Archetypes for RPGs are usually defined either by the psychology of the character or the abilities of the character, but other classifications systems are possible. These can yield a different perspective, which can be invaluable.
This series’ 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 (and counting!) based on this concept.
A single character may fit into just one niche within the party or may fill multiple roles, either willingly or reluctantly. An entire group of characters may have an archetype in common, but it is my contention that each character should 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 this series is to enable the tailoring of scenes and adventures in a game based on those roles – either highlighting the role, 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 – I want to avoid making future instalments anticlimactic. As a result, although I will read any general comments and suggestions you may have, any comments aimed at the rest of the list may be edited or even removed. I promise that if we don’t publish your comment, I will have paid close attention, and will give credit where it is due when the time comes!
In the meantime, discussion of the archetypes that are the focus of attention in the current article is welcome!
Parts one and two of this series have examined six archetypes:
- The Heart Of The Team
- The Tactician
- The Moral Guardian
- The Rock
- The Mother Hen
- The Intellectual
The series picks up from there, as I look at
- The Faithful
- The Air-head, and
- The Flashing Genius
7. The Faithful
A character of this archetype believes in something or someone to the point of total confidence that a successful outcome will be achieved, no matter how difficult circumstances may seem. The ‘someone or something’ might be a deity (religious faith) or a principle (‘love conquers all’, ‘might makes right’, ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’, ‘the good guys always win’, ‘if we stick together we are stronger than the sum of our parts’, or even ‘math is everywhere’) or a person (‘X is always right’) or a political alliance or other organisation, or even themselves or their training. Taken to extremes, this leads to jingoism and would-be world conquerors and religious fanatics and martyrs.
This archetype clearly takes in a lot of territory, and many quite distinctive characters. The common characteristic is that by placing doubt at arms length, they are able to act decisively, with minimum hesitation, sure that everything will work out in the end if they are only true to what they believe in.
This in turn draws them to careers where a lack of hesitation is an asset. The church, the military, the police force, emergency services of all kinds, acting, stunt work, competitive sports, test pilots… the list gets ever-longer. It has often been said that every racing car driver thinks that he is potnetially the equal of everyone else in the world, and that the key to success is unlocking that potential and getting the maximum that the car can deliver. That doesn’t mean that they do not acknowledge fallability; it simply means that they have confidence that if they overstep ‘the limit’ they will either recover from it, or learn from it.
The funny thing is that the mere act of committing themselves 100% to a task – whether it be taking a corner in a racing car as fast as possible, or putting themselves completely in a role, or standing staunchly against seemingly overwhelmning odds, they will often achieve more than those who lack that faith would have thought possible. That’s why one of the priority tasks for all sporting coaches is to get a team’s confidence up, especially if they have lost a match!
Does everyone need something to believe in? The question requires deep philosophical reflection to answer, and that answer is usually contentious. There was a time when I thought so – that people either believed in God, for example, or subsituted belief in something else for that faith, and that those who had nothing to believe in were mentally or emotionally ill or injured in some way. In more modern times, I’m not so sure; whether that is a sign of growing maturity, cynicysm, or confusion is another question! But I do believe that faith in something is a trait that comes naturally to people, and that the strength of that faith can vary from one individual to another, and that the absence of that faith makes someone entirely reliant on their own emotional and psychological resiliance, and hence more prone to suffer as a result of any shortcomings in those areas.
To qualify as a member of this archetype, this beleif has to be very strong, central to the character’s or the person’s attitudes and actions and choices, for good or ill.
Examples of The Faithful
Almost every one of the subjects of faith listed above brought one or more characters firmly to mind as an example. Quite often, it was the thought of that example character that provided the entry onto the list, and not the other way around. Ned Flanders, Magneto, Dr Doom, Charles Eppes from Numb3rs, Gibbs & Abby from NCIS, Danny Ocean from Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen, Judge Dredd, even William Stannix (Tommy Lee Jones) in Under Siege (even if the only thing he believes in now is Revenge, or himself)… the list just goes on and on and on.
Plotlines for The Faithful to avoid
All too often, plotlines for this archetype fall into two categories: The Contradiction and The Affirmation.
