Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Iconic Elements in Campaigns: Classes and Archetypes

I have a few column topics I wanted to work on sitting on various back burners for the moment, but it being a Wednesday, I was looking for something a little more simple and easy for people to pitch in on. Originally my thought was going to be a simple little debate on which of the four core D&D classes was your personal favorite and why. A mind-blowingly unoriginal topic, of course, but one that I'm sure plenty of people could weigh in on.

But, since A) this isn't really a "D&D" blog and I have some readers who really don't give a crap about D&D, and B) it's always nice to be able to tie in previous columns in case some readers missed them the first time, I decided to shift the focus a little. Instead, I'd like to talk about Classes and Archetypes (or more specifically, Archetypal Characters) as they pertain to forming Iconic Elements in your campaign setting.

For all my earlier protesting, let's look at D&D for a moment. Basic D&D has seven classes in it's rules: Fighter, Cleric, Mage, and Thief, plus Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. Pretty "basic", right? But think about it for a minute. Any campaign that includes all seven D&D classes (as written) is automatically making a number of assumptions.

1. The world has some measure of (potentially very powerful) magic in it that human beings are capable of controlling and using fairly safely.

2. There are not one, but two distinct forms of magic - clerical and wizardly - and the two do not inter-mingle in such a fashion that one can mix-and-match the two (you're either a cleric casting cleric spells or a wizard casting wizard spells).

3. The world has not one, but three different non-human but human-like species living on it, who have achieved some equilibrium with humans such that an adventuring party would not be unusual in having all four species intermingled within its ranks.

4. One of these three, Elves, can use wizardly magic (but not clerical magic). The other two cannot use any kind of magic as seen within the rules, although some extraordinary abilities are displayed.

These are just the assumptions that come to mind in the few minutes it took to write that - I'm sure there are a number of others out there (the written culture and behaviors of the demi-human races-as-classes, most notably). Now, having these assumptions in place can in many ways be a good thing; a GM's work in describing the Iconic Elements of their setting's PC Archetypes has been mostly done for them. But what if your world (or just your campaign) omits or significantly alters some of these base assumptions? Almost every setting is going to have Fighters and Thieves, but what if Clerics are removed? What if Magic-Users don't exist? What if you have no demi-humans? Suddenly the game changes in subtle but profound ways.

And that's just "basic" D&D. I play Castles & Crusades, and there are 13 "core" classes in that game; Fighter, Barbarian, Ranger, Monk, Knight, Paladin, Bard, Thief, Assassin, Druid, Cleric, Mage, and Illusionist. A Castle Keeper's first instinct might be to find some way in order to make their campaign setting such that all of these are worthwhile and appropriate PC class choices. But wait...there's also Race to consider; Human, Elf, Half-Elf, Dwarf, Gnome, Halfling, and Half-Orc. And by the rules, any Race can belong to any Class. That's 91 Race/Class combinations that the CK has to take into consideration when creating his campaign.

Now, one might say, "That's easy, just say "no" to the Gnome Monks or the Half-Orc Paladins". And it is easy to pick some of the more outlandish combinations and "just say no". But a GM's job isn't that easy. For every Race/Class combination (I'm not even touching Alignment), there should be some attempt at a justification for that combination in the campaign world. The rules allow a Barbarian Elf, but are there actually "barbaric" elves in the world? You could have a Ranger Halfling, but would Halflings ever become Rangers? The more thought that goes into this, the more you have to look at your setting and constantly make the decision (if you even care, of course, about it making sense) as to whether or not the campaign setting supports the player's choice. This isn't as trivial as you might think; the more complexity you bend to, the more complex and, dare I say it, less Iconic your campaign is becoming. If your goal is to have a campaign setting based around a handful of powerful, easily-graspable elements meant to instantly pull your players into the campaign, the more you muddy the waters, the less singular, the less memorable, your campaign might (and I say "might") become.

To illustrate my point a little, let's take the World of Darkness (the original one). In the first years of White Wolf's development of the World of Darkness setting, it was clear that there was going to be a trifecta of Iconic Elements with regards to characters; the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Mage. If you were running a campaign involving one of these three core books and you didn't at least acknowledge the presence of the other two factions, you could certainly get away with it, but you weren't really playing "canon" WoD.

But as time went on and the need for new material / splatbooks grew, so did the character choices. Wraith and Changeling were considered the two other "core" books in the WoD canon, but they never really caught on like the original three. Playing "normal" PCs became possible, as well as "humans" who had minor abilities (hedge-magic, True Faith, psychic powers, etc.). Other Vampire clans were created, as well as a number of non-lupine shapeshifters. Mummies came into existence, as well as Demons, and there's always the infamous Highlander/Immortal web supplement that, while not WW published, fit so well into the WoD that it might as well have been.

