Usefulness of stereotype characters in roleplaying games

Spin off from this thread: http://story-games.com/forums/discussion/21964/why-is-d-d-so-popular-you-ask
Stereotypes are vital for navigating reality and even more vital for navigating a fictional reality where your perception is limited by the narration of the author or game master.
I strongly disagree about stereotypes being useful for navigating reality, and am personally very against the idea that your perception is limited by the narration of an author or game master. I'm generally not a fan of the idea that the narration is even objective, and not just the narrator's opinion of what things are like (and opinions are very much colored by social biases, etc.)
Let's ignore the part about using stereotypes to navigate reality because it's a much too broad subject.

My argument is that stereotypes are a great tool to use during narration, which is why we see it again and again. Stereotypes are tags referencing a common cultural library, instead of spending minutes or hours presenting a deep and unique character a player or game master can say "It's basically Shylock" and most people will get an idea of not just that characters character but also its place within society.

Ultimately, playing a game is about navigating a fictional space and this is better accomplished when the pieces are legible. I'm not saying that every character should be a stereotype, but doing so is a quick way to set the scene or introducing minor characters.

Comments

  • I get what you say, and I think I agree. Using common referents is a basic narrative technique.

    Just today I introduced a new character in our Chronicles of Prydain D&D campaign. The dark wizard Morda is a fine fellow who just happens to look exactly like an off-Internet portrait of Voldemort the dark wizard. I picked a Voldemort picture as a shorthand because the canonical Morda does indeed look basically like Voldemort does in another fantasy novel 30 years later, but also because the shorthand helps players grasp the nature of the character quicker and better than if I tried to be original for originality's sake.

    I wouldn't call all this "stereotype" necessarily, as there are other words, so I don't know if your disagreement might have something to do with the word choice. You might agree with each other if you tried phrasing it differently.
  • I think trope doesn't carry the same negative connotations, but stereotype is a broader and more useful term as it encompasses both literary inventions and real world stereotypes. The fact that real and invented stereotypes feed into each other makes them harder to separate too.
  • edited March 2019
    I'd say that stereotypes are the Number 1 way to make a character not feel like a real person, so if that's what you're going for, they're fine (as long as you're not using offensive stereotypes). If you're going for any kind of more nuanced and realistic portrayal though, stereotypes should be avoided unless you're artfully deconstructing them.
  • I'm not sure I've ever seen a thread basically cover an entire topic quite this succinctly! It reads as a pretty good overview of the subject already.
  • I am not really a 'dwarf player'. However I sometimes feel a strong desire to explore what could 'archetypical dwarfness' mean (to me). The way I approach it is like this;
    1. Use the stereotype as a platform to jump off
    2. Jump off instinctively and not in a calculated manner, follow your feelings
    3. Do not wander too far, stay in the 'recognizibly dwarf' zone
    4. Explore the gap and use the differences as a resource in the portrayal of the PC.
    5. The relationship with its distance is the key.
  • Starting with a stereotype and fiddling with things from there can be a great tool to come up with character ideas.

    I posted an application of this method to Apocalypse World a while back:

    http://www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/21129/the-easiest-pbta-hack-a-custom-character-creation-move
  • edited March 2019
    Different aesthetics for different works. Due to linear cumulative meaning, you've got to start characterization somewhere.

    It's very pop modern to use ready mades. RP and series use tropes to the bone because of the cast structure and the (target) audience. Too many complex characters and they're (supposedly) lost.

    Then there are those works who reset for ever simplicity (kid series) and those who get into layers (usually). Of course some start with a very complex cast (adults series) : the Wire gave me that impression.
  • tbh, characters who aren't complex have always felt to me like... not really quite characters. They're just vague trope-shaped blobs to me. They're not people. They're like memes. Like if you a reaction GIF into a character without adding anything.
    That's tbh how pretty much all characters in Western TV shows feels to me, and that's a big part of why I'm tbh somewhat confused that so many RPGs try to emulate Western TV shows, since RPGs are largely a character-focused medium, at least traditionally (given how in more traditional games players can only influence the game through the medium of character).
    The pieces of media I've enjoyed (outside of stuff I enjoyed because of a theme it explored, or an art style I enjoyed) had complex characters, so I'm very used to thinking from a framework of "complex character = good and desirable/non-complex character = worthless and bad writing"
  • The extent of what people do with roleplaying games is rather amazing. There are many techniques out there that are situationally useful or even core methods for certain types of game while being useless for some other purposes. Trope-reliant quick typing of characters is a good example.

