When Tropes Attack: Genre Conventions in Tabletop Games

Genre considerations in a tabletop game are tricky. On the one hand, playing to expectations and including elements from the wider genre is necessary (to an extent) for it to qualify as an example of the “thing.” On the other, playing too close to type can make the game boring or predictable. Where do you draw the line between staying faithful and being original?

Part of how you use genre tropes is asking yourself what role they serve in your stories. Are you including the wizard’s academy and thieves guild in your fantasy because they “have to be there”? Likewise, if your dystopian mega-government present because it’s just not a particular flavor of scifi without it? I’m not saying those things need to be tossed on principle! But what are you going to do with it that warrants its inclusion over anything else?

A great discussion came up the day I started writing this post, and I think it’s worth embedding here. Take a look at what a pro in game narrative has to say on the topic: Use enough to make things familiar, but don’t give precisely what is expected (which is boring).

Click through for the rest of this conversation.

Being intentional about your choices can set your setting apart. Most spaceship scifi features a big war (Star Wars, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, basically all of them). This makes sense: conflict is a good source of drama for your campaign and having some defined sides gives you a place to sink your teeth in. Where you can get creative is your relationship to that war:

  • It’s active and ongoing, with a good side and a bad side. This makes picking sides an integral part of adventures, with some obvious rivalries between factions. This will be a war story, for better or worse.
  • It happened, but recently enough that the aftershocks are still being felt. Knowing where your character was positioned, winner or loser, will be a big part of back story and world-building. Aftershocks and conflict are still likely.
  • It’s a defining element of your history, but active conflict has passed. The possibility that fighting erupts again is possible, but its more set dressing than an active concern. Perhaps this is a story about healing or moving on, or maybe it’s hidden in the backstory.

I’m sure lots of other options rise just in discussing how something as ubiquitous as “The War” as an element of world building is. Consider that you can pursue a variation of this for Every. Single. Element of your campaign and consider what you are letting in when you open the doors to the standard array of background considerations. When you say yes to the wizard’s academy, what does that mean? When you sign on for standard elves in forests with magical backgrounds, what other avenues does that close off? When you sign up for “technology and magic can’t coexist”, how far are you willing to go to examine that?

Some of my favorite projects have been mixing genres and discovering interesting combinations of how their basic tropes interact. What happens when you take elevate the noir elements of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and find a much darker series of implications underneath the 40s veneer of class in the studio system of Hollywood’s golden era? What happens when you take the high-minded ideals of utopian scifi and explore the fallout of tampering with culture and history, resulting in a nuclear apocalypse? What do you get when your coming-of-age story meets supernatural horror? (And just that combo leads you to It, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stranger Things, and Monster Squad, so…) The ideals of each story element comment on and compliment (and complicate!) the others.

My advice as a storyteller is finding the cracks at the edge of a genre convention or trope, and see what you get out of it by prying it up and seeing what’s underneath. Is it a necessary element of the genre, or can you still tell that type of story when you bend it around? If you find that it is a load-bearing trope and that subverting it or eliminating it shakes the foundation of your story, keep it. Decorate or embellish it however you like, make it totally yours. But at least you get why it is there and whether it has to be.