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Tropes are not bad, but clichés usually are. Sadly, when I need to come up with something on the fly it's much easier and faster to use clichés: if I suddenly need a barkeep, he's probably fat with a stained apron, wiping down a mug with a greasy towel. If I become aware of doing this, I'll make the barkeep a skinny, fastidiously-clean woman, but that's no less cliché because it's just an inversion of the standard.

I also tend to create my own tropes that I subconsciously use to the point of cliché: Every D&D campaign I've ever run had a lich villain, despite my never intending to be so consistent.

Preparing ahead of time gives me plenty of opportunity to come up with less clichéd content. But the kind of RPGs I run are best when we're improvising in the heat of the moment, so prep only goes so far to mitigate this problem.

What strategies, attitudes, or tools (etc.) help you to avoid reliance on clichés and obvious tropes when called upon to improvise?

Although I don't have much experience on the other side of the table, I'm sure players have similar issues, playing the thousandth undifferentiated Dumb Orc, Tree-Hugging Elf, or Sketchy Tiefling With A Heart Of Gold (they're fine bases to build on, but it's easy to just use the carbon copy without giving it your own twist). So if you've got strategies that help players avoid this, those are welcome too.

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I'd say you've already taken the first step - You've noticed it and are trying to change it. –  Dakeyras Mar 3 '13 at 11:43
@Dakeyras Thanks, but as I've been struggling to keep it to a minimum for all of the nearly ten years I've been a GM... [wry] What's the second step? –  BESW Mar 3 '13 at 11:47
Asking for help? :P –  Dakeyras Mar 3 '13 at 11:50
I recently stumbled upon bankuei.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/improvising-npcs-x-but-y, which might be a helpful idea in this context. –  Anaphory Jan 20 at 15:53
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7 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

As both an improv actor and a DM, I often find myself in the same problem. I won't repeat all of the great ideas that people already mentioned here, I've used them all in the past and they improved my game immensely. I do, however, have some quick and dirty solutions to save myself after I put my foot into a cliché:

  • There's more than one of them. (It's a typical fat bartender? But he has a twin or two brothers, or there are four bartenders working here in shifts.)

  • It's smaller/bigger than you expect. (It's a typical fat bartender? But did I mention that he is only 3 foot tall? Or maybe he is a half-ogre.)

  • It's exactly the opposite. (It's a typical fat bartender? Actually he is really thin but wear his father's clothes, it's a tradition.)

  • It's also something else... (It's a typical fat bartender? But he does looks familiar — actually you recognize him from the cleric office, apparently the bartender is also volunteering as a priest.)

  • Opposite attitude. (It's a typical fat bartender? So you'd expect him to listen to your trouble and be polite? Hell no, the first thing he said "I don't care for your trouble mister, got enough of my own.")

Hope it helps.

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I've used several techniques to make my improv a bit more random; these are:

  • Preparation: Names always get me so I always make several pages of names with personalities, brief schick or quirk, basically a whole page of one line NPCs, the names are randomly generated along with the description, I just add in the quirks onto the page.
  • Cross the streams: Reversing a trope is one technique, the other is to use other tropes entirely - so they've met a barman. Take the trope for a librarian and stick them in there instead, this can provide a lot of easy to work with improv.
  • Random tables: A few simple tables with random bits and pieces on them for personality and quirks (The Pathfinder DM guide has some pretty good ones) stick them on a simple reference sheet if you're really stuck and off you go.
  • Steal relentlessly: Pick characters from history and shows. The character meets the barman, turn him into Napolean.
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+1 for cross the streams –  Zachiel Mar 3 '13 at 16:12
+1 for Cross the Streams, great idea. –  deworde Mar 4 '13 at 9:56
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Lots of awesome answers so far. An important thing to realize is that tropes and cliches can have a place in a storyline. Most of the time, the "save the princess" routine will end up the same way. Sometimes, your party gets to the princess, she didn't expect you to get this far and is actually blackmailing her parents, and then tries to kill you all with surprising expertise. The point shouldn't be to avoid all cliche, moreover it makes for a more fun time if the players are always guessing. They may be right a majority of the time, which is fine, but that doesn't change independent variables. If they are too comfy in cliches, they might feel like things are getting stale and they might be able to predict the storyline too easily. Other players may actually find comfort in some consistency. In either case, it doesn't hurt to allow some cliche but then throw them a curve ball at DM whim.

Having said all that, one thing I like to do when I the pace is too fast for me to improvise quality characters and situations: Auto-generate characters using resources such as mentioned in other answers. Then roll a dice to pick one stat and one skill. I make this that character's most obvious nature and driving passion, even if that isn't their best randomly-generated stat or even if they effeectively have subpar ability in it.

