Overplayed Characters (Part 1)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 10, 2009

It’s time to banish certain character builds from D&D forever. They have earned their place in gaming history and are now so overplayed that they’ve become cliché. With so many interesting combinations of race, class, weapon selection and demeanor you shouldn’t have to fall back on these character types. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about then read on.

The Big, Dumb Barbarian

Legendary example

  • Conan the Barbarian (Robert E. Howard)
  • Wulfgar (R.A. Salvatore)

Take this brief survey to measure your Barbarian’s originality.

  1. Is he a giant among men standing at least 6 ½ feet tall?
  2. Is his Strength unparalleled even when compared to other members of his savage culture (starting Strength of 17 or more at 1st level)?
  3. Does he wield a hammer, axe or greatsword that’s as big as he is?
  4. Is he kind of dim-witted (not the sharpest blade on the rack)?

If you answered yes to three or more of the questions above then you need to roll up another character.

Suggested alternative build

  • Arm him with nothing but a dagger. No one expects a Barbarian to come at them with a dagger.

The Elven Archer

Legendary example

  • Legolas (J.R.R. Tolkien)

I understand the appeal of playing an Elven archer. Why wouldn’t you play a race with a +2 Dex bonus? Because it’s been done a million times before, that’s why. If you absolutely must play an Elven archer you’ve got to throw in some kind of interesting character quirk. And it had better be good. Use you imagination to come up with something different.

Suggested alternative build

  • Give him plate armor and make him brazen instead of stealthy.
  • Crossbows use Dexterity too.

The Frail, Scarred Wizard

Legendary example

  • Raistlin Majere (Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman)

The origin stories may sound different, but they’re really all part of the same tired and overused stereotype.

  1. A laboratory experiment blew up and he was burned by fire or acid.
  2. He was the sole survivor of a monster attack (usually a dragon) that killed his family and scarred him in the process.
  3. A summoned creature (usually a demon) broke its bounds and maimed him horribly before it was banished.

With a back-story like this you’re destined to become the Wizard sitting in the corner of the tavern who hires adventurers to go in search of spell components and lost artifacts.

Suggested alternative build

  • Proudly display your disfigurement rather than sulk under a hooded cloak. In your opinion anyone without scars has yet to prove them self against a worthy foe.
  • Ditch the scar altogether and take a really high Strength.

The Dual Weapon Wielding Drow

Legendary example

  • Drizzt Do’Urden (R.A. Salvatore)
  • Artemis Entreri (R.A. Salvatore)

Drizzt’s been featured in novels, short stories, video games and comic books. He’s been around since 1987. Your version of this character type will never be as cool as Drizzt. Create a different character. Salvatore came very close to copying himself when he created Artemis Entreri. Artemis may not be Drow, but who are we kidding? He’s pretty much just another Drizzt.

Suggested alternative build

  • Any other race.
  • Any two weapons but scimitars.

The Surly Dwarf

Legendary example

  • Gimli (J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • Bruenor Battlehammer (R.A. Salvatore)

Dwarves as a race can be a lot of fun to play, but make sure you’re not just playing the same character over and over again. Every Dwarf is unique so make sure your character isn’t the same as everyone else’s. Any Dwarf who can accurately be described by this statement is not unique: “Hi, I’m an angry Dwarf who is always grouchy, lacks social graces (by Human standards), wears heavy armor and fights using a very big hammer or battle axe.” If this is you then you’re perpetuating the stereotype.

Suggested alternative build

  • Arm yourself with a short sword or a bow.
  • Trade in the plate mail for hide armor.
  • Give your dwarf a really high Charisma and be the face of the party.

