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The Play's the Thing

Dial "H" for Hero

by David Goodner
Mar 17,2004


The Play's the Thing

by David Goodner

Dial "H" for Hero

Welcome back. This month we're going to finish up this less than exhaustive look at heroic archetypes. I could probably come up with a few more if I really wanted to, but I am fresh out of catchy titles for the series.

The archetypes I chose for this installment are all, to one degree or another, a little problematic. In addition to talking about who they are and what they do, I'm going to try to offer some advice on how to overcome these problems.

The Loyal Retainer

I was originally going to do the Protector, but I've decided to expand the archetype a little bit. The Protector was going to be a character dedicated to the protection of another character. The Loyal Retainer is more general. He might be a bodyguard, but he could just as easily be a butler, or just about anything else.

The Loyal Retainer is the servant of another character, generally another PC. His role in the group is to help his master in some way. Examples include Alfred Pennyworth, Tanto, and Lobot, and, of course, Samwise Gamgee. In fact, during Fellowship of the Ring, just about all of the Fellowship were there to help Frodo, but Sam in particular saw himself as Frodo's servant, rather than his ally.

Whatever his area of expertise, the Loyal Retainer is a servant. His primary motivation is often not the same as the rest of the group's. Instead, his goal is to serve his master, who is following the group's goal. This can lead to some interesting roleplay. If the Retainer feels like his master's life is in danger, he might council his master to turn from his course. When presented with a choice that endangers his master, but moves closer to the goal, what does the Loyal Retainer do?

Then there's the whole question of his loyalty. Why is he loyal? If he's repaying a debt, then what will he do when he feels like he's repaid it? If he's following a generations-long tradition of service, what if he starts to chafe under that restriction out in the wide world? If he serves out of admiration for his master, what if the master proves not to be admirable?

When you make up your Loyal Retainer, the first step is to figure out what you'd like him to do. Loyal Retainers come in many types. Almost any kind of character from the strongest warrior to the cleverest thief could be the servant or sidekick of another character. Some settings offer a little more support to the Retainer relationship than others. A game in a medieval fantasy setting has built-in feudal relationships. A Knight might have a Squire (and in Arthurian literature, the Squire might be older and wiser than his Knight). A Lord might have vassals. A Wizard might have an apprentice, but that usually indicates a difference in power levels that might be a problem. But when you get down to it, whenever people have had societies, there have been some of them ordering others around, so I can only think of a few games where a Retainer wouldn't work very well.

The second step is to figure out who he works for. If he's working for a relatively faceless NPC, then he's not really a Loyal Retainer in the sense I have in mind. A big part of the Loyal Retainer's character is his constant subservient relationship. So he needs an employer who will be a constant factor in the game. An NPC master works well enough, particularly if the GM has an NPC closely associated with the party. For example, if the game involves escorting the pampered, spoiled Imperial Princess all over the kingdom, then her personal bodyguard makes a great PC.

But the real fun is to play the sidekick to a PC. One of my unrealized dreams back in the late 80's and early 90's was to find a Star Wars game where I could play the Loyal Retainer to another PC's Young Senatorial, Arrogant Noble, or Retired Imperial Captain. (Yes, I stole the title of this Archetype from Star Wars. I'd like to say I only steal from the best, but I don't. I'll steal from anybody) The PC you choose is important. In fact, this is where the problems start. First, there are in-game criteria. The "Master" PC needs to be someone who would logically have a retainer, bodyguard, or whatever. If you want to play a stuffy British Buttler, and nobody else wants to play a wealthy aristocrat, you might be out of luck. But second, there are metagame criteria. The player you choose is important. He has to want the relationship. He also needs to be someone you can trust not to abuse his position. Playing a Retainer isn't quite as emotionally loaded as playing a love interest, but it's close.

So, like so much else, the trick here is to look at these problems ahead of time and take steps to head them off. Be sure to talk to the GM and the other player. Make arrangements for what's going to happen if the Retainer needs to leave the game for some reason. Set some limits on how the master can treat his servant.

(It bothers me that this is starting to sound like a lesson on BDSM, but only a little.)

The master/servant relationship should be established ahead of time. If you want a kind master who's more like a friend, then be sure the other player knows that and wants to go along. If you really want to play the competent, cool aide de camp of a buffoonish fop, then you'll pretty much be out of luck unless someone wants to play the fop.

If the relationship is going to be particularly bad, like an abusive master or an ultimately treacherous Retainer, you'll want to hash out some of the details ahead of time. Discord can be fun, but it can easily get out of hand. Potentially, it can really disrupt the game. If the GM has a particular storyline in mind, he might prefer you not to design a traitorous PC, or (more likely, in my experience) he'll cackle with glee and help you plan the ultimate moment to strike. And if he's smart, he'll also arrange for some kind of replacement character for you, and something to soothe the bruised feelings of your fellow PCs.

