Themepark games in particular are great at giving us an idea of what our characters are doing. We're fighting back the evil empire from our shores or searching for lost relics in the midst of ruins or occasionally digging through animal droppings for some vital swallowed item. (The last one isn't the sort of thing you write home about, but so it goes.) But the question remains about why your character is out and about. There's a spark that separates players from just being NPCs, even though NPCs generally have the same core motivations.
That repair vendor and your Rogue both want to earn money. Your Scholar is just as interested in research as the man giving you a quest to find some soil samples. And that trainer over there isn't too different from your Mentor in overall motivation. Archetypes help give us a picture of why these characters have opted for the significantly more dangerous ways to pursue these goals, or (in at least one case) what that more dangerous option actually means.
The space between is where your characters will live and die and become truly engaging. You aren't just playing a Draenei Shaman; you're playing a man who desperately wants to return to a home that he's been forced out of by the changing times (Trapped). Instead of a Klingon Engineer, you're playing a coward who hides behind big threats that he can only back up with technology and a more capable crew (Strawman). Your Robotic Mastermind just wants to see whether everything will work, and she couldn't care less whether her supposedly nefarious schemes come to fruition (Scholar).
Archetypes can help fill in some of those blanks, and if nothing else, they can give you a good point for jumping into something new. That's as good a place to start as any.
Notes by column
The Soldier was the first one I wrote up, when I only had the idea for two other columns on the topic with the distant thought that I'd come up with more down the line. (That worked out well.) Soldiers are always an interesting place to start with a character, especially as we see an awful lot of characters in military settings who don't act like very good soldiers.
The Rogue divided people, some of whom thought I was painting the archetype (and some of the associated characters) as being a bit too nasty. It was also the first place where I ran into the problem that the word also describes a fairly common class name, and the two don't necessarily overlap all that much. It's solid, though, and such a recognizable type that it wasn't an issue.
The Scholar is just a bit disappointing to me in retrospect, as I feel as though I turned up the eccentricity of the archetype a bit higher than needed. Still, the archetype serves as a good counterbalance to some of the more idealistic examples -- it's grounded in a fairly real concern, even if real students spend very little time poking around in dangerous lairs. I also wish I'd spent a little more time talking about how easily the archetype can work with crafting characters pursuing a new breakthrough, something that creates an ample set of potential interactions.
The Paladin was the column over which people were the most divided in terms of what I had to say, and that's where the class name issue really came to a head. I'm not terribly happy with it, because it's a powerful concept that I think deserved more elaboration than I was quite able to give in the span of a single column. It's also a personal favorite archetype, so that doesn't help. Perhaps later I'll come back to the topic.
The Partisan is a second cousin to its immediate predecessor, and I think it came out as one of the most solid pieces in the set. If you're looking for an easy hook to start drama, you can do worse than this.
The Errant prompted some interesting discussions about whether or not the archetype itself was gender-biased -- I still disagree with that, but it's worth considering regardless. It's another character with a lot of built-in potential, and it deserves another column to talk about what to do after you've completed the archetype's defining quest. (Again, perhaps later.)
The Mentor appeals to me more the older I get. I like having characters who aren't spring chickens anymore; too often you wind up with a cast consisting of nothing but people in their mid-twenties whose inexperience never comes back to bite them. It's not that you can't have a young mentor; it's just that it's a more mature role to step into.
The Trapped is in no small way a direct callback to one of my favorite fantasy stories of all time. (It's really obvious what one it is; in fact, it's so obvious I won't even say it.) It's also an archetype that's fun to play with on the meta level, pointing out elements that the players ignore but the characters won't.
The Defiant was originally suggested as the plucky runaway princess, but there's a larger element at work there. I'm really pleased with how this column turned out; it works well as the penultimate installment. The one downside is that the possibilities of just what the character is fleeing created a real split between "princess running from royalty" and "plucky urchin trying to live the high life."
The Strawman was a joke column as discussed. But it was a joke column with a meaning, which is better than the original plan to talk about PvP as a gag. (This all predated our mad libs routine for the day.) I wanted to sound serious while still making it clear it was a joke, but I think I might have hit the latter just a touch too hard.
The meta-column was... well... the meta-column. I'm including it mostly to have a full rundown. If you think of the other columns as tools, this one's the instruction manual for the box.
That's this week's installment, and I hope you've enjoyed the small series-within-a-series over the past few months. I've had a lot of fun writing it, and as always, feedback is welcome via comments or mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I'm going to take a brief diversion to talk about curveball lore before diving into the next series-within-a-series project.
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.