    Regarding the wider world of storytelling, simple stock characters are the historically dominant paradigm in storytelling over the breadth of time and space. Everything from Homer to wuxia theater to superhero comics runs off carefully modulated stock tropery. It's not inconceivable for someone to consider the realist trend in literature to have revolutionized the storytelling art in an irreversible way, but it is a minority position, and was that even in the heyday of the realist movement.
  • edited March 2019
    Stereotypes are great if you want to come up with something on the spot, if you want to give an NPC a quick description – "It's just a dumb farmer" – or to establish something that you can reference later. "A kro'chrak is...".

    From TV tropes:
    ...when people hear "bird", they probably think of something that is fist-sized, flies, and sings, even though none of these things are true about every single bird. See prototype theory.

    When a set of such assumptions about something becomes "common knowledge", it forms a stereotype.
    So it's a useful tool if it's not being turned into a cliche.
  • edited March 2019
    Regarding the wider world of storytelling, simple stock characters are the historically dominant paradigm in storytelling over the breadth of time and space. Everything from Homer to wuxia theater to superhero comics runs off carefully modulated stock tropery. It's not inconceivable for someone to consider the realist trend in literature to have revolutionized the storytelling art in an irreversible way, but it is a minority position, and was that even in the heyday of the realist movement.
    I'd honestly very much say that the realism trend as far as character writing definitely is a step forward that should be retained, instead of going back to the older ways. The old ways of handling characters are (imo) outdated and need to be abandoned, because better techniques have been developed.

    I'd define the purpose of a character being to communicate theme through a discrete fictional person, and that necessitates characters being presented realistically, because otherwise they're not discrete fictional people. They're just empty husks with vague concepts stapled to their faces.
    There was a yuri manga I read recently where an irrelevant male character who appeared in one scene to hit on the main character so that her girlfriend could swoop in to chew him out and look cool and heroic and instead of having a face, he had a piece of paper over his face that had written on it what translated to "irrelevant person" or "unwanted thing", and that's kind of how I'd describe "characters" who aren't discrete fictional people. They have their roles stapled to their heads and don't exist outside of that scrap of paper stapled to them.

    I also wouldn't really call most of the "characters" in Homer/wuxia/superhero comics characters in the sense that I talk about characters. At my kindest, I'd call them something more like "concepts" or "archetypes" or perhaps even "named entities". At my harshest, I'd call them "inexcusably bad writing", but for the sake of this conversation, I'll try my best to be at my kindest.

    I know this is probably a weird kind of take, but I feel like at this point, ya'll have come to expect nothing but weird takes from me, and I am nothing if I am not on brand. :tongue:

  • I appreciate a firm stance on the realist question; having an opinion on such a fundamental question in the arts is much superior to ignorance of the question, even if I disagree on the conclusion [grin].

    My own view is more mixed in that I think that both sides have thoroughly proved their ability to engage in the literary arts in a relevant way, all the while using their own understanding of how a character works in a story. This is something of an empirical take: the results prove the theory, and therefore neither approach can be said to be entirely useless. The big picture to me looks like more of a "right tool for the right job" situation. Having this opinion of course requires first having encountered relevant art of both sorts, so others might disagree simply because they've never seen one of these types in glorious action.

    The implication is, of course, that while I think that we must whaffle about uncommitted on the question in general, it is very necessary to choose an approach in the particular: a given type of roleplaying game, or a given type of storytelling art, often gains clearly better utility from deftly expressed archetypes or painstakingly naturalist depictions. Understanding which is more appropriate to your specific purpose is paramount.

