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Friday, June 3, 2011

What's an Archetype?

There's been a bit of back and forth between FrDave of Blood of Prokopius and JB of B/X Blackrazor about the Thief and Ranger classes, as well as some discussions on Grognardling (especially this first one from blogmaster Staples on his Scoundrel class as a replacement for the Thief.) A big part of the debate is about whether the Thief and the Ranger are archetypes and thus true classes. FrDave and Staples say yes on the Thief (and Ranger, at least in FrDave's case;) JB amd I say no.

Now, I've come out before complaining about the classes, specifically saying that the Thief as presented is a profession, and the Ranger definitely is. I think the disagreement is because FrDave and Staples are defining "archetype" differently than I or, possibly JB, would. The key to what I'm thinking of is the way I contrast archetypes with professions. To me, a class isn't about skills and abilities or the trappings of a particular background. It's not about what you can do; it's about how you choose to do things and why.

This means that I don't think the existence of a fictional character with a specific skill-set means that that skill-set is an archetype. Bilbo Baggins does not make the Thief an archetype, nor does Aragorn make the Ranger an archetype. The key test, for me, is: can you use the same class in a different culture, with different trappings and a different profession? the Magic-User is just "the guy who knows the secrets of magic". The Fighter is just "the guy who fights things". The generic quality of the class names, often ridiculed, is the dead give-away. You could, before the proliferation of classes, have a Magic-User that was a robed scholar, or a half-naked shaman, or a merchant dabbler; you could have a Fighter who was an archer, a gladiator, a knight, or just a barkeep who got really good at bangin' the heads of rowdy patrons. How they do things did not originally define what they looked like, or where they got their money.

The Cleric is a little shakier, because there was a very early tendency to think of Clerics as priests. But if you think of the Cleric as the "holy" archetype rather than the "priest" profession, you can get the same kind of dissociation between the what the character does (for a living or a as a personal interest) and how the character does it. You can have a very devout nobleman or merchant who is not a member of a church hierarchy, but is still blessed enough to drive away evil and pray for the occasional miracle.

The Thief, as I've said before, is where the system starts to break down. There are definitely trickster archetypes in myth and literature, but the Thief is tied to skills specific to one profession. If you had a more generic class devoted to stealth, surprise, and alertness, you would have a true dissociation between the Trickster archetype and the character's profession, which might be "thief" or might be a snoopy son of a nobleman, or a bush scout, or a juggler, or many other combinations of cultural background and source of income.

The Ranger, then, is not an archetype, but is a combination of profession (hunter) with an archetype -- Fighter by default, but wouldn't Trickster work just as well? Or Cleric, for your holy hermit who becomes a wilderness survival expert as a side effect from removing himself from the temptations of civilization?

The key to me is to separate skills, which should belong to background, and special abilities, which can be gained later in ways described in the Four Monks or Clerical Vows posts, from the focus and gimmick of an archetype. The Trickster shouldn't be tied to thievery, because what's important is not the character's dishonesty, but the indirect physical approach to solving problems, as opposed to the direct physical approach of the Fighter or the direct metaphysical approach of the Magic-User.

Part of the reason why I did the Clerics Without Spells post was to make them more archetypal. The Cleric with spells is just a variant Magic-User, which is OK, but a Cleric without spells changes from someone who uses a direct metaphysical approach like the Magic-User into someone who uses an indirect social approach, asking a higher power for aid. I have previously described a Charmer class, who uses a direct social approach, getting bonuses on reaction rolls. That's an archetype that has previously been overlooked in D&D, although it would work great as either the grizzled leader or the intriguing nobleman. So, I think there's room for more archetypal classes, but many of the classes we actually wind up with are mainly variations on existing classes that could easily fill the same roles.

I'll finish off by pointing out that I do like some of the specific solutions of FrDave and Staples (Grognardling) for what the Thief and Ranger should be. In particular, I think the Thief's abilities should be entirely shifted towards surprise and alertness; Move Silent, Hide in Shadows, and Pick Pocket don't work well as skills unique to one class, but can work as side effects of a surprise roll.


  1. I'd put Fighter, Wizard and Adventurer into the category of archetypes.

    Ranger, Cleric and Thief are specialized and more detailed versions of each of those archetypes. If it's a non-spell casting Cleric then I'd say it's a more specialized Adventurer or Fighter.

