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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies

Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS

by Aeon
September 18, 2001  

Frank the fighter, Waldo the wizard, Charlene the cleric and Thomas the thief are all sitting together in a bar. They've just decided that the evil haunted mine shaft near the village is a good place to go adventuring. Waldo wants to go look for magical artifacts. Charlene has heard that there are undead down there that need to be put to rest. Thomas is looking for a quick way to pick up some stray loot.

Frank just wants to go kill stuff.

The fighter is arguably the least-developed and most useless character archetype in the history of role-playing. And yet despite this fact, every party has one (or more), and he crops up again and again; in fact, of all the character classes, races and other archetypes that have trickled down through the years, the fighter is the only one that's shared by almost every RPG that I can think of, from the earliest pen-and-paper games down to the latest PC and console games on the shelves right now.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about the Barbarian, or the Paladin, or the Ranger, or even the Cavalier, Monk, Mercenary, Knight, Crusader, Gladiator, Soldier, Highwayman, Watchman or Guard. Because each of those names carries with it a certain understanding of role, of a purpose and a place in the world that comes along with the sword and shield. But for over a quarter-century, the fighter has merely been dragged along for the bloody ride, the only significant change in that entire time being the slight acquiescence to sexual equality by changing the title of the class from the blatantly sexist "Fighting Man," as it appeared in the earliest Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks, to what we have today: Fighter.

As if that were any better.

The main problem here, which you may or may not have fully appreciated by now, is that every other character archetype comes with a built-in purpose; a mission in life; a goal; even, dare I say, a job. Your wizard, normally locked in his tower, has plenty of motivation to go adventuring, in that he needs to find spell components, research forgotten spells, and discover artifacts from past eras. Your cleric needs to spread the faith, tend to her people, and smite disbelievers. Your thief is the most obvious of all, even if the "rogue" moniker is a little less so; being a thief means you want to take things from others, which means the thief is in it for the money.

But the fighter doesn't carry any such convenient luggage with him. No passport, no vacation plan, not even a t-shirt that says "My friends went to the Caves of J'Bar and all I got was this lousy shirt." No, just a blurry photo on his driver's license and maybe, MAYBE, a crumpled business card stuffed in his back pocket that reads "Have sword, will travel," like the hero in "Have Gun, Will Travel." Except unlike Mr. Paladin, or any paladin for that matter, the fighter is more James Dean than Richard Boone.

To use a more modern analogy, the fighter is not entirely unlike the Heckler & Koch Close Assault Weapon System (CAWS). Though it never saw actual military use, this combat shotgun was capable of firing in full automatic mode at a rate of 240 12-gauge shotgun shells per minute, emptying its 10-round clip into a target in just about 2.5 seconds.

Beautiful to think about, in a perverse "Would you like a side of fries to go with your Orcburger" sort of way, but leaving no doubts as to the purpose of such a weapon, or such a person. A weapon without a war, a rebel without a cause. Better knock before you come in. Come to think of it, why not ring the doorbell with your 10-foot wooden pole?

The Ultimate Oxymoron--The Role-Playing Fighter

Don't give us none of your aggravation
We had it with your discipline
Saturday night's alright for fighting
Get a little action in

- Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting), Elton John

Let's cut to the chase--playing a fighter character is all about one thing: killing. Because I don't care what the rules say, you've never used a blackjack or a sap in your entire life, and you can't even pronounce the term "subdual damage." You're a killer, plain and simple. Fighters exist to kill things, as rapidly and as often as possible.

Allowing that, one has to wonder exactly why fighters are called fighters. Why not murderers, or plunderers, or criminals, or bloodthirsty savages? Well, I think I answered my own question there--we are, after all, talking about role-playing games, and questions of Satanism aside, I don't think Mom and Dad are going to want Billy playing a game in which he boasts to friends that he's got a 24th level Murderer.

Fighter isn't a dirty word; in fact, it's almost pleasant. Your parents would be proud to raise a sturdy little fighter. "He put up quite a fight," your mother might say of your birth. "He fought the good fight," relatives might say at your funeral. Somewhere in between, your father might pat you on the back for fighting the school bully, whether you walked away with a black eye or not. When you grow up, you might become a Fire Fighter, or even, if you're brave enough, a Freedom Fighter. Older relatives who fought in World War II might talk about Fighter Pilots, or even Foo Fighters (and they're not talking about the band, either).

