Friday, April 17, 2009

Arriving at Archetypes

I'm not necessarily a huge fan of "classes" outside of D&D. In my mind, for a class-based system to work well, either a class is very restrictive and you have a ton of them (as is the case for a system like Rolemaster or Palladium FRP), or you've got a handful of them and use them to define not so much what the class can't do so much as what it can (i.e., use it to empower a character's abilities, not restrict them).

I typically prefer more of an archetypal system. I know some people just think "archetype" is another way of calling something a "class", but I feel it's more about looking at a character from a "how does this person fit into the drama of the adventure" perspective and not "this is the archetype that wears armor, this one casts spells, this one opens locks...". To some extent, I guess this is a holdover from my gaming in the 90's, where a lot of systems turned to this idea of "classes that aren't classes". White Wolf had them all over the place - Vampires had Clans, Werewolves had Tribes (and Forms, and Auspices), Mages had Traditions, and so on and so forth. Beyond this of course there were games like Ars Magica, or L5R, or 7th Sea, all of which had certain categories you put your character in, and they offered you certain paths to go down, but it wasn't a hidebound list of can's and cant's.

Back a number of years ago, when I first began designing my Sword & Sorcery RPG Legends of Steel (this is my now-defunct LoS RPG project, not Jeff Mejia's Legends of Steel), I envisioned four character Archetypes - Warrior, Rogue, Tradesman, and Scholar. Warrior was obvious, Rogue covered all things from "thief" to "spy" to "assassin" to "con artist" and beyond. Scholar was many things as well - from "healer" to "engineer" to "priest", and would be the launchpoint for becoming a Sorcerer. It was Tradesman that I couldn't really sell - I figured this Archetype would cover the "professional turned adventurer", the clever merchant, or the noble blacksmith, or the adventurer sailor - but eventually I dropped the Tradesman archtype since it simply didn't fit into the idea very well. Sure, if your campaign revolved around "adventures in the grain trade", then maybe the character made sense, but it just felt like an awkward fit.

So, I excised Tradesman and kept Warrior, Rogue, and Scholar. Many years and many permutations of this game later, we have arrived at the Tanards & Broadswords RPG, and those three Archetypes form the backbone of the character design. I've got a small optional rules section on playing without these Archetypes, and it certainly won't be a game breaker to do so, but I've always found that giving some direction as to where your character should go from the beginning helps cut down on a lot of "fiddling" during character creation.

So what do these Archetypes do, anyhow? Actually, not much. Out of the 24 starting skill ranks every PC has, 12 go into the skill set associated with the character's Archetype. If you're a Warrior, 12 ranks go into Warrior skills. Of the remaining 12, six ranks apiece go into the other two skill sets. You can shift ranks around, although it costs you two ranks to give one rank to another skill set, so it's customization, but at a price. Also, every character has 12 Character Tokens at the end of character creation that can, among other things, add to skills regardless of a character's Archetype. Beyond this, Archetypes don't play much of a roll except when a character buys up skills during gameplay - it costs less Character Tokens to increase skills within your archetype.

In the end, Archetypes in the T&B RPG are really more of a notion of what sort of dramatic icon your character represents, rather than hard and fast "you're great at X and suck at Y and Z". A Scholar can certainly be an excellent swordsman - but they might have to comprimise a little to get there, and will probably never be as good an all-around combatant as a Warrior of similar overall experience.

As an aside, I think the most perfect representation of what I'm going for is to be found in Stephen Sommer's The Mummy (1999). Rick is a perfect archetypal Warrior, Evie is a Scholar (literally), and her brother Jonathan is a great Rogue. All throughout the movie, there are a great number of examples of how their skills and abilities compliment each other and add to the flow of the dramatic adventure. Nowadays, any time I watch some sort of action/adventure oriented TV show or Film, or read a novel in the same vein, I'm always asking myself "who are the Warriors, who are the Rogues, and who are the Scholars?". I find the key is always to not look at where a character's weaknesses lie, but rather what are their greatest strengths.

7 comments:

Wickedmurph said...

Our gaming group loved the Mummy because one of the players had played literally every character in the movie over the years (including Bennie, who is a much better example of the rogue archetype).

