Tropes and Cliches

Josh has yet to include an NPC in his games named Sam Smorkle. I feel let down…

GM: “You have been summoned to a tavern where a hooded man waits in a dark corner, several burly guards around him.  He appears to have a rolled up scroll next to him on the table.  As you walk in, he beckons you…”

Long-Term Player: “Seriously?  Another tavern?  Do people ever do business anywhere else.  Like, I don’t know… private?”

GM: “Uh…  He… takes you to a back room?”

If you have played tabletop roleplaying games for any length of time at all, you have probably had it happen.  In Dungeons & Dragons, it’s a tavern, or maybe a threat in the sewers (low-level undead, or rats… so very many rats).  In Shadowrun, it’s a nightclub with a back room, or a double-crossing Mr. Johnson.  It’s the pithy speech a ruler gives the characters to “inspire” them to help, or maybe the one the healer of the group gives to try and get the characters to use non-lethal tactics.  We all see them eventually.  Then we see them again, and again.  They become tropes and clichés that become the subject of memes and internet jokes.  They make you feel like an “insider” because you can say, “Hey, my group did that this one time…”

Tropes and clichés.  What is their purpose, where did they come from, and why is there so much argument for and against them? First I’m going to discuss what they are. A trope is a commonplace, recognizable plot element, theme or visual cue that conveys a specific amount of knowledge. For example a little kid tying a towel around their neck then running around the house making whoosh noises would be them being a ‘superhero’ like Superman, well known for his cape and flight. 

A cliché on the other hand is something that was innovative but has lost its novelty to over use. Basically clichés are phrases that have become tired and stale, however, are still often advocated for in use to help readership feel like part of the story. Examples of clichés are things like “You can’t judge a book by its cover” and “bring to the table”. Clichés are definitely very much in use in the workforce during meetings. I was often asked “And what are you bringing to the table?”

So, what actually is the difference between a trope and a cliché. Well, the only difference I have found in my research is that a trope is a visual cue whereas a cliché is a word cue. The common thread between them is a perception of overuse and/or misuse.  This is why so many people use them interchangeably and they’re not necessarily wrong for thinking so.

Their original purpose was often defined as useful bits to help engage readers or listeners to the writer and speaker. When they became overdone however, like a bad egg most books or speeches got walked away from. We use them in our games quite often. Standard trope: The party meets in a bar. Let’s take a step back. Why is that a trope when most groups try to avoid it these days? That means a history lesson. Once upon a time, there were typically only three places you could have a large gathering of people (in this case, large means more than your immediate kin). First, the tavern, pub, or bar – the only place you could get a drink and see people. Second, the church, most people in the past went to church, and because the town was such a distance it was an all day event with service in the morning, then a luncheon then more service in the afternoon before everyone went home. Third, major holidays or festivals. Things like the Spring Planting and Fall Harvest. 

Tropes can either be the bane or boon of writing, some are meant to be avoided, for example the Bella Swan trope. That trope is when there is nothing interesting about a person until they get a Significant Other. In this case, Bella Swan and Edward from the Twilight book series by Stephanie Meyer. She was a girl from Arizona that moved to a small town, and instead of focusing on her changes, it focuses on her obsession with Edward. This also includes any trope that requires the changing of a person for their Significant Other, or changing what is perceived to be a character flaw. Another bad trope is the introvert or someone neurodivergent becoming different and more ‘normal’ over the course of a movie or tv show. Those are not character flaws that need to be fixed. On the other hand, a boon trope is things like ‘troll bouncer’ in Shadowrun. Trolls are big, and most people don’t want to mess with them, so they make a good bouncer. An example of a good trope used in a movie (even though I can’t stand it) is Fifty First Dates. The main character pulled out every trope in the book for every first date with a girl (who had memory loss issues from neurological damage) to get her to fall in love with him. 

Clichés on the other hand are usually used as synonyms for people, places or to end a conversation. People: ‘Well that one’s a bad egg. Or he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed (also knife in the drawer). Places: “putting eggs in one basket” “take the road less traveled”.  Conversation Ends: “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I don’t count my chickens before they hatch.” These are all clichés. In tabletop roleplaying games clichés are also, “They must be important because the DM spent so much time describing them. I’m going to talk to random NPC instead of trying to follow the more obvious storyline.” 

So what do we do with them?  As a general rule, I find tropes more useful than clichés in roleplaying.  If you look at history, tropes are usually tropes for a reason.  While it is good to thematically and cinematically mix things up on occasion, familiarity in surroundings is also good.  Especially when you desire to lull your players into security for a major narrative shift.  For example, having most of your “meetings” in a Tavern that becomes familiar to your group will be different when, while your group is off galivanting, the town gets attacked and the tavern owner is killed in the skirmish.

The point, I suppose, is that while some people will “look down” on you for being “unoriginal” by using tropes and clichés, the only real question you should be asking is how does your group feel?  Do they feel that a particular thing is overdone or overused?  Then perhaps change that thing.  But the old saying, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” applies here.  Don’t be afraid of familiarity, use it.  Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

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