How To Avoid Stereotypes That Kill
This article is designed to instruct players and DM's alike in how to add a little spice to their character line-up.
Some people are content with commonplace while others feed on the unforgettable. This phrase isn't referring to some vampiric, or diabolical practice (though in this author's humble opinion settling for commonplace is equally evil); rather it is a statement of introduction to this article. It is an attempt to provoke thought in you, the reader, because what will be discussed in the following paragraphs requires proper thinking and planning in order to implement properly. So, what's my goal this time? To incite GM's and Players alike to strive for something more, something better than what afflicts the average tabletop (and now even Internet) role-playing games. Avoid the stereotype.
By dissecting the problem we can better see what elements we need to avoid. First, we need to take a look at the core element of any RPG. What drives the game? What is the true delineator? No matter which way I make the incision it comes back to the characters portrayed within the game. To make this declaration clear: I am referring to all characters, not just player characters. Sure, the storyline is important, but even a dull storyline can be made interesting by involving interesting characters. In simplifying the issue we will combine the responsibility for avoidance into a single category rather than split it between the GM and players.
It begins with a topic that I have covered in other articles and have probably beat into glue, but none-the-less lies at the heart of the autopsy. History. Too often a person falls prey to the waiting predator called Stereotyping when creating the character. A gruff dwarf with a rolling Scottish accent carrying a hammer or axe and belting out drinking songs while keeping track of how many Orc skulls he has cleaved, the merry elf with a bow moving gracefully through the wilderness and scowling upon seriousness, the Halfling thief with a severe kleptomanic streak that can't be tamed, or even the dull human who is there for the purpose of filling the ranks and representing the norm. Sure, some of these varieties (I use the word loosely) are derived from Tolkien, the father of fantasy, and can certainly be fun to play on occasion, but where's the freshness? Where's the rebirth that keeps people coming back and makes the game memorable? It begins with the history; a portion of the character that can make even that dull human come to life with a vibrancy that could shock a person. So, hold onto that pacemaker cause here we go.
Imagine, if you will, the mountain Dwarf that grows-up deep in the majestic halls of the Dwarven Kingdom of Theradune. He is of common birth with nary a deed in his lineage to fall back on. While other Dwarves are proudly tugging their beards and declaring what their grandfather's great uncle did to the fearsome Orc-king five hundred years past, our Dwarf is sinking back into the shadows cast by the smoldering lamp and trying hard not to become the butt of another joke about mediocrity. While this means that you, as the creator don't have to spend the time thinking about great deeds accomplished by the character's ancestry (and possibly running them by the GM if you are a player, or coming up with the repercussions of the events within the family and realm if you are the GM) it still creates the opportunity for a very interesting character. I am sure you have already thought of a number of things that would set this Dwarf apart. Things like his jealousy of other, more accomplished families, his intense desire to prove himself no matter the costs, his severe lack of confidence in his abilities, his shame over his family's failures, etc. Maybe there were times in the past when particular members of his family really screwed up an opportunity for heroism and this Dwarf feels the need to right the wrongs. Whatever the case may be, because of any one of these shortcomings our Dwarf could be a quiet, serious lad with an extreme dislike for alcohol (possibly due to an uncle of his being dead drunk and falling asleep on watch when a group of Drow raided the kingdom). He could be terrified of hand-to-hand combat due to his own feelings of inadequacy and so he shuns the axe and hammer common to his people and specializes in crossbow use - effectively the black unicorn of the his race: the Dwarven Archer.
These historical events define the core elements of the character setting him apart from the norm and creating a unique, memorable cast if applied in multiples. The Wizards of the Coast, core rulebook Dungeon Master's Guide contains a table of 100 traits useful as a beginning for fleshing out the unique character, but these are only a beginning, or an aid, useful in establishing the flesh of the character. In our dissection, with the history as the heart and the few traits as the skin we are left with the organs, muscle, and bone to discuss. Building out from the heart we need to establish the circulatory system lest the creature dwindle. The blood of the beast is habit. Habits help define a person, turning them into a reliable individual no matter the effect.