These are just the five types that come to mind most readily, but we’ll review others in time. Have you retired any character types from your game table? Tell us about your run-ins with overplayed character types and what steps you took to promote originality.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 justaguy March 10, 2009 at 8:42 am

On the other hand, one person’s cliche is another person’s niche. These roles have been around so long that their antithesis are just as cliched. The crafty barbarian? The dour elf? The fun loving dwarf? I’ve seen all of these. I won’t say there’s nothing new under the sun, but the idea of playing against type isn’t new under the sun. I mean, heck once I read about this good drow… ;)

2 gamefiend March 10, 2009 at 9:23 am

Nice post! It’s time someone pulled up the roots on these cliche weeds. Especially with 4e, there are some new archetypes to explore and use. Are you going to go into the “new breed” with some suggested archetypes later? That would be pretty slick. I might post some of those myself.

You have inspired me. Thanks!

3 Harbinger March 10, 2009 at 9:28 am

Isn’t telling other people that their fun is wrong a kinda dumb thing to do?

4 Ameron March 10, 2009 at 10:18 am

@Justaguy
You make a good point. Perhaps the next post in this series should be about overplayed antithesis or the cliché.

@Harbinger
It certainly wasn’t my intention to discourage anyone from having fun. You should always feel free to play the character you want to play.

I’m trying to encourage people to be creative during character creation. My experience has been that the more original your character concept is, the more interesting the overall character is, and the more fun you generally have playing the game. I’m suggesting that you shouldn’t feel that you HAVE to play these stereotypes if you are making up a Barbarian, Elf, Wizard, Ranger or Dwarf.

5 Tom March 10, 2009 at 10:49 am

What Harbringer said

6 Ameron March 10, 2009 at 11:16 am

@Gamefiend
I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I haven’t seen too many of the new breed 4e cliché character types yet, but I’m sure they’re out there. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open and when I’ve got a few good ones I’ll work them in to Overplayed Characters part 2. Feel free to offer me some suggestions you’ve seen (or possibly already retired from your own gaming table).

@Tom
Go with whatever combination will be the most fun for you to play. And if that happens to be the exact same character over and over again, than that’s your call.

If you like playing the surly, gruff Dwarf armed with a big Axe, then that’s your choice. I merely encourage you to look at all the other possibilities before you make your next Dwarf. Take baby steps, maybe just change the weapon.

7 Wimwick March 10, 2009 at 11:46 am

I don’t think Ameron is telling anyone that their idea of fun is wrong. Rather he’s looking at the archetypes of the game and saying “Hey aren’t there more options available than this?”

We’ve all played a character who was modeled in some way on one with the classics Ameron mentions. One of my favourite characters of all time was a Wood Elf ranger who wielded two short swords. The best thing to happen to that character was when he died and was reincarnated as a Dwarf. The amount of fun I had playing the character at that point increased dramatically.

8 Quid March 10, 2009 at 5:03 pm

The first character I ever played was a big dumb barbarian, and I loved it. It was easy, and served as a good introduction to the world of D&D. I also played a halfling thief and a surly dwarf that liked his ale. In fact, I worked my way through the pantheon of Salvatore characters BEFORE I ever heard of Drizzt… and then I got bored with stock characters and tried to branch out and challenge myself with more original concepts and character types outside my comfort zone.

9 Suddry March 10, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Nothing wrong with the “usual archetypes” at all. If that floats your boat then go for it! Usually it is backstory and character motivations that get me going.

My two favourite characters to date have been a necromancer woman and a human Clod. Yes… I said Clod. It was a 3.5 class someone made up. Big and dumb. Used a club. Actually got bonuses to some feats and checks due to his low Int score. Was -3 if I recall correctly. He’s on file here somewhere…

10 Jeff Greiner March 10, 2009 at 6:53 pm

It’s funny, but I see complaints about these cliche’s all the time…and yet, I don’t know that I’ve ever played with one of them in my game a single time in 20 years of gaming. I have read all the novels that are the inspiration of all of these cliches (really, only two authors are capable of creating D&D cliches) and enjoyed them and if an inspired character showed up in a game I was playing I wouldn’t likely think much of anything of it.

So what’s the deal? Am I lucky to not run into these stereotypes in my 20 years of gaming, or are they not really as common as people like to say that they are. Really, how often to people see these things?

