Archetypes at the Table

As someone trained in literature through a liberal arts program, one thing that I like to think about as I design games, and as I run or play in games, is the way that modern roleplaying games fit into and defy the literary tradition. There are a lot of things that go into this; classic forms bend, break, or prove strikingly resilient when subjected to the conventions of a tabletop game; the imposition of rules and mechanics often designed to be simulationist rather than serving a narrative frequently muddy the waters and make it difficult to be fully certain where a roleplaying game session lies.

Few people would defy that the point of a roleplaying game is to tell stories, however. That is one of the core principles that sets apart roleplaying from board games, games of chance, or even less interactive video games is the fact that players tell stories using characters that they create. The majority of roleplaying games have, by this point, evolved fairly far from the early roots they had in wargaming and have begun to incorporate mechanics that facilitate storytelling (or, at least, push more narrative agency from random chance to players and game masters).

One of the things that comes up frequently in tabletop games is the concept of archetypes. They are used to justify design principles, but they are rarely seen in play. Part of the reason for this is that there is no culture of glorification surrounding the narratives created during play; barring a few niche communities that focus primarily on a handful of legendary tales, and the stories that a table retells over the years, there isn’t this notion that “Tonight, I will tell a story, and it will be a thing of art and beauty”.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that the goal of playing in a roleplaying game should be to tell a story worthy of awards. There is a reason why these systems are gamified: they appeal to a wider audience that way and allow people who are less interested or less comfortable in the realm of artistry and storytelling to participate in a meaningful shared experience. At the same time, however, I think too little emphasis is placed on the qualities that even experiences created by emergent play rather than deliberate storytelling can create.

One of the things that is neglected in roleplaying is the concept of the archetype. The idea that there are commonalities in storytelling is treated often with hostility, sometimes with bemusement, and often with complete surprise, even though these notions are considered to be a sort of basic indoctrination for the world of literature and taught to students at almost every stage of their education.

I would argue that part of the reluctance that people have to really thinking about archetypes as they go into roleplaying is that many systems are perceived as creating risk that an archetype will become flawed, or that fully exploring a theme with a character would take away from the shared spotlight of a communal experience.

I find this to be dubious; many great stories have very complex exchanges between characters; Shaw’s Pygmalion looks equally at Eliza and Higgins; Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are both entwined in highly individual stories of discovery and self-destruction, and even more modern stories like Mad Max: Fury Road have managed to incorporate multiple heroes and show their solitary transfigurations in a single narrative.

I spent a lot of time playing Degenesis: Rebirth this past year. One of the things that I found interesting about it was that every character receives an archetype; a mystical role they are assigned within the cosmos. This gives them some small benefits, but it really serves to help players decide what their character would or would not do: I watched a player who was brilliant but often had issues focusing his play make decisions based on a long-term plan that was stable and led to development into a deep and meaningful character: a character whose story was worthy of retelling and studying. It is not that previous characters that player had made were bad; rather, the thought and care that he put into having a Conqueror whose destiny was set by the stars rather than the mercurial will of a player.

I think that it is important, then, to discover archetypes at the table, to build upon them and understand them, not because it allows us to gain a bonus or because it makes it easier to label and understand characters, but because it sets us free to explore themes; rather than worrying about action, we worry about meaning; we ask with earnest questioning what a character does when faced by the very real forces that shape the human condition.

Whether these archetypes take the form of Campbell’s familiar Hero’s Journey, where a character will face an inevitable trial to prove their mastery of both natural and supernatural, or players choose to explore the concepts of the sin eater, the conqueror, the one humbled by fate, one thing is clear to me. The stories that we seek to tell in our games can be deep, exploring issues of the day without resorting to crass stereotyping or vulgar emphasis on the sordid and shocking.

My plea to roleplayers would be to go forth, to explore the limits of the human condition; if the dice have a tragedy in store, let it be one that exposes the faults and flaws of a tragic hero, or a painful step on the path of the triumphant, rather than merely bad fortune condemning an action to failure. Explore, and the world at your fingertips will open up in ways that are innumerable. Too often we become comfortable with the words on a character sheet, or embrace the comfort of a simple stereotype. By considering the human experience, by putting our characters and our worlds into a constellation of the human condition, we can create experiences not just entertaining but which could be considered transcendent.

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