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, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there are other classifications that are possible, and these yield a different perspective that can be invaluable. This approach is based not so much on what the characters could do as a team, but of how the characters fit into a team.
I have defined 27 archetypes based on the concept – undoubtedly not the full gamut of possibilities, but enough, and three more than were on the list last time out of the gate! 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 characters will all have one of these roles in common, but this is unusual; regardless of any commonality, everyone needs to have at least one role from this list that is unique to them alone.
The archetypes 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.
The purpose of these archetypes is to enable 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 another avenue for making sure that everyone at the table has something to do in each adventure.
A note about general comments regarding this series
While comment is welcome on the subject in general, especially the suggestion of any archetypes that I haven’t thought of yet – if I agree, I will add it to the pile (as I have done with a suggestion from ppinkosh from part 1 of the series). I want to avoid making future instalments anticlimactic, so although I will read any general comments and suggestions you may have, I may edit or even remove any comments aimed at the rest of the list. I promise that if we don’t publish your comment, I will have paid close attention, and will give credit where it’s due when the time comes!
In the meantime, everyone is welcome to discuss the archetypes that are the focus of attention in this part of the series.
Expanding The Series
The “real world” time pressures that I wrote of a month or so ago (“Jolting The Status Quo“) are really starting to bite as I knuckle down to write this post.
To accommodate those external needs, I have decided to break this series up into a larger series of smaller posts than I had originally intended. The original intent was to break the series into 6 parts, each examining 4 archetypes. The new plan is to detail only 2-3 archetypes to a part. Don’t worry, we’ll still get there in the end!
In addition, some of the write-ups are proving to be larger than I had originally expected; under normal circumstances, that would not be an issue and I would make the post as long as necessary (or at least as long as I could make it in the time available). The change in plan permits a little more attention to be paid to those larger archetypes instead of forcing me to compress them for lack of time.
In part one of this series, I looked at four roles that I consider vital to any team:
- The Heart Of The Team
- The Tactician
- The Moral Guardian
- The Rock
The series picks up from there, as I look at
- The Mother Hen, and
- The Intellectual
5. The Mother Hen
The Mother Hen is a worrier, the person who always wants to prepare for the worst. Not necessarily a pessimist, this archetype is nevertheless the type who thinks that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, unless someone makes it their business to do something about it – and they have appointed themselves. Often in teams, this role is taken by the youngest member, because experience builds a track record of success which in turn gives a character confidence.
These characters rarely refer to themselves as “Mother Hens” – more frequently they are “the voice of reason” or “the voice of experience”. While their warnings and suggestions of imminent calamity are rarely necessary, they nevertheless sensitise the other characters to the potential for things to go pear-shaped at any moment. Inevitably, when the characters encounter a setback in the course of a scenario, even though the nature of the difficulty is rarely what was forecast, the mother hen will seize apon the trouble as proof that they were right, and simply lacked the strength of imagination to forecast all the possibilities.
Many GMs would prefer to live without a Mother Hen amongst the characters at the table; by insisting that the characters plan for all conceivable contingencies, they can slow play down to a crawl. The only compensation for this is that the presence of a Mother Hen is invariably a backhanded compliment to the GMs regarding their ability to make life interesting for the characters.
There is also an element of Don Quixote in such forecasts of doom and gloom; if the PCs plan for all the things that can go obviously wrong in their schemes, but know that the GMs will seek to put reversals, trials, and tribulations in the PCs way anyhow, all they are really achieving is making sure that the GMs are forced to become evil geniuses in formulating unexpected and unlikely plot twists. And that’s the real value to the campaign of this archetype: the stop the GMs from taking the lazy way out. In the long run, the campaign benefits.
Examples of the Mother Hen
Strangely, I’m actually hard-put to discern any examples from the media. Perhaps that’s because this type of character – and the bogging down that comes with them – are death to the momentum of stories. Movies, TV shows, and Comics all read better if the lead characters wade in, boots and all, and win through on their wits and skills. But there are a couple: Han Solo has a touch of the Mother Hen about him, especially in the original Star Wars, leavened by his tremendous ego; C3PO has even more about it, but plays it for laughs. Crease in Sneakers, and – in an odd sort of way – Mother’s paranoid conspiracy theories from the same movie – also qualify. Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon series is another example – where, again, it’s played for laughs, and to sharpen the contrast with Riggs. And the best example of them all is Marion Cunningham from Happy Days – for those who are old enough to remember it!
Curiously, almost all these examples are males – perhaps because a female role of this nature would be too stereotypical.
Plotlines for the Mother Hen
This archetype rarely needs to be made the central focus of a plot, and it’s rare for it to be the only archetype posessed by a character. GMs are usually better rewarded by focussing on other aspects of the personality of the Mother Hen. Nevertheless, it can occasionally be humorous for all the dire portents and grim warnings to manifest; just because the PCs are prepared for them, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t happen, at least some of the time. The smarter the villain, the less likely this should be – if you’re smart enough, you should also be able to anticipate what might go wrong, and how would-be interventionists might seek to take advantage of those problems – and will have plans in place to overcome their problems.
