally modified D&D rules, it would still 'feel' like heroic fantasy, even though your barbarian has chain axes and your space elf has a laser bow, or whatever. Or else you get Spelljammer. That would also explain why you have had for a long time a number of campaign settings for D&D with minimal rules tweaks, but those that change the genre significantly from heroic fantasy have had the most significant rules changes (like horror in Ravenloft or post-apocalyptic survival in Dark Sun).

A good rule of thumb for finding the difference between setting and genre is to take a game world (or movie world or whatever) and see if you can describe it as some cliche or familiar genre in X (where X describes a difference in physical location). Some example might include:

  • "It's a western in Space"

  • "It's like cyberpunk in the wild west, but with steam power"

  • "It's like a medieval x-files"

So, where all this gets me is that the goal of rules design is to come up with rules that reinforce the genre of a game rather than trying to capture aspects of the setting. If your setting has elves, that's cool and all, but if they're just tall, pretty people they don't really need different rules. But if elven culture causes them to act in very different ways, or if subtle differences in their physiology makes them move differently, then rules can reinforce that.

Agon does an amazing job of defining its genre through rules, and even suggests multiple settings in addition to the default of ancient Greek mythology that would use the same genre.

So, is this a useful distinction? Or is it splitting hairs?


  1. “It’s like cyberpunk in the wild west, but with steam power” Yes. I want to play this game. I want to have a big, steam-powered revolver that hisses dramatically.. . or maybe a tomahawk-weilding Indian shaman in touch with AI... or a voodoo priest from N'awlins, out to learn from the wendigo... or... or...

    I'm thinking Ra's al-Ghul and the Scarred Man meets "The Difference Engine."

  2. I like where you're going with this. I'll start cooking something up, even though it will probably live on the 'wouldn't it be nice?' shelf indefinitely.

  3. Thanks for the post. I'm kinda struggling with the genre vs setting definition right now and your argument certainly is helpful. Thanks.

  4. Oh, an addition: I'm coming at this primarily from the video game angle and there one definition for genre is "Strategy", "Action" etc. These are clearly related to the verbs the player has at his disposal. Setting on the other hand is the fictional backdrop.

    What I'm thinking about now though is the distinction between Setting as a "Setting Genre" (eg. Western, Science-Fiction) and Setting as a specific incarnation of one "Fictional Universe" (eg. Mass Effect vs. WH40k). Unfortunately we use the word Setting and Genre there interchangably, causing a lot of confusion - at least in my head.

  5. Hey, I'm glad you found it useful!

    Since writing this, I've been exposed to a lot more thought, discussion, and theory on roleplaying games than I had been, so I'll bring some of that out to see if it helps.

    "Genre" doesn't get used much by people talking seriously about pencil and paper roleplaying game design these days, but I think it remains useful for talking to normal people about what general expectations they'll have for your game and if it might fit into their preferences.

    What words do get used are "Setting" and "Situation". Setting as other people use it is a little different from what I presented here in my post, but similar. In this sense, "setting" means the fictional elements of the game world - people, places, things, the reality of magic, whether you're on an island or a mountain, whatever. "Situation" means "what are the characters doing", with a usually clear implication of a dynamic situation where something must be done. This is a little closer to what I was calling genre in this post, but I think your insight into the "verbs" players use in video games is pretty interesting in this light.

    So, to use a video game familiar to me from a little bit back to illustrate these, the first starcraft: the setting includes humans, zerg, protoss, space travel, planets, and characters like Kerrigan and Arcturus mensk and uh, the Protoss guys and the Overmind. The situation (from the gameplay standpoint, not the 'overarching story') is "there are limited resources and another force trying to kill you. Based on setting distinctions (zerg have lots of stuff, protoss have good stuff, humans are a little of both) you use these resources to kill the other guy before he kills you".

    I think setting and situation have the advantage of being a little clearer than "genre" or the way I used setting in my original post, but if you'd like to find out more, I'd point you to The Forge Provisional Glossary, but I warn you that it's also exclusively from the stand point of pencil and paper RPGs. I hope you find something applicable to your needs, though.