The word "fighter" comes to us from around the 13th Century, when it originally meant, simply, "one who fights." For obvious reasons, at the time it was associated and almost synonymous with "warrior" or "soldier," since they were the ones doing most of the fighting. In short, it meant something. To be a fighter meant that one had a purpose. Granted, the dictionary makes no bones about what that purpose is, even if it doesn't come right out and say it--a fighter fights, after all, and to fight is "to contend in battle or physical combat; to strive to overcome by blows or weapons."

Exactly how we get from real medieval combat to the fighter class in role-playing games is pretty obvious. As most are aware, RPGs have their origins in Miniature Wargaming, in which people with way too much time on their hands meticulously painted hundreds of tiny lead figurines, arrayed them on tables, and re-enacted famous battles and fights from history. Newer role-players might be surprised and shocked to learn that the Chainmail Miniatures advertisement on the back page of that new Dungeons & Dragons book is really in many ways a return to roots.

But it's even more cyclical than that, really. Moving lead miniatures around on a table comes straight out of board gaming, and, specifically, out of chess, in which you don't have Wizards and Bugbears but you do have Kings, Queens and Knights battling it out for dominance. And of course, if you look back far enough, you discover that chess was itself the creation of a philosopher in India who wanted a way to recreate a battle between two armies in an abstract fashion.

Amusingly, in light of the continuing debate on the morality of role-playing games, even playing chess was grounds for excommunication from the Church around about 1110, when John Zomares, a monk of the Eastern Church, decided that it wasn't in keeping with Christian morals. The more things change, indeed.

But to get back to the point, and the pointy end of the sword, the fighter is more or less the default character class, against which all others are compared. And that's precisely because the fighter was the "class" which was represented by all those little pawns and miniatures. In short, the fighter represents fighters. Simple enough.

But, as I touched on earlier, that doesn't give the fighter a purpose, nor does it explain what he's expected to be doing in a role-playing game. When the fighter was a black pawn or a grey figurine, he represented a warrior, someone who was sent into battle for a reason. Remove the fighter from the fight, and you have a real quandary: what the hell is there to fight?

Regardless of what game you're playing, the fighter typically has more "hit points," a higher strength/might and a higher constitution/health. He can wear the heaviest armor, use the nastiest weapons, and generally gets the best combat-related skills of any of the classes. He can't cast spells, he can't turn undead, and he can't pick locks or hide in the shadows. He is nothing more than a killing machine.

Which is fine, in the proper perspective. Take the "common" subclasses of the fighter as Dungeons & Dragons presents them: the Paladin, the Ranger and the Barbarian. The Paladin kills within the narrow perspective of purging the world of evil; more will be discussed in a later episode of this series, but for now it's enough to acknowledge that he represents a specific goal, drawn from tales of crusading knights and noble sacrifices. The Ranger is straight out of Tolkien, and he too comes along with a backstory--that of the sneaky woodsman tracking through trackless woods, hunting and trapping and living off the land. Even the wild Barbarian has his baggage with him, his ancestors running the gamut from Attila to Conan.

But the fighter, like the cheese, stands alone.

The problem plagues fighters in all gaming systems, but it's most obvious in the game which first featured him, namely Dungeons and Dragons. In the 3rd Edition Player's Handbook, each of the classes comes with brief descriptions of their purposes and goals in life. The other classes are fairly narrow and specific in scope: Wizard researches spells, Rogue steals things. But the fighter's description reads like a shopping list of different possibilities, around two dozen listed in just a few paragraphs: "The questing knight, the conquering overlord, the king's champion, the elite foot solider, the hardened mercenary, and the bandit king..." Didn't this guy talk to his high school guidance counselor? It seems nobody can figure out what the heck the fighter is supposed to be doing. And the brief "explanation" in the text merely says that "fighters see adventures, raids, and dangerous missions as their job." As if that's supposed to explain everything. I like adventure too, but that doesn't mean I wander down to Market St. every Saturday to mow down some pedestrians with my bastard sword.

In the end, it all works out, because for most people, role-playing means dungeon crawling, and dungeon crawling means plenty of things to kill. But if we remove ourselves from that for a minute, we have to seriously question the point of all of this. Merely arguing that fighters are fighting because they like killing things means they are all mass murderers, and there's got to be more to it than that. Who are we killing? Where are we doing our killing? Why kill?

Why fight?

