Tropes and the comfort of the familiar

Playing Firefly this weekend and actually enjoying myself — I’m usually deathly allergic to license-based games — got me thinking about my very, very mixed feelings around the omnipresence of tropes in RPGs.

My feelings are so mixed that I’ve tried to write this post like 10 times and have argued myself out of all 10 positions! So here are some various mixed feelings, devoid of any particular argument for/against any of them:

* Tropes are lazy
* Tropes are accessible
* Tropes are what’s wrong with gaming these days
* Tropes are what’s moving product these days
* Inverting tropes is a great source of creative ideas
* Inverting tropes is lazy
* Spending all our time faithfully executing the familiar squanders the vast possibilities of RPGs
* There’s no squandering, good grief, they’re just games
* RPGs will always be just games as long as we constrain ourselves to the vocabulary of other media, forever destined to be derivative
* I’m actually okay with the laziness; who the hell has time to create, learn or teach something truly new?
* The trope thing might just be where the $$$ is, but there are plenty of examples of non-trope-focused design and play happening (far-afield small press design, larp, etc.)
* I wonder what design looks like that makes no effort at all to model fiction that’s “like” what you find in other media? (Answer: probably something like The Clay That Woke)
* Like all good things, tropes can be used well and they can also be misused
* What does “misused” even mean when it comes to make-believe, you goofball?

This is what happens when I have an unexpected day at home with a sick, sleeping kid. Stupid brain!

0 thoughts on “Tropes and the comfort of the familiar”

  1. I think it’s great to give new players a handle on something familiar, yeah. Like my 13yo niece in the game last night? Pretty much everything we suggested and everything I described was couched in stuff that’d be familiar to her.

    If all I had was an entirely unique vocabulary, imagine the on-ramp! Actually I can imagine the on-ramp: that was AD&D, circa 1981. 

    Honestly I have no idea if or how roleplaying would have hooked me if games had started from “let’s play a game that feels like an episode of X,” rather than wargaming.

  2. From my perspective, if there were no games that started from “let’s play a game that feels like an episode of X” I would either have to make one or quit gaming. Emulation is by far the most fun thing for me when it comes to RPGs.

  3. “Tropes are what’s wrong with gaming these days” + “Tropes are what’s moving product these days” = Mark Diaz Truman hitting the scotch (edit: New Mexico!) tequila by himself at his desk.

  4. My thought on tropes has long been:

    * tropes, for good or ill, greatly help create (and sometimes may be necessary to) the creation of the share imagined space

  5. I agree and disagree with all of these statements. ;D I unintentionally talk myself out of writing a lot of posts because my brain does this same thing. And in writing The Long Orbit, which pulls heavily from tropes, I’ve had these sorts of arguments with myself quite a few times. I’ve come to something of an uneasy conclusion that it still comes down to what the game does that makes it a worthwhile endeavor or not. The very fact that it’s an interactive, emergent experience is what sets an RPG apart from books and movies they might draw heavily from. If it’s a well-designed game, you could be playing Trope World and still have a really fun or meaningful experience because you’re interacting with the trope on a more personal level – changing it, being changed by it, or bringing it into your story in a very real way.

  6. Great post. I’ve been trying to wrap my mind about tropes in gaming for the past two years and you’re right.

    Tropes are products of pop culture, so they’re both (a) awesome fictional Lego bricks to play with and build on, and (b) absolutely terrible and lazy conventions that restrain us from experimenting and innovating.

    Tropes are best used when creating expectations that you can then reuse to mess around with the players.

  7. Ha ha, this is hilarious because 99% of all of my published game design work is licensed RPGs or adaptations of existing RPGs and 100% of all my published game design work is driven by tropes and touchstones of one sort or another.

  8. Here’s my fuller take.

    I’m going to assume that readers here are at least passibly familiar with the concept of Shared Imaginary Space (yes it’s imaginary not imagined no matter what the revisionists say).

    But by far, most gaming takes place in the unshared imaginary space. I generally throw around 80% (because, when in doubt default to the 80/20 rule) but the point is the overwhelming majority of what you experience at the table is stuff that’s never explicitly shared.

    For example imagine a chase scene in Shadowrun. The shared bits include the characters and NPCs involved in the chase, and bits of description like “twisting back alleys”, “the heavy rain”, ” the nearly empty streets because this is a part of town pedestrians don’t linger if they can avoid it”. That sort of stuff.

    But now think about the movie playing in your head during this scene. If you’re like me, you have a full on bit of cinema playing in your imagination. And if you’re like me, that cinema has a lot more detail then what’s actually been described. Streaks of neon shining in the wet blacktop, a slash of light from some open back door where an overworked ork is slinging garbage into an overflowing dumpster. The smell of greasy fried food as an alleyway gets passed. The splashes of shoes in puddles. Hanging laundry out to be washed in the rain.