    I guess I just wanted to clarify that the answer is pretty different depending on whether we're asking "which is better universally" or "which is better for my purposes". This sort of appropriate utility answers comes up a lot for technical matters in the arts, which I guess means that it's important to understand when we're talking about a technical matter of the arts as opposed to something else. If it is a technical question, the answer is likely to be "depends on what you're trying to do".
  • That's totally fair!
    I'd argue that there's not any purpose that isn't enriched by realistically developed characters, and there's not any purpose that isn't hurt by archetypal, undeveloped characters, unless your purpose is to explicitly write bad fiction, but that's more of an anti-purpose, something that wouldn't really be relevant unless we were discussing say Dadaist art or other similar movements that are focused on trying to create anti-art.

    (And, for the record, I've encountered relevant art of both sorts, and the sort with archetypal, undeveloped characters was uncapable of evoking emotion in me at all really, which like, I'm an easy person to evoke emotion in typically. Writing has to be pretty bad to not evoke any emotion at all in me.)

    I'm definitely not like, aggressively against your take. I just feel like there's a lot in the development of various art forms that's really hindered by the frankly obtuse way people cling to the idea that things don't become outdated and obsolete. I wish I knew what art would look like today if we'd stopped using outdated and obsolete techniques for any purpose other than to deconstruct and subvert them, because I think that the average piece would be much higher quality, but like... capitalism sees that the old techniques are still selling, so capitalism has no desire to trash things for the advancement of art. (Damn you, capitalism!)
  • A concrete example of something where you don't want realistic characters, but you do want characters:

    Old school D&D is a challenge-oriented roleplaying game that strives to portray a complex, organically realistic field of challenge for the players to maneuver in. It has high and random lethality as a central part of its premise, so individual characters might not stick around for long. Having characters, both player characters and non-player characters, is important for portraying the challenges that social and psychological realities cause to commando operations. For example, knowing whether somebody is battle-hardened or not is often an important consideration.

    I would argue that the game I describe above is not improved by the addition of realistic character development, because creating such depictions is too much work for too little gain in its particular context. Rather, the game favours an "economy of the brush" similar to some visual art forms: characterization relies heavily on archetypes, labels and categorization of complex phenomena into simple boxes. The game relies on a thorough battlefield simulation with quick and lightweight tools, so it would simply be inappropriate to enjoin that to fully unique and realistic characters. It would be like making a movie where everything else is cheap stick figures except cars are, for some reason, photorealistic.

    You might be able to brush away my example by stating that it is of a worthless piece of art - that old school D&D is an useless game, essentially. I don't think that you can claim that the game would be improved by changing it in this one regard, though; I'm confident on this because I have some little expertise on the game - why it's played, how it works, why its part are the way they are. I would be surprised by the intellectual hubris needed to claim that the game is worthless, but who knows.

    Let me know if that example doesn't work for you - we can explore some other works. I disagree with the idea that archetypal characterization is outright outdated, and I believe that I can name many and varied examples of practical art where swapping this technique out would not be an overall improvement. I think that we would just need to find one example that you accept to prove that the case is not quite so black and white, and that an artist of the modern age still needs to do the actual work in choosing their brush.
  • edited March 2019
    That's a fair way of looking at it!
    I'd personally argue though that the realistic character development and the realistic portrayals would enrich something like old school D&D. Would it be a lot of work with little pay-off? Definitely, but creating meaningful art is hard work. I'm generally of the belief that if something isn't hard work, it's probably not worth doing.
    Creating a piece that showcases how realistic people would act and feel in a situation like an old school dungeon is definitely better than creating a piece that showcases absurd caricatures in an old school dungeon. (I would also argue that there could be a lot of artistic merit to the cheap stick figures with photorealistic cars concept, especially in the context of say, a political piece about the ways that cars are damaging, the evils of cars because of the position they occupy in the lives of those in precarious situations under capitalism.)

