This entry is part 1 in the series We All Have Our Roles

Everything that I’ve ever read on the subject has defined archetypes for RPGs either in terms of the psychology of the character or the abilities of the character. Filling out a team roster is often a case of players selecting from a chinese menu – “let’s see, we need a fighter, a mage, a rogue, a cleric, and once those are filled, anyone else can take a something else,” or “okay, we’ve got a brooding loner, a perky teenager, a faded party girl, and a holier-than-though type with a shady past”.

There’s nothing wrong with either method of ensuring that a party in your campaign has both a spread of personalities and a comprehensive set of capabilities. In fact, I used the power-based character archetype structure to fill out the roster in my Superhero campaign, and that has worked out fairly well, especially since there weren’t enough characters to fill all the available archetype choices, so there was always something that the team was going to struggle with.

A little while ago, I thought of a different classification approach, based not so much on what the characters could do as a team, but of how the characters fitted into the team. With a bit of thought, I came up with a list of 24 archetypes based on that concept (and there are undoubtedly more). A single character may fill just one of these roles within the party or may fill multiple roles, either willingly or reluctantly. In some teams, all members of the party will have one of these roles in common, although this is unusual; but everyone needs to have at least one role from this list that is unique to them alone.

These arechetypes are as much a function of the personality of the player as they are the abilities and personality of the character in conjunction and in comparison with the rest of the party.

Why is this perspective valuable? Because it permits the GM to tailor scenes in a game based on those roles – either showing off the role, or using the role to complicate the parties’ lives, or simply as a another avenue for making sure that everyone at the table has something to do in each adventure.

The list has grown so large, and I have so much to say about some of the entries, that this article has needed to be broken into multiple parts, which will be appearing at irregular intervals over the next few months, as there are other posts that I will want to make in between each portion of the series.

So, without further ado, let’s get started…

1. The Heart Of The Team:

This is the person who keeps the team going, who those characters who are polar opposites link to in order to cooperate (or simply cooexist). Without this character, or someone in this role, the team begins to flounder. This is not necessarily a mothering role, though often the mother in a TV show provides this function, such as “Marion Cunningham” in Happy Days. In Numbers, for example, it’s the father who fills this role; in the X-men comics, the role was shuffled around from Prof X to Marvel Girl to Cyclops, until settling down on the unlikeliest of shoulders – those of Wolverine. In The Avengers, this has usually been either Hawkeye or Captain America.

Plots which revolve around questions of committment, or of why the party do what they do, should focus on the Heart Of The Team. Plots which remove or neutralise this character focus on what they bring to the team, and should prominantly bring to the surface differences in opinions between the characters to highlight this character’s role as the peacemaker.

This archetype is all about the passion and determination and drive of the team, the character that inspires individual personalities to work together in common cause; it is the central unifying force of the party. Without them, the party should drift off in different directions, even working in support of causes or objectives that are ultimately at odds. Some characters, those with less drive in the makeup, should simply drift, lazily, while outside events pull them this way and that, and everything surrounding the party gets out of hand, until it seems overwhelming, and futile to oppose.

2. The Tactician

There’s always someone who leaps in ahead of the others with a plan, who stage-manages (however competantly or otherwise) the party when they are challenged. If this character is not run by the player with this role, strange things can happen within the team – the character who is supposed to be coming up with the plans can be percieved as not pulling their weight, for example, when there are others contributing no more, or even less, to the groups’ success.

There are a couple of strategies for managing this situation, which is one that every GM will encounter at some point, but they all have flaws and imperfections. One is to permit the player who is good at this sort of thing to speak for the character even though it isn’t theirs; if the two players have gotten together and come to an agreement in this respect, this strategy can be successful, but otherwise it can feel like a perpetual criticism of the player of the character in the tactician’s role.

A second option is for the GM to deliberately feed solutions to the player in question, possibly as a result of appropriate die rolls. While this preserves the simulation of reality and the dignity of the player in question, I hate this approach because it sacrifices too much of the interactivity of the game and leaves the GM open to accusations of plot trains.

Another tactic is for the GM to bias his handling of the results, putting additional impediments in the path of any plan not suggested by the tactician characters’ player, no matter how logical they may be, while smoothing the path of the plans offered by The Tactician character’s player, no matter how ridiculous or shortsighted they may be. This robs the overall campaign of verisimilitude in order to make the character’s supposed role in the team seem more believable – and, like all plans that rob peter to pay paul, will eventually come unstuck. It also leaves the GM open to charges of favoritism that are pretty well justified. To be completely honest, until recently, this would have been my best answer to the problem, but I’ve recently become disenchanted with it.

The best approach that I have been able to think of – and which I have yet to actually trial – is to implement a new type of game scene, inspired by the “Charlie-visions” in Numb3rs. In this game scene, the players are no longer playing their characters; instead, they are participating in a round-robbin style collaboration inside the head of the tactician. When the players, as a group, come up with a plan and agree on it, they document it, and we resume normal roleplay – with the outcome from this planning session emerging from the lips of the ‘tactician’ character.

The biggest advantage to this approach, the one that has sold me on it, is that there is no longer a need to take time out, or one-on-one time away from the gaming table, in order to brief the character and give his player the time needed to plan a strategy.