This is Dungeon World's method; pick a motive and a "knack" (a skill or background), and figure out how they can use the latter to pursue the former. It's a very quick way to breathe life into a character, so much life in fact that it can significantly alter the direction of the adventure. – @SevenSidedDie

Example: My adventurers decided to unexpectedly run about town to send all the townspeople through the Spanish Inquisition. I had not prepared this many NPCs. I resorted to my method by calling a smoke break for our smokers, I quickly generated a couple dozen characters, used random number generators at random.org to get big lists of custom random numbers, highlighted each focal stat/skill, and I was good to go. After the first smoke break, they ran into a magic shop. The shopkeeper's assistant, their first victim of rapport, turned out to be a half-elf with really poor hygiene who was interested in diplomacy. Quick check at his other stats and I realize he's a perfect match for a foolish know-it-all that isn't aware he smells bad and is really bad at diplomacy. He started with horrible customer service, then starts gossiping about town politics. Answers the party's questions, but also interjects with "hey, I got this problem.. I think I can get the town to do away with that stupid water well and replace it with a nice chicken fighting arena. I was thinking if I send you guys along with these pastries as a gift, we can persuade them." Box of pastries is messy, nasty and smells horrible, no pay-off for players to run errands for idiot magic shop assistant. We had a number of run-ins similar to this, some almost comical and some just interesting (graceful-like-a-cat rogue extremely interested in becoming a master bookbinder). Some had no pay-off if the party spent time with them or ran errands, some wouldn't even talk to the party, a few had pay-off that wasn't related to their quest, and I had my phone set to vibrate on silent at a certain time to let me know that the next townsperson would have clues about the quest. We had a great time, my adventurers experienced a diverse range of townsfolk, they got the clues they needed, and they spent an appropriate amount of time running in circles, confused, and lightly annoyed.

Best of luck, I really like that someone pointed out you are definitely on the right track just by identifying ways to improve. If your players are good players, they won't spend the whole night picking your tropes, cliches and otherwise apart. They'll be embracing the story. A big chunk of the suspension of disbelief rests on their shoulders, too. Keep tabs on players' faces, whether or not they appear restless or disinterested, etc. If you have them engaged and they're into it, don't stress so much if there is a cliche element. Change it up if you want and there's still a way to do so with that NPC/monster/event or just let it ride out like it is. I wouldn't overemphasize a need for each situation to be unpredictable. Too much unpredictability can seem chaotic, unstable and not very believable. There's few instances where a great wyrm innkeeper makes sense, for a ludicrous example. Another point: While there may be an occasional thin, well-kept and charming executioner among all the executioners employed by nobility in your campaign world, if you line them all up in a row most of them are going to have about the same demeanor and build. Sometimes cliches make sense. Half-ogre rogue: "Shhh! Be quiiiieeeet.. I'm trying to move silently.." THUDTHUDTHUD

Another important thing to think about here is delivery. Even the most worn-out cliches can feel impacting, meaningful, epic, and unique with a captivating delivery. Some of this might involve your own roleplaying abilities, some your confidence (though a decade of DM'ing is a good few belt buckles of experience as a trope itself), and some of it might involve engaging the player with why the cliche is relevant to the character. If there is a central dynamic to the plot going on that requires attention, focus and careful consideration, a cliche might help avoid distraction.

Also, I have found that many players begin to project assumptions and read more into what was originally irrelevant rapport and NPC depth when they are interested. In this way, they shape the plot themselves by giving me ideas over time and they end up feeling like they solved a puzzle by choosing the right NPC to focus on. Sometimes it is and I had something set up, but sometimes it is the players themselves deciding fate for their characters unbeknownst to the players.

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Ooh, I like the idea of identifying an NPC's defining nature/passion much better than using a table of physical and social quirks. –  BESW Mar 8 '13 at 2:46
@BESW This is Dungeon World's method; pick a motive and a "knack" (a skill or background), and figure out how they can use the latter to pursue the former. It's a very quick way to breathe life into a character, so much life in fact that it can significantly alter the direction of the adventure. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 8 '13 at 3:49
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Take the cliché and change one, and only one, thing.

Take the short, fat bartender with the greasy apron: Make him short and fat and clean. Make him short and fat with a greasy apron and a lisp.

ALso remember that it is not a cliché for a bartender in a swords & sorcery setting to be fat and greasy. Getting little fresh air, eating bar food all the time, stressing about running a business — these generally aren't characteristics of skinny people with good skin. :-)

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I suspect it is both trope and cliche, though possibly a justified one if the reasons you mention are at least implicitly laid out in the situation. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 7 '13 at 22:48
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In one short phrase: Twist them.

When you notice you've been using a cliché, take a quick but thorough glance at it, see how you could give it a twist, an extra layer to the character or the situation, that, when revealed (when and if convenient), would turn it into a surprise, or give it a depth that the original cliché lacks. And when you've got the first twist, give it a few more. Show the unique story and person behind the surface cliché.


