I am currently running a Night’s Black Agents game and for the first session, as the players were descending on Stockholm, I wanted the opening of our game to be very Jason Bourne, so I asked each player to describe how they were entering the city. Each took turns describing how they entered the city; one coming in the airport, one stepping off a train, one driving in, etc. It drew heavily upon the tropes in the Bourne movies, and we loved it.
Flash forward a few sessions and the team switched cities, now heading to Budapest. Inspired, I told the players to once again describe how they enter the city and how they meet up. It was a callback to our first session. Once again, everyone jumped in on it and enjoyed it. At that moment, I made up my mind to use this trope every time the players arrive in a city.
That got me thinking that while I love using tropes in my games, I should also be creating some of my own tropes for the games I run. So let’s talk about it.
Tropes Are Awesome
A trope is defined as “a common or overused theme or device” (Merriam-Webster). Our media is saturated with tropes – one such example is the “superhero landing” that Iron Man made so famous, and Deadpool references in his movie. Tropes are great in games because they are shorthand that players can key into and it helps them get into the setting and genre.
As a quick aside, if you have some free time, check out TVTropes.org. It is full of so many tropes and as a wiki, you will fall into a rabbit hole of link clicking. Check it out if you never have.
Back to the topic of tropes, Using tropes as a way to enforce genre is a good way to help everyone get into the right mindset about a setting. In addition, if your game is about a specific genre, the use of tropes helps to enforce your genre and guides the players on how their characters should properly act to be consistent with the genre.
Besides the tropes that we find in media, like the Bourne movies, the RPG hobby has its own set of tropes – with the most famous being, “You all meet in a tavern”, which was inspired by fantasy literature, so the whole thing is circular.
You Can Make Your Own Tropes
Tropes don’t only have to come from a website or some piece of media. We, as gamers, can make our own tropes for our games. Making a trope is pretty easy.
First, find something that is memorable in the game. You can plan for this to happen in advance, or you can just wait until something cool happens in the game, and note it. It could be something like the way you present something, a line a character says, a song that is played during an event, etc.
Next, call that thing back, under the same conditions that it first happened. This then reinforces that cool thing and starts to establish it as a trope.
Lastly, repeat. Each time you have it come up again, it reinforces it as a trope. Soon, your players will then know what is going to happen when it comes up.
This trope is inspired by the great John Arcadian, who told me of something very similar he did in one of his games… Assign a theme song to an NPC; something catchy (I think John used Whatever Lola Wants by Sarah Vaughan). Anytime that NPC entered into a scene, John would start playing the song. After a few encounters, he could get the hearts of his players racing by starting up the song.
In my Tales From the Loop Game, as a way to enforce the principle that no adults would help the kids, any time the kids tried to tell an adult about the things they saw, the adult would take it as some kind of metaphor, and often blame it on capitalism. “I get it, that runaway robot is the plight of the worker, and its faulty programming is capitalism”.
As discussed earlier, in my Night’s Black Agents game, any time the characters enter a new city, they enter separately and describe how they enter and meet up.
Some Tips on Using Tropes
I do love tropes, but they are a gaming spice. So use them but don’t overuse them. Unless the game you are running is meant to be a comedy, use just a few tropes in a session and use different ones between sessions. Much like spices, using a variety of tropes will go a long way.
Don’t subvert a trope until it’s fully established. When you make your own trope, reinforce it a bunch of times, so that the players know what to expect. Later, and only after it is fully cemented, you can then subvert it to throw the players off. If you do it before the trope is cemented you will confuse the players as to what the trope is about.
For example, with the song intro for the NPC, do that a bunch of times until everyone knows what to expect, then one day have the characters enter a place where the NPC is not expected, have the song come on, but then another NPC have it playing on their phone, looking confused at why the characters are acting that way.
He Always Ends With a Conclusion and Question
Tropes are a great way to help enforce your genre, but they are also a great way to give your game its own unique feel. Making one is easy, but does take some time to set. Either be deliberate and make one to put into your game, or wait until something iconic happens and capitalize upon it. Either way, they are going to be something that you and your players will share.
Do you have any tropes for games that you are running or have run? If so, what are they?