I Am Jack's Improved Bull Rush--The Fighter in Film and Fiction

"Have Gun Will Travel" reads the card of a man
A knight without armor in a savage land
His fast gun for hire heads the calling wind
A soldier of fortune is the man called Paladin

- The Ballad of Paladin, Johnny Western

From 1957 to 1963, American television told the tale of a wandering fighter named Paladin who lived in a hotel, slept with prostitutes, drank bourbon, and charged a thousand dollars for his services. Once hired, he'd wander on over to wherever you were having trouble, fix the problem, collect his fee and wander back to the inn for another round. Of course, he did carry with him a sense of morals (hence the name, Paladin); if you hired him and turned out to be the bad guy, for example, he'd probably turn his guns on you. And much like the Japanese samurai, who were trained in the arts of haiku and origami as well as swordplay, Paladin was a scholar to boot. But in the end, it almost always came down to fists and bullets, and a fight of some sort.

Since fighting and killing have been around since Cain slew Abel, it should come as no surprise that fighters have been present in literature, TV shows and film from the very start of each of those mediums. Most, if not all of our earliest written works (I don't exactly have a list here) contain references to fighting and warfare, and for many of them war and battle is the driving force behind the action. Consider the Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, The Song of Roland... I'm not going to list them all; you know their names better than I, perhaps. Even the Old Testament of the Bible is in some ways a list of battles and bloody conflict.

One key difference between the central figures in these works and the vanilla RPG fighter is that these heroes are just that: heroes. In some cases they are princes or kings, in others they are chosen warriors of God/the gods, holy knights/paladins or somesuch. These are not mere grunts and fighters, per se. Their deeds and actions are being recalled after the fact, their achievements and prowess being heralded for the ages. We don't want to hear about the life of a typical medieval warrior: Woke up; met friends around campfire; lined up in formation; charged over hill; pierced by arrow from longbow; lied on muddy field in pain; had skull crushed by enemy mace; died.

Another difference between the key figures in these stories and our generic "fighter" is that these people are fighting for a very good reason--either because something big and nasty is attacking someone (atypical), or because they're in the middle of a war (overwhelmingly typical). The reason for this is obvious; consider what a story about a real medieval/fantasy role-playing fighter would read like if it detailed the events of a typical role-playing session: Woke up, met friends in bar; went down to caves; killed some orcs; killed some more orcs; killed a bugbear; went back to town because cleric was out of Cure Light spells. The stories are about big events because big events make good stories.

However, when it comes to TV and film, this isn't always the case; there are many, many films which contain characters that are recognizable as true "fighters." Consider the double edged sword of the Kurosawa samurai film and the spaghetti Western. Both film "genres" featured one or more nameless fighters wandering a bleak landscape in which they were called into action, not to fight and die as members of an army, and not to slay a mighty dragon as prophesied in ancient manuscripts, but to perform some considerably menial task of questionable worth (at least when one considers the larger picture). The films are generally divided into two categories: the first features a coalition of fighters, and the other a single, typically nameless fighter who performs the task alone.

The finest example of the "group of fighters" picture is unquestionably 1954's The Seven Samurai, by Akira Kurosawa. In this film, a wandering ronin (masterless samurai) comes across a village which is beset by bandits. Realizing that he cannot defend them alone, but wanting to perform the task set before him, he gathers six other "samurai" to assist him in defending the village, each receiving three meals a day in exchange for their service (which is good pay for these down-on-their-luck fighters, who are all jobless and homeless). Ultimately the seven successfully defend the village from an assault by some twoscore bandits, and head off into the sunset, mission accomplished.

Those unfamiliar with the film might recognize the story in the guise of 1960's The Magnificent Seven, a Western which retold the tale in a small Mexican village. Those unfamiliar with both films will nevertheless recognize the theme of a group gathering to perform some service, echoed throughout the 20th Century in films like 1977's Star Wars (which Lucas readily admits is based on Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress), 1983's Krull and 1998's blindingly obvious Ronin. This is to say nothing of Tolkien's The Hobbit, which by itself is nothing more than a group of fighters, a thief and a wizard getting together to invade a dragon's lair.

The nameless wanderer (immortalized in the D&D 3rd Edition Sword and Fist supplement as the Ghostwalker) has pretty much the same motivations as the groups mentioned above (namely, to get the job done and leave town), but he, of course, works alone. The best example is again Kurosawa's Sanjuro Kuwabatake (a pseudonym; we never learn the character's real name) in 1961's Yojimbo and the 1962 sequel Sanjuro, the ronin who wanders into town and cleans up someone else's mess before heading off again. In Yojimbo he's a bit more cocky and headstrong, cutting down opponents so quickly that he has to correct his math: "I want three coffins... make that four." But by the end of Sanjuro, he's almost growing weary of the killing that makes him what he is, stating displeasure at having to kill another fighter who, like him, was "a sword without a sheath." Or a gun without a holster. Or a rebel without a cause. All dangerous.

