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A Cliché At The Gaming Table Isn’t Necessarily Cliché

Posted By John Arcadian On June 24, 2009 @ 3:00 am In Gaming Trends | 22 Comments

imageRecently, a friend of mine said they were tired of  “righteous paladins, knights in  armor that have dragons on them, mentally tortured vampires, orphaned revenge seeking samurai, the “chosen ones” or every lone wolf character EVAR in role playing games”.  Yeah, those are pretty standard characters in a lot of games, and as stereotypes go they are pretty cliché. But then I got thinking, what is so wrong with that?

Mind you, I’m definitely a fan of the unique character concept and any game system that doesn’t fence  you into a particular type, but is it really cliché when its at  your gaming table?

What’s a Cliché?
Our friend Wikipedia defines cliché as

A cliché (US: /klɪˈʃeɪ/ UK: /ˈkliːʃeɪ/, from French), is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.

It also says that cliché originally comes from slugs of words that were used so often in printing that they made special slugs of them, so that they didn’t have to rebuild them every time they used them. Awesome trivia. Now that we’re on the same page, lets continue on.

Is the concept cliché?
So a player approaches the Game Master wanting to play a righteous paladin, womanizing thief, brooding vampire or orphaned lone wolf.  Its certainly been done before, but is it cliché at your table? Has it been done in your games? When character creation for a new game rolls around my players usually go for the splat books and additional materials to start building their characters. Rarely do they start  making the characters that fit clichés. Seeing a fairly standard thief would actually feel unique to me at this point.

Is the actual character cliche?
Is the player doing the cliché  in a unique way or with personality?   I had one player who always played core D&D classes, or stereotypical characters for whatever genre we were playing in. Oriental? He was a lone wolf samurai. Super hero? He was a super strong, cape wearing, flying invulnerable. While this sounds pretty boring, he was an incredible actor. He brought a great unique personality to each character and over-rode the stereotype of the concept. He just used the cliché as a building block. A nice starting ground to build upon.

Is the cliché a bad thing?
Some players use a clichéd character as a way to help them participate in game without putting too much effort into it. Some players are more imaginative when it comes to acting out their character, not building it. Some players might be a little intimidated  by a new system, new group or by being new to the role playing experience in general, and want to play a concept that everyone is familiar with. Sometimes a player sees something awesome in another media and wants to recreate the experience.  All of these are reasons why playing a clichéd character might fulfill a players wants, and they are all valid reasons why the cliché isn’t a bad thing. After reading or watching LOTR I know I’m all tingly about using a ranger from an ancient bloodline or running a quest where the party escorts an artifact to its inevitable doom. It’s been done before, but its still fun.

So what do you think about clichéd character concepts? I was surprised by my friend’s reaction. It never seemed like a major problem to me, but the more I asked, the more I found people disliking anything non-unique. Are they of no concern in your games, or do you groan when you see the character sheet? What clichés are your favorites or favorites to hate?  Which ones are the ones you play or would play if you thought your group wouldn’t think you unoriginal?

When this posts, I’ll be at the wonderful Origins Games Fair, running games and meeting with people. I won’t be able to answer comments in a timely fashion, but I’ll definitely be looking forward to them when I get back to the internet.  If you will be at Origins and want to say hi (please do, I love meeting Gnome Stew Readers)   I can be found through any of the Silvervine events in the Franklin room, or by finding the guy wearing a kilt and goggles.

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.




22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "A Cliché At The Gaming Table Isn’t Necessarily Cliché"

#1 Comment By Zig On June 24, 2009 @ 8:51 am

In my usual gaming group I have few players who play cliches.

The one, a woman, always has issues with her Mother and a deep love for her Father. This happens in nearly any game we run — D&D, Shadowrun or Rifts. It doesn’t bother me though. I know what handles I can use with her character to make the game meaningful for her. I give her a reason to dislike ol’ Mom, or in my most recent campaign it was her oldest sister. Her beloved Father was off fighting in the war.

