This entry is part 4 in the series We All Have Our Roles

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Reintroduction

If there is one thing I hate, it’s interrupting a task, especially a creative one, before it’s finished. That includes interrupting a series.

At the same time, doing the same thing for week after week can be enough to drive me around the bend, and after a while, I need to take a break whether I want to or not. The series on Pulp gaming earlier this year stretched me right to the breaking point.

The problem, and one of the main reasons I hate interrupting tasks, is that so much of what I do is in my head and not on the page.

Once I lose that creative thread – or it gets crowded out by something else – I can never completely recapture it.

Which brings me to the Roles To Play series.

This series has been sitting around for far too long, mostly because I was having trouble getting my head back into the correct mental space to again take up the reigns after lengthy interruptions. The last part appeared in November 2010, after all!

I can’t promise that it won’t be interrupted again, but here’s at least one more part…

The Premise

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 31 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!

To Recap

Previous parts of this series have examined nine archetypes:

  1. The Heart Of The Team
  2. The Tactician
  3. The Moral Guardian
  4. The Rock
  5. The Mother Hen
  6. The Intellectual
  7. The Faithful
  8. The Air-head, and
  9. The Flashing Genius

The series picks up from there, as I look at

  1. The Maverick, and
  2. The Strange Uncle

10. The Maverick

The Maverick shows up regularly in various teams. A counterpoint to the conformity of the generic team member, he brings a level of independance to his approach to everything he attempts. This is often useful to writers because the debate between an authority figure and the Maverick provides a useful vehicle for exposition, but that cuts no ice when it comes to an RPG – unless the Maverick is an NPC, of course.

Where the Maverick picks up points in RPG-teams is diversity. Where established teams generally adopt a party line which is dutifully followed by most of the team members, the maverick is always willing to look outside the strictures layed down by the administration. Which means that they are frequently the only team member not taken in by a deception or trap practiced against the rest of the team, and can be a source of vital intelligence.

There are actually a number of subtypes to this archetype, each subtly different.

The Wild Card

The wild card’s predominant characteristic is that he doesn’t play by the rules, and generally feels that the rules don’t apply to him or her. More anarchic and something of a thrillseeker than other subtypes, the wild card can often turn his unique attitude into a trump card.

The Rebel

The Rebel is someone who is fighting some aspect of the administration within which he operates. Once a member of that administration or of the society that surrounds it, he has often been burned in some way by that system and now disobeys it. Other rebels revolt against the restrictions of authority in general, especially when young.

The Scoundrel

The Scoundrel – more usually the “Lovable Scoundrel” – is a popular subtype of the Maverick archetype. This character is more usually a maverick because he’s a romantic scallywag and not the other way around.

The Outsider

The final subtype is the Outsider, someone who doesn’t follow established protocols because of a different upbringing. Outsiders can be aliens, or sentient artificial beings, or Noble Savages, or any of a number of other alternatives. The defining common characteristic is that they don’t behave conventionally because they don’t think conventionally.

Common Elements

What all these subtypes have in common is that they break the existing rules and usually make their own. They may be fastidious about following those self-imposed rules – a genuine ‘code of honor’ – or they may treat them as nothing more than guidelines.

In gaming terms, Mavericks offer a back door to the party for information, they offer a contrast of approaches to problems (permitting them to find solutions where none seem to exist), and they offer a different type of interaction between characters, all of which can be useful to the GM if properly utilised.

It is exceptionally rare for a Maverick archetype to exist in isolation; they are almost always coupled with some other team role. That result is inevitable because the archetupe is not a definition of what the Maverick’s personality and function within the social environment of a team is, it is a function of what it is not, and that’s not enough to define an individual.

Going To Extremes

The fact that Mavericks don’t fit in (generally) inevitably focusses attention on those aspects of their personality that DO fit in. As a result, they frequently present an extreme example of whatever other archetype they represent.

It is very easy for such characters to become locked into that secondary archetype, producing a shallow character. To avoid this, it is frequently advisable for Mavericks to find a tertiary role within the team, and in particular one that contrasts strongly with their secondary archetype. Most characters can only maintain a role that is complimentary to their dominant profile; the Maverick has the potential for greater depth, properly exploited.

For this reason, writers, and especially Hollywood, love the Maverick archetype, and will frequently push their characters into positions where they become Mavericks, no matter how straightforward the primary archetype might be. The result is inevitably drama, if not melodrama, and that makes for a good story.

