Core Tropes For Your Setting

In my previous post, I identified as a great resource for putting the setting information for your game in easy-to-understand pieces that your players will automatically have reference to.

In this post I’m taking that a step farther; or rather, I’m refining the process a bit. Now that we’ve recognized the use of tropes in our games, what I want to do is focus on a few game-defining tropes that will influence almost everything that you as a GM do. Ten is a nice round number, so I’m going to go with that. I’m going to use to isolate ten core tropes for my Brittanis setting and detail how those influence the adventures I write, the NPCs my players interact with, and the PCs that my players create.

  • Knight In Shining Armor/Knight Errant: If I had to choose one (okay, two… but they’re so closely tied I consider them one) trope instead of ten, it would be this one. The concept of knighthood and all its related themes infuse the entire setting. The PCs don’t have to be knights, though– I’m not going to force that rigid a character straightjacket on them unless the players decide beforehand that want to play that kind of game. But stableboys they meet will want to be knights and squires; the majority of mercenaries they encounter will instead be called Men-At-Arms and will have at one point or another been in the service of Lord So-And-So or Duke Whatshisname; they will encounter a bevy of knight NPCs in all kinds of roles. Some of these NPCs will be important because they’re knights, and others will be important for other reasons but will still be knights as well. This also will play out in putting the class structure of Royalty–Nobility–Peasant in the front of the setting. However, I can avert and subvert this trope as I see fit by giving different cultures different views on what qualities, exactly, a knight should possess. A Tiberian knight, for example, would focus on the lance and sword, likely wear plate armor, and value the virtues[1] of Justice, Faith, Nobility and Principle; a Brynn knight might wear chainmail and a shield, be an expert with a spear, and focus on the virtues  of Prowess, Loyalty, Courage, and Largesse. In crunch-terms, this also lets me build Paragon Paths for each variety, as well as, should I choose, a knight-path for each class. Regardless of rules, though, the concept of knighthood is one that will infuse and underscore the entire setting.
  • The Middle Ages (and many of the sub-tropes listed): Ironically, many fantasy RPGs take this trope and subvert it without even thinking about it by relegating the concepts of class and status to a VERY distant afterthought in their games. It’s surprising to me that “Fantasy Medieval” isn’t a trope of its own, highlighting the differences between what RPGs have developed over the years and the “real” Middle Ages. Regardless, I choose Brittanis to be a setting where a person’s status, birth, birth order, and all the accompanying baggage matter. This adds a multitude of layers to just about any encounter that I design– it allows me to add in elements of class, rank, etc to nearly everything in the setting. It also firmly places the PCs in a setting where their actions have immediate impact upon themselves and their environments. If they decide to haul off and slay NPCs for no good reason, the lord of the NPC they murdered is going to come looking for them with a vengeance, as will the family if those involved. In fact, because everybody in a feudal setting is beholden to (and likewise under the protection of) someone higher on the food chain, just about any action the PCs take in relation to an NPC can have ramifications. If they treat an NPC well, word gets out in that NPC’s chain of feudalism. Likewise if the PCs treat an NPC poorly, whether the NPC deserves it or not. In my experience, this kind of immersion prevents a lot of the “murderous hobo” activities often attributed to adventurers. Making the characters clearly and obviously accountable to someone is, in my opinion, a good thing.
  • Fate and Destiny: As stated in the previous post, the concepts of Fate, Destiny and Prophecy play a big part in Brittanis, as they do in the Arthurian myths (especially when the story heavily involves Merlin or the tales steeped in Christian lore). Many of the myths, though, are darkly or even depressingly heavy-handed in their application of this trope. I want the option of choosing how set in stone any particular prophecy is for my game so I choose to include the trope but leave it flexible enough that it serves the game instead of me being constrained by it.
  • A Time of Myths: The past matters. Related to the previous two tropes, this one emphasizes the importance of the history and mythology of the world. Because nobody has television or radio or anything like that, they spend an awful lot of time sitting around talking to one another…especially in the cold of winter. This is fertile ground for a plethora of in-game oral mythology. Whether it’s a tale of Lost Aquilon, a parable about the actions of the gods, or a retelling of the battle that happened last week, people are gonna talk about it. Some of it might be true… a lot of it likely won’t. But the past influences the actions of mortals every single day because the stories and tales of the past are a real, living, vibrant part of every Brittanic culture.