    When I think of Archetypes I want to see them being broadly applicable to books, movies, comics etc.

  2. A fine analysis and one I largely agree with, even though I'm OK with admitting non-archetypal classes into D&D. That said, what I have done in my own campaign is more closely model sub-classes on the classes they are subordinate to, so you don't get, for example, spellcasting paladins or rangers, since they're fundamentally fighters.

  3. I think you're right about archetypes in terms of fantasy distilled to its essence--though I think they're are different levels of "archetypal-ness."

    For pulp the "private detective" is an archetype, though there are only cosmetic ability differences between then and say a cop--they're thematically very different.

    I agree about the absense the "charmer" or social class, too.

  4. There are definitely two approaches to the idea of an archetype. One works from a generic concept down to the specific character (as you seem to prefer). The other starts from a specific character and sees how that can be unpacked into a general idea (as I tried to do with the Holmesian Thief and Bilbo Baggins). I am not going to try and argue that one is better than the other. Both are legitimate. For example Vigilante and Batman can both be used as archetypes.

    The problem that many of us have is that, as you point out, Thieves and Rangers come from the specific to the generic archetypal form and the other classes more easily fit into the generic to specific archetypal form. Mixing the two can have detrimental mechanical and conceptual consequences if not handled carefully.

    I should note that I normally prefer the generic to the specific archetypal forms of the three base classes from OD&D. In my idealized, intellectual vision of how the game should be played, I would only use those three classes. This falls apart in practice, however, for the very reason that archetypes also go from specific to generic. As much as I can argue that the Fighter is a barbarian or that the Cleric is a paladin, there will be those who can argue that they aren't.

    The reason that this discussion is happening is because I am dealing with the reality that Holmesian Thief class is mechanically different that other versions of the Thief. He also is very much influenced by Tolkien. Therefore, in order to understand and appreciate the Holmesian Thief, I had to go outside my comfort zone and try a different kind of archetype. I was pleasantly surprised.

    BTW My own Holmesian Ranger is less of an archetype than it is a logical extrapolation of the combat rules…

  5. If a class describes a kind of character only seen in modern fantasy (say, Tolkien onwards) then I doubt it can count as archetypal in nature. Unless you can show me pre-Aragorn rangers I'm just not going to buy that as an archetype.

  6. Isn't the Cleric an example of the specific to the generic archetypal, having been based on Peter Cushing's Van Helsing? That's why you don't get Clerics in other media in the same manner you don't get Aaragorn style Rangers.

  7. @Stuart
    Isn't the Cleric an example of the specific to the generic archetypal, having been based on Peter Cushing's Van Helsing?

    I forgot about that little historical tidbit...and true. It goes to show that both approaches can be used successfully.

  8. I don't think the Cleric works well outside of "D&D Fantasy". It's not as broadly useful as even a less generic character archetype like the Thief or Ranger. You see this is a lot of people's blog posts where they think about removing the spell casting, reworking the undead turning, letting them use edged weapons, or making them "white wizards" or something like that.

    If you're going to have Clerics you might as well have Rangers, Thieves, Paladins and Illusionists as well. I don't see the Cleric as any more generic than those other classes.

  9. Interesting. I'd actually thought we were on the same page on this. Mechanically, having my Scoundrel approach problems from a different angle than other classes was an epiphany for me that I'm very thankful to you for. It's also big part of how I hope to keep the Scoundrel from impinging on other classes' roles.

    I tried to address both ways that one could think about an archetype, both giving a list and defining a way that Scoundrels choose to do things and why: they solve problems with their wits, trying to keep a large repertoire of tactics in their "toolboxes." Like you mention, that should make a good Trickster/Scoundrel class look different and still be recognizably that class. I'm hoping that my Scoundrel does in fact allow for PCs which "might be "thief" or might be a snoopy son of a nobleman, or a bush scout, or a juggler, or many other combinations of cultural background and source of income." I'm planning on using Telecanter's Choose Your Own Rogue as a template for that, allowing different players to choose different things for their Scoundrel's toolbox.