To offer just two examples of this from the series Numb3rs:

  • Alan Eppes, played by Judd Hirsch – usually The Heart Of The Team and The Rock, the writers found it necessary to give him a background as a former left-wing student radical as a deliberate contrast to his role as a parental authority figure, mediator, and practical engineer.
  • Don Eppes, played by Rob Morrow – usually The Tactician and The Faithful (law and order), he has repeatedly found his position within the FBI under threat due to his support of his brother, despite the numerous successes of the team. In the pilot episode, the concept was new and radical, and this was understandable; in later episodes, it lacked just a little credibility in light of the record of achievement. I was always left waiting for an episode in which an FBI higher-up tells Don, “Your unit has achieved remarkable results since you brought in your Brother. Initially I was skeptical, but you’ve made it work – so from now on you guys are going to be my first resort when a particularly tricky problem crosses my desk. To start with, here’s a case in which…”. But then, I was also kept waiting for episodes deriving from Charlie’s university and NSA work, which I always felt was an underutilised story foundation.

There are undoubtedly more examples, so many that the straight authority figure being forced into a position of rebellion – from Robocop to Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon – has become something of a cliche.

Examples Of The Wild Card archetype

Which brings me to examples of the Maverick archetype. For each, I have indicated the secondary role that the character adopts; in some cases, these archetype relationships are inverted, and the “Maverick” aspect of the character is secondary.

  • Spock (Intellectual, inverted relationship)
  • Kirk (Hero) – especially in the movies
  • Wolverine (The Hair-trigger, The Heart Of The Team)
  • The Human Torch (Hot-head) – especially early in the team’s life and in the movies
  • Starbuck (especially the original) from Battlestar Galactica (The Gambler)
  • Han Solo from Star Wars (The Romantic)
  • Virgil Hilts, “The Cooler King”, Steve McQueen’s character in The Great Escape (The Trouble-maker)
  • Rick Vaugn, the “Wild Thing” in Major League and Major League II (The Hot-Head, The Drama Queen)
Star Trek – The Original Series Box Set [Blu-Ray]
Star Trek – Original Motion Picture Collection [Blu-Ray]
Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Volume 1
Fantastic Four Omnibus Volume 1
Battlestar Galactica – the Complete Epic Series
Star Wars – The Complete Saga [Blu-Ray]
The Great Escape (2-disc collector’s set)
Major League (The Wild Thing Edition)
Plotlines for the Maverick archetype

In general, most plotlines for a Maverick will focus on the secondary archetype(s) they represent. There is limited utility for plots in which their independant streak can be used to place them beyond some deception or social confinement, but care must be taken to ensure these do not degenerate into cliche.

Some of the best plots for the maverick are those which relate to relations between the team and a faction that is alien to them. While the two primary forces confront and stalemate each other, the maverick has room to explore left-of-field solutions to the conflict. Their unusual psychological disposition can enable the Maverick to recognise and observe details, relationships, circumstances, and opportunities, that are hidden from a more conformist perspective.

I know that all sounds terribly vague, and for that I apologise. The problem is that the Maverick archetype takes in so MUCH territory that it’s hard to be specific.

The VERY best plots for the Maverick are those which focus on their individuality, on the things that make each unique.

Without The Maverick

Teams can get along just fine without a Maverick until they grow accustomed to having one in their midst and adjust their thinking and policies to allow for that presence. When that happens, the other team members will generally become a little more conformist and staid in their thinking, a little more predictable and conservative, almost as a reaction.

Once this conservatism becomes ingrained, it can be hard to break if the Maverick is suddenly lost to the team. It’s as though they can no longer be inspired to think outside the box; the sparkle and creativity goes out of their planning and tactics.

Mavericks are, by definition, a little unpredictable, and that unpredicatability can be a priceless asset.

To ensure that teams who lose their maverick feel the loss appropriately, the best approach is one or two plotlines in which there is a seemingly straightforward problem to be confronted and a radical plot twist at the last moment. There should also be at least one problem in which the relative predictability of the team without the wild card is emphasised and exploited.

If PC teams are given too much time to think about the situation and their options, the players can attempt to fill in for the missing Maverick, so these must of necessity be fairly fast-paced plotlines, giving the players little time to think.

The more obvious the problem and its solution seem to the players, the less they will object to the breakneck pacing. The seeming straightforward nature of the plotlines is thus both necessary to achieve this fast pace as well as providing the contrast of the team without the wild card included.

