Archetyping classes: why the wizard can hog the spotlight.

Nis has spotted one of the big problems with the way AD&D was put together: a Wizard would start out as the wimpy apprentice, but end up as an all-powerful master of cosmic forces – think Elmister, Gandalf or beyond. The story of Raistlin Majere in Dragonlance is a very good example of this journey: he starts out as the sickly kid who is brought to the academy of magic by his strong and attractive brother, but ends up travelling the time-stream to go up against the mightiest wizard in all history, and ending it all by making a bid for divinity.

So, what’s the issue? Raistlin’s story is a very traditional story of the nobody who becomes a somebody, a very typical tale in fantasy literature. You can find the same tale in Wizard of Earthsea, in the Pern books (though they are rightly science fiction), Star Wars, both the old and the new (which are rightly fantasy). A true Hero’s Journey!

Yes, and that is all well and good for the person playing the mage. But the problem is that it is very much a story with the mage as the clear main character. And in a campaign with four or five players, you want four or five main characters, unless the point is expressly to have one character as the lead. Take a look at the place left for Caramon, Raistlin’s Brother: he starts out as an able warrior, but ends up as a chubby tavern-master in an insignificant little village. And while that could be a good story if told right, it pales when it has to compete with Raistlin and his play for power.

The problem, when viewed within the scope of D&D, is exaggerated because the character class of wizards have their own sphere of activities within which they excel, AND they can excel at all the other classes’ areas of expertise as well. Their fireballs and magic missiles can out-damage the warrior, while their knock, clairvoyance and invisibility can out-sneak the rouge. Furthermore, none of the other classes have much of a chance to beat the wizards at their own game: it takes a wizard to detect magic (a priest could probably do it, but they are in many ways on the sideline of this equation, being the “healer” who is indispensable, but in a support position).

Having identified this problem, Nis suggests a number of ways to scale down the wizard s0 that the others will still be able to shine. Some of these are: allowing non-wizards to detect magic, requiring concentration for keeping spells going, imposing risks of failing spells, requiring longer summoning times for spells and restricting the domain of spells each wizard has access to. Much of this has already been done in other games. Warhammer FRP 3rd edition restricts wizards to one of eight rather different schools and requires summoning spell power before casting your spell. Summoning too much power risks invoking the Ruinous Powers, with potentially horrible consequences. Shadowrun, on the other hand, requires a roll for casting a spell, and casting a spell deals an amount of damage to the wizard.

In many ways, I agree with this approach: in D&D, magic lacks the feeling of dealing with arcane and mysterious forces. With boring names (Summon Monster I-IX, anyone?) and no-flavour castings, wizards have become Reality Technicians rather than Wielders of Arcane Forces. Many other systems capture this element of wizardry far better, like the above mentioned – and Mage, of course. But I do feel that there is something else that could be done.

Re-archetyping the heroes

Morten identifies this other approach, although I disagree with his suggested solution: Wizards are so powerful compared to fighters and thieves because of the way a fighter and a thief is perceived: a fighter is someone who fights, and maybe breaks bars and lifts stuff, while a thief sneaks, steals and back-stabs. The domains covered by their archetypes are very limited, and so they are easy to replace.

If that is the case, we should change and broaden the archetypes, giving them more to work with, and making it more difficult to replace them. Morten suggest the “adventurer” as a replacement for the fighter and the “soldier of fortune” (or rather, the Danish equivalent, “lykkeridder,” which is far less soldiery) as a replacement for the thief. The adventurer is all about fighting monsters, exploring dungeons, talking to people on his way, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the Soldier of Fortune is all about using what Lady Luck sends his way, using sleigh of hands, deception, attention/intuition, sneakiness and a skill for talking to people. This would retool the characters in a way that still gives them a relatively clear domain, but one that covers many activities instead of a few. The adventurer is not JUST the fighting machine, strength powerhouse, and the Soldier of Fortune is not JUST the lock-smith and go-to sneak.