Another one, plays a character based on whichever movie character most recently caught his fancy. He usually devolves into the same style of play each time however to the point that an in-group joke is that he has his own alignment — Chaotic Bemo (Bemo being his nickname). However, I can, over time, flesh his character out or do something different that he will latch onto. In the last campaign he became the fifth most wanted in the Empire for a litany of crimes…everything from stealing pies to posing as a noble woman. He loved it and role played that up in encounters with bounty hunters and other people interested in the large reward on his head.

I’m also blessed with a couple of players who usually come up with something very unique. In the last campaign they were a paladin and cleric from the same order. The paladin was very well played and the cleric’s player could go off on long winded sermons at the drop of a hat.

Personally, when a player, I try to come up with something a bit unique, or something so mundane that it has a bit of uniqueness to it. Like the former peasant who learned to wield a spear pretty well when pressed into military service for his lord and then decided dirt scraping was not the life he wanted. He wanted to see more of the world.

Other DM/GMs out there, do you ever do anything to break the cliche mold of a player’s character? I’m always looking for ideas to help a player make his/her character unique in some way. It usually makes the player more vested in their character, and as I typically run home brewed adventures it helps give me personal hooks for plot ideas.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 24, 2009 @ 8:51 am

I’m good with any cliche as long as it works. My GMing alarm bells are much more sensitive to concepts that will not work with the rest of the table, especially if the decision seems deliberate.

I’d much rather have a party of cooperative walking cliches than a party of “unique and beautiful snowflakes” who all try to hog the spotlight. (Not all snowflakes are spotlight hogs, but experience does seem to indicate some correlation.)

#3 Comment By Zig On June 24, 2009 @ 8:52 am

Oh, and by the way, love the bit of trivia as to where the term cliche originated. I had never heard that. Pretty neat.

#4 Comment By Zig On June 24, 2009 @ 8:56 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – That’s an excellent insight. The worst games I have ever run or played in (and they quickly fall apart), is when the players haven’t been told to attempt to make characters who can bond with each other. Even something as basic as restricting alignments for characters in D&D can be a big help. As Telas mentions, I’ll take a group of walking cliches over a party that cannot work together.

#5 Comment By valadil On June 24, 2009 @ 8:59 am

I’m one of those players who stresses over making sure every character is an original and unique snowflake. The exception was a couple years ago I wanted to take an archetypal character and play it as straightforward as possible. No hidden twists or new spins. What I ended up with was one of my top favorite characters ever. His concept had been done before, but that didn’t take away from the character’s depth. Characters who are overly unique sometimes seem like gimmicks who flaunt their superficial originality. By playing a cliched fighter I didn’t have any gimmick to show off and was free to explore the character in greater depth than was otherwise possible.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On June 24, 2009 @ 9:03 am

@Zig – Hear, hear. Party cohesiveness wins every day.

#7 Comment By Rafe On June 24, 2009 @ 9:10 am

In the only game I’m currently a player in, I’ve kinda gone with the “untried orphan shepherd looking to do good.” As it’s a Burning Wheel game, I could really do that (Born Peasant –> Farmer –> Shepherd). No combat skills, no social skills (Persuasion, Falsehood, Intimidation, Haggling, etc)… it’s been a blast: Burning Shepherd

I agree that it’s all about how the player interprets and plays out the cliché. My character wanted to take a sword and become a roaming swordsman, but he failed miserably (and was beaten severely, having been caught) so he uses his staff, a symbol of that which he was trying to get away from (being a shepherd). He’s encouraged peasants to rise up against petty militia guards, held parley with a Great Wolf while lost in the woods… Freakin’ fun.

I think starting with a cliché is perfectly fine, so long as the person is willing to build on that foundation and create something different, or take the cliché for a twist. Hell, as a GM, I’d rather have a player comfortable and happy (and involved) playing a cliché than have them play an “original” character and be confused, less involved and less satisfied.

#8 Comment By Zig On June 24, 2009 @ 9:38 am

@Rafe – You character sounds great!