Returning to our Dwarven Archer we look at the stocky little guy and wonder, what patterns has he drawn in the cold sands of the Underdark for himself? With his drives, with his history, what can a person recognize within this Dwarf as habitual? There are comforts sought (or lack there-of) in life. In this Dwarf's history he had an uncle fail in his duties on watch. This has lead our Dwarf to swear off alcohol, and it could have also pushed him to seek out the most uncomfortable conditions he can find as a kind of self-punishment. It might be extreme, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. 'The sins of our fathers rest upon our shoulders' might just be one of his philosophies. As such, whenever the party sets up camp our Dwarf sleeps on the cold, hard ground with maybe one blanket over him in order to keep from freezing to death, but nothing underneath him, nothing to rest his head on, and one eye open. He might also seek nightly forgiveness from his gods through a practice of chanting while placing his forehead to the earth for a ten-minute block of time before sleep. Maybe, every morning before he will allow himself to eat he has to tend to his equipment, an obsessive-compulsive event derived from his fear of equipment failure. When the party enters a city, our Dwarf could make a habit of checking for escape routes from the inn they stay at, seeking out the guard and asking about known dangers, or possibly finding the city laws and acclimating himself with a knowledge of them so that he can make sure he doesn't fail in adhering to them.
What about those people who strive to be unpredictable? Well, that in and of itself is predictable. Let's say our Dwarven Archer has decided that he can't live an honorable life within his ancestral rut so he becomes an assassin. Habitual process for him could mean capture and death so he strives to avoid habit. There's no returning regularly to a particular inn or tavern, there's no pattern to his waking and sleeping, or eating, he never takes the same route to a location if he can avoid it. Things like this make him reliable even when he isn't being habitual. An ally (or enemy) can always count on him trying to do that which is least expected.
Now we peruse the organs in our dissection. These are the things that make the character function, while closely related to habit and historically driven reaction they differ because they are derived from the character's personal beliefs and philosophies. These tendencies are directly related to religious belief, prejudices, interests, and dislikes. Religious beliefs are the easy ones to discern when using pre-generated religions such as those in Faiths and Avatars, or any campaign setting sourcebook, but don't disregard the importance of these beliefs just because you weren't the one who spent the time creating the Faith, or don't think you are limited to what is written - every faith has sects with slightly altered beliefs and practices. Consider what each principle in the dogma represents to your character and then make sure you incorporate that into play. In the case of our Dwarf we'll say that he is a worshipper of the god of war. How does this conflict with his fear of melee combat, with his low self-esteem, with his ancestral shame? What demands does this religion have on him? Is he a devout worshipper or merely a 'gods day devotee'? Does he call upon his god's favor before engaging in battle? Does he make excuses why he can't follow the edicts and precepts his religion dictates, thus falling short of yet another endeavor? You can see there are many possibilities within religion alone, but let's not forget the other organs.
What are the character's prejudices? Does he even have any? Is it possible not to have some prejudices despite claiming a Bohemian way of life? That is a philosophical question that you have to answer for yourself, but no matter how you look at it if our Dwarven Archer really hated Drow (even for the really simple reason that they attacked while his uncle was sleeping thus showing his uncle's weakness to the entire kingdom)? If he hates them, to what extent has the seed of hate grown? Will our Dwarven Archer do everything in his power to kill any Drow he encounters? Does that hatred even override his fear of melee combat? Does the sight of a Drow incite a berserker rage our Dwarf is normally not able to achieve (something that has to be run past the GM if you are a player and then detailed further for game play)? Perhaps his prejudices range away from racial dislikes and veer towards classes, or castes. These elements shape how the character will react in certain situations and should not be abused. After all, if our Dwarf hated Drow, Warriors, Upper Class people, and any worshipper of the god of luck then you might be in for some sticky encounters… but then again, it might make things really spicy too.
What about interests and dislikes? These simple internal organs are the meat of the day-to-day operation of your character. They can be broken down into the five senses among other things: touch, smell, taste, hearing, and seeing. Maybe our Dwarven Archer can't stand the feel of silk (it makes him lose his breath for a brief moment), the smell of sulfur makes him ill, the flavor or oregano causes him to blanch, the sound of a whetstone being drawn across a blade sends shivers down his spine, and the sight of a red-haired female makes him think of a lost love, sending him into a fit of depression. There are other possibilities such as weather, terrain, travel modes, particular foods, or even certain situations such as: discussions of past deeds send our Dwarven Archer into a sullen, mean-spirited mood. His companions would learn very quickly not to get into macho conversation if they don't wish to have a grumpy Dwarf to deal with.
Well, we've covered everything within the dissection but the muscles and brain. Quite simply, these elements are you. Whether you are the GM or the player, your continuity in play, your ability to execute the habits, and keep in character will set your game apart, avoid the norm, and fend off the killing spirit of stereotyping. Whether it's the Dwarven Archer interacting with the heavily armored Elvin Knight, or the Twitchy Mage who stole his mentor's spellbook and escaped into the wilderness interacting with the friendly and curious Innkeep, if the characters live within your minds then the storyline will catch up. Even the most tepid of adventure plots can become interesting if the cast is. Remember this and you have found the way to truly win at any role-playing game.
Thanks to Bromern Sal for this contribution!