Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Flip That Dungeon Cliche

"A room with a ceiling full of webs..?"

The cliche - spiders hiding in the webs, you can burn the webs, stuff is wrapped up in the webs.

"A statue with a missing arm ...?"

The cliche - find the arm, put it on, the statue comes to life, and usually is helpful.

"A table with a meal all laid out to eat?"

Ha ha, yeah right, it's a trap.

"So there's this lair of nine rats and  2000..."

Otherworld Miniatures' familiar diorama

Well, you get the idea. When I used to write poetry, one of the things I taught myself to do was to break cliche. A poem that's made up of turns of phrase that have been said before is, at best, a song lyric. If the first thing that comes to you when describing long hair is a waterfall, then flip that into lava, falling smoke, avalanche, waves of night, anything but the obvious.

Of course, not all the cliche busters work. You have to do something new and have it be meaningful. The hair in the poem can't be a cascade of weasels, nor can you plausibly open a chest and have a horde of butterflies carrying peanuts spring out. I'm just saying that we're coming up on five years of the Old School Refinement and pretty much all the obvious homages have been paid. Time to leave homage and go on the road. An adventure author can now invert, subvert or just ignore cliches.

I was going to have humanoids as the low-level feuding groups in my mega-dungeon but now I have different clans of mutant rats. I tried to give the bandit gang in the caves some more sinister secret than the usual robbing and looting. The race of crow-men that used to inhabit the rest of the caves and left its mark there is pretty different from the usual run.

So, trying to flip the cliches I started with ...

The webs are all there is. It's a web monster. Oh, and it burns ... but its pieces thrash about, fall, flap and float down to you like sticky sheets of napalm. If you're feeling nasty you can put a golden spider up in there - burning reduces it to scrap metal.

The statue doesn't have an arm to complete it. It's a statue of a one-armed adventurer. If it sees another one-armed person enter the room (even someone faking it), it will serve the person if the missing arm is the same arm, and fight him or her if the missing arm is different.

The meal ... well, here is where the subverted cliche itself becomes a cliche, the "gotcha" of the too obvious reversal, like "sympathy" characters who really are in need of help or demon idol gems that really can be looted with no problems. Here is where you might go sideways, with a mixture of good and bad effects. The demon doesn't come after you when you steal its eyes, but there's a subtle curse, starting with the thief's eyes turning the color of the gems ... yes, that really is a crying damsel in distress, but she turns out to be spoiled and annoying and a liability to the party's survival ... the meal is food of the gods, roll d6 on this table.

Any other favorite cliches or cliche-busting encounters out there?


  1. Statues that can be rotated to open a door.

    The helpless prisoner is actually a monster.

    A skatteed skeleton, put it togehter and get a faithful servant...or a foe... or hear the skeleton speak a riddle

  2. Great post.

    One that came to mind immediately was, spider webs that can be burned away easily to kill the little annoying spiders. Unfortunately, the spiders had managed to web up a Wight, who is not harmed by the fire but can get loose and drain a few levels in the cahos that ensues...

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  4. Hey! You stole my idea... ;)

    "[...] but now I have different clans of mutant rats."

    From one of your posts about the nine rats and 2000 copper pieces I got the idea to make a random encounter table wherein nothing but rats doing unratty things would pop up.
    My main thoughts where to have two or more factions of rats who where opposed to each other.

    Something like two rats helping a third don a rat sized full plate armour.
    Or some rat noble holding court for a group of rats, maybe a wedding ceremony or knighting or something.
    Or a small skirmish between two groups of rats, all wearing armour fitted for them, maybe even some of them riding mounts of some sorts (not rats of course).
    And of course if there's a pool (nonlethal) in the room they'll be having a "beach" party :)

    The table would be filled to the brim with rats doing weird things normally associated with humanoids. Just to add some weird/funny situations to the game and a sort of theme.

    1. Well, an underground rat society also featured in Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd/Grey Mouser novel ... not to mention Tales of Hoffmann, etc. It's a good idea regardless!

    2. I didn't know that, as I've, sadly, never read those (a fault, I know). And here I thought I was just a wee bit original. ;)

    3. Rats, of course, wear copper plate. Engraved in Copperplate.

  5. This idea is as old as the MM1, which has encouraged this kind of behavior by DMs/GMs/Refs ever since having monster entries called the Gas Spore and the Mimic...

    1. Indeed!

      I would argue that the Mimic is more defensible as a "gotcha", because it exploits plausible character knowledge of treasure, while the Spore exploits player knowledge of the Beholder (in 99% of cases, obtained by reading the monster books).

      And indeed, it's ineffective, because the first thing you want to do knowing what a Beholder is, is a) run or b) blast it with enough long-range damage to have the spore explode harmlessly at a distance.

      But indeed, too much DM reliance on "gotchas" that invert the appearance of things can lead to over-cautious players, dungeon paranoia and eventually boring play.

  6. The damsel in distress who is a bitch is a cliche that is more common these days than a damsel in distress who is genuine... eventually, all the old cliches are fresh once more.

    1. Which may account for the popularity of the straightforward, four on the floor OSR adventure, no?

  7. I'm not sure that I agree all of these are cliches. For example, oversized spider webs are a way of communicating danger information to players ("potential poisonous monsters ahead"). If you want a game that involves meaningful interaction with clues, I think flipping cliches may do more harm than good (though it will of course depend on the overall scenario and if appropriate clues for the anti-cliche are available for discovery).

    Further, in most cases the flip is likely to draw even more attention to the cliche than would otherwise be the case and risks turning a game into a series of in-jokes.

  8. Many years ago I started writing a dungeon for a group of self consciously not-DnD players, with the idea of it being what I called "operatic DnD" - a DnD made ONLY out of the cliches. Perfect soundproofing so every room is a tableau vivant when you open the door regardless of what's been happening in the next chamber over for the past hour, wandering monsters you can guide to their own proper tableau, or which "wander" in strict patrol patterns and could be diverted into each other. Nothing in the dungeon can learn except kobolds and chests. Everything flies 3 times farther outdoors. Space is only divisible into 10 cubes etc etc etc.

    Somehow I never got around to running it.

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  10. It seems like your saying that the cliches can be twisted into something more interesting rather than just a straight cliche or a "gotcha". I definitely agree. One cliche I like that tends to freak players out is corpses. ordinary corpses, that they think will turn into undead but don't.
    It seems like you could take even the most basic and boring overused dungeon setting/encounter and make it interesting. Even a lone orc guarding a chest in a 10x10 room: maybe he's not just any orc, he's the orc king, last of his host and abandoned in hostile territory. in the chest is his crown, which only the strongest character can even lift. And if returned to the orc throne then... etc.