Every good Dungeons and Dragons campaign starts in a tavern. No wait! Every good D&D campaign starts in a tavern, and requires you to fight goblins. No sorry, hang on. Every good D&D campaign starts in a tavern, and has goblins who have kidnapped a princess. Wait, I’ve got it! Tavern, goblins, princess, seemingly trustworthy non-player character with a goatee who turns out to be the real villain. And he’s secretly a demon. Demon/vampire.
Every good Dungeons and Dragons campaign contains myriad clichés and tropes; it’s inevitable, and as a Dungeon Master, I’ve been known to liberally lace my campaigns with clichés, if not outright base the campaign on one. By and large, these tropes are so classic that to not include them would be a shame – starting your campaign in a tavern serves a practical purpose, that of an environment to introduce yourself, as well as almost being a tradition. Other tropes, though, are so outdated that whenever I come across them I have to quickly have a lie down in a darkened room, before rewriting the campaign to no longer include a useless, distressed damsel in a tower.
So at what point, then, does a trope go from “classic and campaign enhancing” to “tired and campaign ruining”?
That familiarity plays a huge role is almost a redundant statement in a discussion about cliché, but it can not be understated, and by-and-large the most common D&D tropes are both the most vital and least noticed. Imagine an RPG campaign. Doesn’t necessarily have to be D&D, can be either tabletop, live-action, or video game. I’d bet that nine-out-of-ten people reading this imagined pretty much the same thing: a sword and sorcery setting filled with Tolkienesque races and monsters with quests. This is probably the most enduring cliché of D&D, so much so that is has permeated all aspects of roleplay, to a point where it’s almost impossible to imagine an RPG with a different setting.
Generally, the best alternative RPGs use variations on this theme; Shadowrun, for example, is a science fantasy tabletop which blends cyberpunk and urban fantasy elements with the Tolkienesque races trope. Heading off into space represents perhaps the main alternative. Paizo, the company behind D&D version 3.5’s popula
r offshoot Pathfinder, recently announced their latest RPG, Starfinder, with the tag line “take your fantasy to the stars”. It’s set in the same universe as Pathfinder, but all the fantasy elements are reskinned for space opera – your elf is now an alien, and your longsword is now a lightsaber. Speaking of which, the Star Wars Roleplaying Game is pretty much a reskin of D&D – it’s even made by the same company, Wizards of the Coast.
Now, before you close this page thinking I’m just dumping on alternatives to D&D, hold up a second. Like I said two paragraphs ago: the sword and sorcery, Tolkienesque setting trope typical of D&D has permeated roleplay to an extent where it’s almost impossible to imagine an RPG with a different setting. That’s the thing though, as much as these alternatives are similar to D&D, they’re also different in their own ways. Shadowrun, with its Tolkienesque races, throws off the sword and sorcery setting for a cyberpunk, urban fantasy one, blending cybernetics, technology and magic. Pathfinder throws guns and aliens into the mix, which Paizo have doubled down on with Starfinder.
The key here is that, whilst each is unique in its own way, appealing to different audiences and providing variety of choice, when you cut away the layers and the artistic flair, each system is familiar. The familiarity of the sword and sorcery Tolkienesque races and monsters with quests setting, even with variations, makes the game accessible to players – it might take you time to get used to a new system, but the similarities and familiarity each game has with each other means that you’re not overwhelmed, and don’t lose interest.
The same can be said for another highly permeating cliché from D&D – its core classes. Virtually every RPG uses variations of the exact same classes: a fighter class, focusing on combat and big armour; a healer, focusing on healing party members rather than combat, usually with religious connotations; a mage, focusing on using strange/mystical powers to do big damage whilst remaining poor defensively; and a rogue, usually a thief-type trap and skill specialist. Players are familiar with these archetypes, and thus, when they drop into a new gaming system, having a class that they’re somewhat familiar with enhances the campaign, or makes it accessible for new players.
