On Archetypes, Heroes, and RPG Characters

This was originally going to be a velotha’s flock post, but I decided that some of this should be a stand-alone thing. One of the issues with game design, I feel, is that most of it doesn’t really go down the road of storytelling. Even more narrative-focused games often do so with a focus on “story over rules” rather than following any sort of storytelling praxis.

I think that there are a few reasons for this, and I’ve got a brief breakdown of what I think GMs and designers can do to prevent mediocre storytelling in their games.

Let’s start with the archetypes of stories.

I am heavy on archetypes. I love them. That’s not to say that they’re perfect.

It’s just that they work.

And they work well.

Jung posited that archetypes are part of the collective human psyche. The Jungian interpretation views them as sort of in-dwelling notions that are as much biological as spiritual in nature. These things are hard-wired into the way that we perceive the world, and things that follow archetypes are compelling and interesting in the same way as music in a genre a person likes is compelling and interesting.

Whether or not archetypes are really so primordial, they are universal.

I’ve mentioned Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey before, and it’s a good model for storytelling in a roleplaying game:

PCs see a problem.
PCs need to go outside their current world to fix it.
PCs go into uncharted territory.
PCs get help or support along the way.
PCs get some practice fighting lesser threats.
PCs fight the big threat in the campaign.
PCs find their way home.
PCs make the world a better place.

This is the basis upon which many great stories have been based: nearly every time I hear someone reminisce about a campaign, it’s followed this archetype.

However, this is not necessarily to say that we want to veer too close to the Hero’s Journey in our game design.

The main point of divergence actually comes from the concept of the hero.

In a story, typically there is one main character, a protagonist.

In a roleplaying game, everyone brings a different protagonist. A GM is therefore not engaging in one Hero’s Journey, but several.

And none of the characters will necessarily be a hero in their own right, but rather just the allies and helpers of others who lend them strength in return.

In a sense, this is one of the appeals of roleplaying; it is an activity of the common man, not the ideal archetype. Somewhere between an antihero and an epic hero, the protagonists of these stories can be tragic or valiant, weak or strong, brilliant or dull.

Their strength comes from positive interdependence with other characters.

When designing velotha’s flock, I made a conscious effort to make sure that characters would be bad at something when they were created, or else lack a particular strength (to balance this each character also gets a particular schtick that is unique to them, making it so that even a relatively uninteresting character has one moment to shine).

Your PCs shouldn’t be all-powerful. One all-powerful character can really ruin a campaign. Going from one to five makes it impossible (I messed this up a lot as a novice GM). Instead of allowing you to tell stories, the game will devolve into spectacle, leaving a lot of short thirty-second highlights but very few memorable moments and no strong central story that will keep players coming back and reminiscing on the game for years to come.

This is also a problem with extreme sandbox gaming; I don’t like seeing GMs go on rails for their games; it’s just a road that leads to poor experiences all-around, but you also need to have some central core ideas.

Don’t be afraid to say no to your players (especially individual players; if the whole group is telling you something it’s wise to listen), because they will not necessarily be ready to see the full picture.

So that’s why I suggest using the Hero’s Journey.

The beauty of the Hero’s Journey is that as a Game Master, you only need to define three points: the starting point, the big problem, and the thing that needs to be done to solve the big problem. Only the first of these needs to be fleshed out at the start of the game.

The rest can follow, and the road between them can be left entirely up to your players. Your prep time can be saved for coming up with a number of likely outcomes (see Improv GM’ing Dos and Don’ts: Improv is not Unprepared) without necessarily having to script everything.

This is liberating, but it also creates better stories.

The time you save in letting your players discover the details lets you focus on the main idea, and your players will probably figure out clever and lore-building ways to accomplish their goals: their characters, if played properly, will have their own views of the world. Scripting what their actions will be ahead of time, and preparing “One True Way” may work in some contexts, but most of the time it will only result in more sweat for you and less glee and mirth from your players.

Use the framework, and let the players make the rest. These archetypes will unfold in their own way. Give options, not commands. Your players will figure it out.

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