Some players might have welcomed the addition of new races and powers and possibilities for PCs, but personally (and I don't think I'm alone in this belief), I think it actually weakened the setting. Soon you began to get the feeling that there were more supernaturals running around than humans, and the idea that somehow this was all going on "under the radar" and your average person was completely clueless to it all became somewhat laughable. You also started to have problems bringing all these secondary character types into a campaign setting that has always really been about playing from one core book, opposed by the other supernaturals in one manner or another. Having a "party" made up of a Vampire, a Werewolf, a Mage, a Were-Raven, a Mummy, a Psychic Detective, a Ghost, and a Redcap was suddenly a terrifying possibility for the Storyteller who was unprepared and ignorant of what such a trainwreck would do to their game. What were once Iconic Elements of the World of Darkness setting - the Vampire, Werewolf, and Mage - were now just character possibilities rolling around in the grab-bag of the WoD.

So, where am I going with all this rambling?

Simply put, when a GM begins to assemble the bones and joints that make up their campaign structure, and if you like the idea of couching your campaign and your setting in terms of Iconic Elements that stand out and pull your players in, carefully take a look at your campaign as it is forming in your mind and determine what the Iconic Characters should be. And if your answer to this is "I want my players to be able to play ANYBODY", you might want to start thinking about the implications of players playing "anybody", and how that will impact what you're trying to accomplish. Even GURPS, a game that allows you to play, literally, any character you can think of, has sections in all their setting books about characters and what sorts are most appropriate to the setting and the kind of campaign the GM wants to develop.

And who knows? Considering the "anybody" character might actually shift your focus in a positive direction. Think about Call of Cthulhu, for example. Typical CoC characters are, in fact, supposed to be "anybody", and that is, really, an Iconic Element of the setting used to sell the game to players; average, everyday individuals suddenly faced with the mind-blasting horrors of the unknown. Convenient, yes, but also not accidental; it was Lovecraft's drive in his writings to portray these kinds of characters, and the writers of the game were careful to implement this into their RPG in such a way that being able to play a librarian or artist or physics professor was just as feasible as playing a big game hunter or ex-marine.

So, when planning your campaign's Iconic Elements, think about how character archetypes fit into this equation.


Ragnorakk said...

great post sir!

Norman Harman said...

I'm a world creator. It's 1/2 the fun of DMing for me. But, players rarely come to the table wanting to play what I thought was cool. They have their own idea of cool.

I've been moving strongly towards wide open, "whatever you want" campaigns. With much of them created by the players. The part players get to decide is fluff/flavor. I(DM) get to decide mechanics (no splat books for you min/max boy!). If they want to play a bucket wielding sealion, go for it. Roll your 3d6*6, a bucket does d6 and your walrus will advance as a fighter, Do sealions have their own language? You speak that, Aquacommon and broken english.

> there should be some attempt at a justification for that combination in the campaign world.

Justifications are as easy as you let them be:
- Not simulating history, not running a sociological experiment, playing a fantasy game.
- Big crazy world, most of it not detailed or even broad brushstroked. Who knew that across the western ocean was an whole empire of bucket loving sealions?
- Portals! Time travel, Abducting/transplanting aliens. John Carter slept in a cave and ended up on Mars! Maybe weird people/creatures are getting into your campaign world via portals et al all the time. Just cause one player wants to be a dual wielding dark elf ninja doesn't mean there has to be a whole underdark filled with dark elves.
- Magic, it's crazy! "What about..." Magic! "But, but..." What part of "magic" did you not understand?

I totally agree Iconic Elements are important for a campaign. I just don't think characters should be part of those elements. DM gets everything else, leave the characters to the players!

Badelaire said...

"I totally agree Iconic Elements are important for a campaign. I just don't think characters should be part of those elements. DM gets everything else, leave the characters to the players!"

Actually, I strongly disagree here.

I think you are coming at this from a firmly "Old School Gonzo Sandbox D&D" point of view, and that's fine...for Old School Gonzo Sandbox D&D. For a lot of other systems, settings, and campaign types, this simply doesn't work.

If I want to do a campaign set around an Iconic Old West, strongly built around John Wayne-esque films like Stagecoach, The Searchers, etc., you are not bringing a Jedi to the table. Or a ninja. Or a character that is an amoral sociopath (at least, not if you want him to last long).

The way I see it, building a campaign around "Iconic Elements" means not just what the world is like but what the campaign is like, and if you're trying to make a campaign "about something", characters have to be restricted, at least in some fashion. Whether it's species or class or alignment or culture or background or worldview or skill set, if the campaign's going to "work", then the PCs have to fit into that framework somehow.

Now, if, on the other hand, the sorts of Iconic Elements you're leaning towards are "A world of magic and ancient science where you can play any character from any universe", then by all means drop in the lightsaber-swinging ninja ewocks. But the point there is that you've clearly defined, in a big-brushstroke way, that a lightsaber-swinging ninja ewock is okay because that's the sort of campaign you're proposing.