A new form of game emerged in Wisconsin those many years ago. Miniature players, driven in their quest for more interesting games, began toying with solo figures in a variety of capacities. A desire for some of the trappings of fantasy fiction--dragons and wizards and heroes, oh, my!--came into contact with the concept of mapping tunnels and a new game sprang forth. Players now no longer commanded ranks of troops, but instead decided the actions of individual characters.
The basic spark necessary to create the first role playing game did little to actually provide the structure necessary for developing individual characters. The idea was to represent those hardy folk who could be Heroes, known for feats of derring-do. How could this be done in reasonable fashion?
The first bit of role playing Fiddly then appeared. To most folks, it was of little consequence other than as the way the game was written. Later on in the development of role playing games, this bit of Fiddly would be derided by most players, ignorant of the power of this single idea. There is much to admire, however, in the Fiddly of archetypes and character classes.
A Need for Heroes
The new game demanded much of its author. Players needed to describe their new-found characters for play and to know what feats those characters could be expected to perform. Furthermore, the characters needed to be Heroes, capable of extraordinary feats, or at least capable of becoming larger-than-life Heroes in play.
The genre of fantasy fiction, coupled with tales told of legendary men and events, worked in providing inspiration for the new game form. Perhaps they could provide further inspiration and provide some guidance in the matter of describing the characters for the game. How were the memorable characters found in the stories described, and how could that help with the game?
Look to Howard's Conan as a prime example of memorable hero. Look further into other stories and find those heroes similar to the barbarian warrior. Kull, Aragorn, Fahfrd, Launcelot and Tristram, Beowulf, Gilgamesh. Each of these are legendary warriors of fiction or legend or myth, although not necessarily barbarians as Conan is. They have enough similarities that they can be described as a group, however, and that group description provides a solid basis for describing the individuals. They are strong, with physical hardiness a primary trait. They are men of weapons, trained in their use and ready for combat. When push comes to shove, these are the best at shoving back.
Then there are those that have different approaches to living. Gandalf is arguably the best-known and -loved character in Tolkien's _Lord of the Rings_ saga, and Merlin is perhaps the best-loved member of the Arthurian cycle. Baba Yaga still haunts the dreams of youngsters in eastern Europe and western Asia. These are all figures of great knowledge and magical power, with enough in common that a description of the group provides a basic foundation for a description of the individual.
There are also instances of people of faith acting on behalf of their gods and churches. What about that little Hobbit fella hired on to steal some stuff for the dwarves? Where does he fit?
An overview of the stories which contributed to the new game allows one to see how the different Heroes and characters can be separated into general groups, or archetypes. These archetypes don't describe a character in detail, by any means, but do provide a quick and solid understanding of the basic means by which a character seeks to deal with challenges. Because of this, archetypes become very useful in building characters for games.
The Utility of Archetypes
Archetypes provide a basic understanding of a character, and this was used in designing the game. The utility of using the archetype as a basis for character is perhaps not completely apparent. The most obvious advantage is one of ease of use, but using archetypes also provides for a more flexible game.
A character being described for play using an archetype has a wealth of information provided just by invoking the archetype. A warrior is known to possess some degree of prowess with weapons, be practiced at maneuvering in armor and formation, accustomed to harsh contact and pain, and exposed to the chaos and fear of combat. This much is known just from the archetypal description. Provide some game-specific information, such as what weapons are used, armor worn, and so forth, and a basic usable character steps forward. Provide that basic character with a personality and a full role-playing campaign can be enjoyed without any further details added by the rules. This shows the strength of the archetype.
Archetypes provide flexibility to the game in a couple of fashions. First, as archetypes describe characters in broad terms and leave the details up to the players, the fine details of each and every sort of warrior don't have to be covered. This allows each player to have exactly the sort of warrior desired in short order, without the need for specific guidelines and rules to cover every possible exigency dealing with all of the variations possible. If the designer were to cover specific variations in detail, then players would be limited to merely those variations that were covered in the rules.
The archetypes provide for great flexibility of setting, too. Campaigns involving an archetype system allow for differences between settings to not interfere with the rules at all. Because the archetypes don't provide all the details for characters and their abilities, the setting can dictate details that don't interfere with the archetype at all. A desert warrior mounted on a camel can use the same archetype foundation as a mercenary horseman or naked, painted savage.
Focusing the picture
The use of archetypes provides a quick focus for the character being developed for play. Expanding the use of archetypes to allow for sub-types, as the D&D game family does, allows for finer details to be provided quickly. The general group of warriors can be broken down into various sub-types, and those can be added to the game: holy champions, woodsmen, horsemen, barbarians and savages, footsoldiers. Each of these are quite solidly part of the group called Warrior, but each emphasizes a different part of what being a warrior involves while still allowing for player-generated detail to be added.
The degree to which the designer wants to develop the archetype/sub-type hierarchy doesn't limit the amount of detail available to players, however. The players are still able to add supporting detail to the archetypes based entirely upon what is appropriate for the individual character. Additional capabilities based upon the character's background are the province of the player and game master working together; the use of archetypes in no way limits what is available in this area.
That first game set the stage for many other games and different approaches to describing characters. The use of archetypes and character classes came to be scorned by many gamers, and the game which spawned their use loathed by the same gamers. It would be incorrect, however, to say that character class systems are poor design from the get-go; the idea is sound and useful, with only specific implementations found to be weak.
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All Fiddly Bits columns by Larry D. Hols
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