    I don't disagree that there's levels in modern writing where it's important to select from a variety of brushes, but I really don't think that whether or not to include realistic portrayals of characters is one of those places, and I don't think you're going to be able to convince me otherwise, no offense. It might be better to stop while we're ahead instead of this turning into parading out an endless stream of what you see as examples that then I disagree with and feel would be improved by realistic characters, until we both get really frustrated.
    I don't see it going anywhere good, basically.
  • I can see how your own roleplaying game preferences reflect the idea that it's always worthwhile to put more effort and slow down things to increase the fidelity of portrayal. Many others would, however, say that in roleplaying as in other arts there is virtue in immediate and spontaneous things, too. It is not the case that any amount of effort put into crafting the individual elements of an artwork is automatically justified. Sometimes less is more simply because you improve the relative payoff by doing great things cheaply instead of slightly greater things at a great expense.

    However, you are right in that there's no particular need for us to reach an accord on this. I think that others can see the arguments and make up their own minds easily enough.
  • In The Clay That Woke you start playing with a stereotypical minotaur. The game advises you to not make any preconcepts about him, just start playing a goddamn minotaur. Of course it will be shortly personalized thru interactions as the devil usually lies in these smaller details. Exploring a realistic PC thru playing it is one of the main type of 'play to find out' game concepts.

    BTW I initially need stereotypes to navigate in an unknown setting. Stereotypes are generally used for their helpful function and not for themselves. Exceptions could be sim games I guess?
  • The way a lot of the games want you to start with characters who aren't thought out is one is many many reasons why I could never do "play to find out" games. If I know that little about character, I get nothing out of playing them (if I'm even capable of playing them).

    I don't really play in settings at all, much less unknown ones, and what I do is realistically sim. It's just a really nonstandard paradigm and structure for sim, built around a somewhat unorthodox way of looking at characters.
  • I feel like this thread is mixing character types and stereotypes together. I think of these two things being very different. When I think 'stereotype' I think 'harmful ethnic or racial stereotype'. When I think character type, I think more stock characters without any particular cultural baggage.
  • edited March 2019
    Stereotypical characters can be a great tool if you're trying to create something really quick and relatable - for example, I once played a game of Lasers & Feelings for which we had exactly an hour. Using a variety of stereotypes allowed us to get the game off the ground really fast and to have a lot of fun. I don't think playing with more fleshed out characters would have improved the game in any way.

    Similarly, many comedy genres rely on tropes/caricatures to work. We like to laugh at certain things, and exaggerating them in the fiction helps us do that. The result is very much a form of two-dimensional characters.

    I have another interesting counterexample:

    Many types of fiction rely on us being able to associate ourselves with a main character, and to experience the story vicariously through them.

    It seems that people find this easiest when the character is relatively "bland" in terms of personality, which allows them to project themselves into the persona of the "bland" character, instead of focusing on how they are distinct, unique, or different.

    In dramatic theory, this is sometimes referred to as the Everyman archetype. Scott McCloud writes about how, in visual media, the less detail or recognizable features a character has, the easier it is for readers to associate ourselves with them.

    There's are lots of types of stories where the primary protagonist is far less nuanced or unique than the people they interact with, perhaps for this reason.

    Generally speaking, I am much in favour of nuanced and realist characters, both in gaming and in media, however.

    Bedrockbrendan is right that the lines between archetypes and stereotypes get blurred in these discussions, but I think that both have their uses. It can be useful to quickly get an idea across, or to establish the nature of a large group of people, for example (perhaps a political election game might benefit from us assuming that all people of a certain background will contribute votes towards a particular political position, in order to make the simulation gameable).
  • Stereotypical characters can be a great tool if you're trying to create something really quick and relatable - for example, I once played a game of Lasers & Feelings for which we had exactly an hour. Using a variety of stereotypes allowed us to get the game off the ground really fast and to have a lot of fun. I don't think playing with more fleshed out characters would have improved the game in any way.

    Similarly, many comedy genres rely on tropes/caricatures to work. We like to laugh at certain things, and exaggerating them in the fiction helps us do that. The result is very much a form of two-dimensional characters.

    I have another interesting counterexample:

    Many types of fiction rely on us being able to associate ourselves with a main character, and to experience the story vicariously through them.

