Character Archetypes

Following up on my earlier thoughts on character classes and skills, I’ve been trying to come up with a list of character archetypes that a game would absolutely need, and I’m coming up against a wall. There either seem to be way too many such archetypes (in which case I suspect I’m defining the term too broadly and letting in too many specific sub-types) or I end up narrowing it down to two (in which case I am certain I am not allowing enough specificity).

A bit on sources might be appropriate before delving in too deeply. D&D naturally draws on swords-and-sorcery style fiction as a chief source of inspiration. That genre has its own set of archetypical characters that a game could (and should) draw on. We have Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric, Prince Vakar, Thongor, Cudgel the Clever, Rhialto the Marvelous, etc.

An interesting point; looking back at that list of names, all but one is a warrior-type (and I might argue that Rhialto was deliberately written to invert the trope of warrior-as-hero). Wizards-as-heroes seem to be very much under-represented in the genre. The Gray Mouser dabbles slightly in such stuff, but his real claim to fame is as one of Lankhmar’s greatest swordsmen and burglers. Elric, too, is much more often seen with sword in hand rather than conjuring some awful magic. I’m doubtless missing a few counter-examples, but I think it’s safe to say that in terms of archetypes, the warrior is much more often the protagonist, and the wizard is most often cast as the villain. (Even in Tolkien, the Fellowship is, essentially, a warrior-band; Gandalf, while present, hardly uses his magical powers throughout the entirety of the LotR).

Mythology (and mythologized history) also has quite a bit of influence on D&D. Arthur, Lancelot, Robin Hood, Rolland, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Hercules, El Cid, Merlin… Again, the warriors are vastly over-represented compared to the magicians. I might go so far as to say that there are indeed only two archetypes within this broad spectrum; the wizard and the warrior (although there are vibrational echoes within the warrior archetype; the warrior-as-thief, the warrior-as-king, the warrior-as-pirate, the warrior-as-mercenary, etc.), and the wizard-as-hero is a theme seen so rarely as to be remarkable when it does appear.

However, it should be noted that fantasy RPGs have, over the last thirty years or so, developed into a literary field of their own. And as such they have developed their own internal archetypes. The thief, the cleric, and the bard have, simply by virtue of being included as “primary classes” (in the case of the bard, as of 2nd edition AD&D), have become archetypes alongside the warrior and the wizard. At least within the sub-sub-genre of fantasy RPGs.

But I wonder if this doesn’t work out after all. What is a thief, but a lightly armed warrior who can pick locks? What is a cleric, but a warrior with healing magic? The bard is a warrior with magical powers of a different sort. In fact, the only class that doesn’t qualify, at least on some level, as a warrior… is the magic-user.

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

8 thoughts on “Character Archetypes

  1. I sort of like the D20 Modern take on heroes, in that there is one hero type for every ability. A dextrous hero (thief), charismatic hero (face man/con artist), strength hero (warrior), etc. As you say, though, most of the non-strength-based heroes from literature tend to be supporting characters.

  2. I'd suggest that the divide you've identified is really Humanistic/Supernatural. The spellcaster might use his powers as a human, for the benefit of humans, against supernatural forces, but his powers and approaches are all supernatural.

    A warrior-type might kill by stabbing or firing an arrow. He might pick a lock with some fine tools. He would shape metal and stone with his hand tools. He has a direct connection with everything he does. The things he touches and changes remain all the more human for it.

    The wizard-type might kill with a bolt of lightning, pick a lock by animating it and commanding its tumblers to shift. He shapes metal by changing its consistency and telekinetically forming it into a sphere or cube. He is removed from everything he does by a barrier of magic – why should he even touch anything? And the results of his work are distinctly non-human: perfectly-shaped craft work without tool marks or scratches, enemies slain by fire or their souls sucked away.

    Because the wizard uses magic to perform tasks, and the magic is supernatural, he has a buffer between himself and the human world. Eventually his studies may require that he give up some measure of his humanity.

  3. Steve Jackson's first RPG, The Fantasy Trip, literally had two classes, Hero and Wizard. AD&D 1e and later editions have many classes, but they all boil down to one of those two archetypes; the Hero classes are distinguished by the focus of their abilities (combat, thievery, survival) and the Wizard classes are distinguished by the source of their powers (divine, arcane, psionic.)

    I've considered renaming Fighter to Hero and Magic-User to Mystic: pushing your own physical abilities to the limit versus controlling supernatural forces. I figure I could squeeze one more class into that scheme: characters who focus on using craft, guile, charm, and luck, which could be thieves, but could cover professionals (mariners, jesters,) nobles, sages, even priests, if you de-emphasize their spell use. But even there, I'm sort of just splitting the broad category of "people who solve problems using the real world" into two groups. It's an artificial split.

  4. Part of the issue you bring up is that when writing a story (like LotR), an author probably wants the magic-user to be powerful and mysterious which is hard to do if you as the author have the wizard-type shooting fireballs all the time like Zed in the Legend of the Seeker TV show. The Gandalf/Allanon/Zed type characters from books have a much more powerful aura yet they don't actively display the depth of their magic power often. A D&D character needs the rules and capabilities spelled out so the magic becomes more mundane in a sense. Why is Raistlin such a powerful magic-user character in the story? He's got special mysterious things going on with his character that the stock magic-user character playing the game wouldn't have.

  5. 1d30… I think you've hit on it.

    Now, given that in the literature the two sides are not evenly balanced (and in the specific case of swords & sorcery, the "supernatural" side is most often cast as villain), that brings up an interesting possibility.

    What if the heroes are on the "humanistic" side, and the "supernatural" side are relegated to the villains, the NPCs, and the occasional dabblers…?

    Just something that occurred to me.

  6. D&D itself may have been influenced by certain literature which strongly followed a dichotomy of men versus magic, but party-based gaming is not conducive to the emulation of literature.

  7. One thing that I like about both Tunnels and Trolls and Rolemaster is that they make three broad-stroke categorizations of character types, based on their relation to magic, and that they recognize a hybrid category – a character able to use arms, armor and magic, though not as well as those who specialize.

  8. The "sage" Taliesin sort of Bard and pretty much all Druids fit firmly into the Magic category, too. "Dealing with the occult forces of nature" is practically a Druid's job description.

    Bards are a more interesting case, though, because like clerics, they bridge the gap between Man and Magic. They are like heroes with enough knowledge and lore to not only relate to the inhuman, but to *humanize* it through their stories and songs…without losing their own sense of being human in the process. Looked at in that lens, they would probably make better-grounded PC magicians than actual Wizards do.

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