11. The Strange Uncle

Every family or group seems to have one of these, or should have (I sometimes wonder if I’m my family’s example)! Quirky and offbeat, the Strange Uncle combines that touch of mad brilliance that is the province of the flashing genius with a love of the unusual and oddball that can sometimes disract, and sometimes be insightful.

Often played for laughs as comedic relief, the Strange Uncle can act as a foil to the more straightlaced members of the team, lifting spirits and making dark days brighter. But that’s not the only interpretation of the Strange Uncle to be aware of.

Also fitting into this category are figures of mystery and superstition, who lurks in the shadows and emerges just long enough to make pronouncements of doom, and if there is one thing that such characters aren’t, it’s “comedic relief”.

Add in those characters with a litany of odd factoids and unusual sources of information, and this is a surprisingly rich archetype.

Examples Of The Strange Uncle

There are lots of examples of the Strange Uncle out there. I’ve had to pare back this list somewhat – even cutting such obvious examples as “Uncle Fester” and “The Phantom Stranger”.

  • Obi-wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars trilogy
  • Doc brown in Back To The Future
  • Braetac in Stargate
  • Evie in The Mummy
  • Egg Shen in Big Trouble In Little China
  • Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) in Ghostbusters
  • Grissom in CSI
  • Kosh in Babylon 5
  • any Technomage in Babylon 5
Star Wars Trilogy
(Widescreen Edition
with Bonus Disc)
Back To The Future
25th Anniversary Trilogy
[Blu-Ray]
Stargate SG-1
The Complete Series
Collection
The Mummy Trilogy
(also available
in Blu-Ray)
Big Trouble In
Little China
[Blu-Ray]
Ghostbusters
Double Feature
Gift Set
CSI Seasons 1-8 Set
Babylon-5
complete series
with movies
Plotlines for the Strange Uncle archetype

There are two obvious varieties of plotline that lend themselves to starring roles for the Strange Uncle: those that play to their particular variety of weirdness, and those that play against them.

The first are the most obvious; if you have a mysterious sorceror, then plots about sorcery are right up his alley; if the character is an eccentric scientist, then plots about weirds science gone awry or dangerous “scientific” discoveries are his stock-in-trade.

The second, where the mysterious and quirky character must somehow cope with a mundane problem posed by a strange world without revealing himself to be “different” can be an entertaining change of pace, but like most fish-out-of-water scenarios, this cannot be used frequently or it will become repetitive and dull. It follows that these plotlines must play to the individuality of the character, frequently in areas other than those in which he specialises, must in fact study the impact of his eccentricity on his life.

But the first and dominant source of plots for the Weird Uncle will always be the subject of his weirdness itself, and the unique (sometimes bizarre) perspectives and motivations that it carries.

And one word more of advice for crafting scenarios for a Strange Uncle: their province is the oddball, the unusual, the unlikely, and the just plain weird. They are a Weirdness Magnet; take full advantage of it. (Be warned: the link is to the tvtropes website. Go there and be prepared to have hours of your life sucked down a black hole as one interesting link leads to another…)

Without The Strange Uncle

Life without the strange uncle often seems simpler to those teams who have one amongst them. They can never know exactly what will turn up next.

But, as with the Maverick – and the reason these two are grouped together into this one article – much of the magic, and mystery, and sparkle will go out of life if the Strange Uncle departs.

Problems – and not just those that are directly related to the focus of the Strange Uncle – will prove to be harder to solve and less fun, simply because of the left-of-field resoruces and thought processes that the Weird Uncle brought to the team.

Life becomes…. ordinary.

The plots that the GM serves up should reflect that. There should be more of a mundane soap opera flavour to them, insofar as many of them should feel relatively trivial. It should be as though the PCs, who are used to dealing with end-of-all-existance crisces, suddenly find themselves fighting for the life of a stray dog, or searching for a lost cat.

Gradually – so much so that the PCs can never really point to a turning point – things should ramp up back to something approaching their old levels of insanity, but the point will have been made.

Still to come

The series is still in it’s early stages! Future instalments of this series will study still more archetypes. Here’s what I’ve still got in store for you:

  1. The Romantic
  2. The Comedian
  3. The Egotist
  4. The Drama Queen
  5. The Panicker
  6. The Messy One
  7. The Clean / Neat Freak
  8. The Hot-Head
  9. The Wannabe
  10. The Father-Figure
  11. The Greedy / Power-hungry
  12. The Troublemaker
  13. The Jealous One
  14. The Comic Relief
  15. The Sidekick
  16. The Bystander
  17. The Hair-Trigger
  18. The Gambler
  19. The Opportunist
  20. The Hero
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