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Close to the Edit

Enough tropes to hang yourself...

by Ross Winn
Nov 17,2005


"Enough tropes to hang yourself..."

So here we are. Every month I fire up a clean page on Word and watch it to see if anything appears miraculously, and every month I end up having to write something myself. It is not like I am looking for the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich or anything. Still it would be kind of cool...

In my lifelong quest to be the best husband I can be, I took my beloved to see a sneak preview of the latest iteration of Pride & Prejudice last night. It was a charming piece. Well acted, well shot, and well directed. If there is any proof of my theory that there are no new ideas and you can make everything old new again it has been the last thirty days.

Stallone is not only making a new Rambo, he is also making a new Rocky. Hollywood has similarly made another Batman film (now on video), another film version of The Producers that (if possible) may even be better than the original. Hollywood has decided there are no new ideas. In fact, there are people who make a very respectable living proving it every day.

In brainstorming and writing a new genre RPG you have to come to terms with a lot of that. Tropes are tropes, and you have to use the same tropes; otherwise you either significantly change the genre, or create a wholly new one. I am very consciously trying NOT to do that with my new game.

Tropes are what make Science Fiction "Science Fiction"; and not "Fantasy", "Espionage", or "Romance". You can modify them somewhat but go an inch two far and your genre has changed. Your spacecraft can look and act like great ships in the age of sail. Think about Treasure Planet or Honor Harrington as great examples of this. However, if the human characters can breathe in space outside the atmosphere it is rarely considered SF.

I was rereading all of H. Beam Piper and realized that his Paratime work was probably the best work he ever did. Sometime in the 1940s some guy decided that time could branch into multitudes of incredibly similar alternate realities.  That led to works as diverse as Piper, as the early RPG Fringeworthy, as Mozart in Mirrorshades. Now when we see elements of timeline shifting presented in a story like John Barnes' Finity we just sigh and say "Oh look, another alternate history bit, how quaint".

When Le Voyage Dans La Lune debuted we were shot to the moon by huge cannon. It was too incredible to be believed. We have used shining rockets like X-M, flying saucers like the C-57, and original craft like the Millennium Falcon, or my favorite spaceship ever, the Backseat Betty from Alien Resurrection. Still now space travel has become somewhat boring in many SF works.

Remember that the reason that ideas become tropes is that they both work and are reasonably recognizable. Things like the cyborg and the bug-eyed monster or the earlier mentioned time-travel story are examples of this.

Before 1960 there were no cyborgs. The term did not exist. The words cybernetic and organism did. The man versus machine argument had been coined but no one had put them together. Now, almost fifty years later they are as common as fleas on a dog. Not only that, but the word is in common usage thanks largely to the Terminator films. The term bug-eyed monster, commonly shortened to BEM by SF aficionados, is about ten years older than cyborg. As an idea in SF it has fallen out of favor as of late. Though immediately recognized, many people consider BEM dated or anachronistic. But this is very subjective. I mean if Alien is not a story about a BEM, then I do not know what is.

There are a few hundred other tropes (and words in SF that are themselves tropes) from the idea that space helmets would be lit on the inside, to the sound of spacecraft swooshing through vacuum, both of which are actually nods to Hollywood.

Similar is the argument between "realism" and "cinematic" styles of play. I always disliked the terms realism and cinematic as they were used. It seemed that people who insisted on using the terms always applied them wrong because they did not understand the literary basis for the study of films and media in the twentieth century. Anyway, at the risk of sounding more of an elitist jackass than normal, I will say that a few blokes on finally got it right. I even asked them to write a guest column, but they decided not to. Now, a year later I wonder if the different styles are not as much a reaction to different GMs as they are to styles of cinema and literature.

Realism, or as I refer to it "the quest for normalcy", was much more a reaction to GMs who viewed the idea of RPGs as an adversarial endeavor. Players, incredibly out of balance and gun-shy from being railroaded across the universe by poor GMs, would cling to anything that allowed them to use logic and reason in a world where God is much more spiteful than in the Old Testament. Players felt that if they had the "real world" to hang on to they would not be completely screwed over by the GM.

Cinematic games came about as players and GMs began to acknowledge the collaborative aspects of storytelling. Players and GMs felt less threatened and wanted to do some of the cool things that you see in the movies; things that are in fact theoretically possibly, but so improbable as to be thought of as impossible, like jumping motorcycles from the tops of moving semis.

This, circuitously, brings us to The Future Soldier's Battlefield Handbook from SteamPower Publishing. It is not enlightened art for its own sake. It is not terribly new or original. It is however a well presented and well written compilation of threads for any war-based d20 Future RPG. There are new weapons, new advanced classes, and new plot seeds. The tone of the book can be jarring as the voice of the product shifts from a "field guide" written a bit like a bad army-training manual, to a rulebook written in active voice. The comment about the bad training manual is not a slight. There are no well-written Army training manuals. There are books with a lot smoother transitions between the flavor text and the meat of the rules, however. If you have not spent the last twenty years playing Traveller or Space Opera, and need to get the nuts and bolts of military SF, or if you need all of this info in an easy to read and compact digital format then this is the one for you.

The Future Soldier's Battlefield Handbook is available through's new Edge "Small Press" RPG site, which I think, is a great idea. There is now so much available digital product for RPGs that any separation of products into real categories is a good thing. I would love to see further differentiation. Personally, I would like to see a completely separate category for scanned "classic product" PDFs versus new product PDFs. In the next few years, I think that searchable modern PDFs with internal and external links will have an order of magnitude more value than the old-fashioned "flat" PDFs we see a lot now.

If you are in to DDL games, especially D20 Future DDL games, then The Future Soldier's Battlefield Handbook is a great addition to your PDF collection. Remember that without your tropes your genre RPG may not be what you wanted; and without collaborative storytelling the idea of a cinematic RPG falls flat on its face.

See you next month...

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