  • People Of Hair Color: Race (meaning species, as in human or elven or dwarven, etc) matters. A human thinks, acts, dresses and speaks differently than an elf or a dwarf. Likewise, the separate divisions between ethnicities or subraces matter: there is no physiological difference between a Free Dwarf and an Ironhall Dwarf, but the culturally the two couldn’t be more different. Likewise, subraces with physiological differences like elves and eladrin are different as well. This is reflected in NPCs as well as PCs, and can be a defining trait of a character. When describing a human, their ethnicity should be part of the description by the DM because this will influence their personality and also what the character expects of them in-game. Just like in our world, stereotypes do exist for a reason and an individual can choose to follow or subvert the proclivities of his stereotype.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: Now this might seem completely out of place in an Arthurian style game, but it has a specific application. One of the first things I tell my players is that if they are interested in playing the lone-wolf, misanthropic, “does not play well with others” antihero, they can go look for another game. I play D&D to tell stories about the heroes beating the bad guys–eventually. The struggle is to still be a hero when the last sword is swung, because damn near everyone around you isn’t one. In 4th Edition terms, my average peasant is not Good in alignment, and he’s certainly not Lawful Good– he’s Unaligned. He’s willing to do whatever is necessary to put food in his family’s bellies. This makes the PCs choices to be Good or Lawful Good even more of a contrast because they are indeed atypical. Lots of people talk about being good… but very, very few actually are. It’s also very unlikely that most folks, including minions and lackeys of the BBEGs, will be heartless, puppy-kicking villains. I enjoy putting my characters in the position of making a moral stand, making hard and emotional decisions, and making them choose sides in a conflict as opposed to not letting their choices have any real effect in the world around them.
  • The Clan: The stories of Brittanis don’t affect just the heroes and those they save. The politics of the region are tied up in the fates and machinations of the noble Houses. Those who claim allegiance to a mighty or wealthy family are assumed by the people to have some of those traits. Likewise if a PC’s House is known to be destitute or cowardly.  An NPC may hate a character with an intense passion simply because his House is at war with the PCs House, and allies may turn up in strange places because an NPC has previously-unknown ties to the PC’s chosen House. This is directly inspired by the Song of Ice and Fire series as well as the Legend of the Five Rings RPG. PCs playing in populated areas will be required to declare an allegiance with one of the major Houses, and their actions will have a direct effect on the fate of their House. As the PC prospers, so too does the House they are attached to. Likewise the PC is likely to be called upon at some point in the campaign to deal with the issues and struggles of the House they claim allegiance to. Much like Race and ethnicity, this is a storytelling element that can flesh out a character and provide a great deal of roleplaying potential–and plot hooks for me as a GM to exploit, too.
  • Grim Up North / Garden of Evil: The Waste is death. The Waste is terror. The Waste is growing. In Brittanis, the northern borders of the region butt up against an area alternately known as The Blasted Lands, The Blight, The Wastelands or just The Waste. Many of the most twisted, mutated, disgusting things in the region come from or have their origins in The Waste. Nobody knows its true cause, but it is a desolate, blasted place that few ever return from. Everybody knows about it. One of the Kings of Albion even sacrificed himself to stop an invasion based there. He and his Century Knights rode in and never returned. It is a lurking, looming shadow in the back of everyone’s mind. Those who live on its borders are considered both brave and tough beyond reason, and this is not without cause. Some of the most horrific and mind-rending creatures in Brittanis crawl, slither or squirm their way out of the blasted Waste.
  • Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Arthurian legend is full of characters that are larger than life (to varying degrees depending on which cycle of myth you read), and the vast majority have their protagonist doing deeds that most would consider fantastic. Fortunately, D&D is full of the same kinds of characters and heroic activity. Because of this, I highly encourage nonstandard actions at the table, and will often give a player a bonus to attempt whatever wild and crazy but genre-appropriate action he is attempting. I am a full believer in the Rule of Cool and was using it unknowingly before I even knew what it was.
  • Functional Magic: While it’s a standard fantasy trope, I think it rounds out the group rather well by explicitly stating that the magic in Brittanis is fantastic, and awesome (in the sense of inspiring awe)— but it also obeys rules. Neither the characters nor the players will ever know all the rules that magic behaves by, even if their characters attain epic spellcasting ability. Magic in Brittanis is one of the building blocks of Creation, and only the gods have the capacity to understand such world-spanning concepts. Despite that, little snippets of the laws of Creation will pop up as the game progresses, revealing tiny little parts of the vast equation that comprises Creation. I have found that this is a surefire way to invoke a sense of the characters being part of something far, far greater than themselves and is immensely rewarding to discover as a player and to reveal as a GM.

So there you have it– the ten primary tropes I have chosen to focus on and emphasize when I create pretty darn near anything for my Brittanis game. These tropes provide signposts for my players to guide their character actions by as well as easy, drop-in bits of added verisimilitude for my encounters, NPCs, and story lines. It is, in a way, the core of a Series Bible for my Brittanis games, and it informs the expectations my players should have when they show up to play one of my games set in this world. It’s the foundation that everything else can be built upon.

[1] As a side note, a conceit of the Brittanis setting is the existence of 11 virtues, stolen blatantly from Malhavoc Press’ Book of Hallowed Might. These virtues are Prowess, Justice, Loyalty, Defense, Courage, Faith, Humility, Largesse, Nobility, Principle and Franchise.

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

One Response to Core Tropes For Your Setting

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

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