Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Archetypes versus Characters

Last night's post was forced and not great. To make up for it, I give you...

I've successfully run roleplaying game sessions since the early 1990s. Probably 1992. Before that, I ran them, they just weren't what I would call successful - or fun, if you will - for most of the interested parties.

In that time, I've come to see player characters (or PCs) in two different lights. The first is the archetype, which often becomes a stereotype. The beer swilling barbarian, the noble beyond belief knight, the thief that lurks in the corner, or the mercenary willing to sell out the party for a buck are all good examples. The second is what I can only call the "character," the real person, or in this case, ideas that make up that person.

There is no "stereotypical" character. Each one is unique. These characters take the longest to create, but receive the most love throughout the life of a game. The single mother, who works 3 jobs, 2 from home, and 1 ten miles from home, who by the way, also has to juggle those 2.5 children on her own with all of their sundry activities such as fencing lessons, trumpet lessons, homework, play dates, and then also school and chores and let's not forget about her deceased husband's family that want to stay heavily involved with the kids' lives - unless it means more than attending an occasional birthday or calling to offer help they won't follow up on, and she's trying to attract the eye of this new accountant at the day job who seems oblivious to her every wile, and then when can she fit in a ladies' night out and who would watch the children while she goes out and can they spend the night at the sitter's house or does the sitter need to use her house, in which case she needs to spend hours cleaning it up...

You know her, you love her, you admire her. However, I don't often see her in game play. She's real and she has real challenges to meet. Who wants that?

Judging from the most successful games I've run, most of you want the single mother versus the thief that lurks in the corner.

I use to run games at conventions. I've probably run close to 100 games at conventions. I don't anymore, but that's another tale for another day. Two of the most successful games I've run at conventions fit perfectly into the mold of this discussion.

"Dead Ops" by James Wilber is a military thriller for the All Flesh Must Be Eaten roleplaying game of survival horror by Eden Studios. The scenario is available via their Eden Studios Presents volume 2 book. The PCs are not. There simply wasn't room. (Full disclosure, I should know, I developed ESP. The PCs in "Dead Ops" are a handful of U.S. Army Rangers dropped into a South American jungle to save some of our scientists from a hostile situation. There isn't a lot of depth to the PCs, there really doesn't need to be much depth, in truth. However, as the PCs represent a squad unit, each has their own function: leader, heavy gunner, radio man, etc. The players quickly figure this out and they are good to go. You don't need a lot of background on these guys, but James delivers some to wet your taste buds. You do need to have a quick clue about military units. Have you seen a military movie? Saving Private Ryan? Aliens? Avatar? Okay, good.

"Dead Ops" is a slow build. It starts with, "Where is everyone?" It builds to, "What the heck is that?" Moves to "What the heck are they doing here and what happens if we shoot at them?" (Hint: Don't shoot at anyone carrying an rpg, in this case, rocket propelled grenade.) Builds up to, "Now, we've got 'em!" And climaxes with, "Ohshitohshitohshit!!!" Throughout all of that, there's very little that you need to know about the PCs other than their stats and their weapons' stats.

James and I have had great fun running this scenario. Groups have died in the first two hours with scarcely seeing a zombie. Other groups have made it to the end game scenario only to have the PC of the player who held the group together at the table take an AK-74 blast to the chest and die right in front of the other PCs. It was a moving moment, it was a bad player decision, it was a razor edge to just off the PC, but everyone at the table loved that it happened. It added a quick bit of realism to a game about zombies. And the killed the guy using the AK-74 several times over.

With grenades, even.

When I'm asked to run an AFMBE scenario, this is what I fall back on. I know it, I love it, and most of the players love it. Yet, not once is there a moral imperitive interjected into the situation. It's not built to have one.

I wrote "The Burning Wheel of Karma" with Derek Guder. Derek and I intended to design it for Eden Studio's CJ Carella's WitchCraft gameline. The story takes place seven years after the end of WWII. The party is a mixed group of individuals hunting the same bad guy. I say individuals, because the group really doesn't like each other.

You have the former Nazi SS witch-hunter, his wife, their child-prodigy psychic, an Englishman with a knack for guns, his former partner, turned undead revenant Scotsman, a witch that was the former assistant to the bad guy, and an Egyptian miracle worker who is only helping so that all of these people can get rid of the bad guy and leave her country.

