Tabletop RPG Tropes & Lexicon (Warning: Very Long)

Dirty Yasuki requested for this over in the “What would you like to see here” post and the idea kind of stuck to my head so I’m giving this one a spin.  That said, this is going to be a work in progress, that I’ll be updating now and then with new tropes and terms as I come up with them, or as people submit them to me.  To that end I’ll also be opening up a page on the site so that people will have easy access to it for future viewing.

So… on to the entries!

  • Action Points – An expendable Metagame resource that Players can spend in order to alter the outcome of a given action.  Loved by many cinematic players for its potential to make an implausible course of action actually desirable.
  • Anime Syndrome – This occurs when the Players or the GM have been watching too much anime, and have resorted to using visual cues taken from that particular medium and translate them into their narration (for example, “I sweatdrop at his suggestion.”)  Needless to say this may lead to some rather interesting incidents of miscommunication on the table.
  • Are we in combat yet?A common question made by players who don’t necessarily have a vested interest in the story aspect of the game, and would much rather get on to the only interesting part of the game for them, which would be combat.  Not the kind of question you’d like to hear in almost any game.  See also Pressing the Skip Button, below.
  • Are You Sure? Often used by the GM in a long, drawn out manner, often with great emphasis on the “sure” part of the sentence to a player who has just declared that his character is about to do something that is most unwise.  This question is traditionally asked by the GM 2-3 times, you know, just to be absolutely sure before bringing down the consequences like the fist of an angry god.
  • Beware, the GM is Scribbling – GM notes are precious things that most GMs guard very carefully as they contain most of the bad things in store for players.  As such, a common psychological ploy for a GM is to respond to a player’s action by nodding sagely, and scribbling something down on the notebook, away from the player’s eyes.  Saying, “Hmm… interesting.” adds to the suspense of the matter.  That being said, Players are wary of such things and often Turtle Up when this happens.
  • Blue Booking – Some campaigns encourage blue booking, a term used for encouraging players to generate game related fiction between sessions, for an experience point reward of some kind.  Blue Booking is a great way for players to show certain facets of their character that are not apparent on the table, and are also a boon for a GM looking for more personal plot hooks.
  • Breaking the GM’s Brain – This occurs when a given WTF Moment takes place, or if a player presents a character that falls squarely under the Spongebob and the X-Men category.  Breaking the GM’s Brain results in the GM no longer able to completely focus on, or continue the session (or even in severe cases, the campaign) due to the dissonance caused to his vision of the game.
  • Common Sense is not so Common – A baffling phenomenon when players take leave of their common sense to attempt something that is, at least in their mind’s eye, really really cool. (For example: “I wait for the cannon to fire and hop onto the ball and ride it into the enemy ship!”)
  • Crunch – A slang term to denote the rules and mechanics of an RPG.  The presence of a lot of Crunch, or a Crunchy system is one where there are a lot of parameters and fiddly bits that the players can use to construct their Unique and Beautiful Snowflakes.
  • Deprotagonization – This occurs when the heroes are suddenly much less capable than advertised by robbing them of the inherent coolness factor assumed to be present in heroes of the genre.  Also occurs when Players are not allowed to attain a happy ending.
  • Death by Cutscene – Certain NPCs (and much more rarely PCs) are doomed to die, despite all the efforts of the players.  This NPC is meant to die to move the story forward, and therefore dies in a cutscene where the players are not allowed to take any actions but to watch.  Acceptable when used sparingly, and when justified.  However, bad implementations of this lead to Deprotagonization.
  • Dice Stacking – An unwanted behavior displayed by bored players.  If your players resort to dice stacking while you’re narrating a scene, then you can be sure that you don’t have their complete attention.  Certain GMs will take this opportunity to slip in a crucial detail or clue.
  • Dice Superstitions – A strange phenomenon within gaming groups to develop odd superstitions revolving around dice, from setting them highest number up to make sure that the Dice remember the correct way to fall, to not sharing dice with people lest the mojo go away.
  • DM Monologue – An NPC monologue meant to convey a large volume or information, or to serve as the grand entrance of the Big Bad Evil Guy.  While a high point of most GMs, as it is the only time the villains usually confront the heroes face to face, this is traditionally interrupted by players with “I Attack It“.
  • Don’t Bother Rolling – Sometimes PCs are so skilled and powerful that actually rolling for a given task would be pointless.  Players often enjoy having their characters specialize in a given field so much that this would be their implied goal.  This is usually attained with judicious application of the art of Stacking Bonuses.
  • Elf Party – A party consisting of characters who should otherwise be gracing a catwalk or magazine covers.  A common occurrence in RPG settings wherein social rolls are equally important as combat aptitude, an Elf Party is when none of the characters actually have anything less than above average beauty.  Legend of the Five Rings is notorious for this as most L5R groups have either Benten’s Blessing (Beauty and Charm), or Dangerous Beauty (Seductive Appeal), and certain players will insist on having both.