    All that stuff is going to be in my head…and probably a different collection of specifics will be in your head, but none of that needs to be made explicit until and unless it become pertinent to the story or mechanics.

    At that point we all adjust our unshared brain movies to synchronize those parts that have now been shared. This process is smoothest when all of our unshared brain movies are at least compatible with each other.

    Its tropes that make them compatible. The more the game / scene relies on mutually understood tropes, the more similar our unshared imaginary spaces will be, and the smoother the game will run.

    The less the game relies on mutually understood tropes the more work will be required to synch up our respective brain movies and the more potential for immersion breaking retcons there will be.

    I like games that rely heavily on tropes. It allows me to give free reign to my inner cinema without having to worry much that my brain movie is radically different from yours in any way likely to matter.

  9. Ralph Mazza​ probably this is why larps don’t seem to be so reliant on tropes. They don’t need that technology since the visualization is happening for everyone the same way.

    It’s so interesting to me that a “mind movie” (or something similar) is such an enduring assumption of tabletop roleplay. Like…does it have to be? I suppose the very abstract experiences (Microscope, The Quiet Year, etc.) don’t.

  10. I can’t speak to tQY, but Microscope has scenes at its smallest building block, which most definitely does have mind theater at Ralph Mazza described.

    Larps I can see being absent of a shared visualized experience, as you said, it’s right there in front of you, but even then, there may be something internally going on to help you suspend disbelief and see that foam sword as a real sword.

    I’m not sure of any game where it’s escaped; reduced, even significantly, sure…

  11. What’s kind of funny is how familiar this discussion is. It wasn’t that long ago that folks were like “jeez, I really have mixed feelings about the structural assumptions rpgs make that they need to represent wargame-like values.” So many lengthy late-night conversations amongst industry notables at the mid-90s Gencons were exactly this subject.

    Kind of excites me to think about this stuff in 20 years, when the cool kids scoff at all those years when every RPG seemed to be built entirely out of quotes from genre fiction.

  12. You hit these points, but put a different way: Are RPGs devoid of tropes like songs without a recognizable melodic structure? Put more pointedly: would I feel that an RPG (song) constructed without tropes (melody) was objectively good but I had no interest in playing (listening to) it?

  13. I have no thoughts about this. I’m pretty sure I have never posted this exact post before. Nor that I’ve deliberately written a work that relied completely on tropes, nor one that avoided them.

    In this way I prove, yet again, that I am not actually Paul Beakley​’s brain-twin.

  14. Brian Kurtz I have an answer and a speculation!

    First answer is: an RPG devoid of tropes looks like D&D. D&D made no meaningful effort to emulate “stories like Lord of the Rings” or “stories like Robert Howard wrote.” Is a fighter or a magic-user a trope? I…don’t think so. The same way that a a little square token representing a tank on a hex map isn’t shorthand for “a band of brothers working through their interpersonal issues while they face a common enemy.” 

    And my speculation is this: maybe a game built entirely out of emotional triggers: events or descriptions or economies that evoke outrage, or fear, or love, or melancholy. I think this is the ground that bleeding edge larp is fertilizing right now, much like larp fertilized the ground with tropes a couple decades ago.

  15. Tropes really aren’t a problem, I don’t think. It’s usually the fact that stories don’t have enough tropes where things get dicey. Making anything purely completely and utterly original in its purest form is impossible – and I think it’s probably always been impossible. Stories emerge from the union of tropes used in different and unique ways, not from the creation of entirely new ones or the complete omission of all of them.

    I think the resident experts on this topic have a webpage about this:

    It’s possible I’m just muttering irrelevant nonsense though. Most of the discussion thus far has flown pretty spaciously over my head.

  16. Interesting, Paul Beakley. I was conflating the tropes that occur in a typical adventure of an RPG with tropes in the RPG itself. I think while D&D may not have made an effort to emulate Tolkein, lots of people emulate Tolkein when they play or DM D&D. 

    Wow, a game built out of emotional triggers sounds trippy. I think I’ll wait for others to try it out and wait to hear what it’s like before I dive in to that.

  17. My challenge to you, Paul Beakley is to come up with a brief synopsis or outline of an RPG that uses no tropes, and D&D doesn’t count.

  18. That’s the Brand trope.

    Or, I could say that when talking about tropes, it’s often helpful to specify if you mean cliché, rhetorical device, thematic motif, or figure of speech. Because the word kind of means all of those, and the difference between an RPG without clichés, especially geek genre cliches, and an RPG without a central motif is… Kinda large.