For an abusive master, you also need some options. It's possible to have a subplot you can drop in where the master learns the errors of his ways, but that depends on the character. If he's a bad master because he's immature and insensitive, it's pretty easy. If he's bad because he's a sadistic bastard, it's harder. So you might just want to have a backup character ready in case playing the Retainer isn't any fun anymore.

The Jester

Comic Relief is a staple of literature for just about as far back as literature. God thought the perfect counterpoint to darkening the skies, making the rivers run red with blood, and blighting the crops of Egypt with locust was a bunch of frogs. Comedy gold. The Jester is a character intended primarily to provide comic relief. He can be intentionally funny, like a real clown or jester, or unintentionally funny, because he's stupid or insane. Examples include almost all the classic Comedia del Arte characters, but Scaramouche and Puncello in particular. Marry, Pippin, and Gimli were all played for comedy in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings adaptations. C-3PO filled the role in the Star Wars movies.

But the Jester is somewhat harder in a game than in a story, for several reasons. The first reason is this: You are not as amusing as you think you are. Yes, I mean you. Very few people really have the chops to play a humorous character correctly for a long time. There are a lot of factors. Comic timing takes practice. What you think is funny may be different than what everybody else thinks is funny. Sometimes you just have an off night. If you're playing a brooding loner, that's not a big deal. But if you're playing the zany sidekick, it can be.

The role of "Comic Relief" in a story has to be carefully managed. Generally, in a serious story, the comic relief is there to relieve tension every once in a while. But in a game, everybody tends to want to play about the same amount. It's easy to fall into the trap of having your humorous character become obnoxious without even trying. Not every scene needs comic relief. Some scenes are ruined by it. But how fun is it for you to sit around waiting for the right moment to have your character do something silly?

Another problem is that a lot of what makes some characters funny is "picking on" other characters. The inept sidekick who always gets his hero in trouble is an example. So is the Malkavian Vampire who is so nuts that he's constantly endangering the Masquerade, insulting the Coitere's allies, and throwing cream pies at the Prince. (I have coined the term "Kendermalkie" to describe him, and all similarly stupid, invalid, and basically worthless characters. But I'm not bitter.)

The key to solving all these problems lies in knowing your audience, and having good timing. If you come by these traits naturally, more power to you. If you don't, and you want to play a humorous character anyway, then be open to a lot of feedback. Ask for it. Be ready to listen. Set yourself a limit. Maybe three times a session, your character can do something monumentally obnoxious, and the rest of the time he's just low-grade obnoxious. If part of his shtick is using another character as a springboard, be sure to give that player a break sometimes. Also, make sure the target of your affections is in on the joke, and wants to play, too. A proper, stern, honorable knight is a great target for a clowning rogue's insults. But if the player of the knight is trying to play a noble and admired leader, and the rogue is constantly undermining his authority, then only one of those two players is probably having fun. And the Knight probably has Improved Critical.

The Quisling

Last on my far from exhaustive list is the Quisling. I'm not using the term in its strictest definition here, by the way. For our purposes, a Quisling is a character who is working with the PCs, but is also working for their enemies. There are some good literary examples. Loki, in Norse mythology is a good, solid Quisling. Sorcha in the movie Willow is another one, though she is really more of a turncoat. In Star Wars, since I just about can't write a column without referencing Star Wars, Lando is just about the perfect Quisling. In Empire Strikes Back, he's working for Darth Vader, only to switch sides later on.

A Quisling takes a particular kind of game. There need to be political factions available from the get-go. There probably needs to be an overarching plot, too. A typical D&D game about a band of adventurers wandering from place to place, looting ancient tombs probably won't do it. There wouldn't be a good enough reason to have some enemy place a spy in the party's ranks. But if you add in an ancient prophecy about a band of Mystical Heroes, you're golden.

A typical Quisling character needs to be fairly socially adept. He's going to be lying to the rest of the party for at least part of the game, and if he can't lie with a straight face, he's in trouble. In games with various forms of paranormal divination, he probably needs some way to circumvent those methods. Though, if more than just the Quisling player and the GM are in on the deception, this might be taken care of in a metagame way. And it might not be an issue at all. Most people aren't paranoid enough to cast "Detect Alignment" on everyone they meet, after all. Also, in some groups, the Quisling's non-allied status won't really be an issue. He might be openly part of one of the other factions, not trying to deceive the group as to his affiliation at all. In dark, gritty games, politics often makes for strange bedfellows.

