Archetypes

I have previously dealt with the notion of the cliché on this blog, and closely related to that is the notion of the archetype. An archetype is an ideal example of a type, to give the dictionary definition. Carl Jung also made use of the term to define an inherited unconscious idea. Plato’s ideas can also be seen as the original archetypes and in fact the word itself comes from the greek word αρχετυπον. But how do archetypes play into writing and how can they be used to enhance the experience of a player in a game? Are there any dangers to using archetypes that a writer or GM must be wary of?

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The cliché

Fantasy gaming is rife with clichés from the bumbling human wizard and the gruff dwarf fighter to the kid with a birthmark who turns out to be the rightful heir to the kingdom. Searching the web for clichés in fantasy, it’s easy to find plenty of articles on how to avoid them. However, is that really necessary? Clichés are clichés for a reason: They work as motivations and personalities that resonate with us.

So where did these clichés come from? What makes one idea from fantasy resonate to the extent that it becomes a cliché? And what can a writer or designer do to use those clichés that will work for them while avoiding those that will come across as ham-fisted?

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The written word

Through all fantasy games, single- and multi-player, virtual or table-top, runs a common thread: The writing. It has been argued many times, and reasonably successfully, that the history of fantasy gaming was born of the ground-breaking work of Tolkien, however it is more correct to say that he was the great populariser of a genre that has been with us for hundreds of years. The archetypes that exist in his work still inhabit the games we play today: Orcs, Dwar(f|ve)s, Elves, Trolls, etc.

The images that those names invoke, and that are visualised in modern MMOs, aren’t too far from the descriptions found throughout fantasy literature. So what of the state of writing in fantasy games themselves?

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