Sure, the Archer board game was terrible, but that doesn’t mean nothing good in the realm of gaming can come out of this particular favourite show of mine. I mean, there’s this awesome supplement, and the hilarious references in Android:Netrunner and then there’s five things that will help make any RPG session or campaign run a little smoother. And look, it also works for writing in heaps of different genres and styles, and for improv, and probably computer games too. It’s like there’s this whole cluster of things we need a new name for. Story-making, maybe. Whatever. Also shut up, and let’s get started.
1. Everyone is Everywhere
Archer is a character driven show. There are nine super-strong characters each with their own schticks, catch-phrases, dysfunctions and moral failings and the purpose of the show is to bring them together and watch them bounce off each other. Yet in theory, it should be hard to put these people together: although they all work together, they have vastly different ranks and responsibilities and two characters are expected to be constantly in the field. But the important thing is that they are together, and the show will bend over backwards to make that happen, which is exactly as it should be. Because character is what matters, not logic or reason. Carol can always hear what’s going on in secret office meetings because then Carol is in the scene. Dr Krieger and Pam are walking by the office at that exact moment. Ray is an expert in exactly the thing the mission needs. And so on.
And when this got harder and harder to justify, they just went further. Cyril the accountant and Pam the HR rep became field agents. Lana stopped being a field agent so she could spend more time in the office. And there’s the one-offs: if Lana and Archer are together, Cyril wants to spy on them. Cheryl owns the railroad. Mallory is trying out the corporate package (Phrasing!). Pam even smuggled herself onto a spaceship just to get laid. Wodehouse looks exactly like the Pope. Why? Because the characters are funnier together. Nothing else matters. Any transparently bogus excuse will do, as long as people are there. Find reasons. Stupidity, horniness, a need to meddle, a lust for self-destruction, whatever. Pick one!
2. Setting Is Extremely Maleable
I know, I know: limitations drive creativity and a strong sense of tone produces a richer banquet than just the kitchen sink approach. But at the same time, logic and reason are not always your friends, and they matter less than you think they do. When is Archer set? Judging by the computers and the flashbacks, the 1970s maybe, but the phones are modern-day. And then occasionally we flash back to the 1920s because that’s just cool. This is more than just the Rule of Cool, though, it’s understanding that everything is awesome, and that suspension of disbelief is often not even the issue, because people aren’t even looking at the things in question with an eye to believe or disbelieve. And understanding that setting exists to serve plot and both of them exist to serve character. Like I said above, the point is to get the characters together, and in trouble, and doing awesome things, and nothing else really matters.
Think it would be fun to do some drug dealing tropes instead of spy stuff? You can. Make someone a country singer. It just never came up before. Put people in the field all of a sudden. Launch them into space. Add robots. Steal from every thing you’ve ever liked and colour it for your particular style. You can’t break a setting with these kinds of things because they’re not the backbone of the game: character is. And that should always be your focus at all times: not where you are or what you can do but who you are and your dramatic or comic niche. Anyone can blow up a jeep, but only one person on earth can say “Something something danger zone” as he does it. So it doesn’t matter if the jeep is suddenly a robot, or a zeppelin, or a train, does it? I’m honestly asking.
3. There Is Always Time To Bicker
Bickering has a bad rap in RPGs, and sure, with good reason. There’s the old joke about how you spent four hours planning and then the moment you walked in the door you just started shooting everything. And that three of those for hours was arguing about who had the best Sneak rolls to go around the back. Yes, bogging a game down in player bickering and not moving the story forward sucks. But in-character bickering is often the best part of the game (so much so games like Smallville and Prime Time Adventures and based almost entirely around it). It’s what turns those strong characters into truly awesome moments of explosive interaction.