My first issue with these two examples is that they are both very clearly oriented towards adventuring. The good thing about the wizard is that he will graduate from his travelling life into a life of traversing the planes, being political and tending to his magical menagerie – there is a vision of maturity build into the archetype. In AD&D, the Fighter had a built-in assumption that he would eventually settle down as a castle lord somewhere, and most of the other classes had similar built in assumptions. But an adventurer is not an adventurer if he’s not adventuring. In other words, the adventurer is stuck as the travelling, restless guy for ever. Similarly with the Soldier of Fortune: if he’s not living on his luck, what is he?

My second issue is that these two classes don’t have clear appeals to archetypes of what we are striving to become. The Wizard is striving to become Gandalf, Merlin, Elminster or Raistlin. But what about the Adventurer? Marco Polo?

Instead, I’d like to suggest some other archetypes, and thus replacement classes, for some of the standard D&D classes. I’ll also try to indicate a starting point for them, on par with the wizard’s feeble apprentice.

The Fighter: The Hero/the Knight/the King

To my mind, the problem with the fighter is that he is more or less just a brute fighter. But if we look to literature, who are the great warriors? It’s Hercules, it’s Conan, it’s Achilles. In Norse mythology, it’s clearly Thor, the great god of thunder. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Robert Baratheon is an example of this archetype at its disgraceful end. They are the great martial heroes, wielding their powerful weapons, conquering their enemies. At the same time, they have a certain charisma, inspiring both fear and respect, seducing women and making boys want to be them.

There is another aspect of the warrior archetype, one that could either be perceived as part of the fighting class, or as its own class: that of the more strategic warrior, keeping a cool head and using strategy and wit to best his foe. Think of Tyr from Norse mythology: the god of war, not of fiery fights but reasoned battles and calculated sacrifice. In ASOIAF, it’s Eddard Stark, the intelligent, conscientious warrior. This is the archetype of the Lord, the General, or indeed, the King.

Which brings me to the one and only King, and no, it’s not Elvis: it’s Arthur, of course. Arthur bridges two fighter archetypes: he is the King, regal, authoritative, wise. But he is also the Knight: brave, courteous, inspired by Duty. Arthur’s Knights all represent this archetype, as do Joan of Arch, St. George, Jaime Lannister and many other people from ASOIAF. You could probably point to many people from the Saga’s, and I’d say that Beowulf sits somewhere between this archetype and the Hero

Now, in D&D, the Knight sits somewhere between the Fighter and the Paladin classes. Which gives me an opportunity to ask: does the Paladin have a place as a separate class, or is it just a fancy way to allow a Fighter/Cleric dual-class? Sure, Holy Warriors are a stable of many mythologies – but does it require a separate class? Not only that, a separate class, only for knights who can ALSO conjure miracles. In many ways, I like the Paladin, but if I were designing a role-playing system without any consideration for traditions within the genre, the Paladin, as a class with tight restrictions on morality, background and equipment, wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d consider it better to encourage people to multiclass as Fighter/Clerics (or possibly Knight or Hero instead of fighter).

As for starting out point, fighters in classic D&D start out as fairly competent warriors. But I would perhaps start them out a little lower in the hierarchy: maybe as militia, as young squires, hoodlums, or young men, just setting out.

The Rouge: The Trickster

In D&D 3.0, WotC actually broadened this class considerably, rebranding AD&D’s Thief to the more catch-all “Rogue.” Nevertheless, more could be done with this archetype.

So, who are the icons of this archetype? Off the bat, Loki seems the obvious poster boy for Tricksterdom. Varys the eunuch spymaster from ASOIAF is another good example – one might include Littlefinger as well, but he is a far less clear-cut case. Wormtounge is more clear-cut, I’d argue. From Anansi Boys, Anansi is a very good example of a (largely) benevolent Trickster. For some very benevolent rogues, see most of the (main character) hobbits in LotR, not to mention Bilbo in The Hobbit.

The Trickster is the manipulator and the sneak. This archetype is all about hidden dealings and tricking the other party. He is the spy and the thief, but he might also be the scheming courtier. In this way, one might perceive Cercei (from ASOIAF) as a rouge. In fact, retooling the Rouge to being about all kinds of hidden agendas would mean that both the Thieve’s Guild and the King’s Court are teeming with Tricksters.

