Top 5 Role-Playing Game Cliches That Need Retiring

Cliches epitomize laziness by the game master. Rather than expend energy and create something original, the GM falls back on characters or situations so familiar every player instantly knows what will happen. It is more than just back role-playing, it is bad storytelling, which is the entire point of a role-playing game. As a public service, I put together this short list of situations that everyone will recognize and no one will miss. Consign them to the depths of time and never use them again.

5. Rescuing the Princess from a Dragon

The ultimate gaming cliche and still one of the lamest. The dragon eats everything in sight, destroys entire cities and then decides to kidnap a princess. Why? Do princesses taste better after aging for a few days in a damp cave? Do not even start with the “hold for ransom” argument either. A dragon wields power equal to an army and if it wants money all it need do is threaten to attack. Babysitting a spoiled princess is not necessary.

4. The Fedex Mission

“Take this magic macguffin to Lord PlotPoint in his far away kingdom.” Mighty heroes, warriors of legend…deliverymen? If it is that important, send an army with the box, not a group of adventurers. Stealing said item from Lord PlotPoint, now that sounds like fun!

3. Prophecies that are Always Accurate

“Only he born with two middle fingers and one left toe may slay the evil overlord!” Who says? I really hate these because they smack of plot railroading and at the end of the story, the prophecy comes true. Usually by some ridiculous, convoluted deus ex machina to make the letter of the prophecy come to pass. Remember that prophecies are a function of faith as well as magic. Just because everyone believes something does not make it accurate. In fact, an entire campaign trying to find the “chosen one” and then discovering that anyone can do the job sounds incredibly entertaining. Just remember the body armor when the players discover they did not need all 22 pieces of the magic sword to kill the evil overlord. In fact, any sword would do the job. Expect some blowback on this one.

2.The NPC with the Party is Critical to the Plot

Just because you found an orphan on a mountain trail does not make him the long-lost heir to the empire. Sometimes he is just an orphan. I see this as a distant relative of Checkhov’s Gun. Introducing a new NPC does not require they matter to the plot. Sometimes they are just window dressing. I watched one party in an Arcanis game start acting like a Secret Service detail when they found an orphan on the street, instantly assuming he was important because he had, gasp, a name! Only important NPC orphans get names, or so the party thought.

I laughed for days about that one.

1. Tavern Brawl

A tavern brawl is a pointless filler combat, usually started by an obnoxious, drunk NPC. Said drunk comes upon an adventuring group and decides he “does not like their looks” and decides to “show them who is the boss.”

Picture this, local drunk goes up to Aragorn from “Lord of the Rings” and picks a fight. There is no human alive capable of drinking enough ale to find Aragorn an “easy” target and stay conscious. The man’s stare stuns small animals at 50 feet. Even the average group of adventurers packs roughly enough muscle, weaponry and magic to level a small city. Pass on the pointless fight and actually make the combat part of the plot, not a time filler or a lame excuse to have the local constable dislike the party.

So ends my list of cliches, feel free to add your own in the comments. Perhaps a young player might learn from our long experience and we can end the cycle of cliche.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer



Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.

9 thoughts on “Top 5 Role-Playing Game Cliches That Need Retiring

  • September 14, 2009 at 6:24 am

    Regarding the tavern brawl, i end it quickly by saying everyone involved in the party loses a healing surge, and local guard have asked them to pay a fine.

    If the town is too small for a local guard, they are asked to leave and forget about whatever quest they have asked of the party.

    The players usually apologize and pay some fees and agree to help anyway.

  • September 14, 2009 at 6:34 am

    Okay… so not only do I not have a problem with your top three, I don’t think I’ve ever, ever done any of the top three. In fact, #2 is the only one where I have been stuck with as a player, and it is really irritating…

    … but no Rescue/Delivery missions? Really? Those seem to be pretty fun, adequate standbys. They use them in movies every blockbuster season because they are so popular. I know that after a few decades of roleplaying, I *still* enjoy going out and rescuing people.

    I just think that while you can and should have games that have other motivations, eliminating two of the most basic plots seems to remove a motivational tool, not enhance further stories.

  • September 14, 2009 at 7:24 am

    One of my favorite DnD combats was a fight in a gnome bar. Low ceilings, flingable patrons, no knee pads. It was hilarious fun.

    Just the other day my Illusionist was on the verge of getting smacked by two brutal uglies, but I was able to bluff ’em into fighting one another. (“He said you were ugly!”)

    Finding out that one of the patrons happens to be a mighty hero who could wax the entire party is half the fun. Learn to run from fights you can’t win, and it leads to a chase through the streets (a cliche you didn’t include) for extra role playing fun!

  • September 14, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Interesting list. Cliches are always a danger in something like fantasy (and especially fantasy roleplaying).

    I have never, ever seen the princess and the dragon in a campaign. Though it might just work in the Sea of Stars, oddly enough . . .