  • Fluff – Counterpart to Crunch, Fluff is the setting and the non-rules mechanics half of an RPG.  This usually constitutes setting, but also delves into such things as Social Norms, Military Structure and Cultures and Languages.  Story oriented players enjoy Fluff as it gives them ideas for plot hooks to add to their character backgrounds.
  • GM NPC – GM NPC is a character that for all intents and purposes serves as the GM’s own player character in his game.  Often reviled in practice due to the suspicion from players that the GM will not be able to split his GM omniscience from his GM NPC, resulting in a Mary Sue-esque Jesus character that will not only always be correct, but will be quick to give the solution when the other players seem stymied.  However, there are also good examples of GM NPC which become valued allies to the party.
  • Houserules – No gaming system is perfect, and sometimes changes must be made to make the game more enjoyable (or in some severe cases, playable.)  The key thing to note with houserules is that it should be clearly communicated with all players (especially new ones) to avoid confusion and bad decisions made from not being informed.
  • I Attack it – The most basic attack declaration in an RPG.  Most games don’t really go past this and it’s been worn down straight to cliche.  This is also the most annoying declaration to hear when performing a DM Monologue.  Once part and parcel of all games, there’s been a strong movement towards more “cinematic” combat descriptions on the part of the players as well as the GMs.
  • Idiot Savants – Character builds that are so tightly focused around excelling in a single field (so much so that they they Don’t Bother Rolling.) but no longer have points left to become healthy, functioning members of society.
  • Inventing gunpowder – An interesting trend for Players in a fantasy setting to attempt using modern day (or even science fiction) scientific methods and theory to create something way ahead of it’s time.  A common “invention” would be the discovery of gunpowder, often performed by asking the GM innocently for the presence of certain substances such as Saltpeter.
  • Killer GM – A brand of GM notorious for taking the “Me vs Them” stance against his players.  This GM revels in making his player characters suffer and die, counting each death as a personal victory.  Certain players enjoy playing under a Killer GM, hoping to either beat him at his own game by outdoing his machinations, or by simply Breaking the GM’s Brain.
  • Kill it with Fire – When all else fails, there’s the rule of damage escalation.  Players will resort to this when faced by a perceived threat of such magnitude that they are no longer willing to play fair. This is the usual response by Fantasy characters.  Other genre responses would be: Kill it with Dynamite, and Nuke it from Orbit.
  • Kill them and take their stuff – The default playing style assumed for old school D&D, when story was an incidental effect of trawling from one dungeon to the other in hopes of garnering Gold and Experience.  Still a dominant play style in many gaming groups.
  • Levitating Ogre Vampire Monks – Otherwise known as Template Stacking.  GMs draw a measure of enjoyment from creating interesting and remarkable opponents for their players.  Sometimes this can be drawn into an incredibly bizzare end as evidenced by the example that gave birth to the name of this trope.  Levitating Ogre Vampire Monks can, but not always, indicate the presence of a Killer GM.
  • Lone Wolf – A popular gaming archetype that occasionally leads to more harm than good.  Greatly influenced by the media which popularized this type of hero, Lone Wolves hardly become as impressive in play.  Being a group oriented game, Lone Wolves often end up without anyone to turn to when the chips are down, much to the player’s dismay.
  • Metagame – Taking actions to profit from Player Knowledge as opposed to Character Knowledge.  Metagaming is present in most cases, but it is discouraged in order to promote more authentic actions for characters.  Acceptable in certain gaming styles, such as ones that have Action Points, or games which give players greater Narrative Control.
  • Min-Maxing – Fiddling with the rules to create an optimized character while minimizing the character’s weaknesses.  Most players min-max, and that in itself isn’t an issue.  Certain players however can min-max to the point that they will break the game in ways that make any form of conflict moot, and sap the fun out of the game for everyone.
  • Ok, Who plays the cleric? – In certain games, there are some crucial character roles that must be filled, but don’t necessarily offer the glamor or prestige of other roles.  While all the players will scramble to grab a given concept, this question pops up after everyone realizes that the group has no healer since everyone’s made some kind of super damage dealing Levitating Ogre Vampire Monk.  Thus one of the players is made to make a Cleric instead, for the sake of taking one for the team.
  • Playing Yourself – At one point or another a gaming group would go and get the brainstorm of playing a campaign where the players play themselves in a different setting or situation.  Whether it’s a zombie attack, or suddenly being thrown into the Forgotten Realms, the players will have to make do with substandard stats and rely instead on Inventing Gunpower.
