Back in the early '90s, I picked up Ebert's Little Movie Glossary*, a list of cinematic cliches compiled by critic Roger Ebert. I purchased it because it was amusing in andof itself, but it soon became one of my most valued tools as a gamer.
I discovered something, you see: judiciously dressing up a scenario with well-placed cinematic tropes makes it more vivid, more "real". These are heroic fantasies, after all, and for most of us involved in this silly hobby, the heroic fantasies that we've got engraved in our deep subconscious come from the cinema.
Some games even make this sort of thing useful for the Players. Players of MAGE: The Ascension will find it an invaluable approach to Coincidental Magic: "Of course their car flips over and bursts into flame. Everyone watching expects that to happen. They've seen it a thousand times."
Part of the trick: avoid the Great Big Obvious Plot Clichés. Don't reveal that the major villain of the piece is the father of one of the major PCs. Don't tie the supervillain's origin in with that of the superhero**. That just makes your game a rehash of the Same Old Same Old.
But... when there's a chase scene through a city (especially one in a foreign locale), have someone knock over a "Fruit Cart" as the the owner shakes his fist and swears at them. Have the PCs squeak through a "Harrison Door", only to have it close shut on their persuers. Make sure those air ducts are big enough to crawl around in. Whenever they turn on the TV, it's showing a news report directly related to their adventure -- and they always catch the very beginning of the appropriate report. If someone just barely makes their Stealth roll, tell them they knocked over something, startled the guards -- who look over and see a cat run across the room, and think that it made the noise.
Mr. Ebert's observations are far from exclusive, of course. The Internet, a haven for both devoted amateurs and serious analysts, has similar compendia of such Classic Tropes, refined and specialized by genre:
- The Evil Overlord List is perhaps the best-known, and certainly one of the most amusing. Woe betide PCs whose adversaries have read and understood this document.
- If I Ever Become an Anime Character..., inspired by the above, further discusses the foibles of "Magical Girls", "Anime Hero(ines)", and "Anime Villains".
- The Laws of Anime extend the exploration beyond character foibles and into the permutations of the very laws of physics and probability one encounters in Japanese animation.
- The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy, inspired by the sadly out-of-print Tough Guide to Fantasyland (another volume which I am fortunate enough to have in my collection), discusses the well-worn standards of space opera in the form reminiscent of a Fodor's Travel Guide.
- The Grand List of Overused Science Fiction Clichés gets specific, identifying which clichés are fatal to a story and which can be used judiciously. They have a special icon especially for those over-used in the Star Trek franchise; it appears frequently.
- Since I don't play such games myself, I can only appreciate parts of The Grand List of Console Role Playing Game Clichés; however, many entries also apply to tabletop RPGs, movies, televison, and other genre fiction. The "Load-Bearing Villain" is one that I encountered frequently in my early days of playing AD&D, and even used a time or two myself.
- The Submission Guidelines for the online magazine Strange Horizons include summaries of both "Stories We See Too Often", and "Horror Stories We See Too Often".
- www.tvtropes.org insists that it's not a list of clichés, but of "devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations." You say tomayto, I say tomahto, but that disclaimer does sound much like my own thesis. I only just discovered this site in the course of writing this entry, so I can't vouch for its quality.
- Similarly, S. John Ross's Big Book of RPG Plots is a list of "classic" adventure ideas.
- The Reality of Running Away From Stuff is not so much a cliché list as a commentary on a single, well-used cliché.
Sometimes, if you're stuck for an idea for an adventure, skimming these lists will kick-start the creative juices. It's not always a bad thing to beat the dust off a hoary old plot. Every incarnation of Star Trek has invoked its own retelling of Moby Dick. A classic article in Roleplayer Magazine described how well the basic storyline of Seven Samurai adapted across settings, time-periods and genres. A plot that's trite in one genre might be fresh and new in another; taking a "classic" plot and deliberately tweaking it or inverting it outright provide even more variations.
I've got these links filed under my "Authoring" folder, since I also use them in my fiction writing. Much of my still-gestating web comic centers around the deconstruction of the stereotyped assumptions of fantasy fiction. It's nice to be reminded when I'm in danger of falling into old traps -- and deciding if I want to use those old traps to better underscore my themes.
I hope you find these links useful, or, at the very least, amusing.
*The proffered link leads to a later edition of Ebert's. My edition really does merit the appelation of "little" -- it's a pocket-sized tome, perhaps 4"x6". This makes it quite convenient to include in my RPG bag -- but also makes it prone to being misplaced for months at a time.
**It's been pointed out that almost every superhero movie since Tim Burton's Batman has invoked the "I Made You/You Made Me" cliché, in some cases going so far as to quote that exchange of dialogue near-verbatim.