    All this to say, I don't think I disagree with you on an archetype being a very good thing as the basis for a class. (I'm still not sure it's necessary, though I'm leaning that way, with non-archetypal classes perhaps being relegated to prestige classes.) I do also think it's important to cite specific examples from literature, though that's not difficult to do if something is truly an archetype, I don't think. Probably my biggest reason for citing examples is for inspiration. While "your character's class solves problems with his wits" or "your character's class solves problems through indirect physical means" is both true and very useful from a mechanical, designing standpoint, and inspirational to me as an aspiring homebrewer, it doesn't compare, from most players' points of view, to "your character's class is like [insert example of archetype from literature the player is familiar with and thinks is awesome]. I think both approaches are probably necessary to creating a good class, as examples are merely the concrete, contextualized workings-out of the abstract core of what the class is about.

  10. "Archetype" always makes me think of Jung/Tarot. Let's just leave that aside. Actually putting tricksters or old mentors or virgin/mother/crones in your game as PCs is, I suspect, not going to work great unless you're way over on the improv theater/psychodrama end of the hobby: getting them to fulfill their archetypal roles in the dungeon seems like it would mean a very different sort of game.

    Now what you're calling archetypes I'd call attributes: "fighter" is "man of strength" - he solves his problems head on like Brian Blessed, fine. "Charmer" is "charismatic devil". Dex should properly be the great missing "man of skill" - not a thief or scoundrel but Ip Man vs the Boxer (frinstance: no I don't necessarily mean monk - could be an archer, builder ...herbalist? Cunning man).

    OTOH I disagree that MU is an archetype: he's a convention in a field of writing. As an archetype he'd probably be Schemer (man of wits) or Man of Mystery (wizard). An MU is really an access point for a rules subsystem. And that seems to be what people dislike about the thief. Ditto Holy Man: first, holiness needs some design to mean anything. Second, it's setting- and culture-specific.

    So I'd say the LBBs have exactly one archetype - fighter - and unfortunately fighting is something absolutely everyone does on a dungeon crawl. I guess I'm saying if you want to make an archetype-based game it needs to be whole cloth.

  11. Thanks for the comments, guys. I'm going to expand on some issues raised here in a follow-up post, but I want to say first that I'm not "against" Staples or FrDave. I think we all agree on how classes should be defined on one level, and I did catch that FrDave was going from general to specific, as I would, for a couple rules. I'm just pointing out that, when I notice a repeating pattern in a fiction genre that I want to "steal" for a game, I prefer not to focus on what they can do, instead focusing on how the characters approach problems. In other words, the essence of Bilbo is that he doesn't respond to enemies with direct force, but with clever or subtle actions.

  12. I find that, if we're just going to talk about archetypes, it really boils down to three: Warrior, Expert, Magical Adept. Essentially, it's the combat guy, the skill guy and the magic guy. From those three core archetypes, you can pretty much play any character concept you want. If you need to, you can always blend two of them together, to get a bit of both worlds, but at its core, every class concept I've seen can easily break down to fit into that mold.


  13. I S. John Ross' Risus Companion, he breaks it down into 12 different endeavors:
    1) Persuading: lying, seducing, inspiring, enthralling, calming, leading
    2) Communication & Protocol: languages, jargon, courly manners, cultural quirks
    3) Detection: noticing, recognizing, and understanding clues
    4) Driving, Riding, & Piloting: chasing, eluding, handling tricky conditions
    6) Gadgeteering: repairing, improving, disabling, & otherwise exploiting technology
    7) The Medical Arts: healing, when the cans of whoop-ass run dry
    8) Wildreness Mastery: survival, tracking, using plans and taming wild beasts.
    9) Scholarship: knowing things, following tricky conversation
    10) Intrusion (spying, stealing, hacking, hiding, slipping by unnoticed)
    11) Combat (beating the crap out of people, blowing stuff up)
    12) Magic (wielding supernatural powers for fun and profit)

    Virtually every national epic and work of fantasy have characters that embody all these endeavors. Various character classes and races all have some of these capabilities in different combinations.

  14. @Guy: really, those are skill packages, not archetypes, although you could suss out some archetypes. For example the Wilderness Mastery bundle casually mentions beast-taming. There are lots of lone hunter or scout characters with wilderness skills, but the beast-friend character is a different archetype, closer to the charmer than to an outdoor survivalist. In fact, you can have beast-friend characters who live in cities and who have no nature skills.