Also, this turned out to be a lightning rod for controversy. So, if your thirst for controversial advice hasn't been sated by the end of this post, go check out It's Okay To Admit There Are Problems In Your Hobby or instead head over to take a look at I Don't Really Care What Gygax Had To Say (Appeal To Authority in RPGs). Trust me, they're both well worth your time!
Also, I recently wrote a follow-up post to this list! So if you felt I missed a few archetypes, you might find them in 5 More RPG Characters We Should Stop Playing.
#1: The Bigot
We've all seen this character. Maybe you're in an Old West or 1920s setting, and the player wanted to try being "authentic" to the time period. You might be in a fantasy setting, and one player at the table rolled a die to declare that he was actively prejudiced towards one of the base races of the world. Most of the time this decision isn't made to be offensive, but that doesn't change the fact that the results usually are.
|White swans are inferior. Got a problem?|
Think about that job you had for a while where one of your co-workers thought it was perfectly fine to talk about women's bodies right in front of them using crude, offensive language. Or that time you were stuck on a company road trip, and discovered your manager wanted to tell you he was surprised that you were unlike all the other Asian/Hispanic/African Americans he'd ever worked with, and then proceeded to list off his secret opinions of what an entire group of people was actually like. If you're lucky enough that you've never been in a situation like this, use your imagination. That is an uncomfortable position to be in, and it's never a good idea to purposefully bring a time bomb like that to a game where everyone's trying to have fun.
But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway...
If you decide that your character must be prejudiced in some way, it's your responsibility to sit down and put some heavy thought into why and how that came about. For example, you've decided your paladin is sexist. That's fine, but why? Is it because he was raised to view women as delicate, and to put them on pedestals (a white knight in more than one way), and he insists that his view of an entire gender take precedence over reality? If your dwarf has a noted prejudice against orcs and half-breeds, what form does that prejudice take? After all, if you've fought an enemy for decades, or centuries, there's no denying their courage, strength, and viciousness. So, does the dwarf instead believe that orcs lack discipline and control? Would this lead said dwarf to talk down to orc party-members, acting more like a disapproving father than a co-worker? Or does he believe orcs are stupid, and therefore ignores strategy and knowledge that is perfectly valid because of its source?
The biggest thing you need to ask, though, is how are you going to maintain prejudice that doesn't stand up in the face of reality? Prejudice, by its very nature, is a broad judgment of a people. If you believe gnomes are cowards, or that fae are all capricious, how will you alter your beliefs when they don't hold up? Characters need to develop, and the Bigot is one who needs more development than most.
#2: The Joke
This one is particularly problematic with newer players, who often confuse silliness with creativity. Maybe it's the guy who comes to Vampire, and uses his potent Disciplines to bend people's minds in order to make them re-enact The Emperor's New Clothes. It might be the new player who decided to play a thief who steals everything that isn't nailed down, purely because the image of a burglar with a bulging sack filled with her compatriots' belongings never fails to get a giggle from the player. At its basest form, the joke character is that guy who comes into game with a character who acts like a cat. It's amusing the first time, but like a 25 cent gumball, loses its flavor in a big damn hurry.
|Yeah, it was very funny. Now hold still.|
Characters should have quirks, and players should feel free to embrace personalities from all ends of the spectrum. Characters who are genuinely funny, or completely unique, should be encouraged. Joke characters, though, are neither of these things.
But, if You're Going to Do It Anyway...
If you really can't let the concept go, then you have to transform it from a joke into an actual character. Say, for example, you had a character who was a bard, but who was a terrible bard. Can't sing, can't dance, and all his music is off-key. Sure, that's amusing in a "wow, this guy really sucks at his job," kind of way, but the joke will only last until the end of the first character introduction. The question you need to ask is, if this character is awful at music, what is he good at? For example, was he a drill sergeant in the army before leaving, and his battle cries and strategy are unmatched, giving huge benefits to his allies when the swords come out? Is he actually a barbarian, who can shatter skulls with his lute, and then write a truly terrible tune about it afterward?
A joke is a one-note character. You need to write an entire song, and to figure out what's going to still be useful and endearing about the character once the joke's already been told.
#3: The Mute
This one always sounds like a good idea, ironically, but it is rarely as great as the player thinks it will be. In the player's mind, a mute character is sort of like Ariel in The Little Mermaid; we'll be paying more attention to them, because we'll want to know why they can't talk. In reality, though, mute characters tend to get sidelined because so much of the interaction at the table involves speaking. The result is that even if the player who brought a mute character thought it was a good idea, he or she will quickly get frustrated that everyone ignores them.
|At which point they have to communicate in exaggerated expressions.|
The most frustrating part of the mute character is that you might have a really cool story behind why you can't talk. Demon stole your voice in exchange for a boon, you're operating under a curse from a sea hag, or you're pulling a Silent Bob and just never talking until that one moment in the adventure where it will make everyone's head turn. But that moment isn't going to be in a few hours; it's going to be months until you get to drop that bombshell. If you ever do.
