D&D Ideas — Tropes
Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. This week’s topic is tropes, which we discussed in our exclusive Patreon live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST with Patreon supporters and talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here. The last days for Out of the Box: Encounters for Fifth Edition Pledge Manager are nigh! We’re in the final push before sending everything off to the printing press. We just received a huge number of gorgeous illustrations from Kim Van Deun and evocative maps from Darryl T. Jones, and we gave the text an additional level of editing from Matt Click. Speaking of tropes, in Girl with the Dragon SNAFU adventurers might meet in a tavern but it’s anything but just another night at the bar! Check out the Pledge Manager here.
Delving Dave’s Dungeon
I know plenty of people dislike tropes in Dungeons & Dragons or just in general. I’m not one of them. They are tropes for a reason and they can play a very important role in your game. The great thing about tropes is most people know what they are and will recognize them when they are introduced into a story.
For instance we all meet in a tavern is such a great one in D&D because it signals something is beginning. I think even people new to the hobby recognize it as a starting point. No matter how overplayed a trope is once your players get involved they will make it their own and it’ll become unique for your group.
A fun thing to do is to take modern tropes and convert them into D&D adventures. Wizards of the Coast recently did this with Dragon Heist. There are plenty of other modern or relatively modern tropes you can tap into.
Just think about your favorite TV show or movie and reimagine it as D&D adventure. Lace it with Easter eggs to the show and movie. Because people love it when they figure it out. Instead of running away from tropes lean into them and just have fun.
From Ted’s Head
There are so many tropes in Dungeons & Dragons that it is kind of crazy. As we get deeper and deeper into the years since the release of fifth edition D&D however, some of the tropes that exist are broken away. While I have not been gaming as long as Dave, I have still seen most of the editions and back when I first started playing most characters did not have access to magic. Yeah, there were rangers and paladins but they were never played long enough to get access to spells. I do not think I saw a bard at the table until third edition D&D and I never played one until there was a bard that could perform with weapons.
With every single character class in 5E D&D doing things that are either magic or look like magic we are far afield of the game I started playing back in the early ’90s. If this trope can be shattered why can we not just shatter them all?
When I got into reading novels I was basically looking for your standard fantasy setting. I want to see swords and magic. I want monsters and adventure. I could not always be gaming so reading about others’ adventures was a good fill in. Looking back and even now, when I game I tend to look away from those standard worlds. I have no desire to game in Greyhawk, Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms. To me they have become too docile, too mundane.
Now I see settings like Eberron, Dark Sun and even Spelljammer and I say, “These are where I want to play.” It is a choice and everyone’s is different. We have not gone too far from these regular fantasy worlds with the setting we play in. Looking at the 5E D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide Chapter 1: A World of Your Own, where does Chimes of Discordia fit in?
Gods Oversee the World. Very true. We have an expanded pantheon from the original 30 we had when it was first made but they are ever present in the world.
Much of the World is Untamed.How could it not be? With monsters and monstrous humanoids out there and players ready to seek adventure there has to be places for them to go.
The World is Ancient. This is very true. There have been numerous ages and when the upstart mortals get uppity the gods step in and push the offending mortal or powerful being into its own demiplane and lock it away.
Conflict Shapes the World’s History.A setting without conflict and things to uncover is hard to make sound interesting to all players.
The World is Magical. Okay, this one has to stay in there because I, personally, do not want to play a roleplaying game without magic. So yeah, magic exists to some degree in our world.
These tropes are hard to break if you want keep most of your players happy. If you play Dark Sun, the world of Athas, then you break the first trope right away. But is there another way to play the game without destroying this one? Maybe the gods oversee the world, but with a cold dispassion. They exist and do not care about the individuals and the minor events. Perhaps clerics must find a way to earn the power. Maybe they have to steal it. Most classes in D&D require training while all of a clerics powers are bestowed on a divine whim to said individual. This could take away that whim and give a character a struggle and challenge they had to complete to get the class.
The second trope gets tough. The more untamed you take away the less room you leave for monsters to hunt or be hunted. What if you had more cities but every city was built with the preparation for massive creatures or armies assailling the walls and gates, instead of simple villages? People carry identification cards and must prove who they are every time they enter a new place. You could add some of the sci-fi element into your game with a regular populace always worried for their lives from the things that are still out there.
