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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies

Who Are You?

by Aeon
April 18, 2001  

Who are you?

It's likely that your answer to that question will include things like your name, and your age, and your physical attributes, and your likes and dislikes. That's an easy one. Now, here's a harder one.

What are you?

"Well," you might say, "I am a human being. I am caucasian (or mongoloid, or negroid, as the case may be). I am American (or European, or African, or Asian, etc). I am a writer (or artist, or truck driver, or teacher, etc.)." And so on. Also easy. Or so it seems.

The difference between the "who" and the "what" question is one of reach. Because while you can define WHO you are all by yourself, it's nearly impossible to explain WHAT you are without referencing other people. Race, nationality, religion, profession... all invite comparison to those that differ from you. When you say "I am 26 years old," it's obvious how that makes you different from, say, someone who is 27 years old. But when you say "I am a Canadian chicken plucker," well, that doesn't tell me anything about non-Canadian chicken pluckers. And in fact, unless I know about Canadian chicken plucking, it tells me squat about you too.

In real life, we have plenty of opportunity to explain "what" we are to others, through experience and example, through conversation and companionship. But when it comes to role-playing games, we tend to swallow notions of "Race" and "Class" without a second thought as to how those things really relate to the concept of character.

Character races and classes in all role-playing games can be grouped into the larger category of "archetypes" -- original models or types after which other similar things are patterned. Which is to say, basically, that they are examples of "what" characters should be, leaving you, the player, to fill in the "who" blanks between the "what" lines.

But take a deeper look at those lines, and you inevitably start to ask yourself some questions: Why do elves have pointy ears? How can they work with Santa at the North Pole AND wield a bow-and-arrow with deadly efficiency at the same time? What's with clerics and blunt weapons? And what's with that whole "turning undead" thing? Why can dwarves see in the dark, and how come they sink in water? Why can't wizards wear armor, and why can Gandalf carry a sword? Why are orcs always so mean and nasty? What the heck does "orc" mean, anyway? Since when is thievery a recognized profession? Did people actually ever creep around in dank cellars listening at doors and disabling traps? And so on and so forth.

Sure, all these questions and more can be brushed aside with a casual wave of the hand, a haughty "Harumph" and the declaration that it's "just a game." This is particularly likely if you try to ask these questions of your Game Master before a heavy night of role-playing. But for those of you for whom that isn't good enough, there's a whole history buried beneath those two dozen races and classes that consistently crop up in every role-playing game and fantasy novel on the market. And it's about time someone dug 'em up and dusted 'em off.

If archaeology is a study of the remnants of ancient cultures, archetypology is a study of the remnants of ancient archetypes, the leftover bits of information that got tossed in the role-playing stew that we all eat on a daily basis.

And if you're anything like me, you'll want to know exactly what it is you've been eating all these years.

In some cases, the origins of our role-playing archetypes seem obvious: the noble paladin must have come from the crusader who fought his way to the gates of Jerusalem, cross on shield, prayer upon lips, and the deadly assassin must have come from the dark-cloaked rogue who crept through silent medieval streets at the bidding of his Lord. But did you know that those noble crusaders were known for acts of cannibalism? Did you know that the assassin originally got his name from a sect of religious zealots who were drugged up on hashish?

Probably not. The books leave all the good stuff out, don't they?

Over the coming months, I'll introduce you to ten different racial and class archetypes, names you're undoubtedly familiar with, with stories and histories that you probably didn't know about. Names that have appeared in fantasy fiction, film and role-playing games for decades, with nary a thought given to why we call them that, or why any of them are important enough to keep bringing up time and again.

We'll explore everything from why adventurers are always creeping around in dungeons (early 20th Century fantasy writers were undoubtedly influenced by the prominent Egyptologists of their era, busy exploring mystical Egyptian tombs and pyramids) to exactly why everyone is so intent on killing those poor winged lizards (the dragon was a symbol of Satan in heavily Christian medieval Europe, and for the Church-sponsored knights and crusaders, battling that dragon was much more figurative than literal). We'll take a look at what life was really like "way back then", and exactly how and why that all influenced the archetypes we've come to accept as gospel. And hopefully, we'll have a bit of fun at the same time.

In my first official installment of Archetypology: Fact, Fiction and Fallacies, we'll take a look at what is perhaps the most loved, hated, and misunderstood of all character classes. From the early days of pen-and-paper role-playing games, to the most modern MMORPGs, the class appears again and again, almost always with the same moniker. And yet nobody has ever bothered to ask what it's really all about.

Next month: the cleric.

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What do you think?

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All Archetypology 1010 columns by Aeon

  • Episode 11 - In Closing... April 30, 2002
  • Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human March 19, 2002
  • Episode 9 -- Death Before Dishonor January 31, 2002
  • Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be December 21, 2001
  • Episode 7 - Roll up for the magical mystery tour November 27, 2001
  • Episode 6 - Kings under the mountain October 18, 2001
  • Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS September 18, 2001
  • Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground... August 17, 2001
  • Episode 3 - Thick as Thieves July 13, 2001
  • Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building June 15, 2001
  • Episode 1 - Holy Rollers May 23, 2001
  • Who Are You? April 20, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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