One of the most crucial and least visible pieces of a successful tabletop roleplaying game is genre consensus. This has nothing to do with mechanics as written, balance, or meta-gaming. Genre consensus is an implicit agreement on the fundamental nature of the shared narrative.
World War 2. Germans hold a fortified bunker atop a hill. The players are soldiers for the Allies, and they need to take down the bunker.
In a military realism genre, this means a detailed plan to circle around and take the Germans by surprise. Losses are all but guaranteed. Attempting to move up the hill against the entrenched artillery results in certain death.
In a pulp genre, this means a detailed plan to circle around and drop in on the Germans. Grenades and guns flash with lots of near misses and some grazed flesh, but setting off a grenade in the bunker doesn’t result in massive hemorrhaging as long as you throw it against the other wall. Bullets cause wounds, but you’re sure to pull through.
In a flashy Wushu setting, one player leaps out into the open and dramatically dives behind cover after cover just ahead of the stream of deadly bullets. They crest the hill and pitch a grenade into the bunker before doing a backflip out of the explosive radius. Bullets are little more than scenery.
Each of these genres use different rule sets to support them. How much damage artillery does, how much damage you can take, whether damage represents real physical wounds or abstract HP. Genre supersedes and informs the nature of the world.
You really, really want all your players in the same genre. This lets them know what kind of actions are likely to succeed and which are foolish. Buffy can get away with negotiating with the forces of evil in a pinch. Blade can’t.
Now, I’m a WoD fanboy, but I’m also setting up to run a Pathfinder game. In both cases, a lot of my preparation has to do with figuring out which genre I want to run and then making sure the players understand it.
The World of Darkness suffers from a split in the narrative against the product line. WoD books are about adding new toys and new monsters to play against. New bloodlines and new antagonists. When you read a book, your knowledge of the subject matter expands. You now are aware of what an Azerkatil is and why fighting one close combat is such a bad idea (agg blood hurts). There are combat possibilities, but no mysteries. This is the source of so many internet flame wars about which supernatural would win. Its basically people digging through the books for power sets and comparing them.
News flash: the WoD is not balanced for jack shit. You have to dig pretty far into the setting to find any sort of antagonist that can survive a full pack of prepared PCs with complementary power sets.
This, however, is blindingly ignorant of the WoD genre as written. WoD isn’t about the perfectly informed pack of hunters using spy satellites to track the cold spots that are vampires and then fry them with orbital lasers, and its mechanics are not particularly good at that. WoD is about being the freshly dead neonate with no freaking clue how anything works. Its about being in a world of limited knowledge and heavy uncertainty. In this world, “Azerkatil” is a scribble in a journal with the words “the burning ones!” scrawled underneath. A mage is a mysterious stranger that you hunt into a dark alley only to find them vanished.
The player knows that the mage used Space 4 and ported away. The character does not.
The genre of World of Darkness is asking you to suspend your knowledge of the splats and play characters who don’t have access. To willingly descend into a world where the answers might NOT be what was written by an Onyx Path author, but something new. The combat serves this genre by being incredibly freaking unfair. Even an elder can die in two or three rounds with a good ambush.
People who argue about how the supernatural splats in WOD aren’t balanced are trying to force even play into a genre that explicitly calls for cheap shots, ambushes, and inexplicable turns.
Pathfinder, meanwhile, is an adventure genre. Players can fully expect to go toe to toe with giants, vampires, and dragons. Entire towns will turn to them and beg for help, and the genre expects them to more or less help (even if its only for the money). Deep dungeons, ancient crypts, and haunted ruins are all genre staples. The mechanics support this with detailed rules about traps, searching for treasure, getting around crazy obstacle rooms, and fighting all sorts of monsters.
Combat in Pathfinder is much more balanced. It has to be – it expects a fairly flexible group of PCs that may or may not have a given ability should be able to complete an adventure. If your group doesn’t have a rogue and your campaign ends at a locked door, the players are not going to be happy with you. A fairness to variation in class is part of the shared expectation. If a vampire drops out of the shadows, puts his clawed hand through your chest, and you die – you’re probably going to be pissed. Sudden death by ambush is not part of the genre.
One big genre problem in Pathfinder is how to deal with monsters. Many games run with “If its in the Monster Manual, kill it.” A paladin needs no excuse to kill orcs. They’re orcs.
This is not how I like to run games, and I want the players to understand that sentient monsters can and should be bargained with or sent fleeing instead of massacred. I cannot readily assume every player knows this, and I need to set the genre expectations accordingly. For example, my very first planned encounter is a feud between two orc tribes – one chaotic neutral, one chaotic evil. By allying with the CN orcs, the PCs can find an easier victory and establish an uneasy peace in that area. Much like a tutorial level, the encounter is about informing the players about the nature of the world they inhabit before they go all murder hobo across the land.
When in doubt, though, just ask your players. My experience is that asking “What genre do you like?” will get a look of confusion. Its better to sit down with them over some pizza and talk about what stuff they find cool. What old games did they really have fun playing, and what did they do?
Pay attention to the nature of their heroics, their stories, and you can hear the genre inside. Then you can draw it out and build a consensus from it so that both you and the players can work within the same framework.
Then maybe you won’t have so many players mad when you spring a trap on them in WoD or force them to do a puzzle room in Pathfinder.