... now with 35% more arrogance!

Friday, June 3, 2011

How to Define an Archetype

There were so many good questions raised or implied in the comments on the post about archetypes, including:
  • Is the Cleric really an archetype? Is the Magic-User?
  • Why isn't the Thief an archetype? How can we fix this?
  • How do we take an iconic fictional character type and distill a class from it?
  • What do we do about specialized versions of each class?
I'm going to focus on practical answers, based on a principle from the previous post: a character's class shouldn't define what the character can do, but how the character does things, or something special about the way the character can do things. (I'm adding the part at the end to acknowledge that there may be additional possibilities beyond what I plan to talk about.)

Thus, the Fighter isn't defined by "weapon skills"; it's a more general ability, including the ability to use any weapon, to fight many opponents, and pretty good saves so that the Fighter can face problems head-on. Similarly, the Magic-User isn't just a spell-caster, but can also make magic items and use those that cast spells (scrolls and wands.) The M-U isn't just the robed scholar of late fantasy literature, but any character who relies on magic to solve problems, from the heroes of fairy-tales who use magic gifts wisely, to legendary and mythical figures with supernatural powers. The literary or thematic archetype (function within the story) can change, so that we have schemers like Medea and Gwydion, wise men like Math ap Mathonwy, and figures like Merlin who change from version to version. The broader archetype (function within the encounter, or how the characters deal with stuff) is still "uses magic" for all.

Neither the Fighter nor the Magic-User is obligated to perform the actions associated with their class. They can outsmart opponents, bribe them, intimidate them, or flee; they can avoid one or all types of opponents, focusing instead on abandoned areas filled with traps and puzzles. They can climb, run, swim, jump, move objects from place to place, build stuff, take things apart. All the class says is "here's something special you can do, so you might want to think about this when trying to solve problems."

Now, you can list example characters for each class, to offer as suggestions for players. You can also list other characters who seem similar to you, to try to distill a new class from those examples. What I would say, however, is that you shouldn't base the class around what those characters did, but what choices the characters made. Hercules, Theseus, Perseus, and Beowulf are all theoretically Fighters, but we wouldn't want to list their class abilities as "Strangulation, Berserk Rage, Yarn Use, and Mirror Targeting". Those are elements that distinguish each character from the broader class.

The Cleric, as I noted, is a little bit of a problem. I think as the class has come to be understood, it is no longer archetypal, to agree with Stuart for a moment. The Cleric is more of a mix of Fighter and M-U, with some specialization, and represents something we have few literary examples for. But curiously, I think the origins of the Cleric as a Van Helsing stand-in points to the Cleric being more than a mere priest or crusader. There are actually a lot of characters whose first instincts are not to rely on physical might or magical knowledge, but on faith in a higher power, and who seem driven by devotion rather than bravery or esoteric lust. There's the stories about saints, not all of whom are missionaries or priests; there's fairy-tales involving characters being saved from supernatural danger by making the sign of the cross; there are pre-Christian equivalents to these, again not always actual priests, but just heroes noted for their piety. So, there's definitely an archetype there, it's just been tainted by non-archetypal thinking.

Similarly, there are definitely tricksters before The Hobbit, beginning with actual Trickster-Gods and proceeding through Odysseus, the Brave Little Tailor, Puss in Boots, and Jurgen. The problem is that not all of these are thieves; in fact, many of them aren't. And not all of them are "physical" tricksters (using disguises, traps, or physical props, like Odysseus.) Many of them rely on charm and clever words. I think FrDave had the right idea in his post on the Thief when he started focusing more on surprise and alertness. I kind of headed that direction with the Trickster redesign of the Thief, but I think now it should just go all the way: make the class all about surprise, giving the Trickster the uncanny ability to re-roll surprise and add a bonus to surprise or avoid surprise (alertness.) The mechanical abilities of the Thief get shunted into another class, the Tinkerer.

The Tinkerer represents another principle: if a class should not be about what a character can do, but what a character chooses to do, then conversely changing the focus of a class without changing the general structure shouldn't be a big deal. Technically, the archetype is the same for both the Tinkerer and the Trickster, as well as the Charmer, to a certain extent; they all are defined as adding a bonus to a specific action. This is what Flynn called the Expert, but there's a problem with Expert classes as typically presented: they are built around specific skills, instead of an uncanny ability with any skill they should happen to try.

It's not that you can't have a skill system (although I prefer a binary "yes, you know how/no, you don't" approach.) It's that skills should be independent of class, as should some specific abilities, like immunity to sleep or innate invisibility. These things distinguish two characters of the same class, not two classes. "Berserk Rage" might be a feature of a particular Fighter, but it works better if there isn't an entire Berserker class, just as the Fireball spell is something an individual Magic-User might learn and become known for, but there shouldn't be a Fireball Mage class.

The key to defining a class archetype, which I haven't been expressing very well, is this: find one or more characters that you think represents the archetype and look past what they do at their motives for doing things that way. Why did Bilbo use a ring of invisibility to sneak up and spy on a dragon, instead of rushing at the dragon with a sword? It's because he prefers stealth to direct action. Why did Van Helsing hunt Dracula? It's because he felt a moral and spiritual need to oppose the works of the Devil. Why did Dilvish usually fight opponents instead of using the extremely powerful, magical Awful Sayings? It's because, even though he knew magic, he was primarily not a Magic-User, but a Fighter; he felt a need to face foes directly.