In The Contradiction, the plotline exists to cast doubt on the validity of the faith. This usually takes the form of an encounter with a character who succeeds in overcoming or threatening The Faithful despite having views or philosophy or even Faith in something that is diametrically opposed to the beliefs of The Faithful. Many GMs employ this plot as a homily to the power of Faith itself, implying that this is superior to any specific subject of belief, faith in which might be erroneous.
This is usually a reflection of either the personal beliefs of the GM, or a philosophy that permits Beleiveers and Non-believers to work together instead of being at odds – a somewhat-tolerable sort of politic awareness, a statement that “I may not believe in what you believe in, but I can respect that you do believe in it.”
This type of plotline can very easily overstep the mark, treading on a player’s personal beliefs. It can very easily degenerate into a statement that is percieved to be critical of a personal belief of the player. Some people can keep this sort of interaction at arm’s length – “it’s just a game” – while others can’t, or don’t want to. The plots can also very easily become preachy, and there is little that is more boring in a game than preaching to the players about the philosophic nature of reality. They are also fairly dull and predictable, simply because they are so obvious, and that alone is good reason to avoid such plots.
The Affirmation is the exact opposite, a scenario designed to show that the character’s belief is right. This not only suffers from almost all the problems of The Contradiction (it’s less common and hence less predictable, but that’s the only difference), it adds a near-certainty of plot railroading to the compound of woes. Again, this type of scenario should be avoided.
Which brings me to two less common types of plotline for The Faithful that are often overlooked: Ramifications and Expansions.
A plotline which gives a Faithful the opportunity to explore some of the ramifications and consequences of their faith always works well. It avoids all the problems listed in the previous section by presenting a character with circumstances that are interesting, and in which their belief will prompt them to act in a certain way, without making judgements of the character’s beleifs, one way or another. This is often presented as a plot subtype, The Test Of Faith, but that is not the only such plotline that is possible.
The key to these other subtypes of plot is generally to put the character into a position where their belief is working against them as much as it is working for them. If, for example, a character believes that his team will always win because their hearts are pure, a scenario in which one of their team becomes tainted with some scandal while at more or less the same time, they confront another team whose hearts are even more pure – but who oppose the characters’ team – and who make an offer for the Faithful to change sides, will result in divided loyalties and lots of scope for interesting development. Perhaps the road to success will lie in The Faithful helping the character of Tarnished reputation to redeem himself, or perhaps the character will choose to switch sides (in line with the Faith), only to discover that everything is not as it seemed, or perhaps the character will be confronted with a crisis of confidence in his or her team. The GM can pull as many strings as he has to in order to create the circumstances; getting out the other side is up to the player, and it is the tension and interplay between the two that creates the in-between.
Another example: A scenario exploring the question, “Does having faith in a deity mean agreeing with and supporting everything that Deity does?” Perhaps the question is “Can a deity make a mistake?” or “Can a deity be irrational?”. Or even, “How will The Faithful feel about unsavoury acts committed in the Deity’s name?”
And one more: Sometimes, Love is described as a form of mild insanity, in that it can drive people to perform acts that they would never normally dream of. In the Sherlock Holmes story, “The Cardboard Box”, Love for her sister’s husband drives a woman to disrupt their marraige in hopes that he will turn to her; she reinstates a condition of alcoholism in him and beings about an affair between her sister and a third party. The victim of this love triangle is so wounded that his love drives him to kill both his wife and her lover and to send their ears to the manipulative sister, a way of suggesting “It’s all your fault,” or “Look what you made me do?” In all of this, the love of one sister for another also plays a part. So where would someone who believes that “Love Conquers All” land if they found themselves in the middle of this mess? Would they support the unfaithful sister, the faithful husband, the manipulative but love-struck sister, or the unfaithful sister’s lover?
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” – Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5. When it comes to theology-based characters, like Clerics, or characters with a central philosophy in which they believe, no plotline is better than a confrontation between them and something that is completely alien to that faith, and which drives them to widen their beliefs.
I don’t really need to go any deeper into the subject in this post, as I have already written a post specifically addressing this point, one of the most frequently-referanced articles on the site: A Quality Of Spirit. That’s right, I consider this type of plotline to be that important.
