This month's topic, Gonzo and Cross-Genre Gaming, comes from the Crossplanes blog. I don't know much about "gonzo" gaming a such, but I know a thing or three about mashing genres together. In fact, every one of the settings I showcased in my "Top Five RPG Settings" blog post is at least a little bit of a mash up.
- Nightbane is modern horror mixed with alien invasion
- Dark Sun is high fantasy crossed with post eco-apocalypse
- Deadlands is a western crossed with both horror and fantasy
- Shadowrun is cyberpunk mixed with urban fantasy
- Numenera is fantasy mixed with post-apocalypse and far futures, where the unknowable science replaces magic
What is it about genre mash-ups that appeals? Well, for my money it's the ability to juxtapose different themes in ways that you cannot usually. Consider Shadowrun, you can take a street samurai who is holding onto their humanity by shreds in the face of continuous augmentation and put them across from a hermetic mage whose very source of power relies on staying as pure in body as they are in spirit.
Numenera juxtaposes a medieval human society amidst the ruins of not one by either prior civilizations with technology so far advanced that it is understood as hardly more than magic. A prime example of Clarke's Law.
Alternately, the combination of two genres can help support themes, building higher than either can alone. Deadlands mixes the wild west with supernatural horror. The western expansion was already a case of exploring the unknown, conflict with indigenous peoples, and the boom or bust nature of the gold rush. The injection of supernatural horror is able to deepen all of those themes by adding the supernatural unknown, expanding the conflicts with the indigenous people by adding layers of ideology between the hucksters (european magic) who take power from the Reckoners, and the native shamanistic magics that oppose the Reckoners; add in the power of God in the form of blessed for an entirely extra layer. Further the boom or bust of the gold rush is thematically echoed by the Ghost Rock boom/rush, which also enables a technology vs nature vs supernatural element in the form of the various steampunk super science inventions.
Ditto how a post-eco-apocalypse adds new layers to the darker fantasy tones of Dark Sun by providing context for blood sacrifice, slavery, use of primitive gear, and the lesser prevalence of magic. Likewise for Nightbane where the paranoia of invasion and takeover of the government is deepened by the injection of magical doppelgangers, shape-changing creatures, and the questioning of self as a result of supernatural transformation. Add in third and fourth parties in the form of vampires (who have their own designs for us) and the Lightbringers (whose origins are purposefully difficult to pin down) and this supernatural spin on a traditionally science fiction genre is given new life.
Then again, maybe it's just that mash ups speak to that primal gamer instinct to compare crap. Can a black dragon really take down a Veritech fighter? Well, thanks to Rifts we can find out. [The answer is yes BTW, easily.] Sometimes you just want to see odd combinations, and really the American pop cultural landscape has been filled to the brim with two massive settings that embrace all manner of genre in the form of the DC and Marvel comic book universes. Neither publisher has ever shied away from having aliens, magic, mutants, high tech super soldiers, and psychics all in the same setting (with plenty of other options to boot). Batman is "just a guy" and his arguable best friend is an alien god. They routinely hang out with a Goddess/Golem (Wonder Woman depending on her origin), a metahuman/mutant (the Flash), a space cop (Green Lantern), and more. The Avengers are similarly mashed up in the comics (less so in the movies where magic is just Clarke's Law tech).
Me, I prefer a mash-up that adds something in terms of theme or tone. Whether that is in support of or juxtaposition of the genres at work doesn't matter, but I think that those mash ups are the ones that gain the most from the effort and tend to capture the imagination more. Your milage may vary, but I'll always see it that way.