Scenarios revolving around this character are usually fish-out-of-water in nature, where the character is put into a situation that can’t be solved with tactical acumen, and this frequently plays to the strengths of a player who is not a tactician himself. The other form of scenario that revolves around this type of character are situations in which the obvious tactical solutions are blocked by moral or other considerations, which can be reflected in internal or even intra-party squabbling and debate.

If this character goes missing for whatever reason, the team are likely to make tactically poor decisions which may provide short-term success at the cost of greater difficulties in the long run, or which incur greater costs, either of a personal or financial nature. In short, their absence should create a mess that they will have to clean up when they return. The kidnapping or holding as hostage this character is an event that should be sure to complicate the lives of the entire party for some time to come, especially if the remainder of the party have to make some tricky decisions or beg favours from untrustworthy outsiders – metaphoric deals with the devil – in order to achieve the rescue.

3. The Moral Guardian

Another key function within the team is the person with the moral compass, who decides what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is crossing some invisible line of morality. It can be said that so long as a party knows that what they have done is right, it doesn’t matter how the rest of the campaign world percieves their actions; and while that is not going to be universally true, it’s great territory for a campaign to explore.

Quite obviously, questions of morality will play to this character’s strengths, as will the far more subtle scenarios in which the party do what seems to be the right thing only to discover that the situation was not as clear-cut as it seemed. A character in this role will often conflict with the tactician over matters of expediency, which in turn gives other archetypes a situation to play off.

As with the tactician, this team member’s absence should expose the team to errors within this archetype’s province. If that situation was capable of leading to metaphoric deals with the devil, this situation gives a literal interpretation to that outcome. Once again, the true cost of these deals should not become aparrant for some time to come, and even when the debt is repayed, it should seem to be in some innocuous, even trivial, manner. It should be the first domino in a long chain, the butterfly flapping its wings in Peking that ultimately creates a blizzard over Cairo.

4. The Rock

The last of the archetypes that I’ll examine in today’s post is The Rock, the character that everyone can lean on for support, the character that can stand firm against any assault, the character that puts the backbone into the team. Frequently portrayed as “staunch” or “indomitable”, this arechetype can be far more interesting when united with some other personality profile. It might be a character who is so innocent and without guile that the stand against the most overwhelming opposition through naivity and faith; it might be a character who is so passionate for a cause or belief that they will make any sacrifice in its name; ir might be a character who is so hate-filled and obsessed that nothing but their cause matters. It can even be a character like a mafia Don who is so corrupt and despicable that they can withstand any opposition by using someone else as a meat shield – but who is forgiven for this because he always has the best interests of ‘the family’ foremost in his mind!

Losing this character archetype can be extremely disruptive to a party. Losing the Heart of the team may cost them their drive and commitment, their passion, if you will; losing The Rock destroys the team’s self confidence. Unless they find someone else around whom to rally, they will quickly and permanently go their different ways. Should the Heart and the Rock ever have a falling out, the same result will occur. At the same time, should anything ever threaten The Rock, this is the one person in whose defence the whole team will reunite and rally, regardless of past disagreements.

Sometimes, it can be the loss of The Rock that makes them the rallying point of the group; this was the premise of the personality dynamic in the third season of Blake’s 7, in which the character for which the series was named was lost; it was the untarnished and idealised reflection of the goals that the character represented that became the unifying force amongst the survivors, and goals that they sought to fulfill. Blake was percieved by them to be a martyr to the cause, and martyrs have always been rallying points for their followers. They are always idealised, and any feet of clay are lost or ignored in the rush to embrace that idealised image.

The important thing about Blake’s 7 as an example for RPGs is that the creators took the time to solidly embed the character in the viewer – two full seasons, in face – so that the viewer also became swept up in the martyrdom ferver. If the series had started with the first episode of season three, with the Blake character never being seen, the series would have failed to engage the passion of the audiance for the cause that kept viewers coming back, as the martyr would have been seen at arm’s length. This would have resulted in a paradygm shift for the whole series, leaving no balancing force for the focus on obsession that was one of its subtextual themes, and encouraging characters into far more one-dimensional patterns; it was the dichotomies of the drives and objectives of the originals that gave the writers such a broad palette for character interactions.

Still to come

Future installments of this series will study the following archetypes:

  1. The Mother Hen
  2. The Intellectual
  3. The Faithful
  4. The Air-head
  5. The Wild Card / Rebel / Scoundrel
  6. The Flashing Genius
  7. The Strange Uncle
  8. The Romantic
  9. The Comedian
  10. The Egotist
  11. The Drama Queen
  12. The Panicker
  13. The Messy One
  14. The Clean / Neat Freak
  15. The Hot-Head
  16. The Wannabe
  17. The Father-Figure
  18. The Greedy / Power-hungry
  19. The Troublemaker
  20. The Jealous One

While comment is welcome on the subject in general, especially the suggestion of any archetypes that I havn’t thought of yet, or in respect of the archetypes that I have focussed on in this part of the series, I would hope to avoid making future installments anticlimactic as a result of the premature discussion of any of these still-to-be-detailed archetypes. While I will happily read (and possibly incorporate into the article body) any comments you have on the list above, I may edit or even remove any comments aimed at the rest of the list. I promise, if I don’t publish your comment, I will have paid close attention to it, and will give credit where it’s due when the time comes!

Studying character roles in terms of the team dynamic is a whole new way of looking at the way characters interact, and offers a new tool for the creation of plots focussed on those interactions. I hope you’re all as excited by that as I am!

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