  • Pressing the Skip button – It is a sad fact that certain players don’t really care.  DM Monologues will be cut short, and lengthy descriptions interrupted for a request to “get to the point.”  Admittedly however, even GMs and other players will press the skip button on given players who seem to love the sound of their own voice, or who seem to prefer thinking in the form of a truly extended monologue.  Pressing the Skip button is admittedly rude, but sometimes necessary to bring a game back to focus.
  • PvP – Player vs. Player situations are a reality in tabletop rpgs.  While sometimes encouraged by the system, miscommunication, or just play annoyance at each other in real life can result in PvP conflict.  That being said, PvP is interesting as long as it is handled maturely and that all participants are in the complete understanding that it is just a game and PvP should remain there.
  • Railroading – When a GM forcibly keeps players on to his plot and disregards any and all possibility of deviating from it.  The game moves as if it were a train, moving only in a single direction as dictated by the GM.  Should the players decide to mess around with this by Breaking the GM’s Brain or by simply rebelling, there’s a possibility that the campaign will end in a train wreck.
  • Rules Lawyering – When two people (most commonly the gm and a player) oppose each other in the rules vehemently, often about common sense and rules as canonically written.
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies – When a GM is totally at a loss and just wishes to sink his campaign, this is the customary phrase uttered by the GM in utter exasperation.  Usually followed by a sulking GM.  This can be All Just A Dream, if the GM is properly placated.
  • Sandbox – This style of play is defined by the GM creating a world and populating it, before unleashing the player characters into the situation to explore whatever they want to, and pursue whatever goals they might have.  While this preserves the freedom of choice for players, it also tends to be overwhelming to some players who need more guidance as to “what we’re meant to do.”
  • Shounen Battle – A possible subset of the Anime Syndrome is the extended multi-session battle against one mega-boss.  Often accentuated with macho lines and occasional GAR moments.  Exciting in concept but very difficult to pull off in practice, as after a few rounds, things eventually devolve to I Attack It as people start running out of ideas.
  • Stacking Bonuses – The art of Stacking Bonuses is crucial in any RPG game, as players rely on this to swing the dice odds to their favor.  Certain players will attempt to wring bonuses out of anything from the color of his character’s hair, to weather conditions.
  • Supplement Inflation – A feature of most successful RPG models is the fact that companies can (and will) churn out supplements of the game for as long as it is commercially successful.  This results in massive libraries of supplements such as D&D’s 3.X incarnations and the World of Darkness.
  • Spongebob and the X-Men – Sometimes players just don’t listen to campaign details and insist on playing bizarre characters that just don’t fit with a given campaign.  This therefore results in a clash of interests as the GM’s attempts to maintain the believablility of his campaign are torpedoed by the one who decides to play Spongebob Squarepants in an X-Men campaign.  There are however instances when the odd man out turns out to help define the campaign better, in which case this is reversed.
  • The WTF Moment – A WTF Moment occurs when a given character or situation leads to the point when the game session finally breaks down and is unable to continue.  The GM’s brain might be intact, but the magic is gone.  Players can no longer speak their character’s lines without breaking into girlish giggling, and the GM is reduced to going outside and taking a smoke and wondering how he’ll salvage the situation.
  • Turtle Up – Taken from the arcade fighting game behaviour of relying on defensive tactics, a player is assumed to have Turtled Up when they are no longer sticking their necks out for sake of plot, instead building bunkers and stacking up on guns and ammo, waiting for the GM to come for them.  While not always entirely unjustified, this kind of behavior tends to drive the game to a grinding halt as suddenly the protagonist has become unwilling to proceed.
  • Unique and Beautiful Snowflake – Much like Min-Maxing, every player is guilty of wanting to make a Unique and Beautiful Snowflake.  While Mary Sues count as a vile example of the Unique and Beautiful Snowflake, adding a few details to make your characters stand out from the norm is a great way to make sure your character is truly heroic, and separate from the rest of humanity.  Unique and Beautiful Snowflakes are naturally adverse to Deprotagonization and are occasionally at risk of being turned into Idiot Savants.
  • What would Jack Bauer Do? – The guiding principle for most Lone Wolves and other characters, Jack Bauer from the TV series 24 is the hallmark of PC desperation.  When PCs go do Jack Bauer mode everything is permissible, Torture and Shooting the Leg, for example are suddenly okay, because “We don’t have enough time!”  Of course, as a GM, one has to be ready if they have a player guilty of going WWJBD on your campaign, the easiest solution of course, is to make sure that there are two very compelling, time-limited goals in different parts of the city.
  • X-Men with Fangs – Much to some GM’s chagrin, this happens whenever someone runs a “game of personal horror.”  Most commonly ocurring in o/nWod games, the game devolves from an exploration of personal fears and the horrors of being a monster, to a comic book style campaign complete with super-powered combat in the dark.  This is also another campaign style where one should be on the lookout for Levitating Ogre Vampire Monks.