Yojimbo, of course, was remade into another Western, 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, which starred Clint Eastwood in what is arguably the role that made him what he is today. That film was followed by two others to complete the "Man With No Name" trilogy: 1965's For a Few Dollars More and 1966's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The theme appears in a whole slew of other films of different genres, from the aforementioned Have Gun, Will Travel, to 1976's Rocky to 1988's Die Hard (and its two sequels), and 1999's Fight Club, which takes the whole theme of the solitary, mysterious fighter into absurd territory by putting two individuals into the body of one fighter, and slapping silly, redundant rules on top of the whole purpose of fighting: "The first rule about fight club is you do not talk about fight club. The second rule about fight club is you do not talk about fight club."

Purpose. It's a word we keep coming back to. For the fighters in the films and stories mentioned above, the purpose is relatively questionable and ultimately fleeting, but it's there, be it a village in need of defense or a boxing match that needs to be won, or some terrorists that need to be taught a lesson in Bruce Willisitude. Purpose has also been the problem plaguing real life fighters throughout history.

Kaphar Hunnu Bhanda Marnu Ramro--The Historical Fighter

The death of one is a tragedy
But death of a million is just a statistic

- The Fight Song, Marilyn Manson

War. It's as good a reason as any for a person to fight. But there's a significant difference between a warrior and a fighter, and to demonstrate that we first need to look at what war means.

The dictionary defines "war" as "a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations," the word originating at some point in the 12th century, derived from the Middle English "werre", probably from the Old High German "werra," which meant "strife." In short, it's a pretty specific sort of fight we're talking about, being a declared conflict between states or nations. Which is to say, this isn't something that involves one or two fighters in a boxing ring, or several in a gladiatorial arena, or even a few dozen hanging out at the pub. War is serious, bloody business, and it requires that you throw lots of bodies in the line of fire (hence the term "cannon fodder," since we're feeding the cannons.)

Depending on how you define war, you can include many, many groups of fighting individuals into the category. The Greek Hoplites and Roman Legions, the Vikings and the Huns, everything from highly organized and structured armies to wild, free-roaming barbarians. All soldiers, but certainly not all fighters. This is most clear when you consider the larger picture of the Crusades; while some Crusaders were certainly well-trained fighters, Templars and "Paladins," many if not most of these warriors were untrained farmers and peasants. Some were even children.

This is why I heartily disagree with the assertion that soldiers and warriors are all fighters. Being enlisted to fight in a war (or volunteering for such) does not mean that you have any desire to fight. Most soldiers are killed in battle. Of those that don't die, many flee or are captured, or serve their tour of duty and return home, at which time they don't fight ever again. To argue that being a solider makes one into a fighter is like saying that riding on a sailboat makes you a sailor, or flying in an airplane makes you a pilot. Being carried along by something larger than yourself does not make you an active participant in that thing. In short, not all soldiers are fighters.

Historically, however, it could be argued that many, if not most fighters were soldiers.

As early as the 6th century, many of the fledgling kingdoms of Europe required all landholders of a certain age to serve in the army--the kicker being that they didn't get paid for this, and had to provide their own arms and armor. This by itself doesn't prove anything; a farmer with a scythe sits around a barracks for a few months. This does not make the solider a fighter; it makes him a farmer who's in the army. But at some point, the farmer has to go home. And it's that going home that I think captures the essence of the fighter.

Because while you can go home again... the question is whether or not you want to.

Our sixth century "conscripts" were, after their terms of service ended, required to go home with no pay and till their land and milk their cows as if nothing had happened. Some of these men had, during the course of their service in the armed forces, been party to pillaging and looting of villages (the loot being their only real pay for service). And now, after being trained to fight, after serving beside others hacking away at enemies, after looting and burning villages, they were told to go home and pluck chickens.

Pluck that.

Is it any wonder that Europe was, at the same time, beset with bandits and highwaymen? These were normal people forced to adopt warlike tendencies and then thrust into non-war situations. Swords without sheaths, in other words. As Andrew McCall's The Medieval Underworld points out, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that individuals found guilty of crimes like thuggery and murder were often merely banished from one town, which meant the most violent, warlike individuals were moving about the countryside, roaming with weapon in hand, looking for a way to make money by thumping heads.