    It seems that people find this easiest when the character is relatively "bland" in terms of personality, which allows them to project themselves into the persona of the "bland" character, instead of focusing on how they are distinct, unique, or different.

    In dramatic theory, this is sometimes referred to as the Everyman archetype. Scott McCloud writes about how, in visual media, the less detail or recognizable features a character has, the easier it is for readers to associate ourselves with them.

    There's are lots of types of stories where the primary protagonist is far less nuanced or unique than the people they interact with, perhaps for this reason.

    Generally speaking, I am much in favour of nuanced and realist characters, both in gaming and in media, however.

    Bedrockbrendan is right that the lines between archetypes and stereotypes get blurred in these discussions, but I think that both have their uses. It can be useful to quickly get an idea across, or to establish the nature of a large group of people, for example (perhaps a political election game might benefit from us assuming that all people of a certain background will contribute votes towards a particular political position, in order to make the simulation gameable).
    I don't know if I follow what people are talking about actually. I wouldn't really want stereotypical Jewish or Black characters in my game. I am fine with types like 'old crone' or a stereotypical orc or dwarf. But I see these all as very different things. And mixing them up all together seems like it is inviting people to let in stuff that would otherwise be objectionable under the broader usage of stereotype to mean 'character type'.
  • edited March 2019
    I think stereotypes have a strong capacity for being offensive, so you have to tread carefully.

    Stereotypes that are not offensive certainly exist, however. For example, a stereotypical grandmother might be kind, caring, easily shocked or surprised, and really like knitting, tea, and cookies. (And you can get more specific once you draw culture into it, depending on your setting.)

    I find that in an RPG, playing with those expectations is a useful tool. If I want to play to expectations, I say the grandmother likes knitting and bakes good cookies. More importantly, even if I don't say that, the players can reasonably assume that a positive interaction with her might involve tea and knitting, without us having to spell it out. We're establishing something familiar and we're able to interact with it right away. Then it fades into the background.

    If, instead, I break expectations and say that her favourite hobby is Formula One racing and that she fought in World War II, I automatically draw attention to the character and bring her to the fore in terms of our attention. Now she's become a focus of play.

    You make a good point that talking about this could be taken as an invitation to sanction the use of offensive stereotypes in gaming... and there is no way to know for sure which is the case until it is often too late. I'm not sure I see a solution to that, though (since anti-stereotypical characters could just easily offend someone). Is there one?
  • edited March 2019
    I think stereotypes have a strong capacity for being offensive, so you have to tread carefully.

    Stereotypes that are not offensive certainly exist, however. For example, a stereotypical grandmother might be kind, caring, easily shocked or surprised, and really like knitting, tea, and cookies.

    I find that in an RPG, playing with those expectations is a useful tool. If I want to play to expectations, I say the grandmother likes knitting and bakes good cookies. If, instead, I break expectations and say that her favourite hobby is Formula One racing and that she fought in World War II, I automatically draw attention to the character and being her to the fore in terms of our attention to the character.
    I do get that. But I am realizing things are being slid into the argument that otherwise wouldn't be if we were making a clearer distinction between negative stereotypes and character types or stereotypes like the one you mention. Not just observing it here, but elsewhere online in similar discussions. I am getting the sense some people are advocating for the inclusion of standard tropes like the kindly grandmother. But there is also a creeping in of people arguing for ethnic stereotypes (and kind of sliding it in with the grandmother). Does this make sense?

    I think what I am saying is most people, when they hear 'stereotype', assume you mean a negative ethnic or racial stereotype (growing up that is how the term was always used from what I remember). I even used the broader term myself earlier, calling my mother a stereotypical Italian American mom). Stereotypical grandmother character. No one will bat an eye. But stereotypical Asian character or Black character, people are going to be more uncomfortable at the table (and my group is mainly in 40 to 50 year olds who are not particularly sensitive about things, but the latter probably wouldn't go over well).
  • (I agree with you! I was rewriting the post above as you posted. It's not an obvious topic.)
  • I used to play a lot of Vampire, and part of the culture of play back then in the 90's and early naughties was getting deeply into your character and their backstory so that they really came to life. The problem was that I created those characters in a vacuum and a lot of the characterization ended up unused.

