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.”
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.