Getting Personal 1: Characterizing Characters


Throughout the centuries, attempts have been made to classify types of people in order to better understand them. For example, in antiquity there were humours and astrological signs, and even today people still ask "What's Your Sign?" Role-playing games, of course, also classify people - into classes and races. But they do a poor job with personality.

In recent years, the Internet has popularized a few systems that divide people into personality clusters. For example, Enneagrams break people into 9 types, and the Jungian-influenced Myers-Briggs and Keirsey-Bates temperaments describe individuals in terms of whether they are:

  • [E]xtroverted vs [I]ntroverted
  • [S]ensing vs I[N]tuitive
  • [T]hinking vs [F]eeling
  • [P]erceiving vs [J]udging

Individuals tend to fall to one side or the other of each pair, resulting in 16 possible types (e.g., INTJ, ESFP, etc.). These 16 are further grouped into four larger clusters, which vary in the Myers-Briggs and Keirsey-Bates systems. The Myers-Briggs system is more concerned with how people think, whereas the Keirsey-Bates system is more focused on what people can do.

As the latter is more interesting from a role-playing perspective, it serves as a rough inspiration for the system that follows. However, I have chosen new names to describe 16 base character types, in a fashion that allows players to more readily grasp the mechanics of each type without needing to understand the complexities of the system that inspired it.

Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot

In 2003, Atomic Sock Monkey Press published a game called Monkey, Ninja, Pirate, Robot Deluxe; aside from the four character types mentioned in the title, the PDQ-based game also included Clowns, Cowboys, Zombies, Punks and Mutants -- nine types in all. If we disregard the Mutant type (the reasoning here being that Mutant necessarily describes not a thing itself, but a mutated version of another thing), we are left with eight archetypes which, conveniently, fall quite naturally into "Jungian pairings." It is those pairings that are used here to describe the character types, as it is much easier to quickly decide "My character is more Punklike (anarchic, wild, reckless) than Zombielike (focused, direct, unchanging)" than "My character is more of a Perceiver than a Judger." The first comparison is immediately evocative and based on well known archetypes, whereas the latter is an abstraction that is more difficult to put into words around a gaming table.

To determine a character type, read the pairing descriptions below and choose which side of the pair a particular character falls on; doing this for each of the four pairings will result in a four-letter code which can then serve as a guide to their personality and behavior. While there are certainly more than 16 possible personalities that might be exhibited in any particular character, it can be handy to boil each down to one of the bases suggested here. Remember that the archetypes described below are not meant to be taken literally; one can be more pirate than ninja without having a hook-hand or a parrot.

Is your character more like a Pirate or a Ninja?

The seafaring, swashbuckling Pirates are focused on the physical world of the senses, whereas the quiet and thoughtful Ninja are more intuitive and interested in that which is hidden and unknown. The Pirate leaps into the fray, ready to act; the Ninja approaches cautiously and thoughtfully from the shadows.

Pirates live in the eternal present, enjoying what's in front of them and focusing on physical pleasures and delights. They are quite perceptive and self-confident, and they notice everything, quickly adapt to changing situations. They are practical people with realistic expectations, and are generally quite active, even when they are performing rather mundane or repetitive tasks (swabbing decks, etc.).

Ninja are keenly aware of the influences of the past, and how actions taken today might influence the future. As a result, they think more about things that have been, and things that are yet to come, than what is in front of them right now. This is not to say that they are ignorant of what is; they are quite interested in novel and unusual things, and they are bored with routine tasks. But their focus is always at a higher theoretical level than on actual practice.

Is your character more like a Robot or a Monkey?

The cold, mechanical Robots relate to the world with thought and calculation, while the warm-blooded Monkeys are much more focused on feelings and emotions. The Robot carefully calculates every action and reaction; the Monkey reacts more impulsively based on emotion and feeling.

Robots, as befits their computer-like brains, are interested in systems and patterns. Everything they encounter is looked at through steely eyes and cold logic, which makes them seem a bit Vulcan and unemotional. They evaluate situations according to what they know, and they often have a hard time dealing with arguments, preferring to avoid situations that cannot be cleanly divided up into black or white, right or wrong.

Monkeys are very interested in feelings, and how their feelings interact with those of other people. They are passionate in all things, and freely and willingly interact with others, even when the lines are blurry or things might get messy. Their focus on how things feel means that they can be easy to set off (flinging poo?), and they are not afraid to use emotional manipulation to get their way.

