Wednesday, 24 June 2015

GMing 101: In defense of stereotype and cliché

Cliché is such a nasty word, but I think a certain amount of cliché can be good for your game. It's all about finding the right circumstances in which to deploy it.

So I spent this past weekend at a big live-action game event. The society I'm in, Isles of Darkness, runs parlour-style live games, and the national events are made up of several showcase games for each of the different games (or "genres") we run.

This creates a situation that is slightly unusual for GMs -- you have a game session that is part of an established continuity, but with characters that haven't necessarily met each other. You want to have a big plot, often a done-in-one plot that has links to the overall progress of the campaign, and you have four to eight hours to do it.

How do you do that?

With cliché and stereotype.

"Oh, Professor Blastoffsky? He's harmless."
At heart, a stereotype is just a way to convey a lot of information in a short space of time. For instance, in my D&D game the "Thieves' Guild" is basically just a type of organised crime. So when I needed an NPC from that group, I gave him the voice of Fat Tony from The Simpsons. You know the kind of thing: "My ... associates ... and I have made a loan to dis gentleman of soitan monies. Now dat the period of the loan is expiad, we wish to collect the moichandise."

Is it great writing? It is not. But this character was not going to be a long-lasting supporting character; he was going to be an obstacle for the PCs, and it was important that they be able to get a grip on him quickly. Similarly, Fat Tony's muscle tended to say things like "duuhh ... you want I should break his legs, boss?" 

That might sound corny, but you have to reflect that the muscle in most games doesn't get a lot of conversation. Mechanically, they're all just mooks, so it really does matter that some of the muscle says "youse messed wit' da wrong people" and some says "for the glory of the Emperor!" and some says "slay them all! Blood for the Blood God!" or whatever. That's actually more characterisation than you're going to get from a realistic portrayal of those characters, because in reality you just can't tell very much about a person on a brief meeting. 

For instance, this guy doesn't even like mysteries.
Same goes for the setting of any done-in-one scenario, particularly given the way in which RPGs can blend elements of multiple genres, or even bounce between genres. If we're only going to be in this crumbling Gothic mansion for a few hours, we need to know quickly if this is the kind of crumbling Gothic mansion where people are tormented about their failed relationships or the kind of crumbling Gothic mansion where a sinister butler tells us that wailing noise is just the wind. 

This is also good because it helps me know what to do in a scenario. When I'm in the crumbly old mansion and the Professor has been shot and high tide has cut us off from the mainland, I go -- "then the killer is still in the house!" and everybody knows what's up.

Alan Moore once said of Stan Lee that he had the revolutionary idea of making comics characters two-dimensional as opposed to one-, and that's a pretty funny line, but the simple characterisation of early comics served a purpose. Remember, most people weren't reading every Superman comic one after the other like they do today -- they were picking one up at the train station or something. Characterisation and premise needed to be simple to get the reader engaged and into the main part of the story -- the action -- quickly. 

Now that's all well and good, so why are people so opposed to these shopworn old setups? Why are we not just fighting rats for copper coins forever and ever? Well, part of it is that we aren't just reading a single Superman comic on the bus -- we're coming back to these stories and carrying them on, and we're doing it in a world we can inhabit. In a society like the IoD, we're explicitly trying to run a game that's focused on characters who grow and change and react to their experiences like real people. It's hard to do that if the premise of the game doesn't bear that kind of weight. 

The compromise I use is simple: imagine a sliding scale of level of player time and engagement, then map that inversely to the stereotype level. So, for instance, it's not a good idea to have your game world be nothing but hoary old tropes unless your players are all first-timers; if they're going to be spending a lot of time there, they'll want it to have some real weight. But an individual librarian can be an absent-minded old coot with no problem. If you ever need to go back to the librarian and she becomes a larger character, you can "wrinkle" her a bit, give her some depth and complexity. 

(It occurs to me that there's another distinction to be made between the predictability and the complexity of stereotypes, but I'll leave that for another time.)

Anyway, so, that's me once again defending hokey old adventure-story tropes in gaming by pointing out that they're not dumb; they were created by skilled artists who knew what they were doing by creating them. Usually.

(Another discussion for the future: when people don't realise the difference between cliché and reality, and how that's a problem.)


  1. The TV Tropes website has two articles entitled 'Tropes are not bad' and 'Tropes are not good', discussing much the same thing; the idea that just because something can be recognised as a trope - or even a cliche - doesn't make it bad. It still makes sense to head someone off at the pass; it will, in fact, always make sense, so long as the person you are heading off needs to use the pass and you can get there first.

    1. That is true -- it's all about the amount of time you spend on it. So if the viewers know all about heading 'em off at the pass, we can just cut right to the pass, even if the characters need to spend a lot of time discussing exactly how to get there. The amount of time you spend on something is all about how much the actual people need to be told about it, not the fictional people.