  19. Cam Banks​ is this a challenge to name existing games (that aren’t D&D) or to roughly sketch what I think a game that isn’t built on tropes might look like?

    I like the challenge but lordy is it fraught! We could argue definitions of “rpg” and “trope” just to establish a baseline, and it would extend beyond the heat death of the universe.

  20. The latter!

    I suppose systems without setting are basically free of overall cliches and motifs for the most part (GURPS etc) but do we consider those complete games or just complete systems ready for a game to be created around them?

  21. Haha, carve out a largely undefined notional new tabletop play space on a dare, nbd.

    Maybe I’ll add it to my current list of projects. Or maybe I’ll just subcontract the work to someone smarter than me (Czege, Morningstar, etc)

  22. Okay so to my mind this is a very rough outline of what I’m thinking about: an rpg that is not intended to “tell stories like X,” that does not rely on genre shorthand to frame situation or tension or resolution, and if I’m right about that speculation a few posts back, builds an emotional rather than a narrative experience.

    So: exploring the shifting perspectives of colonists being sent to a new planet, perhaps. Oh! Or one idea I’ve been messing with is about how one transitions from mainstream civilian life into a psychic frame where violence is acceptable, and what internal consequences that may carry.

    I’m the first to acknowledge this sort of play probably won’t move SKUs. It is probably not “entertaining” in the traditional escapism sense. But is there an audience? Dunno.

    Procedurally I don’t know how to get at that play. I’m glad that wasn’t part of your challenge!

  23. “[W]hat I’m thinking about: an rpg that is not intended to ‘tell stories like X,’ that does not rely on genre shorthand to frame situation or tension or resolution”
    This is preposterously hard to do. And the hard part actually isn’t the “what do the characters do when they’re on camera?” It’s the stuff that comes before that. It’s the “What elements need to be present in our shared imagined space before we turn to the characters and see what happens?”

  24. And yet it’s been done before! It’s what came before our trope-heavy round of games we have today! Specifically, I’m thinking PbtA games and Cortex Plus games, but obvs lots and lots of other games that use genre shorthand/overused cliches to get a lot of information across fast.

    I know Cam doesn’t want to talk history, but again I refer to OG D&D. You bust out the red box, you’re not going to produce “a story like Tolkien/Howard/Moorcock,” nor did the creators intend for that to happen way-back-when. Situation is represented by a map, tension is presented by mechanical challenge, resolution is handled in a wargame-y way: do damage and/or appeal to the ref for a ruling.

    And I get that the easy-peasy way to break the circuit here is to just say “but that’s not really an RPG!” And boy oh boy is that a big can o’ worms. 

    I have a whole other thread I want to get into tomorrow. It is basically “have RPGs been marching relentlessly toward an ideal experience (with today’s heavy reliance on tropes being the latest technology put toward achieving that ideal), or do RPG fashions evolve and splinter, with no particular ideal in view or even possible?”

    I feel like it’s probably both. Ish. All the arts continue to evolve into extremely esoteric forms, but most of the audience still likes a nice melody/rewarding narrative/sculpture or painting that looks something like its subject/plays in acts on a stage with props.

    As intellectually excited as I can get about very interesting new forms, I gotta say I usually would rather read a Stephen King novel than some post-narrative tone poem. (But I love that I can find something weird and challenging out there as well.)

  25. I don’t know I buy that about D&D at all actually.  Appendix N exists for a reason.  And that reason is “Read this stuff to understand all the tropes that you’ll want to bring to play this game successfully”.

    I mean Gary and Dave clearly had ideas of what they were creating at the table and I’m sure it was more than a little “Take some Paul Anderson add a dash of Andre Norton, and mix in some Moorcock.”  I mean the alignments, the Vancian magic…elves and dwarves, oh my; it was a grab bag to be sure, but it was a grab bag of all that 60s and 70s era wierd fantasy along with a bunch of that older pulp stuff.

    It was rather all over the place and eclectic, and hadn’t yet been labeled and squeezed into a genre for the benefit of big chain book stores, but there was still a base line of common elements that informed that early play and thus served as the common “Cultural Literacy” that the early players shared.

  26. All fair points, Ralph. 

    I guess I just don’t think of that era of gaming having anything like the trope-intensive genre play we see in games today. Conflict didn’t attempt to “feel” like what the genres featured, characters didn’t act anything like what you found in the fiction unless the players read Appendix N and made an assertive decision to do so. A party of adventurers, man what?

  27. My experience was almost exactly the opposite.  Trying to make the game feel like what the genre featured was the only way we could figure out how to even get the ridiculously bare bones rules to even work.  I mean early on my play group’s touch stones were pretty much limited to Prydain and Narnia, but we absolutely were trying to figure out how to make the game play like those stories.  Sometimes literally…we had a character named Taran Wanderer and another one named Reepicheep…before we started defaulting to Bob the Fighter #4.