This seems like the ideal moment to return to our original question, and to add in a vital twist. Rather than “at what point does a trope go from “classic and campaign enhancing” to “tired and campaign ruining”?”, perhaps the question should be: “at what point does a familiarity go from “classic and campaign enhancing” to “tired and campaign ruining”?”. At its core, the question of when a trope goes from “great” to “ugh” is the same as when the balance between “useful familiarity” and “annoying familiarity” tips the wrong way. Tropes are good as long as they make gameplay and roleplay easier by providing accessible familiarity, but as soon as they lose the qualifier “useful”, they quickly become “annoying”.
Perhaps the most annoying trope you can come across is the ‘mysterious stranger’. Some players seems to think that mysterious characters are awesome – they’re so cool, you don’t know anything about them, much great, very wow. Unfortunately, a lot of players and Game Masters seem to confuse ‘mysterious’ and ‘empty’. A good mysterious character is one who has depth, but certain elements of them are veiled – they might make illusions to a dangerous past, but you can never quite get them to reveal who they are. It’s difficult to pull off, and unfortunately most ‘mysterious’ characters simply come off as the “character who never says anything”/“might as well be a rock”. When your character has less personality than the chair they’re sitting on (and is less useful), you’ve got a problem. It’s a problem you can ignore if you like – I mean, D&D etc. are roleplaying games, so if you want to RP as essentially a rock with a face drawn on it, go right ahead – but it’s a problem because RPGs are team games with – wait for it – roleplay. The same problem arises with characters who have gone completely the opposite way, never shutting up and causing the party problems: oh, we’re at the King’s palace to meet him and discuss political things and you want to kidnap his cat because your character secretly kidnaps every cat they meet and yep, now we’re on the run from his guards. Inevitably it leads to the same result: it’s annoying, people have less fun, and the campaign is tarnished. It’s a tired trope.
That last paragraph pretty much sums up the very extreme of the “annoying” end of the spectrum, because it has virtually no purpose and simply causes problems. However, it’s nowhere near the most pervasive of tired tropes, nor the most difficult to ward yourself against. That prize, so richly earned, goes to a cliché I like to call the “every dwarf is a Scottish alcoholic” trope. It’s the cliché which places certain races and characters into boxes, so casually stereotyping them that you barely even notice it has happened. It’s the trope that sa
ys that every dwarf is Scottish and alcoholic, that elves are high-minded and aloof, that dark elves/drow are kinky, and that every half-orc is always angry.
This trope is one the very worst ones you can throw into a campaign, up there with the damsel in distress cliché, and it’s also one of the most common you’ll find for the same reasons as the sword and sorcery/Tolkienesque trope: its familiar. When you think of an RPG dwarf, most people, naturally, due to this trope’s pervasiveness, think he would sound Scottish and be an alcoholic. How many South-African, vegetarian dwarves have you come across in campaigns? I’d wager very few. But that’s the thing, the dwarves in a campaign being Scottish/alcoholic is as familiar and accessible an archetype as the fighter or mage core class: we like it because it’s what we’re used to, and it’s this fact that makes it so hard to escape from.
So let’s take it right back to where we started, one last time: at what point does a trope go from “classic and campaign enhancing” to “tired and campaign ruining”? The answer, as we’ve noted, is when it flips the scales from “useful” to “annoying”. The problem, then, is to decide at what point the balance has gone too far; it’s not like a switch where the cliché jumps straight from useful to annoying, there’s a lot of space in-between where the distinction is murky. Familiarity with a trope makes it accessible, but at the same time, it can make it incredibly tired and boring. The key factor at play is ‘uniqueness’. The reason why Shadowrun, Pathfinder and the Star Wars Roleplay Game have been so successful alongside the titan of D&D is that, whilst they’re familiar enough to be attractive, they add something new which keeps them fresh and alive, opening up the box and letting some light in, without destroying it altogether. The alternative is to throw the box away completely, and risk being inaccessible to player – Call of Cthulhu, for example, is an RPG which has rewritten the rules masterfully.
And thus, we can conclude: every good D&D campaign starts in a bathhouse run by vegetarian, South African dwarves who like flowers.