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Iconic Archetype or Hackneyed Stereotype?

Public Service Announcement: Today is St. Valentine’s Day. Please remember to give the loved ones in your life a symbol of your appreciation. A greeting card, a box of chocolates, and/or a floral arrangement are all traditional gifts.


Flowers, chocolate, and the ubiquitous mass-produced gift card may seem dull and stereotypical to some, but millions of them will be given today. And nearly all of the givers and receivers consider them an appropriate gift. Many of them will be expecting such gifts.

I know what you’re thinking. “Gee, thanks. But what does this have to do with gaming?” Aside from saving what relationship you may have from your forgetful nature (and therefore earning enough ‘partner karma’ to continue gaming), it reminds us that not everyone shares the same perception of such things. Which is important for today’s topic: What is the difference between an archetype and a stereotype?

The difference is purely subjective*; it depends on what you like. Archetypes are positive; stereotypes are bad. My archetype is your stereotype. One person’s dull cliché is another’s expectation. One man’s entertainment is another man’s outrage. This may seem obvious, but to many it’s not.

Even knowing that everyone has different tastes is not enough. As a GM, there are a few proactive measures you can take.

Know Your Players

A good GM should be aware of where the line between ‘archetype’ and ‘stereotype’ falls for each of his players. You can pick this up by their reaction during play, by directly talking to them during the Game Charter conversation, or just by knowing their tastes in books and movies.

I’ve noticed that the dividing line between the two may fall in different places for different genres. For instance, a 1950s ‘space opera’ style game is more accepting of stereotypical characters than one focused on ‘hard’ sci-fi.

Learn to Compromise

My wife likes romantic comedies; I like ‘guy movies’. We compromise when we can, and occasionally take turns watching each other’s genre, but sometimes we watch movies without each other.

If you love the old-school goodness of the iconic archetypes of Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Priest cleaning out ecologically impossible dungeons, but some of your players just sigh and shake their head at another tired old set of tropes, then perhaps you could talk it over and find some common ground, or take a break from each other for a bit.

Wait – That’s It?

This isn’t groundbreaking material: we like what we like, and we shouldn’t assume that everyone else likes it, too. But any number of arguments, bad games, wasted characters, and even group disintegrations have needlessly occurred over unquestioned assumptions. Take a moment and talk to your players about what they like and don’t like. And since we’re such terrible judges of ourselves, double-check their answers by their reactions to your latest archetype.

Agree? Disagree? Got something to add? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

* I’m sure I’ll be taken to task by any number of English Lit majors for over-simplifying the complex relationship between ‘archetype’ and ‘stereotype’, but as I always tell English Lit majors, “venti iced mocha, four shots, extra chocolate, no whipped cream, please.”

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Iconic Archetype or Hackneyed Stereotype?"

#1 Comment By MonsterMike On February 14, 2011 @ 7:47 am

One of the things I like to do with characters that are based on an archetype is to break the archetype in some small unexpected way. Or as a GM, to give PC’s the opportunity to break their own archetype: Playing an ale-and-wenches dwarf tank? His hobby is needlepoint. The vain preening elf wizard is the one to make a heroic self-sacrifice. The halfling rogue might perform an act of selfless generosity.

In many ways, breaking the archetype is a fun and easy way to develop a character through the course of an adventure. Naturally, this applies to NPCs as well. Your BBEG might be the stereotypical evil wizard, but give him a soft spot or a narrow streak of morality and he suddenly becomes much more interesting.

Archetypes are useful to the GM and the players. For any GM, I would recommend “The Hero with 1000 Faces” or “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” to gain an understanding of the role archetypes play in mythic storytelling.

#2 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On February 14, 2011 @ 9:41 am

Imagine that for your next gaming session, a new player shows up and announces that his character is a dwarven fighter named Gimli. You roll your eyes and silently bemoan the lack of originality.

Now imagine that over the course of dozens of sessions, this player proves to be a fine roleplayer. His is the Gimli that Tolkein might have written another hundred books about, but didn’t. Every word, gesture and choice, every stroke of the axe, is perfect.

Now ask yourself — is that a hackneyed stereotype, or a masterpiece?

Originality is a fine thing, but ultimately, in roleplaying as in absolutely everything else, quality trumps all.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On February 14, 2011 @ 11:12 am

I’ve always felt that archetypes represent things you build from (fighter cleric etc are good examples of one type of archetype) and as such you *can’t* “break” them – only augment them in some way. An archetype (to me) is an unfinished thing.

Conversely, I’ve always seen a Stereotype as a (perhaps prematurely) finished concept, the end result of following the “obvious” choices open to a character of a given archetype. The needlepointing Dwarf is non-stereotypical.

And of course, these assessments will change depending on what the dwarf is doing when I see him. If he is swilling ale rather than needlepointing, he will still be stereotypical.

