Seize the GM
Seize the GM
Episode 137: Tropes vs. Cliches

Main Topic

Tropes and cliches represent two related ideas that often are confused with one another. Each can be used to great effect, but often the former is considered positive while the latter negative. Each is an extension of a stereotype in certain ways, but how they are used can make all the difference. 

A “trope” is a “word of expression used in a figurative sense.” In the gaming world, tropes are a shortcut that evokes certain major story beats – a language of symbology and semiotics. A “cliche” by contrast, means “a hackneyed or trite theme, characterization, or situation.” In gaming worlds, this is often used to denote overused symbology and what is perceived as lazy design. 

The line between trope and cliche is thin, but each of us brings a view about what sort of storytelling shortcuts are positive and negative. A trope for GaM revolves around higher levels of abstraction – the concept of the anime “five-man band” is a trope and one that is immediately recognizable but also allows a lot of variation on this theme. While communicating a lot on the front end about a team dynamic, it isn’t the last thing you think of. Conversely, a GaM cliche would be the brooding loner in the party. You can also subvert or interrogate tropes, while cliches don’t hold up to any sort of examined look. 

Another way to think about how a stereotype may evolve to a trope is whether it provides the basis for more stories where a devolving cliche makes it into the only story or characterization. If your fantasy dwarves are tight knit, distrustful of outsiders, and gruff that can be a trope but if they are all by default loud, cursing, ale drinking louts you may have slipped into cliche territory. Tropes help you tell stories while cliches become the whole of the story. 

Some Tropes versus Some Cliches! 

Stat Blocks


The Voice

We’ve heard it for weeks.  Instructions over the broadcast.  Directing the crew to parts of the ship that have fallen into disrepair.  Sometimes the broadcast clipped out or hissed with static and interference, but provided information well enough.  Seems we fell out of hyperspace early, after the ARK collided with an unidentified object.   The structural integrity of the ship was tenuous at best.  So a bunch of automated protocols activated, so that work could begin to make the ship spaceworthy.  Following the automated standard emergency protocol, the engineering team was the first group to be brought out of cryo-stasis.  The broadcast system, in a broken tinny voice, provided the sitrep.  Then repair work began in earnest.  Due to the need for manpower and the omnipresent risk to the power systems, it was necessary to bring other groups out of cryo-stasis.  The groups were selected based on an automated algorithm that evaluates each individual’s usefulness, resource/power cost, and viability.  Cryo-stasis pods that were deemed nonfunctional or that contained individuals who couldn’t withstand the emergency re-vivication process were cannibalized for parts.  Their contents unceremoniously jettisoned into space.

Vital systems like life support, power, propulsion, defense and shielding, and navigation were prioritized.  Then work began on the lesser systems.  Artificial gravity, sanitation, and fabrication took some time but were eventually brought online.  Then work began on communication.  We were able to restore functionality to the subspace array.  Then began to work on the internal communication systems.  It was then that we discovered that the internal communication network used a combination of subvocal pickups and subdermal bone conduction.  No shipwide communication systems are installed on ARK class ships.  There’s no need, since the entire ship’s complement would be in Cryo-Sleep during the voyage.

Ever since, we have lived in terror; dreading the next broadcast announcement.

How to Use [Title] in Game:



Belt of Accutoral

It is said that the belt has the finest of inlays with nary a wasted erg of effort. The truth is less than important if the belt itself works – According to legend, the Belt of Accutoral provides the wearer the chance to be the truest and best version of themself. They are manifest perfection.

That’s how the story goes at least. This is true, to some degree, but like all stories and legends, it also untrue to some degree.  Accutoral was not a magical caster of any type, but was a …. Let’s say Gentleman Adventurer.The enchantment woven into the belt is from a bemused celestial. Accutoral was where he really shouldn’t be. Really. Should. Not. Be. This is what happened when he was discovered. 

Rather than harm or penalize Accutoral, this playful celestial decided to make a game of it all. Accutoral was no longer what he was. Well, he was still Accutoral. He looked the same, his memories stayed the same, but he was most definitely now a Gentleman. The … “adventurer” part was much less there. He was truly a Gentleman, and in fact found himself with a title, and income, and was everything he ever said he was.

And Nothing More. 

How to Use Belt of Accutoral in Game:

Like a famous helm, this is a magical device that many would call cursed. It forces some hard questions onto the player as it changes the way that their character is portrayed. It should be handled with care because the player could see this as a loss of agency but in the right groups it will provide the most fulfilling roleplaying opportunities. 


Shibboleth noun

     shib·​bo·​leth | \ ˈshi-bə-ləth  also -ˌleth \

Definition of shibboleth

1a: a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning

b: a widely held belief


2a: a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group

b: a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others

First Known Use of shibboleth

1638, in the meaning defined at sense 1a

History and Etymology for shibboleth

Hebrew shibbōleth stream; from the use of this word in Judges 12:6 as a test to distinguish Gileadites from Ephraimites

Look-up Popularity

Top 2% of words

Closing remarks 

Zendead – Skyrim 10th Anniversary Edition 

Joules – Um Actually A hilarious youtube show.  Where the players have to identify what’s wrong with each statement.

Guard-a-Manger – An online wiki collecting and naming the tropes that tell stories across media with examples of them in engaging and exhaustive lists. You can also lose hours of your life here.

Music is courtesy of Sim on Twitter you can find him at @TheSimulacrae

This episode was sponsored by the new webstore Tabletop Land 

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And Thanks to Merriam-Webster  and Online Etymology Dictionary for our Lexicon segment

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