12 RPGs for the 12th Month: Beloved Tropes

Paul Mitchener came up with a new writing challenge on role-playing games called “12 RPGs for the 12th Month” (see the full list of questions here.)

Question 2: 3rd to 4th December

Which genre tropes that come up in an RPG genre of your choice do you love, and never get tired of? Why do you love them?

Tricky question. It requires looking at the nuances between tropes, clichés, mainstays, and so forth. So here is my rule of thumb when I have to make this sort of distinction:

  • a beloved trope (read: a beneficial recurring motif of a genre) is more about a classic situation setup leaving the resolution to the players, and generate stories;
  • while a cliché (read: an overused or negative recognizable motif of the genre) is a predictable or foregone conclusion, something that shuts down creativity.

Tropes can be enjoyed simply as signposts of a genre (of course, Mr. Johnson will betray your team of Shadowrunners, the question is, what are your Plans B and C?) but also subverted or explored for insight, delightful surprise, narrative depth (turns out Mr. Johnson was on the up-and-up after all but he’s now been captured by the evil megacorp, what are you going to do?). Meanwhile, clichés are at best anticlimactic and at worst hurtful. Since this is a post about celebrating things we love, I won’t dwell any further on that side of the subject today.

So I love to tackle the tropes of whatever genre we’re playing: the Things Man Was Not Meant To Know in Lovecraftian horror, the No One Could Possibly Have Survived That! in superhero adventures, the Star-Crossed Lovers in romantic fantasy, the Evil Galactic Empire in space opera, and so forth.

Probably my biggest trope love as a player is the Big Damn Hero who will do the right thing in the end, no matter how practical it would be to do something else. I love playing someone who can make the big moral choices and go against all the things that make me feel powerless in real life. Total wish-fulfillment fantasy, I admit it—and yes, sometimes I play against type and make completely self-centered, unreliable, snivelly cowards or flint-hearted commissars.

And as a game-master, my favourite is Always split the party!” Oh yes, my hearties, I love splitting the focus, constricting resources and means, and forcing tough choices.