It's pretty easy to see where this is going; it becomes even moreso when you see how the plot thickens, and the story recurs time and again.

It wasn't long before these wandering bandits started getting together and forming little clusters of fighters; at times, they were even joined by monks who'd left their monasteries, thieves and other outlaws (no doubt the source of myths like that of Robin Hood). By the 10th and 11th centuries, some roads in Europe were so plagued by highwaymen that it was completely unsafe to travel without an armed escort. Of course, these armed guards wanted to be paid for their trouble, and so many of the bandits switched sides and protected the people they had once robbed against others of their kind. In short, the presence of fighters necessitated the presence of more fighters to counteract the first bunch.

Since these roaming bands of mercenaries were a good source of highly skilled fighters, it wasn't long before some countries started hiring them to supplement their own standing armies. In Italy, for example, the bulk of the military was mercenary, perhaps the most well known being the 10,000 strong "Great Company," who were willing to work for the city-state who paid them the most money. By the 12th and 13th centuries, it was commonplace for a King to hire a band of mercenaries to perform some task or other for himself, thoughtfully turning the other way while the fighters took their payment via pillaging whatever lay in their path. By the 14th century, these mercenary companies were actually in some ways better trained and equipped than the standing armies of some parts of France and Italy.

This killing nonsense was not just a fact of life in the medieval era; it continued on into the Renaissance and Age of Exploration. Shakespeare's plays recount for us the dangers involved in having armed, angry citizens with too much time on their hands and grudges to settle. Consider the Montagues and the Capulets dueling in the streets, or the trail of blood left behind when Othello goes off the deep end. Duelists also had a new tool to play with, in the guise of the firearm, and duels with pistols at twenty paces became more popular and more illegal as time went on, their popularity even trickling over into the American colonies. Of course, the American Revolution is a great example of what happens when people with guns are prodded into action; certainly, among the Minutemen and Backwoodsmen who did so much damage to the Redcoats, there were more than a few who would be called fighters.

This was not a wholly Western phenomenon, either. As Kurosawa's films so vividly depict, the life of a samurai who was no longer needed for military service in many ways mirrored that of his European counterparts, especially in the 17th century. These masterless samurai, or ronin, were still equipped with their swords and armor, and were still highly trained killers. But they now lacked money and employment, and for many the study of haiku and origami was not enough to fulfill their needs. Many became bandits, scouring the countryside looking for easy prey. Others undoubtedly sold their swords to protect those set upon by such bandits. The similarity between this situation and that of the American West need not be discussed again; suffice to say that many of those settling in the West were of a military persuasion, and the outlaws and bandits who roamed the "Wild West" certainly counted a few "fighters" amongst their ranks.

All these were relatively small groups, or individuals raising a little hell; back in Europe, however, the tendency of these fighters to group themselves into mercenary companies continued in one fashion or another. In the period following Germany's defeat in World War I, thousands of German troops got together to form Freikorps, small, highly trained volunteer divisions who saw varying degrees of service over the next few years. In 1919, when a new German armed force was established, many of these mercenary fighters went on to join the official military force.

World War II also saw mercenary participation on the side of the German Army. In fact, about 2 million foreign individuals lent their fighting capabilities to the Germans, nearly a million from Eastern European areas where conscripted soldiers were looking for better conditions to fight under. While some of the volunteers became part of the German force-at-large, many formed individual units and companies and operated with some degree of autonomy, some proving to be even better fighters than the German army soldiers. A Britsches Freikorps was even formed in 1944, composed (as the name suggests) of British soldiers conscripted to fight on the side of the Germans "in the common European struggle against Communism."

By far, however, the most impressive and interesting group of "mercenary" fighters in history is the Gurkhas, whose motto, Kaphar hunnu bhanda marnu ramro (translated as "It is better to die than to be a coward") says all you need to know about their attitude towards fighting.

