Fantasy gaming is rife with clichés from the bumbling human wizard and the gruff dwarf fighter to the kid with a birthmark who turns out to be the rightful heir to the kingdom. Searching the web for clichés in fantasy, it’s easy to find plenty of articles on how to avoid them. However, is that really necessary? Clichés are clichés for a reason: They work as motivations and personalities that resonate with us.
So where did these clichés come from? What makes one idea from fantasy resonate to the extent that it becomes a cliché? And what can a writer or designer do to use those clichés that will work for them while avoiding those that will come across as ham-fisted?
Some of our clichés have been with us for as long as we’ve had literature. The framework of many fantasy adventures follow the greatest cliché of them all: The monomyth, or Hero’s Journey. I won’t dig into that particular subject in this article as it deserves one of its own, and only if I have something more to add to the wealth of words that have been spent on it already by those smarter than I am. However, the core idea of Campbell‘s theory is grounded in our shared myths and legends; those tales of gods and monsters, brave heroes and the storytellers that bring their tales to us.
It was these tales, the Norse myths and Old English heroic poems such as Beowulf that inspired early fantasy writers to put pen to paper, and those writers inspired the game designers to put code to compiler and bring us to where we are today. This leads us to the conclusion that there must be some stories and aspects of stories that have not caught on as clichés. What is it, then, that causes these particular ideas to take hold in our collective consciousness to the extent that they become clichés?
I believe it is as simple as repetition: Those portions of stories, those characters from tales, that have been borrowed and reused have become the clichés. If this is true, does that mean that clichés are always to be avoided?
While some authors have tried to escape clichés, the entire genre is clearly grounded in them. It is, in fact, dangerous as avoiding the clichés may lead to a fantasy game or novel that the expected audience fail to connect with. A DM or game designer can use clichés to make players comfortable in the world that they discovering as they play which can leave them open to introduce one or two new ideas without the players feeling out of their depth. They can also reduce the need for extended exposition, relying on our collective knowledge to fill in the gaps. Similarly, a wiley DM, novelist or designer might exploit a cliché to make the players feel comfortable before introducing a twist. That twist will be even more surprising the more well-worn the clichés leading up to it are.
In summary, clichés are clichés for a reason: They have been used again and again because they work. They are an incredibly powerful tool for an author or a game designer and cannot be discarded without consideration.