Without The Faithful
In terms of team psychology, The Faithful is a very interesting character archetype. Confidence can be contagious, just as doubt and uncertainty can be catching. While having a confident character pushing the party to ‘go for it’ can get the team in over their heads from time to time, it also keeps them from endless procrastinating and excessive caution.
While groups who have never adventured with a Faithful may have a balanced perspective, those who are accustomed to striking a balance with a Faithful in their midst should find themselves overplanning and becoming overcautious. And if they attempt to compensate for this tendancy, they should start swing too far in the opposite direction, and find themselves underplanning and being overconfident. Over time, this oscillation should dampen down.
Problem: Players have different personalities to those of the character archetype. That means that the unexpected absence of the archetype won’t have the same effect; instead it will simply lead the other players to step a little out of character and pick up the slack.
It’s not that they are suddenly worse roleplayers, it’s just human nature – the players are drawing apon their own mental and emotional resources, even if those are not the same as those of their characters.
That means that it is up to the GM to make the players ‘feel’ the absence. Unless he is totally convinced that the players are not subconsciously compensating for the absence and are playing their characters in a manner that is consistant with the way they were playing them previously, he has to bring the absence of the Faithful to life for the players.
That means that no matter how little planning they undertake in the first adventure – or the first part of the first adventure – without The Faithful, it should turn out to be too much. They should discover that their opponant has used the time to his advantage, and all their planning is worthless. And then, in the second, he should ensure that they are continually taken by surprise by things that should have occurred to them.
This requires the GM to perform a very delicate balancing act. He should not alter or force the outcome on the players in any way, shape, or form – so any difficulties that he imposes as the adventure proceeds have to be carefully counterbalanced as the scenario reaches its climax. That, in turn, is tricky to achieve without the whole thing feeling contrived and artificial and melodramatic.
The best solution to this problem is to up the hyperbole and melodrama prior to the climax, and progressively understate the melodrama as the climax approaches. Instead of exaggerated drama, baroque – even lyrical – language should be substituted – a symphony instead of a rock show. Express the feelings and emotions of the NPCs and not how big and mean they look, and watch for an opportunity to play up a turning point at which the outcome becomes inevitable.
The situation itself will infuse the climax with melodrama; by reducing the thickness with which you are laying more on top of that level inherant in a climax and focussing elsewhere, you can nuance the emotional overtones and avoid the feeling of inevitability that can leave players feeling like they are on a plot train when they are not. This is a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way!
8. The Air-head
This archetype also acts without thinking, but not because they have faith in something that will ensure a successful outcome!
While it may be surprising to many, this archetype contains more variety than is initially aparrant, and may even have profound depths. This result is best explained by considering an alternative definition: an “Air-head” applies their intelligence to matters other than those of everyday action and concomitant interaction with the people around them. Einstein, under this definition, was an air-head, just as much as Cordelia in season 1 of Buffy The Vampire-Slayer.
Einstein notoriously concentrated so deeply on abstruse philosophical and physical questions that he became the prototype for Hollywood’s cliche, the absent-minded professor.
Cordelia was obsessed with image and popularity and other things that were trivial in comparison to the problems of Buffy and Co – and that was her role, as a foil.
Many Forms Of Intelligence
In fact, there is the concept that there are many more varieties of intelligence than the logic-oriented measure of performance with which game mechanics usually associates the term. Anyone who is strong in such an area of development, who could be said to have a ‘natural instinct’ for certain problems, and who is also less developed in the usual application of intelligence to everyday life can be said to be an “Air-head”.
For example, contemplate a person who always knows the right thing to say or do to make the people he or she cares about feel better, regardless of the circumstances – a form of “emotional intelligence”. Such a character could easily be an air-head in every other way.
There is a long-running and still popular Australian sitcom, Mother And Son, which revolves around a woman, Maggie Bear, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but who is often posessed of a cunning that permits her to exaggerate and take advantage of her infirmity to manipulate those around her, especially her son, Arthur. Six seasons over a 10-year production run testify as to the popularity of the series, together with the fact that it is still being shown in repeats; the wit and intelligence with which it approached an otherwise sensitive subject are shown by the many awards that it won. (The first two seasons are now available through Amazon for our non-australian readers: Season 1, Season 2).
Illness may have taken much of Maggie Bear’s intelligence when it came to ordinary life, but there was more going on behind her state of confusion than most people can muster on their best days. This role is the perfect proof that an air-head can have depth and even be capable of profound contributions to the plots around her.