In late 1814, Britain's East India Company declared war on Nepal, and British troops moved in to take the country. Some 30,000 troops were mobilized against a mere 12,000 Gurkhas, Britain thinking that their superior military might could easily overcome a smaller band of upstart rebellious individuals (apparently they'd forgotten about the lesson learned in the American colonies already). The British were wrong, and were fought to a near standstill by the fierce Gurkha fighters. Three of four incursions were beaten back, in one case (at a secured fort) 600 Gurkhas easily turning back some 3500 British soldiers until the British finally gave up and just bombed the place. Stories of this sort repeat themselves through 1815 when Britain's superior manpower finally won out. But even in defeat, the Gurkhas wound up winning; that same year, Britain, so impressed by their fighting capabilities, formed a Gurkha regiment in the British army. The Gurkhas have served the British military ever since, fighting in both World Wars, the Gulf War and in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The Gurkha story doesn't end there, however; instead, it ends in the same way as it's ended for the other fighters in our story. As Britain's military needs have diminished, the number of Gurkhas serving has decreased as well, from hundreds of thousands in World War II to only a few thousand today. Nowadays, fewer than 200 are needed each year, and yet 60 thousand Nepalese boys try out for the positions every year, some committing suicide if they fail to make the cut, so treasured is the position. Much of the reason for wanting to be a Gurkha is the financial stability it brings; those accepted have a steady job and a steady income for years to come, those that are not being forced into a life of relative drudgery.

And for those Gurkha fighters who are chosen for military service, the ride doesn't last forever. Tens of thousands of ex-Gurkha fighters have returned to the rural life of Nepal, only to find that being forced back into an ordinary life after being trained as a feared killer is disconcerting, to say the least. No longer can they see the world, reveling in perfecting their fighting prowess. For many, the need to be a part of a fighting force means that some are joining the Maoist army as mercenaries.

"The British government taught us to be fighters, we have no knowledge of civilian jobs," said Om Gurung, a 13-year Gurkha veteran. "We can't survive here."

And so it goes.

In the Cards--The Fighter in the Tarot?

I can't fight this feeling anymore
I've forgotten what I started fighting for

- I Can't Fight This Feeling, REO Speedwagon

So if we can achieve some understanding of why fighters exist, and how they're made, the next question becomes, why fight? For some, the answer is obviously financial. For others, restlessness and the desire for adventure. But one answer can hardly be applied to all fighters.

I propose four.

This is an unusual undertaking for this series, so I'll prefix this bit by saying that this next part has no actual basis in fact, historical or literary. This is merely me presenting what I feel is an interesting way to look at the fighter archetype, considering that the fighter, taken on his own, is pretty weak in the "reason for being" category.

The standard Tarot deck's minor arcana cards are divided up into four suits, roughly analogous to the four suits pictured on any standard deck of ordinary playing cards. The symbolism of the number four is deeply rooted in mysticism and magic; everything from the elements to the corners of the earth can be drawn back to this magical number. The number four also appears in role-playing, although not quite so obviously. Boiled down to their bare archetypes, there are four character classes (Fighter, Wizard, Cleric, Thief), just as there have traditionally been four main races (the Tolkienesque ones; namely, human, elf, dwarf and halfling/hobbit). There are also four main elemental planes, four divisions of extra-prime planes (outer, inner, ethereal, astral), four extremes on the alignment scale (lawful, chaotic, good and evil), and so on.

It's with all this in mind that I think fighters can be divided up into four rough groups, each providing that "type" of fighter with a bit more of an idea of his place in the world, how he got there and what he's supposed to do with what he has. Looking back at the Tarot, and the chessboard, and our main character classes, it's pretty clear that the fighter is best represented by the Knight (with the Page being the thief, the Queen being the cleric and the King being the wizard). But that's belaboring the point; the obvious military connotations of the Knight make it an obvious choice for this exercise.

The first of the groups, and in many ways the "earliest," is represented by the Knight of Pentacles. The suit of pentacles is also known as coins, or diamonds, these things representing common, earthy matters and the literal "fruits of your labors." It's unsurprising, then, that pentacles have traditionally been associated with the element of earth. Pentacles are grounded, stable, founded on tradition, endurance and a sense of security, a sense of home. If a race had to be chosen to be represented by pentacles, it would undoubtedly be that of the halfling, or hobbit. Consider the hobbit fighter in the guise of Bilbo Baggins, unwilling to leave his comfortable little hole in the ground, but eventually coaxed out onto a quest involving earthy materialistic matters of money. Consider the tools and weapons traditionally associated with halflings: simple weapons, including farming implements and missiles like the sling stone. All of these are weapons of convenience, weapons that are taken from nature and from tools used to tame nature. In many ways, stone age technology.

