Thursday, May 19, 2011

In Which The Warlock Swings on the Pendulum Once More...

Excitement, friends and neighbors!  My first draft of The Pendulum Method is done!  Sitting at 17,000 words, I'm really looking forward to see what comes of this.  With revisions set to begin--among my other massive slate of projects--this should really be impressive!

And, since this month's RPG Blogger's Carnival (May) deals with Mixing Genres, I figured there'd be no better way to celebrate than by posting a preview of the most dramatic type of Pendulum adventure:  that of Genre and Theme.  Enjoy this sneak preview of the introduction to Section IV:  Pendulum of Theme/Genre!

A Pendulum in Theme/Genre—Finding an Eternal Champion

Out of the three forms of Pendulum adventures, those of Theme or Genre may be the most difficult form to re-create and run.  Doing so requires an incredibly flexible GM, as well as a group that is willing to take on continual challenges both in the context of the game and around the table, as the game itself evolves and changes around them.

The premise behind a Genre-Pendulum adventure stems from an evolution of the Time/Setting-Pendulum concept, though also contains elements of a Character-Pendulum adventure.  It is this blending of ideas that makes a Genre-Pendulum adventure difficult for a GM to run, and difficult for a player to be fully invested in.  However, with a little practice, some quality GM skills, and an enthusiastic group of players, the Genre-Pendulum game can be one that your table will never forget!

In a Genre-Pendulum adventure, the GM changes not just the time period or setting of the adventure, but the entire genre of said adventure midway through.  This concept may be an ongoing conversion—one genre drifting inexorably into another—or in motions more similar to the Pendulum structure previously detailed.  However, in both cases the characters within that adventure also morph and change to reflect their surroundings—while the characters are fundamentally the same, their mechanical abilities and skills are altered to reflect the setting in which they take place.

One classic, if inadvertent, example of a Genre-Pendulum adventure comes from Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu sourcebook, Strange Aeons II.   In it, the adventure “Time After Time” begins simply enough—the character portray members of an FBI raid on a New England cult house.  However, as the characters are overwhelmed by the cultists and die off, it becomes increasingly apparent that all is not what it seems.  The characters, in fact, were nothing more than memories projected into the past by mi-go scientists.  Naked, bereft of identity, and far from “home”, the characters must find some way to escape from the mi-go hive without alerting the creatures to their presence.

That’s one dramatic shift!  What started as a noir-era, 1950s investigation ends with a soul-crushing escape from a dystopian future nightmare!  That fundamental dramatic shift epitomizes Pendulum theory at its core—by asking players (and the GM!) to shift gears so abruptly, an emotional high is reached and tension is maximized.

However, the real genius of this adventure stemmed from its seamless transitioning.  The disconnect felt when the characters are suddenly wrenched from the 1950s into a totally different setting is palpable, yet the mechanics flow from the original character into their new body in a near-perfect manner. 

The greatest advantage found in a Genre-Pendulum game stems from its sheer diversity in scene and malleability.  Fred from the strictures of published campaign settings or even a single pseudo-historical period, the GM is free to create adventures the can truly span the entirety of time and space.  Games that previously seemed difficult or impossible—such as a replication of Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, complete with Eternal Champion(s), or a game based on Zak Snyder’s film Sucker Punch—now become feasible, even alluring.

One major difference between Genre-Pendulum adventures and its Pendulum-predecessors typically falls in scope.  Where it can be easy to finish a Setting or Character-Pendulum adventure in a single sitting—typically a 4 hour convention slot, or a single night of gaming with friends—Genre-Pendulum adventures tend to take significantly longer, and can even serve as the basis of an ongoing mini-campaign.  The dramatic shifts within a Genre-Pendulum adventure can be so drastic, so encompassing, that multiple sessions are necessary simply to accommodate these changes. 

Mind you, that’s not a bad thing!  One of the biggest complaints from gamers is a dearth in variety.  Oftentimes, both players and GMs feel burnt-out after numerous sessions in the same setting, same genre.  A Genre-Pendulum adventure addresses this problem head-on, providing numerous degrees and opportunities for both change and variety.  In addition, in the style of Moorcock’s aforementioned Eternal Champion, a Genre-Pendulum series of adventures offers different and unique looks at the same character, as each iteration of a given character, NPC, or locale provides a different perspective on what is fundamentally the same idea.


  1. Thunderforge6:55 PM

    Would you say that there is a difference between the "Genre-Pendulum" and simply having a cross-genre setting? It seems to me that the Call of Cthulhu example you gave above is certainly an example of the genre-pendulum because it shifts from the expected "default" Call of Cthulhu genre into the unexpected sci-fi genre.

    But what about settings that are by definition cross-genre? The best example I can think of is Torg, where the core rulebook alone describes 15 different "cosms" that the players can travel to, ranging from the paleolithic Living Land to the pulp Nile Empire to the modern Core Earth to the dystopian future of the Cyberpapacy. Jumping from the Living Land to the Cyberpapacy is definitely a giant shift in genre, and it's possible that the players can unexpectedly find themselves in different cosms, and therefore different genres. It's sort of like the Planescape D&D setting which allows you to cross between any of the D&D settings, each of which has sort of a sub-genre of fantasy (e.g. Fantasy Pulp for Eberron, Fantasy Horror for Ravenloft, Fantasy Sci-fi for Spelljammer).

    I imagine that if a player was playing Torg or D&D Planescape, they would be expecting at some point to be switching genres and it would be less of a shock no matter how hard the GM tries to pull a 180. So is the difference between a cross-genre setting and a Genre Pendulum whether or not the players expect a genre change?

  2. The key thing here is intent. Torg, while a great example of a cross-genre game, is more like Stargate--the players expect those shifts, and always have something common to fall back on.

    "Time After Time", though, really uses the shift in drama to achieve dramatic tension. That's what makes it a great pendulum adventure.

    So, in essence...yeah. It's a matter of keeping the players on their toes, and using each shift purposefully to build drama and increase tension.