The Trickster can start out as a low level thief. However, there might be more interesting ways to start off. Maybe a street urchin, a young courtier or a refugee from the courts could all be ways to start off. I feel like the Trickster’s story should also include a Loss of Innocence: getting used to deceiving people as a way of life.

The Bard: The Storyteller, the Observer, the Orator, the Soothsayer

The Bard is a strange bird. I mean, what on earth is his purpose? To tell the other adventurer’s stories? Be a mediocre replacement rouge? Not particularly impressive.

But that doesn’t mean that he can’t have a purpose. In some way, the bard can act as a counterpoint, or a complementary, to the Trickster. Where the Trickster/rogue is all about not being noticed, the Bard is all about getting noticed. In this way, you might peg him as Friar Tuck of the story of Robin hood, or, in a weird way, Tyrion Lannister and Lady Catelyn of ASOIAF (though the former is perhaps more clearly a Trickster).

I think the argument could be made that this should rightly be part of the Trickster class, but I could accept an argument to keep it alive – moreso than the Paladin.

The Ranger: the Ranger/ the Pathfinder/ the Outlaw/ the Hermit.

Some might think that I’d think the Ranger would better belong with the Warriors. But, no, not at all. You see, the ranger does have a lot of things that sets him apart from the warrior.

Some characters that might be associated with this archetype are: Aragorn (duh), Robin Hood, Faramir, Jon Snow and Artems. Heimdal is a maybe on this: he might be seen as a kind of Hero or Knight, but I’d argue that his primary task is guiding people.

A bit of a dilemma

…and so on. I don’t consider the above a complete list. For one, I haven’t dealt with the wizard, just as I haven’t really mentioned the cleric. One could also consider keeping the Druid (as a mystic/witch/wise man) and the monk (as a mystic warrior/martial artist/spiritual warrior). The Barbarian I’d consider a kind of Hero.

The question is, of course, whether to make very broad, non-specific classes and leave the  fleshing out to the players, or whether to provide very specific and narrow classes, thus also providing a lot of flavour. I am more partial to games that allow me to hammer out my own character with a lot of freedom, and to steer his course on my own. For epic storytelling, however, it might be good to set your hero on a course, and see him move towards a glorious finale right from the beginning.

In any case, I think it’s important to look at the story potential in whatever you want to include in a role-playing game. The game is all about storytelling, after all. And so, to me it is more important to balance story potential than to balance technical game play mechanics.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Elias,

    Thanks for joining the discussion on character achetypes. There is a few things, I would add to your summary of different archetypes and their classes.
    This is of course where the ‘however’ enters my comment, as there are a few things I’d like to add.
    In the Players Handbook AD&D 2nd ed (1989-2000) you’ll find in the character descriptions suggestions to fictious and historical exampla. For fighters it is Hercules, Perseus, Hiawatha, Beowulf, Siegfried, Cuchulain, Little John, Tristan, and Sinbad, and it is El Cid, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Spartacus, Richard the Lionheart and Belisarius.
    For the paladin class they suggest Roland, the 12 peers of Charlemagne and the knights of the Round Table i.e. Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and Sir Galahad.
    For rangers it is Robin Hood, Orion, Jack the giant killer, and the huntresses of Diana.
    Notice the absence of characters from modern fiction – and also the absence of female suggestions, but that might be connected to the use of classic medieval and ancient stories.

    When it comes to Conan, he is more than a barbarian, fighter, and king, he is also a mercenary (captain) and a thief. IIRC Conan in the D&D Conan modules is actually a multi-class character reflecting his various’ career choices. One might argue that Conan is a whole lot closer to my adventuring-classes rather than any of the single D&D-classes.

    When it comes to the fighter achetypes I find your achetypes somewhat lacking. You present two types, the knight and the king, and this I find lacking. Conan is famous for ending his career as a king, but Beowulf and Archilles are characterised not just for the heroic prowes but also for their deaths, and the death of Hercules is also part of his cycle of stories – and thus these characters may be famous for their strength and combat skills, but their story includes their deaths.