Also agree; happy/comfortable players = one good game.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On June 24, 2009 @ 9:42 am

I like trying to fit the world, particularly the first time I play in it. I often pick the brightest template the book provides and play it (mostly) straight. It’s a good way to stretch roleplaying muscles (ensuring that I match the world, not bend the world to match my concept) and ensure that the character fits the world.

As Rafe mentions, starting with a cliché and seeing how it grows and twists is interesting. Just because you start as a cliché doesn’t mean you won’t change dramatically.

#10 Comment By Zig On June 24, 2009 @ 9:48 am

@Scott Martin – Excellent point.

Actually now I’m reminded of one of my Shadowrun players. He made his character up as a katan wielding “pure strain human” (harkening back to our shared days of ancient Gamma World). No magic and no cyberware.

As the game went on he decided the physical adept would fit his character better. He’d become invested in the character however and neither of us wanted to replace him. He’d started doing community work of all things in the Barrens with his run proceeds and was becoming something of a folk hero. So, to let him keep the same character I had him go through a quest for a master and several ordeals. He had to earn every point of his magic attribute and did a great job of roleplaying it out. His character definitely grew and expanded into a wonderful three dimensional character. I think what is most telling is that from that SR campaign he carries his character’s street name as his personal nickname in our circle of gaming friends.

#11 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On June 24, 2009 @ 9:53 am

While I don’t mind cliches that are done well, most of my own favorite character concepts break out of any mold. Here are a few that I plan to do some day — feel free to steal them if you like:

1. A Bard named Scratch. Scratch suffered a throat injury years ago that left him with a notably raspy voice. He doesn’t even try to sing, but he is the world’s best story teller.

2. A Paladin (name?) who is world-weary and tired –think Aragorn before the final battle, when he is sure they are all about to die, and then double it. Gloomy and bitter, he does what is right, but with great resentment.

3. A Warlock (name?) who has made a pact (type?) but does not remember making it. She uses her pact powers because they are her only means of survival, but wants nothing more than to get out of it.

There are more, but that’s the general idea.

#12 Comment By Patrick Benson On June 24, 2009 @ 10:00 am

I think playing a cliché can be fun, and if that is what a player wants who am I to say that is wrong?

I ran a zombie game using the Fudge system at FLGS for Free RPG Day. I stated at the beginning that none of the characters were combat oriented (pre-gens, no cops or ex-military types). That was a cliché that I wanted to avoid – the “we’re playing a horror game so I’m going to make a bad ass character that is scarier than the monsters” cliché to be precise. Yet the pre-gens were cliché characters from zombie films. A paramedic, a football player, a farmer, a handyman, etc. Very generic, and without skills that were directly applicable to fighting zombies with.

The game played very well, and I am glad that I went with the clichés. Everyone was able to step into their role quickly, and we had a blast playing a very tense game where the player characters were scared. Why? Because when you aren’t the walking god-of-war but a mere cliché of a B movie victim character zombies are scary!

BTW – I’ll be arriving at Origins on Thursday evening and am looking forward to hanging out with you for the rest of the con! GS Readers – I do not wear a kilt or goggles. You’ll just have to guess who I am!

#13 Comment By Rafe On June 24, 2009 @ 10:05 am

@Scott MartinJust because you start as a cliché doesn’t mean you won’t change dramatically.

Yup, and sometimes that’s just roleplaying character evolution, and sometimes the actual mechanics will change. It’d have to be mostly roleplaying in D&D, since it’s class-based, but other systems allow for lots of change there, mechanics and roleplaying.

#14 Comment By Airk On June 24, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

I really quite strongly agree with Valadil’s assertions – the bane of the “unique” character is that of becoming shallow and gimmicky. You think “My character is -special- because he’s a !” and then you totally fail to actually really explore the character because he’s already “special”. Whereas if you play a character with no “gimmick” you’re more free (and, hopefully, inclined) to really run with them and make them a person.