    But both of those series featured parties having adventures.  The scene from the Black Cauldron where Adaon gives Taran his brooch and later the witches demanded it as payment, totally colored how we did magic item loot for years to come.

  28. Well…I think I was insufficiently rigorous in hammering home what I meant by “trope” early on. And so it’s been pretty easy to let this conversation wander around while we talk past each other. Like… a grab bag of 60s/70s weird fantasy motifs sounds to me like exactly the opposite of “overused cliche,” or the definition at which is even better (and explicitly not “cliche,” but go read it yourself because it’s kind of involved). which is what I mean when I say “trope.” Who besides Vance was using Vancian magic? Who besides Moorcock was talking about law and chaos?

    And like all good conversations, I can safely say I feel absolutely no more settled on this stuff now than when I wrote my OP! Embracing tropes (overused cliches/widely used patterns) as part and parcel of RPGs makes me feel resigned, like we’re not doing anything more than derivative celebration of other, better work. Rejecting tropes and trying to look at RPGs without them feels alien and alienating and probably not “fun” beyond the tastes of an extremely jaded, extremely esoteric audience.

  29. All things are full of weariness;
    a man cannot utter it;
    the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    nor the ear filled with hearing.

    What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.

    Seems to me that if Solomon was bemoaning this 3000 years ago, we’re pretty fucked today.

  30. Oh me either. I’m just using it as an explanation.

    This isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation. And it always feels like late baroque music listeners exclaiming that all music simply must include structural ornamentation.

  31. I always loved that Solomon quote. Especially the fact that he typed it on his iPhone while chasing an escaped Soviet war dolphin using satellite imagery and embedded GPS.

    .. Which is to say, just because people are people doesn’t mean every RPG needs to have mecha, lone heroes, super powers, or sidekicks. There’s a lot of space between “something totally new” and “Jesus Christ how many superhero vampire games do we actually need up in here.”

  32. There you go Brand Robins . Its about time you started coming up with game ideas that are actually interesting. I’ll play David the Cyborg commando with laser eyes and a shark for a left arm!

    We’ll fight crime!

  33. Then in a surprise twist we’ll discover that the Dreaming Masters are the ones who hired us in the first place. Then in a surprise surprise twist we’ll discover that the Dreaming Masters are…US…and we’re strapped into one of those Total Recall machines being experimented on by Paul Beakley…

    Holy Shit, someone needs to write this down…

  34. “Which is to say, just because people are people doesn’t mean every RPG needs to have mecha, lone heroes, super powers, or sidekicks.”
    Or scenes based on conflict, or narratives based on relationships, or pacing that respects its players’ attention and time, or closure around its themes, etc etc etc.

  35. I’ve played too many games that fit genres and tropes that I usually like that suuuck or don’t live up to the promise and I also have been delightfully surprised by enough games that didn’t initially sound interesting and turned out to be AMAZING that I give less and less weight to genre and tropes as something to judge a game by.

    I mean, it’s a shorthand way of grabbing attention or communicating information, and I’d be deluding myself if I thought I was completely above it (watch: tomorrow I’ll completely forget this conversation and be all: whhhy aren’t there more superhero vampire games?!), but I really do care way more about how a game plays.

    I’ve been talking with Judd Karlman about rogues, which is character type I love, and it got me thinking why I haven’t played more of them given the opportunity, and it kind of comes down to this: just because the character has lockpicks and a knife doesn’t mean it’s going to be fun and feel like a rogue to me. If lockpicks were all I cared about: right on – lots of games for me! But if undermining the power structure or planning complicated adventures or the feel of being fast on my feet is what’s important to me, then that narrows down the playing field. A lot.

    And I may even find that parts of what I love about playing a rogue are handled amazingly well by games that are not about rogues at all but have mechanics or structures that really speak to me.

    This isn’t to say the shorthand of genre and trope and setting and flavor aren’t important, but they often feel like smoke and mirrors to me.

  36. This isn’t to say the shorthand of genre and trope and setting and flavor aren’t important, but they often feel like smoke and mirrors to me.

    That’s flippin’ on-point, Rachel E.S. Walton. I couldn’t agree more!

  37. I’m sorry Rachel E.S. Walton you really aren’t supposed to come in and lay down a bunch of wisdom once we’ve worked so hard to derail the thread.  

    Party foul.

  38. Ralph Mazza I confess I did delete a couple of comments that would have helped solidify the derailment. I started thinking about some crappy and amazing gaming experiences of late and realized they related to this expectations thing and then I couldn’t help myself from steering back on topic. I did refrain from singing out “system matters!” so everyone can thank me for that. 😛

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