    The knights have their own problems as the ethos, the chivalry and the questing are so essential to their existence. This makes them poor dungeon explorers for where is the chivalry, and questing is not really plundering dungeon after dungeon.

    (Now D&D is not necessarily any better, as the rules suggests that fighters become nobles and warlords leading armies, though precisely how this is governed and played out is mostly left in the dark – and AD&D and D&D becmi had slightly different approaches)

    Since neither of these types quite fit into the dungeoneering enviroment I wanted something else. I wanted the multifacetted Conan, not just the barbarian-fighter type, and I wanted a place for characters like Fafhrd and Grey Mouser (both multiclass characters in AD&D IIRC), I wanted room for Elric, and for broadly skilled characters such as Odysseus (“the clever fighter”), and for the heroes of the Norse sagas, who posses a broad selection of skills besides fighting, and even though they don’t go dungeoneering, they do go travelling, exploring and adventuring. So does Indiana Jones, Allan Quatermain and John Carter of Mars.

    (I am also tempted to add the heroes of adventure movies such The Golden Child (Eddie Murphies character Chandler Jarrell) and Big Trouble in Little China (Kurt Russel as Jack Burton).)

    The stories of Mythic Warriors (Archielles, Heracles, Beowulf) and the stories of Questing Knights does not fit very well into a dungeon exploring-based game, and that is what D&D was at the beginning and still contains a lot of. You can play a questing knight, a fighter striving to become king or a mythic warrior within the rules, but not as the game modules were designed or as how they suggest you create a campaign.

    All of this rambling has this point, that I wanted classes who matched the type of play, that I want the D&D to be about, and in this case focus is on exploring be it wilderness or dungeons, and a central point is to retrieve treasures and defeating evil while picking up treasures. More classic fighter archetypes – as those you suggest – does in my opinion not fit very well into these kinds of stories, thus other archetypes are needed, and that is the competent, skilled adventurers.
    Rebranding the fighter and the thief/rogue became important in this aspect, as the fighter and the thief/rogue carries conceptual ideas as to their behaviors. People tend to play their characters along with the class-name. Many chose to play the thief as a thief, i.e. one who stole from people including his party members, because he is the thief. Rogue solved this problem somewhat, but still few really considers the thief a trickster. Likewise the fighter may choose to follow the path of a hero, knight, mythic warrior or king, but many people choose to play otherwise, and the rulesystem does not support the archetypes very well.

    (BTW. Loki might seem posterboy for the trickster, and certainly he is a trickster, but one might want to keep an eye on Odin too, since he is quite the sneak. Also Han Solo and Lando Calrissian).
    (Also you might want to reconsider whether Aragorn is actually a ranger or not, since his archetypes is the king in exile returning to his lost lands in secret).


  2. Posted by ludofex on July 24, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    First of all, thanks for translating my points. I think you’ve covered most of them, so now you’ve saved me the trouble. 🙂

    You make some very good points about the built in potential in the magic user, while the fighter or the rogue are more limited. Not only does this limit their power, it can also make them less inspirational, which is perhaps even worse, in a pastime which is essentially all about the imagination.

    However, personally I don’t think that this potential has to be a lofty goal, like becoming a king or a deity. In fact these goals – which are also the kind of goals captured by D&D Epic levels and similar mechanics – rarely come in to play in the kind of fantasy roleplaying I tend to enjoy. In fact in terms of goals, I’ve always found that one of the most inspiring systems is the career system in Warhammer FRPG, because it presents a lot of achievable goals that are closely linked to the game world, without being so significant that achieving them will disrupt the game world. But maybe that is just my preference for low fantasy.

