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Storyboard: Archetype discussion -- the recursion

Eliot Lefebvre

There are a lot of reasons a character would head off on the road to adventure. Sometimes it's out of a sense of duty, to a nation or to morality or even just duty itself. Other times it's a quest for knowledge, or acceptance, or cold hard cash. You might not want to be there, you might be seeking one profound goal, or you might just be along for the ride while everyone screws up around you. We've talked about each of these roles in turn, as archetypes for characters to fit into.

But an archetype is not a character. An archetype is the idea of a character, boiled down and stripped of everything but the skeleton. You need more to make a character that isn't one-dimensional.

I've spent the better part of the past several months discussing how the various archetypes work, but now I want to talk a little more about making them work together beyond just a character overview. (We still have at least one more installment of archetypes proper, but I wanted to write this up first.) So once you have the seed, what do you do from there?

What is the character?

Let's go back to the first column on this topic and say that you like the idea of making your next character a Soldier. That gives you an overall framework for your choices at character creation, but it still leaves you with questions about... well, almost everything. Was she a part of a military? Is she still technically in the service? What military force (it's a rare game that doesn't have several)? Why did she leave?

Guild Wars puts your character in a pseudo-military force in both Prophecies and Nightfall right from the start, so that would answer some questions, but not all. Your Nightfall character could be a former member of the Kournan military who wanted to serve her neighboring nations with the same zeal... or she could be from Vabbi, having grown disgusted with the opulence of working in a private army for one of the local princes while there are real threats to fight. Or she could have enjoyed working in Vabbi and have a slightly more mercenary bent, figuring that the pay is a bit better for the Sunspears. Or countless other choices.

All of these characters still fall under the overall aegis of a Soldier, a character whose goals and outlook revolve around duty and the military mindset. But each one is going to address problems in a different fashion, and you can even argue that each one starts leaning a little more toward other archetpes (Partisan, Paladin, and Rogue, respectively).

What's the angle?

The trick is that the archetype is mostly there to help you in the early part of establishing your character. It's supposed to give a broad idea of what you can do with backstory and goals, not constrain your character's development.

Human beings do not fit into categories. (Nor do individual elves or dwarves or goblins or what-have-you, who all seem to have basically human thought processes in most games.) That's why archetypes are broad and evocative of a general feel and often fit into conceptual spaces that don't overlap. A character can easily be both a Paladin and a Rogue, primarily interested in profit but unwilling to leave behind those in need. He could be a Scholar and a Defiant, traveling the world to learn something that he really shouldn't be studying. No given archetype forces players into a single narrow field -- instead, archetypes give a general overarching path for characters to follow.

And tweaking the archetype's conceptions can often produce a more interesting character. Looking back at Soldiers once again, we assume that you're playing a class (or skillset, depending on game) that focuses on the more military side of things. But a Jedi Consular in Star Wars: The Old Republic could easily be a Soldier, even if she's not down in the rank and file. It's about opening paths, not narrowing them.

What makes it interesting?

The trick to using any archetype effectively is as a springboard to something broader. Unfortunately, some of that can't be done until you've found your character's voice and spent some time playing, but it helps to have a memorable concept ready from the start.

Archetypes have certain expectations built in from the beginning. That gives you more room to tweak the concept, to gently tease one aspect or another. Your Rogue might actually not be greedy despite his habits -- he just loves the acquisition, and he doesn't care for holding on to his gains for very long. Or perhaps you're playing an Errant who is vaguely aware that her goal isn't so hard to achieve and is semi-consciously sabotaging herself to cope for a lack of any better direction.

In the earliest stages of play, using an archetype helps you figure out what a character would do in a given situation. The more comfortable you grow with a character, the more you can deviate comfortably, because your character's underlying personality asserts itself. But the broad strokes are still there -- a character doesn't ever fit into the mold of a Partisan if he doesn't believe in something with a fervor. That fervor might get redirected as the character develops, but the core passion remains.

What should I keep in mind?

Making a character is something that starts in broad strokes, which is where having simple words is useful. "Elvaan exile Scholar" isn't going to make your character a fully integrated part of Final Fantasy XI lore, but it will give you an idea of where to start with character decisions and class building. (For example, you can be a Scholar in that game.)

Having an archetype to reference doesn't cease being useful in-play, however. If you know your character is meant to correspond to an archetype, you have a fallback if you're unsure about what to do. And if your character is veering in that direction almost by accident, well, now you can either push that angle or back off and try something different.

Now that we've taken the meta look at the whole concept, we've got one more archetype in the pipe for now. As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or via mail to

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.

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