But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway...
If you insist that you can make your mute character work, there are a lot of things you should consider. The most obvious is a partner; a Jay to your Silent Bob, if you will. This could be another player at the table, or even a character under the storyteller's control, but the point is you have a mouthpiece that will keep you involved, even if your character isn't talking.
The other thing you need to think about is the point of playing a mute character. For example, say you're involved in a shadowy Call of Cthulhu game where you're playing a mute who is also an expert in mythos lore. However, you have a secondary role for the storyteller as the head of the local Cult of Hastur, and you keep silent around your compatriots so they won't connect that you are also the threatening voice on the phone trying to manipulate their movements. That kind of double-blind situation can be very rewarding, and you're plugged into the action because you're spying on what the party is doing. However, not being able to speak is a huge handicap that rarely pays off the way we think it will in our roleplaying.
#4: The Hedonist
We've all seen this character at least once, and it's one of the only kind that travels in flocks. It's the bard who decides to try to seduce the queen, in the throne room, while the king is delivering your quest. It's the changeling who decides he's going to just chill at the bar, and refuse to get on the plot bus unless it makes a stop downtown in front of his favorite watering hole. It's that one guy who comes along on your spy mission, and thinks it would be a topping idea to start shooting up medical grade amphetamines that actually hinder his prowess while trying to sneak into an enemy base.
In short, it's the character who should really be an NPC.
|"The necromancer raises his staff, and-" I seduce him!|
The Hedonist is all play, no work, and tends to make amazingly stupid decisions as a result. The best case scenario is that the character stays behind at the tavern. The worst case scenario is that you brought their scabrous, drunken ass with you into a place where you're actually depending on them to perform.
But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway...
The key to the Hedonist is the same as the Joke; develop past the one-note character trait. You have a drunken dwarf, who never goes anywhere without a supply of spirits. Okay, good for you. Add some drama to that situation by asking, why? Is it because the character is coping with the emotional trauma of making a living by putting his ax into thinking, feeling creatures in exchange for gold? Is it because the wound that got him dismissed from service, and brought shame to his family, still pains him, and he drinks to numb it?
These kinds of questions can deepen the character, and add layers of personality you weren't expecting. Everything from drinking and drugs, to sex and gambling can be made relevant in a character's story. As long as, that is, the character can still do his or her job when called upon to strap up and ride out.
#5: The Misanthrope
This is the character we all dread showing up at our tables. They have no interest in making friends, they don't care about teamwork, and generally give the impression that they would be much happier if tabletop games came with a single-player version. They're usually trying to reach for the essence of characters like Batman or Wolverine, but instead they just end up as surly murderhobos who will grumble and growl until it's time to kill more things.
|No, I won't shower. I don't care what you think.|
Misanthropes are one of two things. Either they're incomplete characters, or they're a result of a player forgetting that roleplaying games are a team-oriented pastime. Either way, the reaction to the misanthrope is going to be strained patience at best, or letting him get eaten by a dragon at worst.
But, if You're Going To Do It Anyway...
Don't. The proper answer to the misanthrope is to go back to the drawing board, and fill in the blanks until you have a character that can work with compatriots in order to achieve his or her goals.
Now, that doesn't mean you have to be friendly. It doesn't mean you need a ray of sunshine to shoot from your nether regions. What it does mean, though, is that you need to design a character that can act like an adult when it's time to follow the plot. Whether that's taking point on a government black ops team going after ancient cults in deep jungles, or working with a team of monster hunters trying to beard the local vampire prince in his own court, is up to you.
Easy ways to hammer a misanthrope into a more acceptable shape include making him part of an official organization (so the storyteller can simply order him into areas, as a commanding officer), attaching him to one of the other PCs (lifelong friend, trusted partner, or someone he owes a debt to. The misanthrope might not say it out loud, but he cares about this person), or simply making sure his aggression is pointed toward the enemy, rather than his allies.
You Can Make Any of These Work
As I've tried to point out, a good roleplayer can turn any of these archetypes into a complex, compelling character. However, most of us are nowhere near as good as we think we are, and the execution often falls far short of the image we had in our heads. Additionally, there are just certain concepts that fly in the face of a game's flavor, and canon. So, while I don't want to discourage players from stretching out, and trying new things, I would strongly caution against bringing monkey wrenches into a game.
If your character is going to cause a strain, whether it's because there's friction with other PCs, he won't follow plot hooks, or his concept simply can't pick up his share of the work load, it's time to go back to the drawing board. You won't have fun with it, and neither will anyone else at the table.
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