The Knight of Pentacles, then, represents a fighter who is tied to common things and desires. Halfling or not, he may be unwilling to leave his home and family, but might be coaxed out if the right motivation is given. His knowledge and his weapons are likely to be simple, if not primitive, consisting of clubs, staves, slings and other common tools used to work soil and wood. He is perhaps a farmer or a carpenter by trade, perhaps drawn into the life of the fighter out of financial or moral necessity, or perhaps because the rural life is getting a little bit dull. Consider Luke Skywalker when we first meet him in A New Hope, frightened of the journey ahead of him but eager to see the world, especially if it means avenging his murdered family, and you have a pretty good idea of what might motivate a fighter of this sort. Fighters like this tend to be young, as this suit also represents the season of Spring, of new, young life blossoming into being.

The second group is represented by the Knight of Wands. Wands are also known as clubs, staves, rods and batons, all of them elongated wooden objects that represent the element of fire (not really surprising when you look at a torch, or a campfire; the fire itself cannot exist without the wood providing the fuel). Heat, light, and all those things that flame represents are bundled into this suit: restlessness, willfulness, life, creativity and discovery, energy and activity. Fire has represented intelligence and inspiration ever since Prometheus stole fire from the Gods and was punished for his impudence. For obvious reasons, it also represents the forge, and the things which come from it: metal arms and armor, particularly simple objects like axes, spears, maces and hatchets, typically associated with the bronze age and the early development of metal weaponry.

In many ways the Knight of Wands is the prototypical fighter: hasty, rash, impudent and full of violent, deadly energy. And for this reason and others mentioned previously, the race most associated with fire is the dwarf, a warrior at heart, tied to the love of battle and the heat of the forge. These fiery fighters are the true mercenaries of the bunch, driven to action by little more than a passion for excitement and a love of battle. They look towards the future, towards what they can glean for themselves in the next city, after the next battle. They are frequently wandering and moving, and when not moving are still active in some way (possibly by banging away on a forge or partaking of a favorite variety of "firewater.") For obvious reasons, fighters of this type are often loners, like lions on the prowl, somewhat disagreeable but quite capable. They tend to be a bit older and more worldly, but are not as mature as their age might indicate (particularly appropriate when one considers the dwarf), often relying on instinct as much as learned knowledge, and for that reason often scarred because of it. Consider Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back: a capable warrior, yet still brash and foolhardy enough to get his hand cut off. Or the young Mordred in the film Excalibur, bane of King Arthur, glowing golden armor carrying him into battle against knights much older than he... and resulting in his death.

The Knight of Swords is the third category of fighters, swords being represented by spades on the traditional deck. Swords represent the element of air, and thus tend to represent a great deal of intangibles as well as the obvious: mental capacity, rational thought, logic, intelligence, communication and truth. However, the suit also carries with it the notion of courage and strength, of confrontation and conflict. Considering the history of the human race, this best describes humanity itself, capable of great intelligence and rational thought, yet so often plagued instead by wars lasting hundreds of years. Likewise, the Knight of Swords is most often seen with the weapon one might expect, the sword, representing in many eyes the pinnacle of weaponsmithing. For the Western fighter, the bastard sword or claymore of Damascus steel is a prized possession, and for the Eastern samurai, his katana and wakizashi (collectively, his daisho) are as valuable to him as his life. The lance and, in later eras, the firearm, might also fall into this category, both deadly tools in the hands of masters.

The Knight of Swords is even more mobile than his fiery cousin the Knight of Wands, constantly in motion as he moves from one conflict to another. But unlike his brash relative, the Knight of Swords is also capable of higher level rationalization, and so he might very well have deeper reasons for entering into battle (even if they aren't exactly in line with everyone else's reasons). While the mercenary Knight of Wands might sign up for the love of battle or the money, the Knight of Swords might very well fight for a cause, or a religion, or a political ideal, or a belief. And since he tends to be a bit older and wiser, he is typically accepted as a master of his weapon, and in this regard is a deadly opponent. Consider the samurai in Kurosawa's films, or Sturm Brightblade from the Dragonlance Chronicles, or Luke Skywalker dueling with Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. And if you're looking for purpose and meaning, look no further than the Spaniard swordsmaster from The Princess Bride: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." A noble cause indeed.

The final category, and in many ways the most advanced and difficult to play, is the Knight of Cups, also represented by cauldrons, vessels or hearts (a vessel containing blood) in various other decks. The suit of cups is the suit of water, and many of the characteristics of water apply: the fluid nature of emotions, the restless spirit ever seeking more knowledge, illusion and fantasy and mirage, fertility and imagination. Terms such as these have been applied to the race of elves in the past, and for many reasons this suit fits them like a glove. They tend to act on a higher emotional plane, removed from humanity in Vulcan-like fashion, blending with nature in an almost fluid way. Their forests would be barren wood without the presence of life-giving water, and their own lengthy (arguably immortal) lifespans are a testament to the power of their own hearts and lifeblood.