BUT: I get where you went with your point, Telas. I’m not sure we haven’t covered this ground so many times the trail could be followed by a blind Orc with a learning disorder, but I get it.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 14, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

[2] – You make an excellent point: Archetypes are critically important to our hobby. But where they cross the line into cliché or stereotype is where they cease to “bring something” and start to “take something”. And that line is blurry and often ill-defined…

[3] – “Quality trumps all.” Awesome!

[4] – Whenever GMs fail to communicate with their players, I’ll be there. Whenever assumptions are left unquestioned, I’ll be there. Whenever bad one-liners need to be uttered, or tasteless jokes told, I’ll be there. 😉

#5 Comment By Airk On February 15, 2011 @ 11:16 am

Oh, C’mon, Kurt. You totally dropped the ball on that.

“Wherever GMs fail to communicate with their players, you will find me. Whenever bad assumptions are left unquestioned, I’ll be there. Whenever…uh…something something. Dang. I can’t remember the right quote either. Oh well.” 😛

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 15, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

[5] – Facepalm. Mea maxima f’n culpa…

#7 Comment By English grad making 100k On February 15, 2011 @ 6:09 pm

as I always tell English Lit majors, “venti iced mocha, four shots, extra chocolate, no whipped cream, please

I’ve read precisely one article from your little hobby blog, and this is your ‘free dig’. The bulk of employees in our industry come from mathematics (car wash attendees) and English.

You have, literally, deficated where you eat. The true vulgarity is that you actually use your own ignorance of the nuances of language as a preventative defence against being found ignorant. Amazing… You, basically, say ‘I’m too ignorant to be corrected, and so I’ll insult those who know more than I do, to silence them.’

Sad. Your article was interesting. But you had to sell it with a pseudo-elitist throwaway line. And that line is the only thing that stuck, in this readers mind.

Cute site.

Poor execution.

But then again… It IS a childrens site…..

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On February 15, 2011 @ 8:40 pm

Oh, yeah… I just remembered something else about English Lit majors.

They can’t take a joke.

#9 Comment By DocRyder On February 16, 2011 @ 2:35 pm


I know one English Lit grad who’s an absolute sweetheart. She writes gaming materials.

The rest have usually been the most unpleasant people to be around, constantly, (no, incessantly) correcting every minor language error of everyone around them, never realizing that those errors give people personality. Most English Lit majors (in my experience) also don’t get dialog, and can’t really write it. You just confirmed the stereotype that most English Lit Majors are thoroughly unpleasant, and double confirmed it by telling us all how much you make. And added another layer of confirmation by insulting everyone reading the site by calling it childish, which in and of it self displays your total lack of maturity.

We thank you for never, ever coming back.

#10 Comment By DocRyder On February 16, 2011 @ 2:48 pm

As to this article, I think your responses to comments say more than the article itself. I think we could have used more advice on how to use archetypes in your game, and how to move beyond the archetype to bypass becoming a stereotype.

As a GM, I usually start with the archetype, and knowing that it can easily become a stereotype, and look for ways I can change it to make it new and different. Or I look for ways I can combine it with another archetype to transform it.

I wish I could give specific examples, but right now I’m just not able to. Maybe one of the other contributors could do that. But really, this is what creativity is all about: taking archetypes and presenting them in new ways.

#11 Comment By ouzelum On February 18, 2011 @ 3:44 pm


Allow me to nit-pickingly correct your post:

1) You spelled “defecated” wrong.
2) The author did NOT literally shit where he eat. If he did, that would require pooping in his dining room, not writing on a blog. Or maybe on the couch in the living room, I don’t know where he dines. I don’t know a single English major who doesn’t flip out about the misuse of the word “literally.”
3) Incorrect comma usage. I’ll fix it for you: “You basically say, ‘I’m too ignorant to be corrected, and so I’ll insult those who know more than I do to silence them.'”
4) “This reader’s mind” and “children’s site” are possessive, which means they require apostrophes before the final s’s.
5) Ellipses only have three dots, which you had correct up until the very end.

All told, I’m skeptical of your claim, especially after the misuse of the word ‘literally.’ I should also note that I’m not an English major, I’m just an asshole. Though I did want to ask: Telas, is your footnote describing an *archetypical* English Lit major or a *stereotypical* English Lit major? 😀

@ Everyone else…

I feel like archetypes are icons that make the template, and stereotypes are knock-offs that are derived from the template. It’s not necessarily that the archetype is the first of something (the prototype for an archetype, ha), but that the archetype is the strongest example. An archetype evokes a certain tone or mood but a stereotype takes that mood a little too far, a little too one-dimensionally. I think archetypes– and even stereotypes– are great for high fantasy but are much more difficult to work in more nuanced campaigns that have a lot of diplomacy, role-playing, or ambiguity. Or maybe it’s just a different kind of archetype? Machiavelli over Merlin.

Star Wars is a great example for what [7] was describing: Taking archetypes and putting a sci-fi twist on them. The black knight. The warrior-monk. The lady and the tramp. The amazing thing is that Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Leia & Han have become archetypes in their own right as a result.