The fat innkeeper. Turns out he eats only a carrot a day. Wants to lose weight badly, and keeps telling this to everyone. Serves no meat in his inn, sorry. That would be too hard to resist for him. He's lost his wife to this new diet of his. Well, in fact, not to the diet but to the thin mistress who told him he should lose weight if he wanted so much as to look at her. He has high hopes. He wants that lady. His wife found it out, and left him. She's running her own inn now, go to her if you want meat. But beware, she hates men now, she may poison you. Stay, see the mistress for yourself instead. There's your room, and never mind the rats in the walls scratching at night. Turns out, the innkeeper is a sleepwalker. A sleepwalking wererat dreaming about his mistress while feeding on standard rats. And perhaps on some customers. It won't be easy for him to lose that weight this way. Oh, and the thin lady? She's a sorceress who - like Circe - got pissed off real bad by his advances when she stayed in his inn a few years ago, and cursed him. Only she was mistaken. It was not the innkeeper who tried to steal into her bed in the dead of night. It was his wife.

The lich. Is not a lich. Just pretends to be one. It's an angel tasked with ruthlessly testing the heroes. It serves the same god the PCs do. It was told they need to be toughened up, real hard, to be able to take on the Mother of All Quests later. Problem is, the angel hates to play this evil role, even if for the greater good. It sometimes tries to help the heroes get along. It sometimes fears it's becoming tainted by its role. Finds too much joy in playing evil. It wants the heroes to end its own suffering. Or else. But it also wants them prepared for whatever they will have to do.

Also, discard first ideas: always look for the third or fourth one that comes to mind.

The fat bartender... well... he eats a lot. Not good. Eats a lot of street urchins. Still not good. Is trying to lose weight, without success. Hmm, maybe. Is cursed unjustly, which he can't bear, so he sleeps through his curse, and is trying, unconsciously, to fight the curse (by eating it, that is, the other rats.) Well, that could be a story, if the PCs like it. If not... hey, remember the fat guy who ate only carrots and was pissed at anyone trying to order meat?

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+1. Love the last paragraph. There's a technique in improv comedy called "Something Else". One participant stands outside the scene, and when he rings a bell, the actors have to replace the last thing they said with something else that still fits the scene. Excellent exercise to skip your first instinct. –  lisardggY Mar 3 '13 at 20:23
+1 for making me laugh my head off with the innkeeper description. Also, if you want some excellent examples of familiar, recognizable cliches turned on their heads and twisted into something original, try reading just about anything by Brandon Sanderson. It's one of the things that makes his writing so awesome. –  Mason Wheeler Mar 4 '13 at 16:38
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Hmm, I was going to recommend As a GM, how can I create and role-play diverse NPCs better? and its two linked questions but upon review our previous advice for making NPCs is pretty weak.

I do two things to mitigate this.

  1. Draw from real life. It's funny that this is so stunningly hard for people, but the most celebrated artists, cartoonists, and authors have this down. The last 10 bartenders I've met aren't fat mug-wipers, so I'd just pull in one of them. I've known a lot of people over time, and many of them come close enough to a cliche to be obvious matches for a role - "Robert was at least 1/4 orc and that's in real life" - but with interesting deviations that make them not all the same (at least not any more than real people are all the same - many seem like it at first glance, it's just when you interact more you see the differences). Start carrying a notepad or iPhone around with you and noting people - descriptions, personality traits - as you encounter (or hallucinate) them so you have a bank to pull from in your next game.

  2. Random tables. This is RPG world, there's random tables for everything including creating people. Many of these are automated. Random names, appearances, etc. I remember as a roleplaying challenge I generated one of my characters using these complex tables in the back of, weirdly, the AD&D 2e Complete Bard Handbook. It gave me some seemingly contradictory elements - "fastidiously clean" and "disheveled appearance" for example - that with a minute of thought weren't hard to boil down into a real person (in this case, he was clean but went for the Hollywood-popular bed hair and rumpled pretty boy look). My go-to NPC generators are:

    1. all of Abulafia
    2. Seventh Sanctum's General Person Generator
    3. Yet Another Fantasy Name Generator and Chris Pound's generators for names
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+1 for linkages, always need more generators! –  Rob Mar 3 '13 at 17:03
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Play more. Read more. Watch more. Expand your library of tropes. Once you have dozens of different innkeepers bouncing around in your head, your next innkeeper will probably be a collage of these tropes.

Another idea is to take a page from creative writing exercises. Take a bunch of adjectives - tall, fat, jolly, glum, one-eyed, nervous, red-haired, intelligent and a lot more - and when you need to improvise an NPC, pick any three from the list. Now you have a "tall, glum and intelligent" innkeeper. You don't have to describe him to your players as that, just have those attributes in mind when you visualize him, and he'll come out different automatically.

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+1 for the "attributes out of a hat" idea –  kwah Mar 3 '13 at 14:08
Big fat +1 - really like the adjectives list! –  Rob Mar 3 '13 at 15:33
Just in follow up to this; I found a useful page for a starter: kisd.org/khs/english/help%20page/Descriptive%20Words.htm –  Rob Mar 4 '13 at 10:21
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