Another movie that really breaks down the warrior archetype is the 13th Warrior. Burly warriors, sneaky warriors, rangery warriors. It's a great movie, too.

Timeshadows said...

As much of a Neo-Platonist as I am, I have finally suffered that '90's gaming fatigue on the whole Archetype thing...

Brian Penn and I have kept trying to re-work Tunnels & Trolls adding or subtracting or redefining the 'Types', but, each time we end up convincing each other that Types just end up being a rules-mechanic that may or may not properly define one's character.
My point design system for T&T, which eventually became a quasi-Victorian Space Opera (Starblade), emulated the Types' powers/abilities, but allowed the flex. that the mental overlay of 'okay, well, my Rogue is more like a swashbuckling pirate...except he doesn't use magic, and is a better fighter, and can't fall off of ship's rigging...' better than simply ignoring the T&T rules that were informing us that a Rogue had magic, or Warrior wore armour (if not, the 2x Hits rule was doing no one any good).

In my current RPG, I've hacked-away all the fiddly-bits of each of the four 'iconic' classes and allowed folks to build their characters via Point-Design. My inclusion of the Four is simply to illustrate and to speed transition from Class-based mindset to Point-Design.

So, I guess this is an official 'disagreement' lol ;)

I enjoy your blog very much.

Matthew James Stanham said...

I was just watching the Mummy a few weeks back, and was once again struck by just how "D&D" it all seemed. In particular, the pick pocket skills of Jonathan stood out to me this time round.

I think it is important to think of classes as enablers instead of as inhibitors. The biggest divide has always been between "magic-user" and "fighting-man", but pretty much everything else is fair game.

The real problems for me come when people try to reduce the classes to sub classes, instead of viewing the latter as focused versions of the former. That is to say, anybody can track if it seems appropriate, but rangers can always track, and so on...

Joe said...

This is done really well in 4th edition of GURPS with templates.

Badelaire said...

Regarding The Mummy:

I can't agree more that it's a classic "gaming fodder" movie in that watching it just makes you want to "live the adventure" via a good RPG campaign. The 13th Warrior is, as Wickedmurph said, another film that falls into the "gaming fodder" category really well. Incidentally, I use the musical scores from both of these films as "gaming inspiration", both while working on the game and while we're playing. Fun, evocative stuff.

As for Bennie vs. Jonathan, you might be right, but Jonathan is part of the "Adventuring Party", which is why I mentioned him - also, like Matthew said, he shows some sweet pickpocketing skills.

Badelaire said...

Regarding "Types" vs. Points Buy:

I certainly have no problem with a point-buy system. Back in college and some few years after I ran games using a points-based RPG I developed on my own, putting it through two short campaigns and two year-long campaigns. It worked quite well, but did suffer from what I think many point-based systems and other very "open" chargen systems suffer from - "choice overload".

Some of the characters created were interesting characters, but needed revision because the players picked skills / traits that didn't mesh well, either with each other or with the concept behind what the player wanted to accomplish (i.e., not giving the Knight character the Mounted Combat or Load Bearing skills, so they were constantly hampered by their armor and couldn't fight worth a fig while on horseback, or taking a spell-caster but not buying up enough "spell points" and over-buying on skills so that the PC had lots of spells but little ability to cast any of them, and little "mana" to do it with). This most often happened because the player just mis-managed where their points went, not understanding what skills were critical for their characters and which skills were the "fluff".

Jeff Reints posted a column this Saturday and a lot of comments there (including my own long-winded ramble) cover a lot of what I'd have to say, so I leave the reader to follow the above link and read through - some good discussion there.

In short though, I think a class/archetype system is fine for a game designed to get you into the playing quickly by making a number of choices for you. It's not a perfect solution, but it's one that (I think) works if done right. A points-buy system is great when players and the GM want more fine-tuned control of their characters and want to invest more in how they play out over time.

In the end, there's room for both.

Brunomac said...

I loved the first mummy, but even with the action I think in terms of my old Call of Cthulhu games (that were heavier on the action and fights than most).

I apply some of those great careers from one of the supplements that came out in the 90's.