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exploit the fantasy cliche

It's true. Fantasy in general (and Dungeons and Dragons in particular) is filled with cliche: cliche characters, plots, images, symbols, themes... This is inevitable when the same creative choices are taken over and over. However, an important thing to remember is that these really are choices. You as a GM are in almost complete control over this.

It's also important to remember that a cliche can be a powerful tool: in the event you have to introduce an NPC character concept or a new story idea to the players, it's easy to communicate ideas such as "he's a grumpy old dwarf" or "rescue a princess from a dragon".

Players don't require a lot of extra exposition to 'get' the premise if you use a familiar cliche. Also, at the core of many of these much-maligned cliches is an underlying current of mythological commonality. Using a cliche requires less exposition, because players can fill in the details for ourselves. But cliche is by definition unoriginal, and can even be annoying. What do you do?

The challenge is in figuring out what is the deep part of a cliche. One important things to remember: the cliche is not always wrong. Somewhere in our most primitive cavedweller-brains, these ideas hold appeal. The true cliche is a reflection of something we humans hold as a good story idea, whether we admit to it or not. Simply avoiding the cliche, going against the cliche or intentionally breaking the cliche doesn't always work (and can even be just as trite).

One technique that I like is to use an existing cliche in an original way. Instead of rescuing a princess from a dragon, have players rescue a baby dragon from an evil princess. Instead of the same old grumpy ale-swilling dwarf, create a sensitive dwarf that has sworn off of alcohol after a mining tragedy and deals with it through writing poetry. Instead of a mad wizard, create a madman who spontaneously develops magical powers. We already know where the story possibilities are with cliches, but we can set up original and interesting complications this way.

Another method is to use the cliche as-is, but inject an original complication or variable into the mix. "Quest for a lost sword" sounds like an incredibly unoriginal plot: but what if you let the players find the sword immediately in the first scene, and then have it shattered into bits? Players may suddenly have to investigate what they needed the sword for in the first place, and look for a new way to accomplish the real task. Or you can use a simple Shakesperean bit: a comedy of errors, with a duplicate or lookalike sword that keeps changing hands, or a time-travel plot, where the players must go back in time to interview the sword's previous owners.

You can also simply substitute another symbol. The sword is used everywhere. Why not use a hand-mirror, or an hourglass, or an abacus? Each of these symbols has a pallete of possible significance, and you may find that an appropiately chosen symbol can be more meaningful to you and your players. I always place pumpkins in my own games for this exact reason- and I can't really even explain what pumpkins mean to me. Find your own symbols. Chances are, you can look around your room or your workplace and pick out an animal, an object, and an idea that hold personal significance to you. Why not use that?

In the end it's your game and you can make your own choices. Just keep in mind that these are choices, and don't be afraid to take it where you want it to go.

you've got mole!