Archetypes and How to Invent Them

Early D&D character archetypes were “fighter”, “non-healer spellcaster”, “healer spellcaster”, and “sneaky dude”. Yes I know the Thief wasn’t in at the start, but thereafter we saw new classes that fulfilled the same roles. Later we split up into “battlefield control/modification”, “buff/debuff”, “aggro gatherer/tank”, “healer”, “striker/sniper/glass cannon”, etc. It seems like the 4E archetypal roles pretty well cover things, right? What could you possibly add?

Tons.

An archetype is a way for a character to interact with some feature of the world. There are other people in the world, so there is opportunity for someone to smack those people, convince them, sneak around them. There are locked doors and containers in the world, so there is an opportunity for someone to be good at disabling locks and traps. There are spells, so someone can be good at casting spells. That’s just about where it seems to stop. What else is there to interact with? When you approach the question like that, it becomes clear what you need to do to add archetypes: add world features.

If there are computers and networks, there is an opportunity for a hacker character. If there are psionics, you can have a psionic character. If you add demons and their infernal contracts, you can have a character who interacts with them. If sailing is really important to the game setting / rules, then a sailor character may be appropriate. If little gizmo inventions are available, then a tinker / artificer could work.

The point is, adding a new class should represent a huge new swath of skills, not just a new blending of the old archetypes with a single cool power at the middle to anchor it. If you want blending, multiclass. If you want a new class, create a new world feature. Here are some world feature ideas:

1: One pantheon has six gods, all of whom are jealous and must be worshipped equally. If the character goes about slaying monsters, he gains favor with Defender of the Six, but doesn’t gain favor with the other five. If his favor with any one god goes too far below the others, he loses the special abilities he gains from that god. If it gets really bad, he may suffer hardships. It doesn’t matter so much how much favor you have with any one, just that they’re all fairly even.
Defender of the Six: Concerned with fighting monsters that threaten communities, especially temples of the Six.
Builder of the Six: Concerned with building and maintaining temples and other services.
Explorer of the Six: Concerned with exploration, opening and maintaining trade routes, and securing natural resources for civilization.
Teacher of the Six: Concerned with raising youths, teaching inexperienced adventurers and militia, and nurturing henchmen acolytes.
Speaker of the Six: Concerned with spreading knowledge and the reputation of the Six.
Keeper of the Six: Concerned with guarding and acquiring magic items that might help the church and also any religious artifacts related to the Six.
Adventuring groups want these Priests of the Six because they have strange and useful powers, and are willing to put up with the various demands their faith puts upon them.

2: Every thing in the world contains some spirit. These are usually pretty weak, and are what you speak with when you use Speak with Plants or Stone Tell. This is why speaking with a Rabbit using Speak With Animals results in some useful information instead of gibberish – you’re talking with its spirit. But there are bigger spirits, such as for a whole river or forest. There are town spirits too, and cave spirits. Spirits may be tainted by the foul vapors of the Mythic Underworld. Your character is able to see these spirits and interact with them, at first only by speaking with the weakest of them but eventually summoning the greater ones or negotiating for boons (such as “can you please open a tunnel from this passage to the next one”). Incidentally, ESP spells affect the spirit of the person, which is why they can’t refuse to think about something, and a ghost is just a spirit that became dislodged from a person. Corporeal undead have trapped, tainted spirits. Adventuring groups want a Spirit-Speaker because it’s a great source of information and can occasionally find extra treasure or an easier path, especially long distances overland through tough terrain or in a dungeon, to deal with Undead, and to appease a dungeon spirit who may otherwise cause them trouble in small malicious ways.

3: The world is built on the ruins of an ancient civilization. Their magic items use strange crystalline bars, glowing blue and faceted, to hold “charges”. An ancient Wand of Lightning for example has a charge bar in its handle, and when you use the wand it consumes these charges. When the bar is empty you can replace it with a new charge bar, if you have one. When you break an ancient artifact it’s a mess of tiny fibers and squirrely little pieces, etched with fine lines, impossible to reproduce or repair. Some people are experts at recovering, identifying, and using these artifacts. Some few high level among them know the secrets of recharging a crystalline charge bar! Adventuring groups want to have these experts along because they would otherwise not know which artifacts are worth taking, which can be salvaged, and how to use them.

I hope this brings archetypes into perspective. You need a new class to be important and different. It is NOT OKAY to make up a new Fighter class that approaches combat in a slightly different way, or a new Magic-User that has a slightly different mix of spells. That takes up page count in the book, and it takes up mental space in the players’ minds, and represents a wasted opportunity.

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