For the fighter represented by the Knight of Cups, melee weapons are a second option. Just as for the master samurai or ronin, most battles were won without ever drawing one's sword, intelligence and spiritual strength being called on from an internal reservoir of ki/chi in order to win the day. There is more than one reason the masterless samurai is called a ronin. "Ronin" translates as "wave-man," because their movements and actions were like the ocean waves that surrounded Japan; restless, unpredictable, beautiful, powerful and deadly. The true Knight of Cups is mature or even elderly, fights only when necessary, and often leads others with his counsel rather than entering into battle himself. When he does enter combat, the fight is typically over before it has begun, his wisdom and creativity besting even a master of his weapon. The obvious connection here (if you trace the path carved above) is that of Luke Skywalker as a true Jedi Master, using his weapon only when necessary. There's a reason Obi Wan Kenobi said he would be more powerful if he were struck down: the body may perish, but the spirit is eternal.

Earth to Fire to Air to Water, the tree burns and turns to smoke which rises up to cause rain which falls to nourish the next tree. Pentacles to Wands to Swords to Cups, youthful indiscretion to brash fury to mature mastery to spiritual power. Where is your fighter on the path? Perhaps by finding where you are, you can give yourself a better reason for hacking those orcs to pieces. A little thought can't hurt, can it?

Rethinking the Fighter

We got to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say, "Fight the power"

- Fight the Power, Public Enemy

Stop for a moment, and ask yourself: why am I fighting? It's one thing to pound your fist in the air, or your sword into the face of the next orc around the bend, but it's quite another to understand why. So why are you fighting? Are you like Frank the fighter ("I just wanna kill stuff") or are you like Maximus from Gladiator:

"My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."

Wow; talk about motivation!

It's one thing to say that fighters can be knights, or mercenaries, or samurai, or constables. But it's quite another to explain why they're fighters in the first place. Profession is never a true explanation; in fact, in many cases it can be more of a crutch than a benefit. So your fighter is a member of the armed forces; good luck trying to get leave to go tromping around in a cave. Or maybe you're a member of the town watch; just try getting a few nights off to raid the tower of the local necromancer. No, in most cases, the fighter is definitely NOT employed as a warrior. He may sell himself as a mercenary, or be sold as such, but being a member of a larger machine means that you move with the machine, or you get spat out into the slop bucket.

And like it or not, it's the slop bucket which gives us most of our fighters. Sure, it's noble and whatnot to say that you're charging into battle in glowing silver armor, wielding the sword of your ancestors as you smite evil to and fro. But if you look at the real fighter, you're going to find someone with dirty boots, with a rusty sword, someone who's probably lying in the gutter (even if he is looking at the stars). You're going to find someone who wants to be a warrior, or used to be a warrior, or no longer wishes to be a warrior. You're going to find the brash young youth in line at the recruitment center, and next to him you'll find the grizzled veteran clutching a knife to his wrists, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. You'll find the youth swaggering into the dojo, and the master beating him senseless without lifting a finger.

What you're not going to find is someone who punches a clock, killing 9 to 5, then heading home to kiss the wife and kids. Because at the end of the day, when the orcs are all dead and the last torch has guttered and died, there comes a point when the warrior can turn back to his family and his farm, and go home to get a good night's sleep. But for the fighter, ploughing the field isn't an option once the dragon is dead. Not really. The fighter has got something inside of him that makes fighting the only real option. It's not because he gets an extra Feat, or because his strength is higher, or because his THAC0 is better, or because he's in the army or because he owns a sword. There's something deeper there, waiting to be discovered.

And finding it just might be the toughest battle of all.

Next time: dwarves (and more about the Gurkhas)

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What do you think?

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All Archetypology 1010 columns by Aeon

  • Episode 11 - In Closing... April 30, 2002
  • Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human March 19, 2002
  • Episode 9 -- Death Before Dishonor January 31, 2002
  • Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be December 21, 2001
  • Episode 7 - Roll up for the magical mystery tour November 27, 2001
  • Episode 6 - Kings under the mountain October 18, 2001
  • Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS September 18, 2001
  • Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground... August 17, 2001
  • Episode 3 - Thick as Thieves July 13, 2001
  • Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building June 15, 2001
  • Episode 1 - Holy Rollers May 23, 2001
  • Who Are You? April 20, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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