Ramblings of General Geekery

“Role-Playing Games Do Not Emulate Genres”

Travis Miller wrote this interesting article on his Grumpy Wizard blog about “genre emulation” in TTRPGs. He basically argues that games don’t “emulate” a genre as much as they are part of that genre:

To “emulate” is to imitate, simulate, or copy a thing without being the thing itself.

If you are running a game set in the 1870’s, in the western half the United States, the characters are cowboys, ride horses, and get into gun fights with outlaws; you are part of the Western genre.

Every RPG is part of a genre just as every film, novel, short story, and video game are part of a genre.

Grumpy Wizard Blog


Thinking that they are “emulating” a genre puts the designer in mindset that they are trying to imitate a genre without being a participant in that genre.

A game designer with that mind set isn’t a contributor. They are copyists.

Having a mindset of contribution not imitation is a big shift.

Grumpy Wizard Blog

I found these arguments interesting, especially since frankly I never really thought of it that much before. Travis mentions in particular Vampire: The Masquerade and the broader World of Darkness setting, which took such an integral part in the genre of gothic supernatural fiction (or something) that it affected the movies and books that followed.

However, this made me realize that my understanding of “genre emulation” is different than Travis’. Maybe it’s because of my video game development background, but I interpret the term “emulation” less as “copying” and more like the way we think of a retro console emulator.

For those unfamiliar with it, a retro console emulator (or any emulator in that sense, really) is a software application that allows a modern computer to behave like another, generally older, piece of hardware. The typical use-case is being able to play old games from the SNES or Sega Megadrive or Amiga or whatever else on your PC. A very popular starting point is RetroArch. Recently, Apple even allowed emulators on their App Store.

So in that sense, to me, “genre emulation” is less about copying a genre from the outside, and more about designing a game that mechanically enables, and perhaps even enforces, the tropes of that genre. It’s about creating that “emulator software” that lets you runs one thing on top of another thing. Only it’s not about taking, say, 40-year-old video game code originally meant for an 8-bit console and making it run on a modern 64-bit computer… it’s about taking 40-year-old stories originally written for a book or a movie, and making them run on dice, character sheets, and people around a table. It’s emulation as “translation from one platform to another”, and not emulation as “imitation”.

What does “genre emulation” mean for you?

Either way you want to call it, “genre games” have been increasing in number and narrowing in scope for the past 20 years… on the one hand, I’m sad that it effectively made generic systems (like my beloved GURPS 4th edition) largely irrelevant, but I’m also happy because a lot of these games brought new mechanics and cool niche topics to my attention! Let’s keep emulating!