    Another point, which is similar to the one Morten is making, is that this sort of end game is rarely central to the kind of party based dungeon exploration which is the focus of most D&D campaigns. Even if one of the characters is destined to be a king, that will often be the end of the campaign, and as such only really be important as a macguffin. So where you argue that concepts such as ‘adventurer’ or soldier of fortune’ are limiting, because they have no role outside of adventuring, I would tend to agree with Morten that this is a lesser concern as the main point of the game is to be adventuring. But perhaps more importantly the point for would not so much be to increase the fighter’s potential by creating a distant goal, but rather by increasing his breadth.


  3. I agree that straight out fighters tend to lose the spotlight to wizards. Though I find other classes outstrip them as well.

    They can’t heal like a cleric, nor do they have the diplomatic skills to be the face of the party.

    When a Rogue needs vanishes in the shadows this opens up an mini solo adventure just for them. Of course they can also spot traps and be the face man themselves if they have to.

    Fighters shine when it comes to combat but even so low level spells like Entangle, Web and Wind Wall can take them completely out of the fight.

    I think broadening what they can do would be a good way to go. Either that or make sure they stumble into magic items that can help them keep pace. After all Thor has Mjollnir, Athena has her Aegis and Arthur has Excalibur.


  4. Posted by Elias Helfer on July 29, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Sorry about the delay in answering.

    Morten, I think you missed one of my “fighter-replacement” archetype: the Hero. Conan is a Hero, as is Hercules, Achilles and Beowulf (though the latter two could be considered Captains, which I would consider to be a minor form of a King, or possibly a middle ground between Hero and King). The Hero is about might, glory and riches, the Knight is about honour, nobility and status and the King is about leadership and Wisdom.
    As I remember your post, the point was to expand the scope of the classes. That is in many ways what I am doing here. The Hero can be sly and dishonest, he can do rousing speeches and fearful intimidations, and he might not be above a bit of thievery, deceit and outright robbery in a pinch. Meanwhile, the knight is learned, he is charismatic, he can do diplomacy, and might know a bit of engineering. And the king knows tactics, he can inpire his people, he knows his territory (so he can use different customs, he knows the right people, etc).

    You mention that Odin might be a Trickster. He is quite an interesting example in my book. Sure, he disguises himself, and he gets up to all sorts of shenanigans, implying that he might very well be a trickster. But he also knows of magic, making him equally a magician. To me, ultimately, he is the King of the Gods, best among (un)equals. He is the crafty king, as opposed to the Arthurian honourable king. In many ways, he is Machiavelli’s Prince who is more fox than lion.

    You might be right when you say Aragorn might rightly be considered more of a King than a Ranger. That would certainly fit much of what he is doing. On the other hand, he is very much the Tracker who leads them through the wilderness. And he is not the only Ranger who is a leader – think of Robin Hood.

    I disagree that a knight is unsuited to go adventuring – certainly no more than, say, Paladins, Monks, Druids and most likely Clerics as well. The reason you say so is because the plunder has such a big position in many players’ minds. But firstly, I see no difficulty in having knights who go adventuring to further their own causes, adventuring to prove themselves, or just for fun. In fact, many famous Knights might easily have been sent into a Dungeon. Think of the Quest of the Grail; the Grail might be hidden at the bottom of the Pit of Devilish Intent. Or think of Saint George and the Dragon – why not have him fight through a tribe of Ogres and a few Mummies before he got to the Great Red Wyrm. Wouldn’t an Arthurian Knight find it worthwhile to descend the Temple of Elemental Evil to get rid of an evil goddess?

    I will admit, however, that I did not write this post particularly with dungeoneering in mind. I have never done much dungeoning role-play, and I’m not particularly interested in it. I prefer playing more story oriented games, and that is what I have used D&D for in the past. And so, for me, D&D has been about high-fantasy stories, like the ones told by Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels.
    But to be honest, I don’t see that kind of story-focus as opposed to adventuring and dungeoneering. A good dungeon isn’t just a collection of rooms and a few treasure chests – a good dungeon has Something Happening: a plot, a feud, a great artefact at the bottom, an unknown enemy that will start appearing from now on. In many cases, this is an excuse to go adventuring, but the clearer it is, and the less of a pretext it is, the better in my opinion.