Anyway, that’s it for now, and by far one of the longest articles I’ve written in the blog, I hope you guys enjoy it, and I’ll be adding more to it as I come up with more.

9 thoughts on “Tabletop RPG Tropes & Lexicon (Warning: Very Long)

  1. You do not know how close we were to a ROCKS FALL scenario when our Warlock-Mage went on and on with his fluff-spiel about dragonborn elitism and what not.

    The GM was violently shaking the table for a few minutes before he was able to collect his thoughts and said:

    “ROCKS stats FALLing… what do you do?”

  2. “Are you SURE???” – Also known as the Paranoia newbie net. It implies that the player is doing something stupid and should be doing something more sensible;like praising The Computer, not asking what a Bouncy Bubble Beverage is, flaunting his mutant power, asking if anyone else is in his secret society, and so on. If said player continues his action even after the “Are you sure?” is served, he deserves to be terminated.

  3. Last night, I fully had my DM monologue of my all important, clue giving quest boss interrupted by “I throw my javelin at it.”

    One hour later and six PCs stood in a room full of dead bodies practically unscathed.

    Followed by the burning of the house and everything in it.

  4. Another variation of the “Elf party” trope would be the actual “ELF” party where I have seen in actual fantasy games people would loudly proclaim and pontificate about the inherent “gayness” and feelings of revulsion that elves inspire in most any given fantasy setting but when faced with decisions of making their “beautiful and unique snowflakes” players will do a 180 on their previous positions and you suddenly have 2/3rds of the party consist of (you guessed it) “elves”. 😛

    For an idea of what I’m talking about, see this for reference.

    And for the record… i have never picked “Benten’s blessing” and/or “Dangerous Beauty” with any of my L5R characters as I am a loyal Crab player (while occasionally playing other clans 🙂 ). I firmly believe that often getting such traits make them have less impact and be more about comparing each others RP-een with each player trying to see how many imaginary hot chicks they can get to have imaginary sex with them. Wish fulfillment meh. *rolls eyes*

  5. Pointyman, you forgot….

    Immersion gaming – When the players decide to play themselves in a game system. Kinda like the D&D cartoon where a bunch of kids get warped into the “World of Dungeons and Dragons™”. You can see a lot about what a person thinks of themselves in this kind of game. Some players think they have certain stats maxed out while other players with self esteem issues under-stat themselves.

  6. Hi Tentaclese,

    Yeah, Immersion Gaming and Playing Yourself is actually very similar, I opted to use a different term as it might confuse some other people who equate “immersion” as a term for a different character-heavy type of game. 🙂

    Dirty Yasuki,

    You should be ashamed if you ever pick Benten’s Blessing and Dangerous beauty on a Crab! But that being said, it does make for an interesting character quirk for the Crab.

  7. pointyman2000 wrote:
    (Dirty Yasuki,

    You should be ashamed if you ever pick Benten’s Blessing and Dangerous beauty on a Crab! But that being said, it does make for an interesting character quirk for the Crab.)

    Ayup but this was also true of all my non-Crab characters. Incidentally the only “official” Crab character to have ever possessed “Dangerous Beauty” (to my knowledge 😉 ) was a Crab berserker named Hida Inukai. The current head sensei of Razor’s Edge Dojo, who aside from being proclaimed a major hottie by Rokugani standards, was also a raging psychopath who saw the world as having only two kinds of people. punching bags and dead meat.

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