Everyone has their reason for wanting the bad guy dead (or gone). During the war, he was British intelligence and operated out of Cairo. Eventually, the Englishman and Scotsman discovered he was up to no good. They cornered the assistant about it and she agreed to help them. (Secretly, she was hoping to redeem him, as she was madly in love with him.) The German witch-hunter is after him for two reasons. One, the bad guy kidnapped his wife. Two, the bad guy caused all sorts of problems for the German during the war. The wife wants the bad guy dead, because he used her sexually during a magical ritual (only available during the anti-climatic, face removal by shotgun, flashback scene). The kid's along because the parents are there. The Egyptian is there, because the bad guy hurt her people and she wants all of these foreigners gone.

Now, insert the fact that the former assistant is more of a mother to the kid than either parent, both of whom have demons they want to confront. The wife/mother is something that no one at the table knows about...potentially including her husband and child. (The player would have to spill the beans.) The Scotsman's sole goal is to kill the bad guy, because the bad guy killed him. As soon as that happens, his body drops and his soul moves on to the next world. The Englishman and Egyptian are almost the sanest people in this storyline.

Have I mentioned anyone stereotype, yet? Have I mentioned that we start with media res? Have I mentioned the scenario, if you walk through it, takes less than 2 hours of play time? Yet, most groups hit the limit of 4 hours game time.

And every game's end comes with the results of a stand-off that would make every fan of Reservoir Dogs scream and cheer.

I don't know about you, but I'd rather play in the second game. You have real people in a real situation, with extraordinary situations. Magic, psionics, l33t gun-fu to make Chow Yun Fat cry, golems, demons, weird men in fanciful clothing, and a twist in the story that leaves you wanting to more. You may not sit back and say, "That was a helluva ride," like you might with "Dead Ops." You will say, "Whoa."

There's depth to characters that you don't get with archetypes. That depth takes work. Long, hard, (until 4 o'clock in the morning, by the way) work. Yet the pay off is so worth it. Heck, I even met one of my best friends running the game for him, his then girlfriend/now wife, and a friend of theirs running this game. I couldn't tell you who I met or didn't meet running "Dead Ops." The players with characters embraced them in ways I'd never seen running "Dead Ops."

The same can be said for the games I've run back home, not at conventions. The players that show up with voudounistas who run little shops and give back to their communities, while at night helping solve supernatural crimes. The character who was a single father and worked in what was more or less, weird homocide department, trying to raise his daughter with his parent's help, yet was continuously working more and more night shifts. Those are the people I want in my games.

People. Not personas or stereotypes. Not the "thug" Brujah with an oversized chip on his shoulder. Not the thief lurking in the corner of the tavern.


Just remember, they take a lot of work and you may never truly know them. I never understood the voudounista, that’s my fault, not the player’s. And the cop, I only began to figure him out when that game ended. In the end, though, they were worth trying to know.

James Wilber and Derek Guder can both be found haunting the halls of gaming conventions, especially Gen Con Indy.


mrfenris said...

My favorite character I've run in recent memory, was a registered sex offender, con man, former convict, technophobe, on the run.

I wanted to play a character that everyone immediately hated (which is why I picked a sex offender since everyone automatically assumed it was children). I wanted to be the "worst" person in the room and often was. I imagined him bilking the elderly out of their savings, having a stack of forged IDs, and barely surviving every single combat section. (I jokingly called him the cockroach).

There were some really cool things involving his and his father's relationship and his 500 pound morbidly obese mother being a zombie and unable to leave her bedroom.

But I created him in part to give meaning to the other players, since it was a Hunter game. They got to be the heroes while I scuttled around hiding behind the couch. I told dirty horrid jokes, and did horrible things. (Nothing out of bounds of taste)

I tried to use him to point out hypocrisies in their actions. I used this scum bag to "break" their realities when they started deluding themselves. I showed them how the world actually worked. He was the biggest liar in the world, but in a way he was the most truthful of them all. He didn't hide behind his actions, where they did.

He was a measuring stick of sorts. I love and miss him. I think he was a great experience for me. A sort of a culmination of former characters over time.

I think players and GM's end up on that path. Doing, understanding, and improving.

For the record in my head he's still out their running from his past, hiding from his future, and holding on tight to the present.

Derek said...

Nice. I'd find it hard not to play that character with a stronger attitude. However, I think by making him as weak as you did, made the character more powerful.