And here’s the really important thing: you don’t have to choose between bickering and action. Most live-action shows and movies do, because action scenes are hard to shoot and with all the explosions going off, it’s tricky to work in snappy dialogue. But Archer is animated so it doesn’t care. Time goes exactly the speed you want it to, and focus shifts wherever the artist wants. And that allows the cast of Archer to staccato back and forth between insult comedy and kicking ass without ever slowing down. And here’s the thing: RPGs should do the same. There’s a tendency, partly because of the media being emulated and partly because of the heritage of complex rules sets, to say “this is an action scene (and in most cases, will involve lots of rules and dice, so lean into the table and concentrate)” and “this over here is a talking scene”. Sometimes this even literally written into the rules. Screw that. Always run them simultaneously. Yes, rolling dice and determining results can slow you down a beat, but look at Archer: he will literally stop mid-argument, fire a gun/blow something up/punch someone/save the day and then RETURN TO THE SAME ARGUMENT. Often he is mid-sentence. You can do that too. And it’s good because it gives both the conversation and the combat more oomph.
4. You Don’t Need An Answer
If you don’t know what to say in said argument, say that. As Archer likes to say “Oh God, I so had something for this” when he can’t think of a pun. Or “Something about you two having vaginas”. Of course the non-joke doesn’t work forever but it’s the principle that counts: keep your mouth moving even when you have nothing to say. Like finding a reason to be around, find a reason to bicker. And what is true for your mouth is also true for your legs and arms: Archer almost never stops moving and if he does it is only to get drunk. If he ever does plan, it’s off screen and extremely quick but mostly he goes with his gut, improvises or acts randomly. He doesn’t need a quip, or a plan, or an exit strategy, or even a reason.
This has to have some caveats. Archer is a jerk a lot of the time, and if you do come up with a plan, the “instigator” player who ruins it is ruining everyone else’s fun. The idea though is just to remember that you don’t always need to work everything out in advance. There’s a huge movement in gaming urging GMs to fly by the seat of their pants, but we forget to tell players to do it. It might not be your best stat or any of your stats. You might not see how it could work. Try it anyway. Fools rush in, but being a fool is better than being boring. You can always think of a reason later, too. Why’d you punch that guy? He was probably a mole. Now the GM has a NEW plot to work with. Because maybe there IS a mole. Stupidity has its narrative rewards, which brings us to:
5. Never Be Afraid to Make Things Worse
Lots of RPGs are tricky games of simulation and survival and the point is to beat the GM or the adventure through the hazards with planning, invention and rules application. In those games, you don’t want to make things worse, because if you die, the game is over. In other kinds of games, where that isn’t the mode, or that mode is in the background, you can always feel comfortable making things worse. This doesn’t mean being a jerk and deliberately tanking things. It means failure is your friend, and raising the stakes always raises the interest level, and usually the pace as well. Locked in prison? Shoot somebody. Now you have a much bigger need to escape, and fast (and Archer is also proof that all wounds heal, no matter how lethal). Caught in a firefight? Running out of bullets would leave you forced to improvise with some ridiculous stunt. Racing the Russians to a nuclear bomb? Get drunk first, or during if possible. Or eat enough soy to make your throat close up.
Here’s the thing: the audience won’t mind if ridiculously good luck or implausible bad-assitude get you OUT of a situation if ridiculously bad luck or implausible stupidity gets you into it. Add to that the fact that most RPG characters are bad-ass in some way and that narratives generally want to keep the heroes alive and kicking and your bacon is going to get saved. Just as there’s always more ninjas to fight, there’s also more cavalries to ride in over the self-same hill. And some cavalries turn out to be fires instead of frying pans, because now we’re mixing metaphors. And we can have an argument about mixing metaphors in the middle of the conversation about ninjas because it’s more entertaining that way, and it will also likely make things worse, leading to more arguments.
And yes, in some games, that’s a sign of a dysfunctional group ruining things for everyone and getting all their characters killed. But if you embrace it and do it deliberately, you can get something like Archer. Or any similar high-octane wise-cracking action-comedy with super-strong characters. And yes, those things exist in fantasy. Like, say, Rat Queens, where all these rules also apply, you’ll find. This isn’t just a guide to make Archer, is my point: it is a guide for awesome in general.