What is the character?
A partisan is someone who believes. And it's not just a little belief, either -- he believes so much that he wants to dedicate himself to advancing something. Nations and religions are the most common choices, but it's certainly possible to be partisan for almost anything, as evidenced by the massive flamewars that erupt when console partisans move in and start defending their favorite game systems. While many partisans are significantly less irritating, they all share a unique and overriding zeal -- a complete and total devotion to what they see as their group.
A lot of different terms get applied for someone with so much devotion -- patriots, fanatics, zealots. Even fanboys could be considered to be a sort of partisan. And that burning enthusiasm can put a lot of people off, even if you agree with several tenets of the partisan's beliefs. At best, the partisan espouses good things at a somewhat unnecessary volume. At worst, he's too wrapped up in his own little world to have any real picture of what he's following any longer. But either way, he's an interesting character, even if he's not someone you want to hang out with on a regular basis.
What makes it interesting?
Morality is a tricky thing in any game setting, much like in real life, and playing a partisan highlights that fact. It's one character attempting to whitewash all shades of gray by rigidly adhering to a creed, endorsing everything he's told by his leaders in service to the greater cause. The cause becomes the person, even as those in charge are frequently willing to cut corners to advance themselves. There's a genuine devotion there that's almost heartbreaking in its simplicity.
Of course, more often than not the partisan is eventually going to have to face up to the fact that his heroes are not as pure as he wishes to believe. Sometimes this can lead to the partisan becoming disillusioned, wandering without a direction with a loss of faith. Other times, this leads to the partisan deciding that the cause needs to be excised and purified, that the cause remains pure but some of the roots have grown rotten. (This can lead to noble ends -- such as Operation Valkyrie -- or to the depths of the Inquisition.)
What's the angle?
There are two easy reasons why the partisan would range abroad. The first is that with so many people out there being wrong, someone has to go forth and set them right. And who would be better than someone who already has the answers? But it's just as possible that the partisan is afield because he's been ordered to go out, with reasons ranging from "spread the Good Word to the nonbelievers" to "bring the southlands under our control by the sword if necessary."
A better question might be why the rest of the group keeps him around, since he's almost by definition espousing something other characters don't believe. However, partisans have connections (IC if not OOC), which might very well be motivation enough for others to stay on their good sides. Aside from that, being a partisan actually doesn't suggest any particular skills beyond loyalty and a near-boundless amount of good faith. In some environments, that's enough; otherwise, you may very well want to elaborate on what the partisan originally did for his nation (religion, leader, what-have-you).
What should I keep in mind?
Paladins and partisans can look similar, depending on the situation. It's important to remember that while a paladin will give his life for a cause, that cause is pretty universally helping other people. A partisan will give his life for America, or for the Church, or for Stormwind, or for the Klingon Empire, or for Prince Trion. Certainly he believes that doing so is right, but his primary motivation is the advancement of his pet cause, not saving lives.
While it can be really fun to have a character with a strong sense of morality and belief, this is not your opportunity to nanny other characters. Preach gently, because there's a thin line between the time when characters start getting annoyed and when players start getting annoyed. Think of it in terms of a cannon -- keep it firmly aimed away from others at all times. Your character might fall to his knees and start praising how the work of whomever or whatever has been done, but he doesn't need to start explaining this in depth to other characters.
A compilation, and an addendum on paladins
For those of you who have missed previous installments of this series, so far we've done the soldier, the rogue, the scholar, and the paladin. As said before, the series will continue as long as I have good ideas for other archetypes to discuss, or have more suggested. (Jeromai and JuliusSeizure both tossed a few my way, and the enthusiasm is much appreciated.)
The last one generated quite a bit of discussion, partly because the name I chose to use is kind of loaded to begin with. A few commenters pointed out that there were other terms I could have used, especially ones that didn't carry quite the same assumption of class vs. place in society, but that's the whole reason I chose the name -- partly to inspire the debate of "well, X isn't really a paladin" or "a paladin isn't really Y."
Paladin is a name that comes with expectations of a specific class attached to it, one that can get distilled down. Dark knight, templar, samurai, crusader... these were all names that got thrown around in comments and mails, but they're all just mechanical distinctions. What makes a paladin a paladin is something far more fundamental... and it's not always easy to tell the difference between a paladin in name or class, and a paladin in behavior. (Dexter Morgan was a really interesting suggestion, and one I'm slowly warming to.)
Last but not least -- no, the archetype isn't a good finishing point for a character. It's a starting point. But there might be an interesting series of columns in the other direction, too, so that's worth considering.
As always, I'm eager to hear what everyone thinks, either via comments or by mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Furthermore, I'd like to thank everyone for generating such excellent feedback and commentary over the past seven months. It's been very rewarding working on the column, and I'm glad to see people coming out and talking about roleplaying whether or not you agree with me. Next week, it's onward into flaws and poor character choices!
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.