Is your character more like a Punk or a Zombie?

The anarchic, unpredictable Punks enjoy changing situations and acting on a whim as their perceptions dictate, whereas the steady, predictable Zombies set a task to mind and then keep at it. The Punk is a rebel without a cause, and frequently acts as whim dictates; the Zombie has a single cause in mind, and never deviates from the plan.

Punks are impulsive; if they see something they want, they will buy it (or perhaps steal it) as soon as possible to fulfill a need they've suddenly perceived. They tend to start many tasks without worrying about finishing any of them, and enjoy total freedom from obligation and commitment. They are curious, but easily distracted from a job, and their productivity depends on their mood.

Zombies are quite the opposite. They know ahead of time what they want (Brains! BRAINS!) and then they do what it takes to get it. They hate leaving things unanswered and unfinished, and they dislike changing their minds and plans on the spur of the moment. They are single-minded, stable workhorses focused on discipline and rules, even if those rules are only their own.

Is your character more like a Clown or a Cowboy?

The gregarious and extroverted Clowns are more interested in interactions with the outside world, whereas the quiet, lonely Cowboys are much more introverted and inwardly-directed. The Clown is on stage entertaining the crowd; the Cowboy is in the corner, quietly sipping his drink.

Clowns tend to be open and talkative, enjoy sharing and expressing opinions and emotions, and make friends easily. They are not afraid to say what they think, and are very interested in new people and new experiences. They are outgoing and generally friendly, though not necessarily always happy -- there are always sad clowns. They are energized through contact with others.

Cowboys are more interested in their own thoughts and feelings, and generally prefer to keep those to themselves. They like having their own territory (riding fences) and enjoy spending quiet time alone in thought and reflection. They tend not to have many friends, and have difficulty making new contacts, but they work well alone. They "recharge" by spending time alone.

End of Part 1

If you've followed along, you should now have four archetypes listed. For example: Ninja, Robot, Zombie, and Cowboy. These, combined, give you a character personality profile.

But what do those words mean put together like that? I'll post more details in the next column.

That's awesome, I love it.

My characters:

Lorthyne, DnD paladin:
Ninja, Monkey, Zombie, Cowboy

Tadokoro Bozuko, Ninja Burger Spotter:
Pirate (Funny how that works out),Robot, Zombie, Clown (Of Course)

Tamrael Davfare, DnD druid:
Ninja, Robot, Zombie, Cowboy

Real Life Me:
Ninja, Robot, Zombie, Cowboy

Looks like I need to explore some new horizons, character-wise.

I just got out of psychology class and I come here to let my brain decompress only to find MORE!!! Sheesh its almost like psychology actually has some application in real life... or at least in RPG land.

I am curious to find from what the monkey, ninja, pirate, robot system derives from. Is there anything in the bibliography on where they got this stuff from?

Btw Jung is the flat earth theory of psychology. His theory is now in the realm of philosophy.

But Jung is so much fun!

That is so cool, and it totally got me thinking about what my character's classified as. Funnily enough I haven't created a character yet that matches me. One comes close, but not quite. Lorthyne, I admire your skill in being able to play a character like you. Its something that I know I would have a difficult time with.

Well I guess he would be fun in the context of role-playing. The achetypes could make great characters or villains. I just get miffed when Professor speak like it's truth.

Great article, Aeon. I'll try to use it on my next character:
Dr. Particle.

Btw Jung is the flat earth theory of psychology. His theory is now in the realm of philosophy.

That's quite a statement. Who says so? On what grounds? These are open-ended questions, and I would welcome any illumination you can provide.

On Gamegrene.......something stirs........

I feel an awakening in the force.

Someone posted here then deleted, or otherwise updated the timestamp on this thread. This provoked my comment.

Maybe MorbusIff is up to something.....?

One day, after my neverending doctorate finally comes to an end, I will return here to chew the gaming cud.

At the moment all my gaming is suspended, to avoid distraction. The withdrawal pangs are horrible, though.

I saw it too. I thought it was Cocytus -- we just recently connected on FB. Then I saw the post here, but now it looks like his post is very old. I call "shenanigans." Let's blame MorbusIff. :) Yeah, get your school finished and we can chat about gamey stuff.

FWIW, I noticed the same thing, but it wasn't me.

/me is currently preparing to run his first FFG Star Wars RPG, as a play-by-email.