    So it was a revelation for me when I got back into gaming and discovered Indie games and, especially with Apocalypse World, started to create simply sketched characters with a few bold facts known about them, and then developed them in the course of play, improvising and responding to inputs from the GM and other players.

    I feel like the goal was always the same for me, to create living characters I could inhabit, but the second method was much quicker, more fun, and less frustrating since everything I came up with about the character was relevant to play in some way. Either way, I end up musing about the character and making up little stories about them in my head, so it seems like there's a common endpoint but the newer way is better tech.

    So, getting back to stereotypes -- I think a boldly drawn character, even stereotypical character, with a few unique points is a great starting point for indie game chargen.
  • I just realized that I used the term stereotype different than you. I was referring to the natural mental process in which we automatically systematize information about groups ('what sticks out') and not about racial stereotypes as in social psychology which I guess is a subset of that.

    Sorry for the confusion!
  • Like rifles, stereotypes are a powerful tool, but should never be pointed at a person, even if not loaded.
  • +1 JDCorley!
  • I'm against both rifles and stereotypes. I feel that society would be better if we could do away with both. :tongue:
  • +1 Emma! :smiley:
  • It's looking more and more likely that the brain literally has stereotypes baked in as a primitive operation. Not saying they're good, just saying they may be literally unavoidable to develop over time and use unconsciously without changing our neural architecture. "predictive coding" is a good search term.

    The brain does not have rifles baked in as a primitive operation.
  • +1 Guy!
  • It's looking more and more likely that the brain literally has stereotypes baked in as a primitive operation. Not saying they're good, just saying they may be literally unavoidable to develop over time and use unconsciously without changing our neural architecture. "predictive coding" is a good search term.

    The brain does not have rifles baked in as a primitive operation.
    As Guy says, I find naive to believe one can create characters without applying any tipification of personalities, even unconciously. This even affects our perception of the real world and how we tend to fabricate our memories. It's worth noting, also, that even "realism" was/is, after all, a literary movement, and there's in fact no way to objectively capture reality without our language and ideology filters. And less so when creating collectively a narration.

    I like to draw on stereotypes when creating NPCs in a hurry, and over time think of small ways to have that NPC break the mold or have them be a bit more nuanced. But only if that NPC appears more than once during a campaign. The more screen time they have, the more I think about their personality.
  • I like to draw on stereotypes when creating NPCs in a hurry, and over time think of small ways to have that NPC break the mold or have them be a bit more nuanced. But only if that NPC appears more than once during a campaign. The more screen time they have, the more I think about their personality.
    This is also actually how real life works. When you first meet someone, you may respect their individuality and full humanity in the abstract, but you're still only going to notice their surface qualities. As you get to know them better, they'll be more well-rounded.
  • I suddently remembered a 'classic' of korean modern literature, Red cliffs. I read it when I was a freshman at university. Its protagonist baffled me. I felt he was very unconvential. I could not put him into any kind of category.

    It was because I was very inexperienced and naive, and also because its character portrayal was a real novelty at its time. I kept going back to that him in my mind. A classic 'wonder and awe' thing.

    But years later I started to notice this 'type' of people on streets etc. I even made tragic NPCs based on him. The unique experience has turned into a category or (stereo?)type.
  • It seems to me that this is not uncommon. A novel, believable, engaging, richly developed character appears. They are then mimicked, by artists developing the idea further, by hacks riding on its coat-tails, by real people who have been influenced by the original work, consciously or unconsciously. Are all these instances now a stereotype? Is that first instance now a stereotype?

    It seems to me a great deal of difference between good character and bad stereotype is in the execution, rather than originality or complexity. A kindly grandmother or a knight in shining armour portrayed skillfully is a better character than something that doesn't slot into familiar categories quite so easily portrayed haphazardly or unconvincingly or boringly.
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