Beyond his ability to deceive the rest of the group, the Quisling probably also needs to be useful. The group needs to keep him around, after all. Given the fact that he's usually going to be a social type character, the rogue, face-man, information gatherer kind of roles suit him well. Leadership is less of a good idea, since presumably he's an enemy of the group. A solid fighter is useful, and can either be social enough to hide his true motives, or just hide them behind a gruff, silent exterior. And everybody loves an evil wizard, of course. Or an evil decker, or whatever.

Problems for the Quisling come from a few different areas. The first one is that there's a general sense in most groups that the PCs are all on the same side. When one PC betrays the others, it can be very disruptive to group harmony. Further, as sad as it might be, the feelings of betrayal in game can spill out into real life. That's mostly a matter of maturity, of course. But it's a matter of maturity for both the Quisling player and the others. Bragging about it for weeks on end, or making a habit out of betraying your friends in game are not likely to endear you to them. Making sure the Quisling's betrayal is part of a good story will also help. Randomly whacking other PCs doesn't really make the game more dramatic. A carefully orchestrated plot with just enough clues that the other PCs eventually catch on can be a lot of fun, even if they don't stop you in time. (Of course, it's probably better if you have the Quisling decide not to kill them out of foolish sentiment, or something. Otherwise the game kind of ends early.)

Ultimately, the Quisling is supposed to try to switch sides and really become a loyal member of the PC group. Otherwise, he's not really a "heroic" archetype, and therefore falls outside the scope of this series of articles. Maybe he's inspired by their nobility, or maybe he falls in love. Maybe he was working for the bad guys against his will all the time. Then the eventual betrayal of trust becomes a more dramatic plot point as the Quisling tries to redeem himself and earn back the group's trust.

If you've played your role too well, and kept it too secret, this might prove a problem. I've played turncoat type characters a few times, and it always worked out, but I've seen it fail badly, too. Having the other players in on the secret from the beginning obviously makes the transition easy, but it takes some of the fun out of it. So possibly the best thing is to have the GM be ready to explain at the proper time. He's generally going to be seen as impartial, and once it's clear that you have been acting under his direction, most players will be willing to roll along with the new direction of the plot.

One of the biggest problems for the Quisling is that to some degree, he needs knowledge that the GM would rather keep out of the hands of the players. Presumably, he needs to know at least a little about the bad guys' plans so he can fulfill his part in them. Depending on exactly why he's doing what he's doing, he might know a little or a lot.

So that's the place to start. The GM will need to decide how much information he's comfortable giving the potential Quisling player, and that will determine where the Quisling fits into the hierarchy of the bad guys. A really trustworthy player could end up playing one of the major bad guy's lieutenants, privy to almost the entire plan. In fact (just to make everyone I GM for paranoid) I'm planning a game where one of the PCs is destined to turn on the others from the first session.

But far more common will be low-level Quislings. If the Quisling is just some expendable agent, maybe even forced to work for the bad guys against his will, he won't need to know much more than his current instructions. In that case, it's really just a matter of the GM setting up jobs for him to do, probably no more than meeting a controller from time to time to make reports.

Which brings us to the third problem. The Quisling has a built-in secret that will take some manner of separation of OOC and IC knowledge on the part of the other players. At the most difficult end of the spectrum, your Quisling might have active goals that run contrary to the group's, and that he has to act on during play sessions. In that case, you'll have to rely on the other players to keep IC and OOC knowledge separate. And you should probably resign yourself to being caught pretty quickly. There are a few things you can do to keep the game going, though. A fast-talking Quisling might be able to come up with explinations. A sneaky one might be able to buy the silence of the PC who caught him with blackmail or bribery. A ruthless one could just kill the witness, but that's not such a good idea if he's supposed to reform later on.

At the easier end, the Quisling might just be a spy, informing on the group. Then it's all a matter of logistics. If he has to make in-person reports, he might still get caught. There's still the OOC/IC issue to deal with. If the GM separates players for private scenes, everyone is suspicious. If he doesn't, everyone hears the reports.

Of course, the lack of separation could be used to increase the drama of the game. If the other players are in on the secret from the beginning, they can play along. They get the fun of seeing the Quisling's gradual change. Maybe he starts off by keeping a few secrets from his masters to try to protect the group. Then eventually he tries to set a trap, or leave completely. It's good roleplaying, but it's also good entertainment for the rest of the group.

A last option, in many games, there are covert means of communication: anything from a magical telepathy spell to just an e-mail. If it's something that can be done between sessions, the other players never have to see it. That makes the Quisling's secret a lot easier to maintain. And if you keep logs of his reports, the other players can read them after the game and bask in the illumination of your sneakiness. Or, more practically, copies of them might become available as IC knowledge through any number of events.


Thus endeth the lesson. At least for the moment. I'm enjoying doing different character types, so I think next time out I'll start exploring some different personalities, talking about how to play them and what problems they might present.

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