Trope-ify Your Setting

The human brain works on patterns. The squishy stuff between our ears is, basically, a collection of electronic connections; as we grow and learn, the brain forms networks that allow the electronic impulses move faster. This is why cliches, stereotypes and tropes are such useful storytelling devices– they tie directly into the patterns already built into our brains which in turn allows us to access information in a more efficient and powerful manner.

This directly applies to your D&D game, no matter what edition you play. It’s been said elsewhere that one of the great things about D&D is that the entire game is a cliche. It’s been around long enough that pretty much anything about it has some form of recognition for anyone even remotely familiar with the fantasy genre. And with fantasy becoming far more mainstream than it has been (thank you, Lord of the Rings movies and World of Warcraft), the numbers of folks who have interacted with those established patterns has increased exponentially and continues to grow. This is nothing but a benefit for us as Game Masters.

TV Tropes is one of my all-time favorite websites. It’s an amazing resource for both payers and DMs. It’s a treasure trove of setting hooks, adventure ideas, and personality quirks for your PCs and NPCs. When you as a DM choose to embrace the fact that we work in a medium composed of cliche and stereotype, you can use that to enrich your game immensely.

You don’t have to use a trope as-is, either– both your imagination and the website can show you ways to manipulate the trope to your advantage. You play the trope as it is presented, or you can subvert it and turn it on its head. You can also use foreshadowing and lampshading to give PCs clues to the tropes they might not be aware of.

For my world of Brittanis I went to and looked up a bunch of the movies I knew I wanted to be inspiration for my games set in in that world, regardless of what ruleset I picked to run the games in. These are purely choices of style, mood, and theme.

I created Brittanis  in response to a great deal of the Tolkien-copy homebrew settings I saw proliferating the internet. There is nothing wrong with this, as I said above– Tolkien is one of the greatest fantasy writers ever and there is a reason his work has endured and spawned such devotion. I just wanted something different.

When I designed the setting elements for my campaign, I decided to deliberately make a list of the tropes I wanted to emphasize and use in my games– I wanted to create a kind of shorthand or shared language for my players to use both when they create their characters and when they play them. Emphasizing the tropes of a setting has, in my experience, removed a great deal of the misanthropic behaviors a lot of adventurers exhibit because it gives the players a grasp of what the socially acceptable choice is for their character to make in a situation. Basically, it gives the players more options to choose from when interacting with your townspeople, villains, and especially NPCs with social status and rank.

I knew I wanted an Arthurian-flavored setting without actually replicating the Arthurian myths, so the first thing I did when I went to was to search for King Arthur. Sure enough, a long (and I mean LONG) list of tropes are cataloged in reference to Arthur, and I went through and cherrypicked which ones I wanted to emphasize. Keep in mind, though, that this is not a complete list of the tropes I want to use when gaming. These are just  few of the ones I want to keep reinforcing to the players through their interactions with NPCs and setting elements to keep the players immersed in the game world.

Some of the tropes I picked initially for my Brittanis setting are listed below. I include a link to the trope itself as well as how I use it in regards to my setting.