I am deliberately ignoring more obvious examples, like Rain Man! British Comedies often touch on this concept as well – The Young Ones, for example – but so have American Comedies like Night Court and Welcome Back, Kotter.
Two other sets of examples come to mind, which – since they derive from successful Hollywood movies – are more likely to be accessable to the majority of our readers.
The first are the misfit patients in The Dream Team, who are able to work together and use their infirmity to save their Doctor and catch a pair of crooked cops.
The second are also patients in an asylum, in a comedy, in which they become ad-writers: Crazy People. I can’t go any further into the plot without ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but once again, the impairment of the characters is what enables them to succeed.
Plotlines for the Air-head
The ideal plotline for an Air-head uses their incapacity to get them into trouble, and their natural genius – whatever form it might take – to get them back out again. Equally ideal is the opposite, where a character’s gifts lead them into trouble but they eventually stumble back out again to a succesful resolution after a comedy of errors.
Often, these are not sufficient to be the central focus of a plot, because only the one character generally fits the description, and that character generally takes over the spotlight in all such plots. It’s often a better choice to give this character central billing in a subplot, and to occasionally use them to get the other characters into trouble; otherwise, the players will tend to (a)feel short-changed in terms of screen time; and (b) find the air-head to be more trouble than the character is worth.
The big advantage of this aproach is that the “air-headedness” can occur more frequently, but a lot of the time, the other players are reaping the benefits of having such a character around while only indirectly catching the downside; this will make them far more tolerant of the character being around.
It’s also important to play up the comedic potential, if that is appropriate (it usually will be, but there are some cases where it would not fit). Players won’t tend to laugh when their characters are the butt of the jokes, but do exactly the same things to an NPC and it’s a whole different story!
Without the Air-head
Another characteristic of the air-head is that they are often emotional catalists, drawing out emotions in others, one way or another. We all tend to root for the underdog, and the air-head is so out-of-depth in most situations, so much a fish out of water, that they naturally become likeable to the audiance (the players) and to those around the character. Those who meet the PCs are going to tend to be a little more sympathetic, and tolerant, and even forgiving, if they have an air-head in their midst.
Take that away, and the atmosphere around the PCs should change noticeably. The PCs will have to work much harder than they have been used to if they want to win friends, make allies, or influance people. Those around them will cut them a lot less slack.
In part, this is simply due to the absence of a factor that has been making life easier for them; in part, it will be the result of those “muscles” having atrophied on the part of the other characters because they are used to having that factor in their favour.
The air-head could also be counted on to defuse tension and lighten grim moments; these should affect the other characters more strongly. Tension will often escelate into harsh words or physical conflicts; and the tone of the campaign should become darker and more oppressive, at least for a while.
9. The Flashing Genius
The last archetype to be examined this time around also does things without always understanding the reasons why, or the implications. This is the flashing genius, the character who every now and then has a brilliant insight, but is far from brilliant the rest of the time.
In early drafts of this series, this archetype was actually considered a subtype of the Air-head, above. It was only when I realised that a Flashing Genius did not have to be impaired the rest of the time, but could simply be average, that the elements that make this archetype distinctive began to manifest.
Distributed Skill Ranges
More exotic personality constructions are also possible; proficiency in any given field is usually considered a constant, set skill value, but any variation should be possible provided that the average value over time or skill usage attempts matches that constant.
Let’s say that a character has a skill of 10 in something. Don’t worry about the game mechanics, or what that 10 actually means in terms of the character’s capabilities – it’s just a numeric measure.
If, 1/3 of the time, the character had a skill of 2, and 1/3 of the time, he had a skill of 7, and 1/3 of the time, he had a skill of 21 – the average is 10. By having the character choose his skill value with a die roll, 1/3 of the time he will be incompetant (in comparison to his usual state), 1/3 of the time he will be at his usual average, and 1/3 of the time, he would be brilliant.
But brilliance is only noticeable relative to the difficulty of the problems being faced. Some of the time, the extraordinary comptetance would make no difference, and would not be noticeable. Only when the character faced a seemingly near-imposssible problem and was able to solve it almost immediately would the high value be noticeable. This describes a brilliant, almost instinctive, insight.