11 Ameron March 13, 2009 at 7:27 am

@Jeff
I’d say that in 20 years of gaming if you haven’t yet played one of the stereotypes above then you’ve probably played a slew of very interesting and very unique characters over the years. And that’s exactly the point of this article, if you have been playing characters like the ones described above then you should broaden your horizons when creating new characters. It doesn’t sound like you need to heed this advice at all. Bravo, Jeff.

12 David Wright April 7, 2009 at 8:44 am

One of the most intriguing aspects of the 4E Character Builder is the “Auto Build” function, and it could serve as the stake in the heart of the cliche character. If my first thought is, “A dwarven warlock? Come on!”, that may just be the perfect character for me to try.

13 Golgotha Kinslayer April 29, 2009 at 10:06 am

It’s interesting how rapidly something can become clichéd. Conan is no longer fresh ink, but Mr. Do’Urden has only been around since the late ‘eighties. Okay, for an old man like me, that isn’t so long ago. When he first appeared, he was intended to break the (then) trite view of the drow.

Great, now I’m defending Drizzt…

Here’s a free idea for group character creation. Each player has to describe how their character could be seen as a stereotype, but then explain how this character is not. For example, the big ugly half-orc barbarian is already its own stereotype, but Smud here is intelligent and wishes he were a warlock. Magic fascinates him; he just has no aptitude for it. Or take a pretty-boy elven archer as another example. He follows the Leggolas model almost perfectly, except that he has even less of a personality. We’re talking cold noodle personality here. He is aware of this shortcoming and attempts to overcome it by being a raging alcoholic. Unfortunately, he isn’t the “life of the party”, he is still dull and annoying, except that when he’s intoxicated, he’s loud, dull, and annoying.

14 Ameron April 29, 2009 at 12:47 pm

@Golgotha Kinslayer
This is a fantastic idea. It sounds like you put a lot of thought into creating characters and their back-storey. I think this is an important part of character creation that many players overlook or downplay. I’ve found that the more time you spend thinking about a character’s history the more fun you have playing the PC.

15 Ryan June 2, 2009 at 1:11 am

Conan is not dumb, just uncivilized.

16 Ameron June 2, 2009 at 8:33 am

@Ryan
Good point. I’ll give you that. But he does fit the stereotype that has become the over-played Barbarian over the years.

17 Tallyn August 14, 2009 at 4:08 pm

The greedy rogue. Every time steals everything in site like other party members stuff

18 Lurkinggherkin August 20, 2009 at 8:27 pm

I take it you’re talking about the Conan of the films rather than the books?

I recently had the pleasure of re-reading the complete chronicles of Conan and the thing that struck me was how actually unlike the ‘dumb barbarian’ stereotype he was – yes, he was a powerfully built man and often relied on his superior strength, but he was also cunning, shrewd, perceptive, had quite a barbed sense of humour and sometimes prone to philosophising.

As for the stupidly oversized weapon idea, that’s been an irritating fantasy art cliché since the mid 80′s when everything went Warhammer/GWAR.

The Conan of the books used a variety of weapons during his career and by no means restricted himself to oversized cleavers. He also wore a variety of different armours ranging from none at all through leather, chain and even full plate.

I *have* seen players who play the stereotypical barbarian you describe, but personality-wise they’re not very much like Conan.
.-= Lurkinggherkin´s last blog ..My six year old daughter’s amazing first D&D session (Part 2) =-.

19 Wimwick August 20, 2009 at 9:11 pm

@ Lurkinggherkin
I’ve never taken the opportunity to read the books and thanks to your description of them I think I’ll pick them up some time soon. Rest assured this stereotype is based on the movie.

20 kij September 1, 2009 at 11:03 pm

I… never really had a problem with this. I think it’s because I was only verbal and forum roleplaying before I picked up D&D… And most of my players are drama students. They HATE playing stereotypes.

21 Ameron September 3, 2009 at 2:47 pm

@kij
It sounds like you’ve got a good group. Consider yourself lucky. I’ve seen too many of the stereotype played in recent years and as 4e grows I’m starting to see a whole new batch of overplayed characters. I’ve found that DMs who work with players to come up with cool character concepts rarely suffer from this problem. PCs left to create characters in a vacuum tend to fall back on what they know.

