Series Info...#5: Cliché Patterns

by Travis S. Casey
April 6, 2001

There are a lot of clichés that tend to show up in game worlds. Many of these are obvious – barbarians who are mighty and use two-handed swords; haughty, cultured elves; axe-wielding dwarves, and so on. Those kinds of clichés are fairly easy to avoid. There's another class of clichés, however, which are more subtle and harder to avoid – clichés of patterns, rather than of things.

The first of these is what I think of as the "one of each unusual thing" cliché. This one's easiest to show by example. Ever notice how many fantasy worlds have exactly one kingdom or area ruled by each of the non-human races? One elven kingdom, one dwarf kingdom, one halfling shire. There may be second ones for evil versions of these races, but that's still a form of "one of each".

Further, elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. in fantasy worlds tend to have exactly one culture each. And one religion each. In science fiction settings, you see the same thing, only applied to alien races – each is found on one planet, or has one empire; and again, each has only one culture and one religion (if they have religions at all... SF settings often seem to ignore religion entirely). Meanwhile, humans in these same worlds often have several different kingdoms/empires/whatevers, several cultures, multiple religions, and so on. This is sometimes mentioned in the setting, saying that humans "embrace diversity" or "are more flexible" or something like that – indeed, these explanations come up often enough that they are clichés.

Instead of having so many different races, each with just one culture/kingdom/etc., why not have fewer races, but give each one some diversity? Doing this can make a world feel more real, but doesn't take any more effort in creating it – indeed, it can take less effort, since there's no need to create biological distinctions between every group, as there is if you want each to be a different "race".

Back in my second column, I talked about an AD&D world I developed many years ago. In it, I fell into this trap, and had one kingdom/culture/language for each non-human race, with just a couple of exceptions. When I developed a new fantasy world to replace it, I decided that I didn't want to fall into that trap again, so I spent some time thinking about which races I wanted to keep and how I would give them multiple cultures. I decided to take the traditional dwarf/goblin hatred that runs through D&D-style fantasy worlds and give it a twist. In this world, dwarves had a religious-based caste system, where they were born into a particular station in society and, short of a near-miracle, would die in it as well. Some dwarves, however, didn't like this arrangement – especially those who were born into lower castes. In rebelling against the social order, they also rebelled against the dwarven religion, which made them doubly outcast.

Some of these rebellious dwarves left the traditional dwarven homelands and started a new society, living on the surface instead of in caves, and shaving their beards and heads to symbolize their utter rejection of "normal" dwarven values. The "normal" dwarves called them gob luhn, meaning "casteless ones". The outcasts, however, continued to call themselves dwarves – which meant that which kind of dwarf a character considered to be a "real" dwarf depended on where he/she came from.

I took care to avoid painting either side as purely and simply evil or wrong – each had their own points on which they were unreasonable, and each had their honorable and dishonorable folk. However, each group strongly stereotyped the other as being evil and dishonorable.

It's not just with races that this cliché shows up, though – it also happens with other things. Many fantasy worlds, especially those designed for gaming, have one "warrior's guild", one "mage's guild", etc. The major exception is with thieves' guilds, but even they tend to be one per city in fantasy worlds. Think about the possibilities for rivalry if there are two mage's guilds, or two bands of thieves in one city. And if you have even more, the possibilities multiply – you can have rivalries, alliances, takeovers, even outright hostility.

Another subtle cliché is that of tieing everything together too neatly. In a way, this is a form of the previous cliché – everything comes from just one or two sources, instead of from many. For example, many fantasy worlds have everything bad that's happened in the world's history caused by one evil force or group. Many SF worlds have a single mysterious vanished race that's the source of all super-tech artifacts, or the creators of all the humanoid races. Again, having two or more major mysteries or shadowy organizations can make for a more interesting world, as rivalries, alliances, cases of mistaken identity, and general intrigue among them all become possible.

This is also bad in another way, because if the one evil power is defeated, or the one big mystery is solved, there's often not much left to do in the setting. Thus, a setting like this either is going to have a limited useful lifespan, or is going to require tweaking down the road. Or, worst of all, the game master may feel that the players can't be allowed to end things, and thus will continually throw new roadblocks in the players' path, preventing them from ever changing the setting. Players in such a situation tend to quickly grow frustrated once they realize that they're being prevented from changing things.

There's another pattern that tends to show up among fantasy and SF non-human races – that of modeling them after one real-world culture or animal. SF and fantasy are full of races of cat-people, dog-people, lizard-people, and so on – and almost all of them have not just appearances based on animals, but also have their behavior based on stereotypes of those animals. Lizard-people are cold and emotionless, cat-people haughty loners, dog-people live in packs and are friendly to humans.

The cultures modelled after real-world cultures often show just as little imagination, and are just as instantly recognizable to anyone who's been reading SF or fantasy for long. If a group of people in a fantasy story ride horses, live on plains, and are violent, they're going to have a culture just like stereotypical Mongols. If they live in cities with monumental architecture and have gladiators, they're going to be just like stereotypical Romans. And so on.

For animal-people, a simple way out is to remember that physical resemblance doesn't have to go along with a resemblance in behavior; there's no reason why an alien race that looks like reptiles on the surface would have to be like reptiles in their biology, much less their behavior. Breaking out of the patterns for cultures is harder, but can also be done. Mix in elements from other cultures, and think about how this culture's situation differs from that of the real-world culture, and what changes those differences could cause.

I'm sure that there are other clichés of pattern that I haven't covered here – after all, I've only had a limited amount of time and space. Feel free to bring up and discuss others in the forum – or even to discuss the ones that I've mentioned here! I'd also like to hear any feedback about this column, or any of the earlier columns. Did you like it? Why or why not? Is there something you'd like me to talk about? Remember – only you can help improve the Skotos columns!

your opinion...