In fact, that’s a fairly reliable gauge of am enemy’s intelligence in my campaigns – the dumber the villain, the more likely the plotline is to follow the PCs script, at least up to a point.
Without The Mother Hen
What would life be like if the team lost their Mother Hen? For a while, they wouldn’t notice much difference, except that they wouldn’t spend as much time in endless discussion before going into action. They might even regard it as a positive development.
Sooner or later, however, they would find themselves over-committing, getting in too deep, getting caught by some embarrassingly obvious complication. At the same time, life would be getting endlessly more complicated by loose ends, as little things that they have overlooked start coming back to bite them. Slowly, the campaign should naturally become a bit more soap-opera in tone, because of the entanglements of these loose plot-threads.
When this happens, the team’s batting average should start to slip, and their escapes become even more hairs-breadth. Eventually, one or more of the characters, weighed down by the potential for things to go badly wrong, will step up and start to fill the shoes of the Mother Hen.
If the GM does his job right, they will ultimately come to look apon the ‘old days’ (with the original Mother Hen in tow) as ‘the good old days’, and regret the loss of the word of warning. The other members of the team might even go so far as to try and get the original Mother Hen back!
6. The Intellectual
Not every team includes an intellectual, but they are commonplace. Also known as an Anorak, the Intellectual is a character who glories in understanding what is taking place and (usually) explaining it to everyone within earshot. I should also make special point of noting that I have distinguished this archetype from a related one, the Flashing Genius.
The Intellectual doesn’t have to be a genius – he’s not necessarily a Reed Richards or Tony Stark. He certainly doesn’t have to be an inventor or gadgeteer. There are many more variations on this archetype than these options, but they all have certain traits in common.
The intellectual values intelligence above all other characteristics, and relishes the application of intelligence to problems. There is also an element of snobbishness about them, in that they find it difficult not to show off their intellect or knowledge. They will tend to build up knowledge-type skills, and (to a lesser extent), analytic and deductive skills.
Those traits are the defining characteristics of the Intellectual. Outside of them, everything is up for grabs, and that is why there are so many variations on this theme. Subtypes include the Detective, the Technician, the Analyst, the Engineer, the Scientist, the Reporter, the Lawyer, the Historian, and the Trivia King or Queen.
Many characters might be considered “Intellectuals” within a limited sphere of speciality, but that alone is not enough to qualify for this archetype. It is also important to distinguish between the Intellectual and a character who is a mouthpiece for exposition – it must come naturally to the character in order for them to qualify as a genuine Intellectual.
Examples Of The Intellectual
Finding examples of this archetype is made more difficult by the way that this role is often “contaminated” by the Flashing Genius archetype – which excludes many of the more obvious choices, because they would confuse the issue. So much so that the combination is almost a cliché. For this reason I have excluded Spock from Star Trek, Reed Richards (both Comics and Movie versions), Dr Doom (Comics Version), Tony Stark/Iron Man, Emmett “Doc” Brown from Back To the Future, Charlie Eppes from Numb3rs, and even Professor X from the X-men.
More pure examples include Hank McCoy (aka The Beast) from the X-men (especially the early appearances of the character in the comics), O’Brian and Bashir from Deep Space Nine, and even Seven of Nine from Star Trek Voyager. I would also throw in Robert Langdon of The Da Vinci Code, the members of the Black Widower’s mens’ club (from the short stories of Isaac Asimov), Lisa Simpson, almost every regular cast member of the CSI franchise (Original, Miami, New York), and just about every TV detective you can point to.
A few of the latter are illuminating, but none more so than Homicide Detective Columbo. This character’s persona plays completely against type until he has the proof he needs, and the explanatory exposition at the end of each show, where he confronts the culprit, is a return to archetypical behaviour, almost as though he can only hold it in for so long before he bursts. If you watch many episodes, you will also find controlled “mini-releases” of archetypical behaviour along the way.
I would also characterise Dr Watson as an Intellectual, but NOT Sherlock Holmes himself – one always gets the impression that Holmes finds the need to explain his conclusions an irritation, one that he tolerates as necessary to convince the people to whom he is explaining to take action in response to his deductions, and out of friendship for the Doctor.
Plotlines for the Intellectual
Mysteries and puzzles are obvious, even to the point of cliché. But more interesting plots are possible; for example, you could play on the arrogance of the archetype by introducing a rival – either an up-and-comer (“fastest gun” syndrome) or a challenger who claims the character’s past work has been flawed on occasion (a staple of the mystery genre, and one of my favourite subtypes within that type of plot). Or you could play on the arrogance in a different way by having someone attempt to deceive the Intellectual.
But as a general rule, building strong plots around the Intellectual generally requires a completely different approach; you can’t simply take the archetype at face value.
Often, the most interesting aspects of an Intellectual are not archetypical in nature, but centre on how those archetypical traits are shaped and influenced by other aspects of the character and his or her personality. The personality, skills, and expertise of the player is also a vital consideration (I have one player who is a great friend and excellent player and GM, and a big Sherlock Holmes fan – but he can’t stand mysteries in RPGs and makes a lousy detective even if the skills of the charecter say otherwise). In other words, play the man (or woman), not the ball (or, in this case, the archetype).