    Delivery missions can be fun, but like the Critical NPC, are best used when the players decide on that as a mission choice. (“If we take this relic to the Church of the Sun, they can use it to smite the undead army!” “We ride!”)

    Prophecies should always be unreliable otherwise what is the fun of it all? Players should be figuring out how to shape what they are doing into the prophecy (or vice versa).

    Barroom Brawls?! Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in ages. Might be fun for nostalgia value.

  • September 14, 2009 at 10:33 am

    I wouldn’t be so quick to assign cliches to the dustbin. Some of these are classics. Sure, you can use them lazy, but you don’t have to.

    Take #1. This a classic for a reason. Beauty and the Beast, King Kong. Something about the timeless beauty of Woman that draws the beast. The dragon doesn’t even need a logical reason, enamored, wants someone to admire his hoard, who knows. But, there’s so much more you can do with this simple cliche. Maybe the bloodline of the King contains some magical taint from ages ago, known only to the King and the scholar dragon. Only someone of the true bloodline can wield the Royal Scepter and rule the kingdom. The dragon has a nefarious plan to kidnap the princess, take human form and get her with child. Then his half dragon son will displace the King and he will gain the tremendous power wielded magically by the royal family.

    #4 – just too many options to flow from this basic idea to really consider it cliche. It’s only cliche if its just a meaningless way to get the PCs to some town where something else happens.

    #3 – agree with you on this one. Prophecies need a delicate hand and how they are somewhat accurate is best open to interpretation.

    #2 – Agree again. My favorite current NPC was just a throwaway guard. The PCs were in a battle that was invaded by a demon army and fled to a watchtower. Inside were a dozen guards or so. The demons attacked and began to overrun the place and the PCs and two surviving guards fled through a trapdoor below. I introduced the two guards, when asked, as brothers, both named Darrell. They had lost their brother Larry in the fighting above (lame, I know, they were throwaways, minion stats at the time). First fight in the hidden temple they found themselves in, Darrell #2 dies, fighting bravely. One PC is moved and promises to find him resurrection and the group makes it their personal goal to assure the last brother’s survival. He did, became a fully statted character and is now the beloved business manager of their merchant company. They basically adopted him.

    #1 – this is outright gaming heresy! Heresy, I say! The tavern brawl is not a cliche, it is a time-honored classic. Fights happen in bars. They are a fun diversion, an interesting plot development, PCs blowing off steam, a new plot hook, anything. This is not a device of lazy DMs, lazy DMs make this classic device boring.

  • September 14, 2009 at 10:35 am

    er, the beginning of my post above should read ‘take #5″, not #1.

  • September 14, 2009 at 10:36 am

    All pretty good points, though with some tweaking, the mcGuffin delivery could work. Say, the item is a trap that triggers and kills Lord PlotPoint, and the players are the unwitting fall guys, or the item is really an evil artifact that turns people evil, or attracts every undead thing for miles around to kill the possessors of the item, or something like that.

    I take issue with your recommended tweak for number 3, Always Accurate Prophecies though. What you describe is a cliche’d game all the way up until the end, when you spring your ‘surprise’ and that doesn’t really count as ‘fixing’ it. It just counts as being annoying. Now if your group is out to thwart an evil prophecy of the end of a great and noble kingdom, that could be a good twist.

    My favorite irritating peeve is the players who are out to ‘Restore the Balance’ between good and evil. Nobody really thinks that through.

    The best thing is to take your ‘balance junkies’ and have their deity tell them ‘The nation of OverThere is severely unbalanced! Go and do my works!’

    When they get there, they find a peacful, lawful, noble nation that is prosperous and happy, laws and nobles are just and fair, taxes are reasonable, the churches are free of corruption, and goodness reigns over the land. Their Balance god commands them to murder the king and frame one segment of the society, so that strife, hatred, and civil war will cover the land, murder will run rampant in the streets, thereby restoring the ‘Balance’ of good and evil in the land.

    The looks on their faces is priceless. Try it sometime.

    Seriously, ‘Balance’ is a stupid concept. What people really want is for Good to triumph, not for there to be ‘Balance’

    “How kind of you to help that old lady across the street. Now go kick some puppies to restore the Balance your good deed has upset.’ Nonsense.

  • September 14, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    My favourite thing to do with cliches is turn them into something fun. Like the dragon kidnapping the princess. What if she’s actually an evil sorceress, who summoned the dragon to take her away from her father’s oppressive guards so that she could plot his overthrow in peace? (I feel like someone has already done this.)

    Or maybe female dragons are very choosy, and require potential mates to present them with very impressive food in order to accept them. What could be more impressive than slow-broiled princess stew? You just can’t rush that kind of cooking.

  • September 21, 2009 at 11:10 am

    How about, the Dragon ate the girl up instantly, so it’s far too late, but polymorphs himself to look just like the princess, creates an illusion of himself as a Dragon flying back to the lair to encourage the players to run out with the princess and slip him into the palace in his disguise for some nefarious purpose.

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