22 Richard February 2, 2010 at 10:12 am

I think a lot of players pick these cliche characters because they know their personalities and feel they can roleplay them better. Most people don’t know the other options or don’t know the personalities of other characters. What they should realize though is that the character’s personality is whatever you want it to be. If you don’t know what kind of personality or traits a kalashtar bard will have, then you make something up.

23 Sean February 2, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Whenever my players make new characters, I’m always having to deal with this stupid “Orphan” backstory.

Orphan Rogues. Orphan Wizards. Orphan this, and orphan that. And of course they are all dark, mysterious, never really talk much, and “badass.”

Since when was it cool to be an orphan? I’ve officially declared at the table that orphans will no longer be allowed to become adventurers.

LOVING PARENTS ARE AN ESSENTIAL PART OF A GOOD ADVENTURER.

24 Ameron February 5, 2010 at 10:17 am

@Richard
Excellent point. If you’re new to RPGs in general then you may find it silly to “create” a personality for your character. Falling back on these tried and true (and overused) examples may be a good introduction to fantasy RPGs. I never thought about it that way.

@Sean
The lost orphan will absolutely be on the next list. It’s been around a while and I’m still seeing it. At least with the five I list above we’re not seeing them as much any more. Orphans seem to be on the rise.

25 Kaelivrin April 19, 2010 at 11:25 pm

Wow this is all really great! I just recently got into dnd (4e) and have been playing and DMing for almost a year now. I am actually surprised to say out of my group of 6 i have only one of the stereotype builds (the duel wielder elf). I myself play a drow bard.

Its really great to see people with the same interest with all this useful input!

26 OnlineDM June 8, 2010 at 11:54 am

I’m just seeing this post now from your “Combinations That Break the Mold” post, and I’m glad I saw it. I’m still new to D&D and while I’ve read Lord of the Rings, I’ve never read Salvatore (though I’ve heard of Drizzt). I’d never heard of the scarred wizard as a cliche before, for instance, so it’s useful for me to know about it.

All that said, I think the mechanics of D&D 4e encourage players to create certain cliched characters just because of the racial bonuses to abilities that are essential for certain classes. It doesn’t mean the mannerisms and motivations of the character have to fall in with the cliche, but the race/class combo is designed to flow smoothly and to be effective in combat. If you want to be an archer you want a class with dexterity, and so on.

I like this post a lot from the role-playing side of things, though. Just because you’re a Dwarven Fighter doesn’t mean you have to be surly, as you said. Good food for thought.
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27 Kuster Jr July 15, 2010 at 12:07 pm

…okay, so now I’m going to have to go build a dull, drunkard elf character…

Thanks, Golgotha Kinslayer, that’s a fantastic concept that should provide many hours of mirth.

28 YoungRocketSamurai September 9, 2010 at 3:08 pm

I always liked the barbarian my wife used to play. Sure, she was big and strong and carried a huge axe, but she was always drinking tea and encouraging everyone to sit down (over tea) and talk things out.

When that (often) didn’t work, she (reluctantly) hacked her opponents to pieces with the huge axe. But she always felt sad about it afterward.

29 Dryad Woods February 18, 2011 at 3:39 am

Try this, it’s one of my favorites, A Male Half-Dragon Desert Dwarf Rogue. He carries a hand crossbow for distance, and a rapier for close combat. Is pretty powerful, and has a great nack of getting in and out of trouble. Very stealthy, and can break open a chest if he can’t pick it. A perfect all around character if you have the wits to use him.

30 Jake April 19, 2013 at 12:36 am

Wanna break the mold? I’m play as a Dwarven… Cleric. Uses a small hammer, no sheild, and dozen’t enjoy destroying people. I win.

31 Pete August 21, 2013 at 4:30 pm

i played a dwarf assassin who used the crossbow quite often; super fun to play.

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