A Beginner's Guide to Fusion

Fusing Different Genres and Themes into One Game

"We have such a mixture now, such a fusion of different genres"
(Ryszard Kapuscinski)

First of all, an apology. For those of you who were hoping to find an overview of Interlock's and HERO System's bastard child, you've come to the wrong place. For most people who don't play roleplaying games and don't have degrees in nuclear physics, fusion can have one of two meanings. The first is a style of cuisine that combines various culinary traditions. The second is a musical genre that combines different genres, mainly jazz and rock. In this article, I'll try to show how this approach can be used in roleplaying games and to demonstrate how fusion genres can create a new idea out of thin air.

Literary Fusion (sometimes referred to as a Pastiche), as I see it, is a brainstorming technique designed to help the GM write a scenario, or even a short-lived campaign. In its simplest form, the idea is quite simple - taking known elements from various other genres and packing them together, replacing true innovation with unexpected combinations. This technique's main strength is in the way it allows the GM to create themes and guidelines for his scenario out of the blue, with negligible effort. From my standpoint, Fusion had always been a last resort - the game has already been set up, the players are on their way over, the pizza has been ordered, but the creative fountain has run dry.
True, it's a gimmick, even a cheap gimmick, but bear in mind that if such a gimmick can carry an entire movie (consider, for instance, Equilibrium - "Kong-Fu with guns and a 1984 atmosphere") or a graphic novel (e.g., Robotika - "Samurais in a world combining cybernetics and genetic engineering"), it could definitely carry a game session or two. And of course, some would even dispute the claim that Fusion is only intended for that kind of games, such as the people behind Shadowrun ("It's like D&D, but with guns!").

In a crude generalization, a Campaign Setting can be divided into two parts. The first is the Setting, which defines the world the adventures take place in, its major powers structures and its laws of nature. For example, Urban Fantasy is a kind of Setting - it defines a world similar to our own, but in which alongside the world as we know it another world exists, a secret world that is inhabited by creates of myth and legend. A select few are aware of this world and can, under some circumstances, defy the laws of nature as known to modern day science.
The second part is the Theme - the main story or idea behind the Campaign Setting, or, if you will, the Campaign Setting's atmosphere. If we pick up the previous example of Urban Fantasy, Vampire: The Requiem, Call of Cthulhu and In Dark Alleys are all Urban Fantasy games, but they differ considerably in their Theme - in Vampire the characters are part of the supernatural world and are struggling to reconcile their newfound nature with their pervious human morality, in CoC the characters are investigators who are slowly understanding that the true nature of the world is too bizarre for the human mind to fully comprehend and in IDA reality as we know it is a prison meticulously designed by malevolent supernatural beings. As you can see, Themes are as important as Settings to the game's design, if not more so.

The first, and obvious, Fusion technique is to fuse two different genre attributes and to thus create a new type of Setting. This technique is of course valid, but it's extremely important to use Occam's Razor and to avoid ideas that don't have any in-play justification. Any reality, even a fictional one, can't exist only "because it's cool", but has to be backed up by some chain of cause and effect, even if it does require the players to have a healthy helping of Suspense of Disbelief. For example, combining oriental martial arts with firearms may sound cool at first, but these two fighting styles weren't created in a void - they evolved as a consequence of a long and complicated arms race. Simply combining the two, without giving though to the in-play reason that produced this combination will give the campaign an over-clattered feel, and make it hard for the players to relate to it. However, some reasonable explanation, even an improbable one, would usually be enough to allow the players to suspend their disbelief and accept the in-play logic.
For example, the previously mentioned movie Equilibrium displays a spectacular fighting style called Gun-Kata. which looks like an implementation of Kong-Fu or Tai-Chi to a pair of pistols. The explanation the movie provides, that a statistical analysis of thousands of past gunfights can allow the Gun-Kata practitioner to anticipate bullet trajectories, and memorizing these facts can allow the fighter to move in way that allows him to hit his opponents while avoiding harm might be hard to believe, but it's just plausible enough to allow the viewer to enjoy the movie instead of walking out in the middle, while throwing popcorn buckets and sodas at the screen.

The second technique is to take a relatively well known Setting and to fuse into it a Theme that isn't usually associated with such a Setting. For example, you could take the classic High Fantasy Setting and fuse it with a Theme that deals with the definition of life and of man's hubris trying to copy creation, a Theme that is all too common in Science Fiction. In the resulting campaign, the Archmages, drunk with their own power, have created, in their own image, the Golems, stone statues brought to life by arcane rituals. However, the Golems were much more than sophisticated, magical, slaves. In their arrogance, the Archmages gave the Golems intelligence and consciousness, free will and morals. It wasn't long before the Golems rose against their masters, seeking the freedom which is the natural right of any sentient being. Today, they are a persecuted minority, hiding from the watchful eyes of their former masters and fighting for recognition from the organic races.

The most important thing about creating a good Fusion, even more than an in-play explanation to satisfy the players Suspense of Disbelief, is to create a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. There is a big difference between the examples presented in the last two paragraphs. The first, Equilibrium, is one of the best action movies of the last couple of years (despite the mediocre success in the box offices). The second, frankly, is nothing more than pathetic. Every Fusion-based idea starts out as "X, but with Y", but the really good ones bring something extra to the mix. It's no coincidence that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which Joss Whedon, its creator, described as "My So-Called Life meets The X-Files") is recognized as a land-mark in modern day fantasy and the dozens of shows that tried to imitate it are remembered with a laugh, at best. Remember, Fusion is a brainstorming technique, but it's still your responsibility as GMs to give your players something more than the gimmick of fusing two unrelated ideas together.

This article first appeared in issue #45 of The Orc.