  • Bastard Bastard: One of the ethnicities of humans in Brittanis are the Tiberians, descendants of an ancient, partiarchal and blatantly Roman-inspired empire. To them, birth rank and patriarchy are everything– bastards are unanimously considered second-class citizens. I then took this trope and subverted it, creating a Celtic-inspired ethnic group called the Brynn who are entirely matriarchal– for the Brynn, who fathered you doesn’t really matter at all. Including bastard NPCs or even PCs when interacting with these two cultures allows me to highlight this aspect of the setting.
  • Because Destiny Says So: I believe that PCs, no matter the system, are inherently more than your average townsperson. At some point they are invested with something that makes them capable of doing what everybody else can’t, and from a fantasy gaming point of view, that “something” is Destiny. Take a look at the Fate and Prophecy Tropes for a full list because basically that’s what I want to emphasize in Brittanis– Fate and Prophecy are very real and very powerful… and it depends on which story I’m telling as to whether it’s mutable or fixed. Either decision makes for a very powerful, and very different, vision of the story we as GMs are telling.
  • The Call Left A Message: This is a trope I love, and one I’ve scattered in a very intentional way throughout the setting. One of the deities in the setting is the patron of oracles, fate, and prophecy and she’s quite proactive about it. Her divine messengers, clerics and even lay followers are known to leave bits of prophecy or divine message carved in stone or written in strange places. Thus, the players will stumble upon bits of writing and carvings all over the place– sometimes intended for them, and sometimes intended for someone who won’t be in that spot for a hundred years. Making this an intentional trope of the setting allows me as a GM to occasionally give the players hints when they need them or help them figure out something they’re stuck on without seeming as though I’m bending the rules… because the rules in this case are known to be as solid as Gumby. The key is that the trope is in fact known to the players as well as the characters.
  • The Fair Folk: Brittanis is deliberately a smaller-scale setting than most (Forgotten Realms, I’m looking at you) and when I chose to run the game in D&D 4E, I deliberately took the eladrin out of the Feywild. I did this because I wanted to keep the mystery and the power of the Other Realms intact. So instead, I made all three races of elves (eladrin, elves, and drow) exiles from the Feywild. This allowed me to make some very Arthurian choices in regards to that plane– the creatures that dwell there are inscrutable, strange, alien and powerful. So powerful, in fact, that they exiled an entire species into another plane of existence. And to this day, nobody knows why. Using the old-school versions of the Fey Realm in my game allows for a lot of small-scale immersion: people putting saucers of milk and honey outside their doors, the PCs encountering rings of mushrooms and hills circled by strange rocks… and all of these things having varying in-game effects from the minor to the seriously powerful. (By the way, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files novels are a FANTASTIC resource for roleplaying denizens of the fey realm).
  • Half Human Hybrid: I’ve taken this trope and run with it. Half-elves (called faetouched in Brittanis) aren’t restricted to being children of elves or eladrin and humans, nor are they children born to two half-elves. Instead, faetouched can be born spontaneously (though exceedingly rarely) to two human parents if the mother visits a place where the borders between the Feywild and the mortal realm are thin. Being under the influence of fey magic or encountering powerful denizens of that realm can also, according to in-game legend, affect the child’s birth. I liked this concept so much I expanded on it; it’s also the explanation for genasi and devas. Since there are no orcs in Brittanis (again removing the Tolkien influences), I had the rules for that race basically floating with no way to use them. I also really never liked the flavor of the shifter race. So I dubbed them all the Rageblood and decided they are the result of human children influenced by primal spirits in the womb, and the player can choose which ruleset (half-orc, longtooth or razorclaw) he wants to use for his PCs. I also divorced the revenant from the “back from the dead” fluff and re-skinned them as shades, children imbued with the energy of the shadowfell in the womb. This is an example of taking a trope and expanding it into a setting-wide concept, and I am very happy with the way that turned out.
  • I Call It Vera: Aside from the fact that I’m an unabashed Firefly fanboy, I love this trope because it makes magical items far more personal for the characters. When they either name a weapon (or staff, or scabbard, etc), quest for a famous item with a famous history, or learn about a long-lost item they found in a dragon’s hoard, the weapon having a name and a history to go with that name makes the item far more personal for the characters. Because of this, I make a habit of either powering up items the PCs already possess as part of their treasure or letting them do it themselves. I developed a ritual for letting the PCs do exactly this:

Hero’s Blade
You unlock the enchantment already invested in a magical item, increasing its potency and magical powers.
Level: 7
Category: Creation
Component Cost: Special (see below)
Market Price:
Skill: Arcana
Time: 1 hour
Duration: Permanent

You touch an enchanted item and turn it into a magic item of the same type, but of the next higher level listed in its magic item entry. For instance, you can turn a Magic Longsword +1 (Level 1) into a Magic Longsword +2 (Level 6). The item itself does not change; only the enchantment laid upon the item becomes more potent. Note: Unlike Enchant Magic Item, you can attempt to create a magic item of up to your level +5 using this ritual. However, if you attempt this and the Arcana Check fails, you lose a number of  healing surges until you have taken 3 extended rests. This ritual has no effect on an item that has only one level entry for its type.

This ritual has a base component cost equal to the difference in the items prices at the beginning and end of the ritual. For instance, a Magic Longsword +1 costs 360 gp, and a Magic Longsword +2 costs 1800 gp. The base cost for this ritual would then be 1440 gp. Additional component cost is determined by the result of your Arcana check.  The difficulty for the Arcana check is equal to 10 + the level the item would be at the end of the ritual. Thus turning a +1 sword into a +2 sword would require a DC 16 Arcana check. The amount you exceed your difficulty by determines the additional component cost. If the Arcana check fails, you lose 1/3 the base component cost and cannot cast the ritual again until you have taken an extended rest.

Ritual Check Beats DC By     Additional Component Cost
<5                                                        +20%, 2 healing surges

5-10                                                      +10%, 2 healing surges
11-15                                                    +5%, 1 healing surge
>15                                                        no additional cost
Tropes are an incredibly useful tool for putting your players and PCs in a common frame of reference. It gives them gobs of setting details to play off of as well as a wealth of background information. The trick, though, is that giving your players the information in trope format provides them an immediate concept for how to apply the information in game. Their brains are already hard-wired for the information, whether they know it or not. You as a GM can use this hardwiring to your advantage and hand out information to your players in a format they’re already predisposed to. Even if you subvert or really embrace the trope, using it intentionally gives your players a frame of reference to go from– it helps them apply their knowledge in ways that can have a real, positive  impact on your game.
What tropes do you use in your games? How do you apply or subvert them?
Also, I’m considering doing a series of posts regarding the tropes I use for my Brittanis setting. Let me know if you’d be interested in these, and what kinds of tropes you’d be interested in hearing about.


This entry was posted in Applying Theory, Brittanis, Characters, GM Advice, Group Dynamics, Rules, Tropes, Worldbuilding and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Trope-ify Your Setting

  1. says:

    I’ve always been fond of Crystal Dragon Jesus, especially when the Crystal Dragon Jesus is a literal Crystal Dragon Jesus. Gives you something to fight at epic levels once the church turns out to be evil.

    It’s also one of the best trope names.

  2. Pingback: Cartographer’s Guild = Made of Awesome « The Action Point

  3. Pingback: Links of the Week: January 9, 2012 | Keith J Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

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