The use of common narrative conventions, archetypes or tropes in telling your own stories is often considered the mark of a lazy writer, and can easily lead to a work being considered derivative. However, in this first Beyond The Tabletop piece, I want to challenge this, and make the case for employing and embracing these elements in your RPGs. I’ll be highlighting how they can be a great tool to make your creative process easier as a game master or player, and enhance your roleplaying experience at the table.
By the end of this article, I hope to have illustrated how with a few tweaks and a little effort, you can adapt archetypal characters or iconic narratives to fill your roleplaying games with interesting characters and engaging, exciting narratives while drawing on the media you love.
In most cases, narrative conventions are something you’ll just recognise when you see them. By their very nature, these are are ideas that have permeated popular culture and exist in a multitude of forms across movies, TV, books, video games or theatre, anywhere stories are being told. Used well, their presence is often concealed by a little sleight-of-hand or careful subversion, but they remain fundamentally recognisable on closer inspection. Used badly, they can be cringeworthy, clichés that immediately take you out of the narrative.
Ultimately, though, an idea becomes a convention simply by dint of being repeated enough that it becomes inherently recognisable. As such, labelling a concept as a convention or trope does not necessarily entail placing a value judgement upon it, but simply recognising that it has existed in enough forms to have become a standard or staple of the medium. In fact, an argument could be made that many of the concepts now considered conventions remain so prevalent on account of their effectiveness as narrative devices, and that brings us onto the main point of the article.
A Story As Old As Time
It is often said that there are only seven stories, or at least seven narrative structures that form the basis of all storytelling. Whether this is the case or not, the fact remains that when you’re planning your next RPG campaign, arc or session, it’s likely that whatever story you’re trying to tell exists in some form elsewhere. My advice, then, is not to try desperately to be groundbreakingly original, but to look a little closer at the stories you’re drawing from and borrow liberally from what makes them work.
Whether you’re talking books, movies, video games or any other form of media, there’s no shame in cribbing plot points or narrative structures you enjoy, even if they are widespread enough to have become tropes or conventions in their own right. Of course, it’s always worth putting your own spin on things, but with the wealth of media out there you can easily find a lot of the hard work has been done for you in terms of compelling storytelling, and whether it’s Tolkien, Shakespeare or Homer you’re drawing from, there’s much to be gained by incorporating elements of existing works.
Take Star Wars, for instance. It is an iconic narrative despite, at least in its original instalment, being delightfully simple. The story of A New Hope has been told dozens of times since, and just as many prior to the film’s 1977 release. The tale of a nobody rising up to oppose an all-powerful villain, helped along by a wise mentor, is hardly groundbreaking. And yet, it remains a thrilling, engaging narrative, built from components that are both timeless and inherently effective as narrative devices. It is these components that make for ideal inclusions in your games.
The archetype represented by Darth Vader, for instance, is the perfect D&D villain. His first appearance establishes him as powerful and intimidating, immediately setting him up as a major threat. His iconic appearance makes him memorable straight away. As the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that several of the lead characters (your players, in this analogy), have links to this villain, making the conflict personal and engaging. This comes together as a pre-packaged villain so iconic, it’s entirely possible you’ve put it in your game without even realising!
This is just one example of media providing you with ready-made concepts, of course. I could just as easily say that Gandalf acts as the perfect template for a loremaster or questgiver, or talk about how Tony Stark’s origin as Iron Man is a great basis for the backstory of someone who wants to play a character on a redemptive arc. Even without lifting wholesale from these archetypes, finding thematic elements from a variety of individuals can inspire a brand new player character concept that still feels original.
Storylines, too, are ripe with inspiration. Introducing a major, existential threat, whether that’s a Death Star or a Darkseid, creates a focal point for your game, giving its heroes something to rally against and work towards thwarting. Including a powerful, ancient item, a la the One Ring or the Infinity Stones, immediately gives the factions and figures of your game something to fight over, and gives the players a shared goal. Structuring your campaign around a single objective, be that an epic quest such as the Ringbearer’s journey to Mount Doom or something on a smaller scale, like Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission, gives you a framework on which to hang your subplots and character arcs and ensure everything that happens at the table will contribute and matter.
Mix and Match
The elephant in the room here is that these things are all widely recognised by their very nature, and when they come up in TV shows or movies, it can be painfully obvious, prompting much eye-rolling and muttering of complaints. I’d argue, though, that in an RPG campaign, that’s far less of a risk, for two reasons.
The first is that there’s inherently a greater level of investment in a scenario that you’re actively playing rather than passively viewing. It’s easy to pick holes in the narrative of a movie as you walk out of the cinema, but you’re far less likely to have one of your players put your game, of which they are an integral part, under the same level of scrutiny. Not every game master is a screenwriter or novelist, and the weight of expectation on you is far less. Moveover, due to the improvisational nature of RPGs, these conventions will often end up as little more than the basis for something that comes to be entirely different. They typically serve as seeds, but just through the course of play will morph into original creations very quickly.
The second reason is that there’s a very good chance that both you and the people you’re playing with consume and enjoy the very media you’re pulling from. It’s often these cultural touchstones that inspire us to tell our own stories, play through our own adventures and create our own characters. As such, it’s entirely appropriate, and baked into the foundation of roleplaying, to give your players the chance to go up against their own personal Vader, destroy your world’s One Ring or steal your take on the Ark of the Covenant. We all play these games because we enjoy the fiction in which they have their roots, so even if it’s obvious when you borrow a familiar concept, that’s all part of the fun.