In a way, I don't feel I've adequately covered the topic, but this post has gotten awfully long, so I'll give the topic a rest for now.


  1. Actually, I think this is excellent. It is a fantastic way to find a middle ground for both approaches to archetypes that started this whole discussion. You can get to the Why? from either a generic standpoint or from a specific literary character. Both approaches will end up in similar if not identical Why questions.

    BTW, I also really appreciate the point about skills being what differentiates characters not classes.

  2. Both alignments and races seem more like archetypes to me than classes do, in the sense of a set of traits that define the character in a non-game sense.

  3. I think that the primary element to what constitutes an "archetype" in these gaming terms is the answer to the question, "how does this character typically solve a problem?"

    Fighting men fight. Magic users use magic. Clerics, I don't know, they're pretty much magic users, though perhaps a class that is midway between fighting men and magic users could be created, like the rogues in Savage Swords of Athanor). Thieves sneak (though I am not fond of the particular implementation of thieves in Greyhawk, I think that it's still more of a legitimate class than clerics). There's probably room for a "leader" or "noble" class who relies on convincing people and persuasion (which could also include con artists and such, so another name would probably be better). The other major archetypal role that I can think of offhand, the one who devotes him or herself to another, the lover, seems more problematic to me in game terms, but perhaps someone else has an idea. Maybe that is a role for the cleric, done like "clerics without spells".

  4. What about characters that solve problems by dumb luck?

  5. From my perspective of three archetypes, then, you can start boiling down to an emphasis on the use of ability scores as a reflection of their approaches to handling problems. Warriors tend to use Strength and Constitution, reflecting the physical strength and stamina that identifies so many of their preferred approaches to resolving issues and complications. Experts identify primarily with Dexterity and Intelligence, reflecting the physical and mental nimbleness required to address problems through analysis, manipulation and construction. Adepts rely on Wisdom and Charisma, which reflects their inner mental strength and discipline, as well as their abilities to interact with those beings that might supply or enhance their magical potential.

    In theory, then, you could develop six archetypes, one for each ability score, which indicates a reliance on that. That's what I did with Fantasy Concepts. There were Warriors (Str), Experts (Dex), Outlanders (Con), Scholars (Int), Mystics (Wis) and Aristocrats (Cha). I still like that model, yes, but I think a purer archetypal class concept lies in the Warrior/Expert/Adept approach I'd mentioned previously.

    Hope This Helps,

  6. @anarchist:

    In regards to characters that solve problems by dumb luck, I would think that should not be considered as an archetype. To me, and perhaps only to me, an archetype in these regards must be someone who takes action. They are, by definition, people who accomplish things because they choose to tackle a situation through some means by which they are most comfortable: magic, combat, technical expertise, whatever. They are Heroes, and Heroes DO.

    People who rely on dumb luck to solve problems are merely surviving until the universe resolves the issue for them. Yes, they are experienced at surviving what comes their way, but they aren't taking control of their actions through their own efforts. Instead, they are depending on some external force to take actions that benefit them. They aren't Heroes because they don't DO, they WAIT and then take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself.

    To continue in my opinion here, someone could insist that the act of waiting for an external situation to present itself and then acting upon it, or of knowing when the universe will act in such a way as to benefit their character, represents a heroic effort on the part of a character instead of relying on circumstances only. In other words, it could represent a character's ability. If this were the case, then I'd respond with the suggestion that perhaps the character falls within the role of the Expert, because they know how to recognize these opportunities and then take advantage of them.

    Ultimately, I like to think of Heroes as persons of action. They do things; they don't wait for things to be done to them. If you aren't the one driving your life, then you are a victim of circumstances, and your success will never be of your own doing or because of your own abilities. People who solve problems by sheer luck are simply lucky, they aren't Heroes, and they really don't have anything to bring to the table aside from a history of being at the right place at the right/wrong time.

    Of course, as I've said before, this is only my opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the thoughts of others.

    Hope This Helps, Though,

  7. anarchist: I'd say more or less what Flynn said. "Dumb luck" isn't a strategy. Perhaps something like wu wei "acting without acting" (though this is absolutely not "dumb luck", it is sometimes perceived by Western commentators as such) could best be represented, in game terms, by the magic user or the cleric or both, depending on how the metaphysics of the game world were set up. In any case, actual "dumb luck" can be relied upon by any archetype, simply by hoping that the dice fall well. It's not really something that needs a game mechanic.

  8. I'm going to side with Flynn and Faoladh on the "dumb luck" issue, but for a slightly different reason: it's not a separate archetype, but a decorative twist to an existing archetype. The guy who gets in a lot of fights and wins by dumb luck is still a Fighter, he just explains his winning differently. You could create a Cleric variant devoted to the idea that "stuff will just work out", if you really wanted to push the concept. But really, it's more a matter of a role-playing decision (being reactive instead of proactive.)

    I feel the same way about alignment. The way I use it, it's just allegiance to a faction. The way it's commonly used, it's a kind of behavior. You can have characters really strongly devoted to their alignment causes, bordering on Cleric or Paladin behavior, or you can have characters who pay only lip-service.