Friday, 23 October 2009

campaign branding: genre conventions

Genre conventions are a framework of elements that set a scene and provide an audience tools to help them imagine it and the wider story.  These conventions give a creator options and choices that make their story or game distinctive and help convey messages (thematic or otherwise) to the audience.

Aesthetic - The specific attributes of a story that helps define it.  The time, place, genre and basic premises of what is expected from the story.  Aesthetic conventions include oppressive regimes, armoured knights or isolated rustic colonies. These need to be outlined up front or the audience will be confused.

Ideological - A specific vision or sensory experience (a 'look' or 'feel') - if aesthetic is the substance, this is the style.  Here is the grit in your crime drama or the slick chrome in your science-fiction.  As over half of all communication is non-verbal, this is something ignored at your peril.

Rhetorical - Persuasive arguments employed by a story on it's audience.  The social implications of those arguments may compel (compare The Handmaid's Tale with Gattaca with Children of Men) an audience and contemporary issues can shape or alter the sensitivity of an audience to a story's rhetoric.

Ritual - Behavioural actions associated with a particular genre, the traits characters display to comply with the above.  Action heroes are courageous, tough and rebel against authority.  Noir detectives are cynical romantics with internal monologues.  All of these (and more) are explored in one place

Aligning genre conventions can maximise story impact and speed setup.  The trick is to do it so the genre conventions are revealed in an original or innovative way.  Due to high exposure (how many TV shows and movies have you seen this year?) these are used and re-used to a point some call formulaic. 

Judicious blending or contrasting conventions can invigorate formulaic elements.  Robocop is cyberpunk but uses elements of the western and crime drama.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another example of blended genres.
Yet even blending can hit saturation.  The key then is to go back to the classics and work from there.

To give a story zip, it's worth focussing on character and emotions powered by situations.  In order to provide characters, emotions and situations context, genre conventions provide a backdrop for the drama and help to wrangle thematic elements.


  1. I really don't think your use of 'ideological' elements of genre conventions means what you think it means. It's more the deep social, political and economic structures that are represented, problematized or worked through in a given generic work.

    The classic gangster film (think either version of Scarface), for instance, tends to be about the threat to the social order of the enterprenuerial outsider and their ultimate destruction. By embracing the surface ideology of American individualism and capitalism, the gangster becomes a threat to the established order and must be destroyed, something that restores order to the film's society and lays bare the contradictory messages in American culture.

    In other cultures (I'm thinking British Gangster films like Get Carter or Scandanvian films like Pusher) the individualistic ideology may be played down, but the gangster genre is used to articulate economic issues.

    All this is to say that ideology does not usually mean the sensory experience put forward in a genre text.

  2. Some really good points here. Being able to define these elements in such a way that players (and the GM) can easily grasp them is, I think, critical to accomplishing the "goals" (whatever they may be) of playing the campaign.

    Not to pimp my own blog too much, but I've had a couple of articles lately about just this sort of thing - what I call the "Iconic Elements" of a campaign.

    Here's the first column I wrote about it.

    Here's the second column, focusing on how this impacts and influences character creation.

    I'd love to know what you think about these ideas.

  3. Thanks for your comment. I can see what you're driving at as it's the commonly used definition. I agree with your definition of ideological but in the context of this post (and it's sources) what you describe are rhetorical conventions. In this context, ideology is a presentational sensibility (an aesthetic stylesheet if you will).

    Got to love jargon - it separates people united by common language.

    An analogy may help: Cop dramas The Shield and The Wire have different ideologies even though aesthetically and rhetorically they share common elements (time, broad location, genre, premise) and rhetorical arguments about undercover work and corruption through power and politics.

    Hope this isn't too unpalatable. Nice analysis of gangster flicks and bonus points for referencing Get Carter - one of my absolute fave movies. :-)

  4. Thanks for your comment! Pimp away mate, I can stand being pointed to relevant posts! Agree on the common language though the previous commenter illustrates the perils of jargon and how terminology needs a solid explanation so that when we talk about something, it's clear in our minds what we mean.

    The iconic elements idea (awesome name BTW) is something I tried to avoid duplicating in my other posts on campaign branding. Logically I should reference them - future posts will!

    These elements are vital to refer to as you progress a game or story as they act as markers of cool. I think you're right that characters should have some link to iconic elements and distinctive settings like the old Dark Sun and Dragonlance settings allowed this to happen.


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