Tropes vs Stereotypes vs Inspiration
Thoughts on GMing
The theory behind why you should care about the system you use.
The challenge of certain systems for your story and how to overcome them.
Is there a place for empathy in a D&D game? And why does that matter?
How to and how not to use gender and sexuality in game and around your table.
When is a trope good/bad?
But... are they? Are they really?
There is nothing new under the sun.
Many GMs feel a strong drive to be original. <Scoff> Original? Things can not be original. All things come from something, and that's what makes them important. Something with no context, something truly original, that comes from nothing and has never been seen before, cannot be. When one looks at all the original books, movies, and TV shows, it's hard to deny that they seem familiar. Isn't relating to a character necessary for most people to enjoy a book? Isn't feeling connection to the world important for getting a viewer invested in a show? Don't we want to see people living our dreams and fears on the big screen? To accomplish emotional connection there must be interest, which relies heavily on familiarity and association. So, there really is nothing new under the sun. All things are variations, developments, and improvements.
With the power of hindsight, it's possible to trace nearly every fantasy novel to classic works. And even the Odyssey came from someone who heard the story. Go back far enough and there is a grain of truth - something real. And I'll bet that real thing was inspired by something else.
Nothing comes from nothing.
To deny inspiration and claim originality is a bit silly. Isn't it better to acknowledge your inspiration and move beyond it? One can not conquer what is not believed. There are lots of ways to incorporate inspiration without being overcome by it.
My favorite example of someone claiming originality comes from a 4th edition game I played in very briefly. The GM was flavor-texting about a god of chaos being woken up by evil forces to lead the world into ruin. Only we, the chosen, could stand against this entity of chaos who would bathe the world with insanity. To which we, the players, replied, "So... we're fighting Cthulhu?"
Indignant, the GM went on about how this was an old god of chaos from before the world was born, etc, destined to awaken and wash the world with madness. To which we replied, "So... Cthulhu?"
Back and forth once more and the GM relented. "Yes! Okay? Like Cthulhu."
Was this an issue? No. I don't mind playing in a Cthulhu game. What I mind is someone pissing on me and claiming to have invented the idea of piss. Call it what it is. And even if it isn't exactly Cthulu, it is okay to be like Cthulhu. Even Cthulhu is like other things.
So how do we deal with it?
Using Tropes on Purpose
There are other times when you just lean into a trope. I've got my pirate king, who is young and idealistic. He plays the role of vagabond pirate to please his people, but deep inside he believes in order and the rule of law. Cliche? Perhaps. But it's okay to lean into those cliches now and then.
Lampshading is drawing attention to the thing you might otherwise try to conceal. For example, The Port of New Hope is a hive of scum and villainy.... It's obvious to any Star Wars nerd that The Port of New Hope is inspired by Mos Eisley. That's not a bad thing. Now players can get in on the joke and ask to visit the cantina. Now it's fun. Acknowledge the inspiration and then players can learn about the differences. For example, The Port of New Hope is a sea port ruled by a pirate king, not a space port full of rebels and storm troopers. There are many small differences too, but all will be eclipsed if the players are focusing on deciphering the inspiration and collecting evidence of similarities, rather than exploring the new city.
Inspiration as Exposition
Inspiration also acts as a shorthand for exposition. Rather than describe the farmer in great detail, a GM can make comparisons. "This lady looks like Dr. Quinn became a bodybuilder." Without spending lots of time and energy describing this random individual, you can source cultural images to evoke the idea you want. Not only is this method quick, but it helps the game world feel more real - the players can see the world by building on images they already have seen.
Address Tropes in Worldbuilding
When dealing with plots and worlds, you have to examine what tropes you are likely to fall into, and immediately decide how to deal with it. For example, I have a culture that is divided somewhat by elemental magic. I don't want to become Avatar, so what do I do?
Elements of the tropes:
Four lands, one based on each element.
Elemental magic is common
Elements are diametrically opposed.
Fire is bad. Well, they're all bad, but fire is worst.
Water are healers. Air is flighty. Earth is stubborn. Fire is fighty.
So how do I deal with this?
All tribes live in one land, and multiple elements live together in each tribe.
Not everyone has elemental magic, and most who do are not very powerful.
The elements work together, though tribes may be opposed.
No one elemental agent is trying to do harm to the others.
Individuals are not stereotypical. Some fire casters don't care for war. Some air casters are very serious. People are individuals.
When I introduce a new player to the land of Hestrean, I don't hesitate to say, "It's kind of like The Last Airbender, but the tribes work together, and the elementalists aren't very powerful - mostly." With that framework in place I can explain the land of Hestrean and how its people and culture are structured. My favorite response when I was done was the person saying, "So... Not really like Avatar at all...." That tells me that, while on the surface the ideas are similar, I've done enough to make my use of elemental magic different.
The best thing to do with a trope is to exploit it. So, the princess has been kidnapped by an evil wizard. No one will be surprised when the evil wizard is the king's scheming brother in disguise, or when the princess set the whole thing up to be with the wizard whom she loves. Those twists on the tropes are so old they have become tropes themselves. So, what to do?
The key is, whatever you're going to do with the trope, there have to be clues, subtle, but present, that lead up to the reveal. Remember the first time you watched 6th Sense and got blindsided? But thinking back, or watching a second time, you can't believe you missed it! That's what you want. When you're twisting up a trope, make sure you leave clues just on the edges of the plot so that a clever character/player who is paying attention might catch on.
Tropes vs. Stereotypes
any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.
Sociology. a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group:
a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and held in common by members of a group
When does a trope become a stereotype? It's a difficult thing to measure. First, you must be aware that you are using a trope, and then there are some questions you must ask:
Why? What is the reason I am using this trope? Does it impact my story?
How? How am I using the trope? Will I be perpetuating a hurtful stereotype?
Why not? What are the reasons against using this trope? How could this trope hurt someone?
The best way to avoid being harmful with tropes is to add complexity and be sure not to throw it in casually.
For example, I'm reading the Dune series. The first big bad guy is a fat, gay, pedophile.
My gut reaction was, understandably, NO! You can't DO that! Had the character been heterosexual, thin, and not-a-pedophile, that would have changed nothing. Those stereotypes were thrown in for no reason relating to the plot. Using stereotypes for shock value, or to show the evil-ness of a villain is perpetuating the stereotype. Now, I'm sure there are plenty of people on the internet who can come up with all kinds of defenses for why it's okay, but at the end of the day, the gay villain is a stereotype and needs to be retired. I'm not saying that no villains can ever be gay again, but I would argue that sexuality only seems to be mentioned when a villain is gay.
Any mention of Voldermort's sexuality? Darth Vader? Sauron? Nope. Why not? It's not relevant. So when you are bringing up a hurtful stereotype, consider WHY you used that stereotype. If you can remove it without changing the story, then you should.
And that's all the mental energy I have to expend on this very complicated subject.