The third trope is also tough and we talked about it on one of our recent live chats. One fan asked how would a world with the dominant race of elf be like if everything was only 1000 years old? Man, that was a doozy. A new world is a challenge as the History skill is hard to give those high DCs a lot of use. What is the tech of the world like after only 1000 years? Were certain skills given to them by the gods? A new world offers lots of room for growth and story but I know many players would be sad as dungeon delving would not likely have the loot of already made magic items so rewards of this kind of game would have to be highly considered and approved by all. But being the first 20th level character pushing and exploring the world and delving into unknown magic could be exhilarating.
The last two tropes are more tricky to discard. You could combine the third and fourth and have several civilizations start the first war. See how people respond when people are willing to kill each other for the very first time not over food. How would people deal with conflict? If left into the hands of the players would shaping the world into peaceful negotiations set the world up so there are no soldiers and war never happens? Or does the idea of negotiations fall to the wayside and all conflicts are settled with bloodshed? Are the rulers all combatants, and might equals right in a brutal fight to the death world of no compassion?
When it comes to the fifth trope, a game with out magic can exist but if you were going to do this you might as well play a different game. D&D without magic is just as silly to me as D&D without dice. It is so ingrained in the game, especially fifth edition, that to take out magic would be taking out a vital organ. It might be enjoyable for a one shot but not a campaign.
From the Nerditor’s desk
Before we could even begin discussing the idea of tropes in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons during the live chat Nerdarchist Dave and I had to come to consensus on what this even meant. Since most of my thoughts came out during the chat and Nerdarchist Ted shared his perspective on those same tropes, what’s a Nerditor Doug to do?
One definition of tropes are common or overused themes or devices and in 5E D&D terms I keep circling back to a trope anyone who’s ever played is instantly familiar with and in fact by merely invoking the trope everyone at the gaming table takes notice.
Roll for initiative.
Is there a more evocative string of words in D&D? When players hear this phrase it is a signal that Something Is Happening. Neither exploration nor social interaction come with their own trigger but when it comes to combat there’s a clear distinction thanks to this trope.
Once players roll for initiative, every second counts. Well…every 6 second chunk counts anyway. Perhaps rolling for initiative isn’t a true trope though, because rather than an overused device I believe it’s underused. This sounds silly, right? After all the rules state quite plainly, “Initiative determines the order of turns during combat.” If there’s a combat, there’s initiative and the order of turns proceeds from there.
But there’s plenty of other scenarios where rolling for initiative seems appropriate. I’m willing to bet whether you’ve been running a game or playing in one you were in a situation with multiple people announcing what their characters are doing. It’s a race to blurt out anything before the Dungeon Master calls for some order.
Often these scenarios occur right before a combat. Everyone wants to cast buff spells, Hide, ambush potential adversaries and so on. Basically describe what they’re going to do to put the kibosh on the impending combat before the DM can even get out the words…
Roll for initiative.
Because that’s the whole point, right? Once the trope is invoked, whatever you thought you were going to do free and clear is now constrained by your movement, action, bonus action and reaction. Good luck!
There’s countless other situations where a roll for initiative makes an appropriate response aside from combat. Think of it this way instead. When you roll for initiative the implicit scenario is your character interacting with another creature or environmental element that’s either opposed to you or requires precision timing.
Need to cross a trap laden hazardous obstacle course, like the Piercer Pacer event in Roper Wrangler? Roll for initiative. Two player characters announce conflicting actions? Roll for initiative. Crossing the room and swapping an object for a fake before the owner returns from speaking with someone in the hallway? Roll for initiative.
Since rolling for initiative signals to everyone a special circumstance has arisen, it’s an excellent tool to control the pacing and turn any scenario into a tense situation. Bards love performing at taverns right? What if a rival musician in the crowd challenges the performer with a Battle of the Bards? Rolling for initiative might be really interesting to give everyone a chance to participate and create a spectacle. The bard plays their instrument, and the wizard creates a light or illusion show. The barbarian gets the crowd going by being the first to start dancing. The rogue takes bets from onlookers. It could be a whole big thing everyone can take part in and remember for years to come.