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Does your RPG have a cliche problem?

Does your world map look like old parchment a coffee drinker threw up on?

Did a series of contrived coincidences take your protagonist from humble beginnings to the key figure in events that shake the world?

At any point will your player have to gather 10 of something for an NPC whose legs are glued to the ground? Actually if an NPC actually was glued to the ground that quest would make sense …

Fear not! I am here to help you! With my handy guide to Un-Genercizing your RPG, Kotaku writers will have nothing snarky to say in their review, IGN won’t dedicate a paragraph to your cliches and the folks on NeoGAF will have to find something else to complain about.


The problem: Arbitrary collection quests

Example: “The people are starving, collect ten units of ram meat and bring them to me. Oh just so you know, not all rams drop ram meat”

How to Fix it: Make the amount of food needed to feed the starving peasants go up over time, because humans constantly need food. Or if you wait too long to get the food, the people die, because you didn’t get them food, which humans need to live. Either one of these is a huge “wait, wait, what!?” moment for the player.


The problem: NPCs who never move

Example: “Hey, please go get me this item I desperately need. Not badly enough to move from this spot, but still, really bad.” Even in Inquisition, when an NPC wasn’t where they were supposed to be, you get a “look for NPC” command, yeesh.

How to fix it: Let them move for gods sake. Maybe you find them wandering the wilderness later trying to solve the problem themselves. Or once you pass a certain stage in the game and haven’t finished their quest, they’re killed by the bandits they asked you to chase off. Bet you feel like a jerk now, hero.


The problem: Dialogue systems that only move forward when you select a choice

Example: So you’re in a conversation in a RPG and you’re called away from the TV, so the person you’re talking with waits patiently for an hour and a half for you to return and select *angry response*. Now you’re playing the role of the weirdo who never speaks and has extremely patient friends.

How to fix it: If the player doesn’t answer in a minute or two, treat it as if they had selected the *remain silent* option, and the conversation moves on. Or if you want to mess with the gamers, have the NPC say something like “Dude, whats wrong with you, you haven’t said anything in 20 minutes.”

He's got a sword, and probably a bad attitude, we can't be sure.

He’s got a sword, and probably a bad attitude, we can’t be sure.

The problem: Generic exclamation mark quest indicators

Example: Your game has exclamation marks to indicate quests.

How to fix it: This isn’t really a problem, it’s just a cliche that a reviewer will mention in the review, probably with a lazy reference to World of Warcraft. If you want to avoid that, just use literally any other symbol for your quest indicator, a diamond, a square, maybe a circle if you want to get crazy.


The problem: The “Link” cliche

Example: Every NPC in the world will let you rob them blind because you have protagonist invisibility.

How to fix it: Lines of dialogue from NPCs, “Hey, don’t rob me you jerk. You’re currently robbing me, stop it!” They don’t have to become hostile, you’re wearing massive armor and carrying three swords, but they should still express mild irritation. The other option is the benevolent NPC approach: “Oh, you’re the stalwart hero of the land, I know you need these things to help with your epic hero journey.” Now your RPG NPCs aren’t theft victims, they’re altruistic.


The problem: Mobs drop illogical loot

Example: The sewer rat you just killed dropped a gold ring.

How to fix it: One line of flavor text: “like all wildlife in *Game Setting of RPG* the sewer rat enjoys eating valuable items because it hates capitalism” or you know, something like that.


The problem: Magical McGuffin drives the plot and solves everything in your RPG’s story.

Example: *Bad Guy* is doing bad things! We need to get the Sword of Destiny, Spear of Destiny, some Weapon of Destiny to stop him!

How to fix it: Make your McGuffin fail, it doesn’t stop the bad guy and your hero is soundly defeated, forcing them to build themselves back up. You dodge the cliche and provide opportunities to characterize your protagonist further and look at you, your RPG is standing out!


Theres nothing wrong with tropes, cliches or trends, but if you want to sidestep some annoying reviewer snark and stand out slightly from a cavalcade of swords and shields my handy guide is here to help make your RPG 4% less generic. Join me next time when I stage an intervention on the use of dragons in the standard European fantasy setting!

What’s your favorite or least favorite RPG cliche? Have you collected all the Elfroot in Thedas yet? I’m 80% of the way there myself.


Wyatt Hnatiw

Staff Writer

Wyatt Hnatiw is a lifelong gamer with a borderline inappropriate love of BioWare RPGs and Bioshock. Maybe he just loves the prefix Bio...



  • SYPMMS

    Except when the McGuffin is the crucible in ME3 and it doesn’t just not solve the in game problem but also destroys your dreams. Seriously I’m still mad about the ending to ME3

  • PossiblyCthulhu

    Also –

    The problem: World/civilisation annihilation is a near certainty by the third instalment of an RPG franchise.

    Example: Dragon Age, Mass Effect

    How to fix it: Hire writers with both imaginations and a capacity to count to 4 and beyond.

    The problem: Ham fisted dialogue, particularly with regards to romances

    Example: Dragon Age, Mass Effect

    How to fix it: Allow your NPCs to pick up on subtle interactions and realise that no, you ARE going to consider carefully before dropping your significant other because you laughed at the NPCs joke.

  • SYPMMS

    That friend is a Bioware problem

  • chizwoz

    Play the end of Xenoblade Chronicles.

  • Typical

    Don’t make the choices be either: Kill all the puppies and babies, or save the widow’s orphans. Give real moral dilemmas with real consequences.

  • Daniel Pina

    That’s what makes the Witcher series such a great experience.

    Lots of grey decisions to make, many times without knowing for sure if you’re doing the right thing.

  • Wyatt Hnatiw

    Agreed, I’m playing 3 right now and I’m usually the type to try to make the “right” decisions, and I’m just standing there like a moron trying to figure out what to do half the time.

  • Reptile

    My favorite is: “I need to save the world from imminent doom and destruction soon as possible! Oh wait, there is 100 pieces of insignificant shit in the 20km square map to collect, hold on…”

  • PossiblyCthulhu

    But… but everyone knows that all societal problems can be solved by collecting 20 flowers of a certain kind. Yesterday, I managed to find five spiders in my garden, and after stamping on them, I realised I’d solved world hunger, but like the Grinch, I resolved to tell no-one.

  • Mr.Calavera

    Good list.

  • Verther

    I can’t imagine this article being possibly any worse than it is. A number of the “issues” and proposed solutions come from the unavoidable time and other types of constraints of developing a game. Have you ever spent a quarter of an hour looking for an NPC to complete a quest? Have you ever done that for every quest of the game? You haven’t, and if you did, there would be a chance you wouldn’t even remember the game today because you would have simply dropped the game in an hour of play.

    This applies even to giving quests vague time limits. You got distracted dungeon-delving and when you emerge you’re told the village with the rat infestation got wiped out by starvation, which in turn wiped the rats as well, turning it into a desolate wasteland? While it sounds immersive, it’s a pain. Timed quests always are, and that’s because games are NOT supposed to be realistic! They’re entertainment and escapism.

  • bobbyflavor

    “It’s just a game..” therefore it shouldn’t be creative?

    uhhhhh…

  • Wyatt Hnatiw

    Its not supposed to be RPG gospel, teaching everyone how their games should be made to provide immersive real world experiences. Its a jokey list of cliches and some responses to them I think could be funny.

    And it could have been much worse, you should see me without spellcheck.