If I only ever learned one thing from the rabid fixation with fanfiction, it’s that there is no out-of-bonds for the human heart.
But if I only ever learned TWO things from fanfiction, it’s that people love a good mash-up: Inspector Gadget running with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who meets Dr. Strange, Red Sonja vs. Jungle Girl–oh, wait. That last one is an actual thing.
Mash-ups slam together two preexisting properties to see how they blend and what strange concoction comes out the other side. It’s an opportunity to entertain what-if scenarios of typically impossible combinations with no worry of disrupting either canon, and it creates a sandbox where a third story (your game and its arc) can easily slip in amid the chaos, where it might stand out starkly against either property on its own. Plus, the new gestalt being based on popular source materials makes onramping players almost effortless and lets them both savor and skewer the things they love from the inside.
Anyone who’s been to conventions or run a few one-shots has likely seen, done or considered doing a genre mash-up game purely for the enjoyment of the cliche juggling that comes with it and the unique pun-laden contrasts of similar properties that would otherwise never meet. Having The Avengers join up with The Avengers to fight Ultron-powered Cybernauts is otherwise never going to happen.
But while that can be a blast in a one-shot, it’s a little like twin-fisting Pop Rocks and Pixie Stix: fun to do once, best not made a habit of. If you want to run a genre mash-up with a bit more staying power, it needs a meat to go with all that spice.
Enter the classics. Most modern mash-ups deal with recent, popular properties from scifi, fantasy or comic book sources – great for a one-shot. More lasting mash-ups typically involve at least one older element more rooted and ‘generic-feeling’ to your players: the backdrop of fairy tales, major periods in history, classic works of fiction, etc. Suddenly you have the X-Men in World War II being used as super soldiers. Or the Odyssey retold as a ship lost in space, trying to get home. Or fairy tale fixtures trying to get by in the modern world, keeping their magic under wraps. Or norse legends with giant mecha.
All of these rely on one fairly stable element that you can count on your playerbase having a least a passing familiarity with. They may love and adore the pop culture component initially, but the classical backdrop that’s had time to be expanded upon and reinterpreted a thousand times will create a more varied and three-dimensional world for them to fall back on in the long run.
A lot of mash-ups tend toward harmonious tones – the post-apocalyptic western that marries two barren, harsh and lawless landscapes – but there’s also a lot of potential in playing up two contrasting genres. Call of Cthulhu with cats, or Arthurian legends with mice. The Regency era and the supernatural. My Little Edgar Allen Poenies. Greek gods as regular high-schoolers – although to be fair, that’s not much of a contrast.
Contrasting genres nearly always tends toward a more lighthearted game – adding an upbeat or surrealist contrast to a dark source is going to lighten it by nature, and it’s very difficult to bring an upbeat property down into the grit without the players getting their giggles out of the transition. If you want a darker campaign, it’s best to stick to genres that harmonize, and thus double-down on the dourer elements. Bear in mind that mash-ups by their nature are likely to lead to amusement and potentially less-invested players, so they may be a bad idea for a dark campaign regardless.
The last thing should really be the first thing when it comes to running a mash-up game, one-shot or otherwise: you have to let the canon breathe. Whether it’s classics (which have already been ripped up and cored out) or more modern properties, be willing to break established rules with the particulars, as long as the tone remains intact. You’ve already crashed two worlds together, it’s silly to get mired in the minutia now. Make sure your players know from the get-go how strict you’re likely to be with what major elements of what you’re borrowing from – it’ll be a relief to players less familiar with the source material, and acts as a preemptive “but actually” screen for players who are diehard fans.
When it comes to the system to power all this madness, the natural instinct are the setting-less systems (Fate and FAE spring to mind pretty much immediately) – but there’s a chance you may find something with a bit more meat on its bones, if you’re curious. Below is a short list of just some of the genre mash-up RPGs out there to get you started:
- Avalon Mesa – Arthurian legend in the wild west
- Deadlands – Zombie survival horror in the wild west
- Godlike – Superheroes in World War II, a gritty take DC’s movie people would be proud of
- Numenera – Classic fantasy riddled with sci-fi flavor that makes for an interesting blend of the sacred pillars of geek fandom
- Spelljammer – Sort of the reverse of Numenera: science fiction riddled with fantasy flavor. Otherwise known as “D&D in space”
- Dark Sun – Post-apocalyptic fantasy
- MouseGuard – Arthurian legend with mice
- Call of Cathulhu – Lovecraftian horror with cats
- CthulhuTech – Lovecraftian horror with mecha (which are like cats…)
- Iron Edda – Norse legends with mecha
- Iron Kingdoms – Steampunk goblins with mecha (noticing a trend?)
- Dino-Pirates of Ninja Island – Everything it says on the tin