    Nis and Morten, you both point out that I focus on the endgame, and thus the end of the campaign. But the whole point of my analysis of the wizard was that the wizard class from level one contains within it the final goal. The story of the wizard is that he starts out as a weak apprentice, but end up as a powerful, reality bending wizard. In the same way, I wanted to incorporate the pinnacle of the other
    character types in their beginnings. Take the story of Arthur, for instance. His story is very much similar to to the wizard’s story: he starts out a lowly servant and squire, pulls the sword from the stone and is then projected into kingdom. So, when you start out playing your King character, you should know what it is you inspire to.
    The challenge here is of course that many of these characters started out great, grew greater, and then declined or ascended. This happened to Arthur, born to Uther Pendragon and finally going off to his resting place from whence he will come to save England. Aragorn also started out as the inheritor of Isildur, and so with Fate hanging over his head. That might be a bit much to have a party of five people, all with Fate looming over them. But I still think that making each class an ideal to aspire to makes good sense.
    That a lot of the ideal stories ended in death, doesn’t concern me. That is part of a heroic story. It provides a clue as to the flaw of each class, and gives inspiration for great ways to end the character’s story. Boromir, as a knight/king, fell to his own pride and feeling of superiority, and his failure to submit to Aragorn’s leadership. His death, meanwhile, was valiantly defending others and sacrificing himself to let his comrades go on in their sacred quest. Both should serve as inspiration for the player when he considers how to play his character.

    Nis, I quite prefer Warhammer FRPG’s way of doing things to the D&D way. The above is my take as to how one should could go about making classes based on arcehtypes. I seem to recall that Red Box Hack does it well, with each class being relatively equal. It seems that Apocalypse World is similar, but we’ll have to see how it works out in reality. But for a big, “complex” game, D&D’s classes seem a little constricting. I prefer system with more organic growth, like Warhammer FRPG, WoD, Shadowrun and so on.

    Chall, I agree with you. As a matter of fact, Morten and Nis (ludofex) made similar points, which is what sparked this discussion.

    Actually, I think it could be a great idea to incorporate magical artefacts into the character. It could be a prestige class or maybe a feat. This would allow the character to gradually unlock more and more abilities of his artefact, meaning you don’t have to replace your weapon every one or two levels. So on level five, you get your sword, which is perhaps a little better than regular, at level seven, it turns out to be a Bane of Greenskin, and at level 20, it allows you to summon an army of dead heroes to fight besides you when you go into righteous battle.


  5. Hi Elias,

    There is a whole lot to comment on here, and I’ll try and get round it.

    Your description of the hero surprises me. Isn’t a hero about being heroic. They way you describe him fits the adventurer rather than a hero, and being a “hero” requires heroics rather than fighting prowess in my book, which is why I did comment much on the hero earlier, as I did not see the hero as a fighter-type.

    As for the Wizard vs “Fighter-type” and the Endgame. Wizards can demonstrate and employ their powers and derangements as their power corrupts them in each and every encounter as they use their abilities to deal with the encounter. Not quite so with the either the royal nor the knightly type of character.

    Btw your comment on Odin reveals rather nicely why I find the archetypes troubling, for you may prefer to see him in one role or another, but no matter which one you pick, the character is diminished as your ignore other aspects. Odin is clearly the Lord of the Dead and Battleluck manifest, as he is a trickster and magician, as he is the king of the Gods (and since he is not elected, he does not need to be first among equals or unequals), and he is transgressor of laws, that confirm the existance of laws (he confirms i.e. what is manly by doing womanly things etc.).

    This also applies to the trouble with matching classes and archetypes, which is a bit of a mess in itself.

    As for rangers, Aragorn and Robin Hood, then Robin is famous for his archery, his robbing-ethos and his merry men, and only one of those aspects are covered by the Ranger Class (and only from 3rd edition – before that you only had two-weapon fighting style). Aragorn may be able to track, but his main abilities and behavior is tied to the fact, that he is a king. The Rangers are an order of men protecting the borders of the shire among other things, and not much beyond their name do they as such have in common with the Ranger-class.


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