Nor is it generally necessary to integrate scope for the intellectual into every plot (though the GM should always remember their presence), except in cases where the player needs extra support from the GM to make up for their deficiencies (but not for their character’s). This type of character can generally make their presence felt within the team even without an explicit contribution to make.
Intellectuals and the non-intellectual player
Some players feel that unless they are already inclined in the direction of the Intellectual, they cannot adequately play this archetype. This is not the case, though in the bad old days it did require extra prep on the part of the GM; in modern times, technology has come to the GM’s assistance in this respect.
The Old-School Approach
The keys to the old-school method for a non-intellectual player to act in the capacity of an Intellectual are Key Words and Index Cards.
The GM should extract from his planned adventure for the day a list of key words and create an index card for each with a couple of pieces of trivia related to the subject. Each time that keyword comes up, add a couple more.
When the key word comes up in play, the GM simply hands the index card to the player of the Intellectual, providing him with a source of relevant trivia – and the occasional useful factoid. The Intellectual then roleplays the delivery of that trivia.
The GM can even make his task easier by creating the index cards from books of trivia and integrating the results into his scenarios instead of going the other way around. This might be putting the cart before the horse, but it is – at least in this case – a valid technique.
Another old-school approach is to buy an almanac (preferably from the era of the campaign if you can find one) and just hand it to the player as his “repository of knowledge”. And it’s this last old-school approach that has been modernised in the 21st century to give:
A New-School Approach
The best modern technique that I know of requires the use of a laptop or similar device. The GM cherry picks a couple of useful reference websites, and the player simply does his research on the fly after a successful knowledge roll. To maintain some limits, the GM should not permit the player to click on an external link, no matter how relevant, unless the player achieves a spectacular success of some sort, and neither should he permit the use of a search engine.
This takes virtually all the prep out of the equation for the GM, except for campaign-specific items. Using an appropriate website, like Google Docs or Google Site, the GM can even modernise the creation of “index cards” on those subjects as part of his regular campaign creation, and create a reference for his own use at the same time. The result is that these additional references can be accessed in exactly the same way as the other websites.
The Loss Of The Intellectual
It’s when a team loses their intellectual after becoming used to the presence of the archetype that the GM’s work really begins. The reason for this is that what is often perceived as annoying, even distracting, chatter from the Intellectual often provides a context to the events that surround the party, a connection into the perception of a bigger picture.
The problem is that the remaining players will tend to step into the breach, even if their characters had previously shown no propensity for the role of The Intellectual of the party. As a result, they will generally not feel the absence in the way that they should, and may even find the change to be beneficial in that they get more ‘screen time’ as a result.
In order to properly emphasise the absence of this archetype, the GM should carefully scrutinise the skill lists of the remaining characters, searching for those skills in which none of the remaining members of the party are especially knowledgeable, the GM should deliberately craft a short series of scenarios or subplots revolving around these skills, purely to emphasise the party’s loss.
In particular, if the player is still at the table and has simply retired his previous character, special care should be taken by the GM to balance his natural tendency to focus on the new character (because it’s new and everyone is still getting used to what it brings to the table) with plots emphasising the absence of the old character. At least for a while.
If one can be contrived, a small plot arc in which seemingly-separate and unrelated plotlines suddenly dovetail into a larger picture, revealed to the PCs at the last possible minute, is an excellent approach to this circumstance.
The plots should emphasise the need to locate and interact with substitute sources of information – and the risks of deception and incompetence that come with this change. In addition, the party should find themselves more vulnerable to certain kinds of manipulation – hoaxes, scams, con games, and deceptions of all sorts, without the “walking encyclopaedia” at their fingertips to ferret these out and spot the warning signs.
During this period, the GM should be unusually strict when making rulings about the other characters attempting to ‘fill in’ for the intellectual, especially in distinguishing between player knowledge and abilities, and those of the characters. Gradually, the GM can relax this stance to his normal standards and permit the other characters to step up to the plate, once the objective has been achieved.
And who knows? One or more of the new NPCs brought in as replacements for the Intellectual might become another of those fantastic, memorable characters that give each campaign their own unique cast.
Still to come
Future instalments of this series will study the following archetypes:
- The Faithful
- The Air-head
- The Wild Card / Rebel / Scoundrel
- The Flashing Genius
- The Strange Uncle
- The Romantic
- The Comedian
- The Egotist
- The Drama Queen
- The Panicker
- The Messy One
- The Clean / Neat Freak
- The Hot-Head
- The Wannabe
- The Father-Figure
- The Greedy / Power-hungry
- The Troublemaker
- The Jealous One
- The Comic Relief
- The Sidekick
- The Bystander
We’re just getting warmed up!
- We All Have Our Roles To Play: A Functional Perspective on Personality Archetypes, Part 1
- We All Have Our Roles To Play: Personality Archetypes, Part 2
- We All Have Our Roles To Play: Personality Archetypes, Part 3
- We All Have Our Roles To Play: Personality Archetypes, Part 4