The other thing is, truthfully, in my gaming group (and, by baseless extrapolation, all gaming groups!) people just don’t PLAY the stereotypes. There’s never BEEN a stereotypical Knight in Shining Armor in any of my games. Not because I discourage people from doing so, or because any of the players do, but, likely, because everyone thinks “that’s been done a million times” – except it HASN’T. Even in popular gaming culture at this point, you’re practically more likely to hit a Drizzt clone (Unique Snowflake!) than a Knight in Shining Armor.

Food for thought.

#15 Comment By Supertheory On June 25, 2009 @ 8:13 am

Arik, you bring up an excellent point. I’ll give you an example of someone I’m playing with now.

The character is a Dwarven rogue, who was, long ago, the eldest son of the King of the Dwarves. This king was at war with another Dwarven city. In the interest of saving lives, the Character trapped the opposing kings throne, and killed the king. Now, apparently, dwarves HATE traps and everyone found this very dishonorable, and he was exiled. At 40 years old. Barely an adult.

Suuuuuure.

I don’t have a problem with cliches, but I DO have a problem when players invest massive amounts of time into a convoluted backstory, that ultimately results in a Mary-Sue or Gary-Sue character.

To help, in my current game, I’m limiting my characters to backgrounds that are no more than three (3) simple sentences long. My favourite so far being

“My character is a 45 year old human farmer. He was a member of the militia for a long time. He decided he hates his wife, so he joined the army and sends money when he can.”

#16 Comment By Ameron On June 25, 2009 @ 11:53 am

We ran an article a few months back called Overplayed Characters. It continues to be one of our most often read pages. People may think some concepts are cliché but they love them dearly and want to keep playing them. I don’t really understand it, I’d rather play something new and different, but I guess other prefer the stereotypes and clichés.

#17 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 25, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

“Clichéd Stereotype” or “Traditional Archetype”? I suspect that one would get different answers depending on which term was used.

#18 Comment By Your Obedient Serpent On June 25, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

We’ve gone this far, and nobody’s mentioned the TV Tropes Wiki yet?

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TropesAreTools

Tropes only become clichés when they’re abused. This site is an endless cornucopia of recurring concepts, characters, and plot formulas from television, movies, literature, comics, video games, and more — including tabletop RPGs.

It’s a great resource for coming up with game ideas, character ideas, background color, and coincidental magic effects for Mage: The Ascension (“Of COURSE the car blows up when I shoot the gas tank!”).

A lot of professional writers have started reading and contributing, and, every so often, careful eyes can see Shout Outs to the wiki on certain shows.

As just a single example:

I’m running a solo Mutants & Masterminds game for my son-in-law. When I started to assemble his NPC allies for the “Hero Joins the Team” episodes, I deliberately used the Five Man Band (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FiveManBand) as a template.

#19 Comment By Sewicked On June 25, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

Sometimes a character takes a cliche idea so that they can concentrate on some other element of the character; the personality, the application of some game quirk, etc.

#20 Comment By EvilBen On June 28, 2009 @ 7:44 am

@Sewicked

Sometimes I wish some of my players would stick to a cliché. I have one who continues to try to be everything, and not in a jack-of-all-trades cliché kind of way. If makes for an odd character that doesn’t meet his expectations.

And speaking of clichés, I can’t believe Risus hasn’t come up yet. Talk about a game with clichéd characters!

#21 Comment By Supertheory On June 28, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

@Your Obedient Serpent

Ok, this is something that really bothers me. One of the guys in my Sunday night group CONSTANTLY talks about TV Tropes. Everything that comes up “Ohhhh, TV TROPE,” “TROPE TROPE TROPE”.

And this is coming from a guy who regularly writes Stewie Griffin into his games. TV Tropes is a good example of something that Players (Rather than DM’s) should never, ever be exposed too. It can backfire really badly.

#22 Comment By John Arcadian On June 28, 2009 @ 10:47 pm

Wow! This is the kind of awesome comment talking that I love to see.


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