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Coherent and Divergent Characters

A Character must have her own story quoteImagine unboxing your latest Fantasy Extravaganza. It’s got it all: 17-sided dice, Authentic Glod Coated Doubloons(tm), Faux-leather game map. And your choice of character: barbarian warrior, scantily clad female elven mage, halfling thief.

Yay! Pass the d17 and let the immersion commence.

Archetypes provide your players with instant packets of information. If you’ve got a pointy-eared archer then your players won’t raise any eyebrows if she starts talking to trees.

Unfortunately archetypes have a major drawback: in order to become archetypes they need to be widely integrated into the genre’s cultural baggage. Archetypes are boring. They’re old, stale, yesterday’s news. They’re accepted tropes seen a thousand times before.

So why do we keep using them?

Well, they’re easy to use. No one will question that your pointy-eared archer talks to trees or that your halfling is greedy. It’s in the race characteristics, for Gondor’s sake! But still, they’re boring.

Coherent and Divergent

At this point I’d like to introduce two concepts: coherence and divergence. When applied to characters they signify two distinct classes of attributes. Coherence means that all of your characters will be alike in some way. Divergence means that all of your characters will be unlike in some way. But there’s a twist: coherence and divergence don’t just apply to your characters, they also apply to the set of your characters and theme. So you could have coherent characters that diverge from the theme. And that’s where the archetypes come into play.

For example: let’s say that you’re designing your Fantasy Extravaganza, figuring out how to manufacture that d17 and whatnot. You decide to spice up your standard fantasy theme, so you throw in your barbarian warrior, elven mage, halfling thief and Terminator-armor wearing, flamethrower wielding space marine.

Yep, major coherency break.

If you set up a coherency it needs to cover all of your characters. So no SF-warrior in a fantasy setting. Unless, of course, you decide that your coherent attributes aren’t going to be fantasy archetypes but warrior archetypes. Then you throw in a barbarian warrior, a GI-Joe type and a Space Marine. Great, you’ve got coherency through their archetype and divergence through their genre.

Ok, so it’s a sucky example (or maybe not, Duel of Ages anyone?). But we can do better.

Creating Coherent Divergence

Characters are more than a single characteristic quoteLet’s say you start with your standard fantasy tropes. You got your barbarian, your elf, your halfling. Where is the coherence?

Well, they’re all fantasy tropes. They’ve got the attributes inherent in fantasy: magic, edged weapons, rustic clothing etc.. So in order to keep your characters coherent you need to keep at least some of those (or replace them with something new).

What can you do to create divergence between the characters? Well, they’re already divergent. One’s a barbarian, the other an elf, the third a halfling. Voila! Case solved.

Err, not quite. We’re trying to create a divergence that doesn’t rely on tropes and archetypes. Which means that right from the start we’re removing two of the stated coherences. We’re left with fantasy paraphernalia, medieval stuff that the characters carry, magic etc. We’ve also got fantasy races, which are another type of paraphernalia. Combined they create archetypes and tropes. So we want to take our races and give them attributes that create divergence from the archetypes.

Simple Examples

Lets start with our halfling. Archetype is greedy halfling thief. So let the halfling be a charitable thief. Now you’ve got halfling Robin Hood. We’ve mashed two archetypes together and gotten something slightly more interesting. It’s like Shadowrun all over again. But it’s still not good enough. Let’s see if we can’t diverge from the archetype some more: charitable halfling mage. Simwell Wisebottom, apprenticed to the honorable Gundalf, but appalled at the poverty caused by wicked prince Aragborn’s tax collectors she abandons her studies and goes forth to use her charms to further socialist utopias everywhere.

Sorry, I’m beset by sucky examples today.

But it’s certainly different from the standard halfling thief. Let’s twist it some more: the halfling warrior. Why would anyone ever have a halfling warrior? Barbarians are big and strong, halflings are small and stealthy. We’re running the risk of creating a game mechanic nightmare, or worse, a character tacked on in order to be new and invigorating. So we let the halfling warrior be small and stealthy. Halfling assassin! But that’s just a thief in dark clothing (and possibly dual wielding poisoned daggers). We need something that explains why we’ve got a halfling fighter.

Here we can go one of two ways: either we invent something story based (she swallowed a pair of +3 STR rings as a baby and they lodged in her lower intestine so now she’s super strong) or something theme based (halflings are violent sociopaths – Dark Sun anyone?). Both ways can work, and can explain why this character is different from others of her race/class/type/trope, while at the same time allowing the use of statistics/mechanics that would befit our trope barbarian.

Yeah, it’s all backstory, all theme and varnish, like building a house out of sand and paint. It doesn’t affect mechanics – our barbarian-cum-halfling warrior still uses the same stats, weapons, movement templates, what have you. It’s all illusion, all furniture. But while a house can not stand without it’s mechanical structures and supports, it is the furniture that makes it homelike.

Dreams of Futures Past Book Cover

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