This is Faith in Play #9: Clowns, for August 2018.
When I thought I was reaching the end of the Faith and Gaming series, Christian Gamers Guild member Lynette Cowper (who wrote GURPS Rogues) suggested that I address Archetypes. It was a challenging suggestion for me—I had never thought about characters in terms of archetypes. However, I undertook it, and wrote about Warriors, Knights, Rogues, Wizards, and Holy Men before turning my attention to another subject (after all, that was half a year of monthly articles spent on one subject). I think I might have had a couple other possible archetypes identified in my notes, which as I have previously reported were abruptly lost in a computer crash, but every time I turned my mind back to them, my impression was that I didn’t know any other “archetypes.”
Perhaps it was because I had run so much original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™, and these really were the major character classes, almost everything else in the game falling into one of these groups. On the other hand I could see that functionally a medic was a non-religious holy man, most techs were non-magical wizards, and maybe spies and ninjas are distinct from most other rogues, but not enough to warrant another article on the subject at that time. Really, in my mind, archetypes were pretty much covered.
However, when I was talking about doing this series, webmaster Bryan Ray wrote to me, “I always thought there was a lot of space in the Archetypes sub-series that you hadn’t yet explored.” That caused me to reconsider my own conception of an “archetype”, to attempt to get out of my own box, as it were, and think about what else might be covered. I recognized that in stories we often have character types that serve what we would call a story function. They make the book better, the movie more entertaining. And as I thought about movies, a few characters came to mind who are what I believe Jack Slater (addressing his boss in The Last Action Hero) called “comic relief.” I remembered a reviewer complaining about the movie Willow that brownies Franjean and Rool were comic retreads of Star Wars robots C3PO and R2-D2, who were also there for comic relief, like having Abbott and Costello in a serious movie in which someone else is the star and the hero. So I realized that this, too, was a type of character archetype, inserted to break the tension, to make the story a bit more fun.
I am calling them “clowns,” not just because they are funny. They often appear at scene changes, breaking the main action with a lighter aside before returning us to the heroes.
I rarely see these in games, and even more rarely do I see players undertake playing them. Everyone wants to be one of the heroes, one of the serious characters contributing to the victory in the game. I have had occasion to use non-player characters for the function, but players often regard these a waste of what could be productive game time. We tend to exclude clowns from many of our games. Perhaps, though, we do our games a disservice in doing so.
Of course, the story function of clowns in movies and books is to break the tension and delay the resolution. They are in that sense a bit like the horror movie trope in which we discover that the movement of the curtain is just the cat, and a moment later the monster pops out of the closet. They take us away from the chase scene or the shootout or the face-off, entertain us for a moment, and then drop us back into the action eager to know what is going to happen next.
Yet as archetypes they are something more, and perhaps something very important.
Clowns remind us that not everything in life is serious, and that the parts that are not serious are not therefore unimportant.
Let me repeat that: the parts that are not serious are not therefore unimportant.
The time you spend playing games with your friends is probably more important than the time you spend pushing papers or digging ditches or building machines at work. We tend to confuse that which is most necessary with that which is most important. The clowns are not necessary. They do not contribute to the success of the plot (well, R2-D2 does, being a hero who saves the day in almost every Star Wars movie and usually over the comedic objections of C3PO—but someone else could have done it). Fun is not necessary; we can live without it. Yet it is important, because it is that which makes life enjoyable, in a sense which gives value (not meaning or purpose, again things which we tend to confuse) to living. Clowns remind us that we should enjoy life, even in the midst of its seriousness. C. S. Lewis told us, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” In a sense, the Christian life is about learning to enjoy, to enjoy our relationships with God and each other. Game play is part of the enjoyment of those relationships; clowns are a serious reminder that it is not all serious, that we are here to have fun.
Of course, clowns also have their down side. They are ineffectual; they rarely contribute to our success. Yet when we realize that those goals, as noble and necessary as they often are, are not the ultimate purpose of our lives, we also recognize that our clowns are trying to remind us of this, and so even in their weakness they are strong, even in their folly they are wise, and they teach us to be weak and foolish so we may be strong and wise.