Let’s Talk About Tropes

From some hashtag game: Question 2: Which genre tropes that come up in an RPG of your choice do you love, and never get tired of? Why do you love them?

…genre tropes. I hates them. Well…okay I don’t haaaayte them but I have a decidedly mixed relationship with genre tropes in RPGs.

For clarity’s sake I’ll say I’m talking about tropes related to the genre in which an RPG resides. Rather than RPG tropes, shit like parties and niche protection and leveling or whatever.

I’ve gone on at length about my hatred of genre tropes before but it was years ago and nobody actually does deep dives into my collection, do they? But let me do it again, because my hate for genre tropes has not abided.

Tl;dr: Falling back on genre tropes in RPGs is reinforcement of the form’s dismissal as derivative of other art forms.

My deeply unpopular thesis that extends this deeply unpopular opinion: We squander the potential of what is perhaps the most transformative art form we have when we bypass the transformation to wallow in celebration of other works that already did it better.

That said, right? As a practical matter, plenty of my weekly gaming falls squarely in the middle of media emulation, or relies on genre tropes for cognitive shorthand. It’s way more practical to be all, “Yeah so survivalist Durango looks like you’d think it would, with barb-wire-laced school buses blocking the main roads in and, you know, rough camps set up in abandoned houses.” Rather than carefully reinventing the wheel all the time. Shorthand is a necessary tool of oral tradition.

It makes me the worst hypocrite and I know it! I know it. I know that most players don’t need or want a transformative artistic experience, and when presented with that opportunity most players will back away from it, avert their gaze, whine about how serious everything is and what a drag it is to play. And then I dream longingly about a trip to Fastaval someday and laugh and laugh at myself for the sheer pretension of believing hyper-elaborate make-believe has anything to say at all about anything.

But you know what? I watch my daughter, age 6 this Saturday, readily and eagerly exploring transformative moments while she plays far-less-elaborate make-believe. She works herself into genuine emotions to explore what it feels like to be scared, or angry, or driven. And she does it entirely from intuition, because she knows she’s in a safe place to do those things.

Somehow we lose that along the way, I think. That trust that the make-believe space we’re entering into is, or can/should (should!) be safe for exploring and feeling the things we dare not.

What was the question again? Oh yeah, genre tropes.

Once I’ve reconciled the self-loathing that comes with squandering the form (I’m so not kidding about this, and I know how ridiculous it sounds so please, no need to drag me), I think my favorite-favorite trope is the fantasy setting that is actually built atop a fallen futuristic crypto-utopian past. It’s so fucking cool, that moment when a player realizes what they’ve stumbled into. Or when they can kind of psychically feel the edges of the rules I’m following to spool out their world. It’s also very nearly impossible to maintain the players’ fantasy-world non-modern headspace once they do realize it, though. It’s a design problem I’d love to solve someday, how to create and maintain a non-modern headspace in the face of modern details.

It’s also been kind of … not well executed in published RPGs. I loved Earthdawn but ultimately it was still dungeon delving. You’d think I would love Numenera but I can’t get past Cypher. Gamma World is too gonzo, and there’s never really much attention paid to the headspace layer of play. Exalted kinda-sorta does this but first edition, at least, really didn’t do a lot with the deep past other than to hide magical mecha here and there. Which is fine. Whatever. Tenra Bansho Zero sorta-kinda does this but it’s also pretty gonzo. Might be the best iteration of the idea, though, because all the shogun-era Japan stuff kind of insulates the players from looking too hard at the cyber side of their cyberninjas.

Follow-up answer: I also really like how swingy scripted conflicts in Torchbearer get with big parties, which allows for huge, exciting comebacks. A comeback that feels real is always so much fun to watch from the GM’s seat.

Kind of a rambly answer for a rambly Monday morning.

0 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Tropes”

  1. Three things I love about Paul Beakley​

    1) how seriously and deeply he thinks about this hobby.

    2) how self aware he is that it’s ridiculous to think this seriously and deeply about this hobby.

    3) How despite that, he persists.

  2. Paul, would you say that there is room to have genre tropes be a tool in one’s GM repertoire, particularly where time is a factor (i.e. one shots at a Con, say)? Isn’t it possible to use genre tropes with the intention of subverting them? An example: “Let’s go kill orcs!” Killing of orcs occur. “What do we do with the baby orcs?” Crickets chirping.

  3. Nicholas Hopkins you bet! Time constraints + the necessarily narrow bandwidth of spoken word means we kind of have to. I guess it’s really the wallowing, like, no attempt to bring anything new, nothing of yourself to the trope, that disappoints me. So for sure subversion would, I think by definition, be bringing something new.

    Kind of like how I load my fantasy worlds with families and kids. Murderhoboing suddenly sucks! Nobody likes murderers, nobody likes hobos.

  4. I am totally down with that. RPGs as art should be allowed to breathe in their own way. There is a time and place for genre emulation but it does things no other medium does. To not push against that outer envelope is a waste.

  5. RPGs need to thrive as their own artistic/shared storytelling format, and not be seen as attempts to emulate film, TV, and novels, which have different techniques and different concerns. Tension and conflict in (say) a TV series takes a different form to what it ideally does in an RPG.

    Damn, I thought I was going somewhere with that comment, but I’ve just spouted a truism.

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