Of course, attempting to explain the reasons for the solution being correct requires a fresh roll – 1/3 of the time, the character will be reduced to “it just felt right”, and 1/3 of the time he would be able to explain it in general terms – but only 1/3 of the time would he be able to convince another expert in the field. Proof of a solution, acceptance of a solution, would happen a little over 10% of the time.
This character’s abilties would be a dangerous guide to choices of action. One third of the time, his findings would be so far wrong that serious problems would result. And one-third of the time, his findings would be sheer genius. Most of the time, he could not convincingly prove his findings correct, one way or the other, even when he was right. He would lead his allies into trouble, or make the problem worse, as often as he would fast-track a solution.
I am not recommending this as a game-mechanics approach to simulating the flashing genius; this proposal is simply being offered as a means of unlocking some of the ramifications of having a Flashing Genius on your side.
This is a character capable of the most bone-headed blunders imaginable. It is also a character capable of the most astonishing insights. I can’t help but relate this particular variety of flashing genius to Venkman (Bill Murray) from Ghostbusters, and Doc Brown from Back To The Future… (the link points to the special collectors edtion of the trilogy).
Many other scientists, both fictional and real, fit this profile. One of the most obvious, at least anecdotally, is Archimedes, whose discovery of the principle of the displacement of water occurred in his bathtub, leading to the famous shout of “Eureka!” (and him running naked down the street), which is still associated with this type of sudden insight. But Archimedes was pretty smart most of the time, so I consider him to be a poor example.
The character I consider to be one of the best examples is that of Dick Seaton from EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Skylark series. Although he was smart, he really only had one or two singular insights – the rest of the advanced technology he used came from other planets that he contacted and learnt from. He is even described (several times) as the Flashing Genius (as compared to his partner, the deep thinker).
And one more scientific example: Rick Moranis’s character in “Honey, I shrunk the kids” is an obvious choice.
Types Of Genius
Obviously, we have the scientific genius, whose insights deepen our understanding of the world around us. But that is not the only type of genius that fits this profile; artists who are suddenly inspired to create a new art style, cooks who come up with an original recipe that becomes a culinary staple, musicians, inventors of all types; battlefield geniuses, driving and riding geniuses, and so on and on. In fact, in any field in which originality is possible, or any skill is utilised, can have a genius. And if that person is not brilliant all the time, he may be a flashing genius, gifted with one singular flash of inspiration.
Plotting for the Flashing Genius
This is actually nuch harder than it might first appear. Most people would think that the wayto do so is to target the flashing genius’ area of expertise, but (by definition) this is an unreliable gift; adopting this course means that the satisfactory resolution of the scenari ocomes down to a die roll – hardly optimum.
A better approach is to build a plotline around infomation that the character would have because of his occasional flash of expertise – for example waiting for the character’s next moment of brilliance and then introducing an NPC who is attracted in some way by the result, and who then becomes the pivot around which the adventure will revolve. Or building an adventure in such a way that the character’s exercising of his expertise is not time-critical.
It’s generally a good idea to look at all your adventures with a view to identifying shortcuts or other benefits that the Flashing Genius can contribute to the team IF their genius sparks, but which are not critical to the outcome.
The other type of scenario that can be crafted is a scenario that focusses on the character’s inability to use their genius all the time, ie where failed rolls will give inaccurate information to the team that gets them into even deeper trouble. Agin, the key to making these plotlines work is to ensure that you aren’t relying on the genius to fail, but are instead using a failure of the genius as a triggering event of some kind.
Adventuring without the Flashing Genius
The time to run a scenario which relies apon the area of expertise of the flashing genius is when that character is no longer around, for whatever reason. This emphasises the qualities that the character brings to the party, forcing them to rely on second-best sources of information – from potentially biased or unreliable sources.
After such a plotline, the characters will be left acutely aware of the little side-benefits and shortcuts that the flashing genius can sometimes provide.
Naturally, such plotlines can’t occur contiuously thereafter; over time, the team will get used to their new configuration, and adventures should return to a normal balance.
Still to come
The series has barely begun! Future instalments of this series will study still more archetypes. Here’s what I’ve still got in store for you:
- The Wild Card / Rebel / Scoundrel
- 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 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