D&D's Missing Archetypes

Dungeons & Dragons' classes have expanded to include popular tropes from fantasy fiction. Now D&D itself is influencing what archetypes appear in fiction. There's still a few missing.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay

This thought experiment is rooted in the idea that classes need to be in the Players Handbook to be deemed official. This article specifically addresses popular fantasy characters that don't seem to easily fit into one of the existing classes.

Of the original classes, the fighter and wizard find their inspiration in literature and history. Of those with historical roots, bards and druids were inspired by Celtic history (the bard was originally much less a musician and much more a multi-class fighter/thief/druid) and paladins from chansons de geste (and specifically the fantasy fiction, Three Hearts and Three Lions). Speaking of fiction, many of the classes were inspired by the popular fiction at the time: the wizard and rogue were patterned after Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, clerics were inspired by Dracula's vampire-hunting Van Helsing (more likely the Hammer films than the original novel), rangers after Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, barbarians after R.E. Howard's Conan series, and monks from the Destroyer series featuring Remo Williams.

After their debut, many classes were largely refined. Bards became a full class, clerics became more religious, and monks diversified to represent more martial arts. But the sorcerer and warlock are more recent, filling niches that better represented other spellcasting sources. Wizards were very much a Vancian-inspiration, so sorcerers filled the many other spellcasting archetypes in literature in video games. Warlocks were the second antihero after rogues with some dubious magical origins that made them different from sorcerers and wizards, a caster more inspired by cultists and witches than magical formulae and raw willpower.

The archetypes below are the next evolution of these ideas, inspired by new media that has debuted since and roles that aren't quite being filled by existing classes. That said, variants of all these exist in some form, but not as a core class. Almost every character archetype can be recreated by tinkering with the rules, be it via third party supplements or homebrew. But at some point an invisible line is crossed where players expect to be able to play the character they see in other media. If fantasy games, movies, and books are any indication, here's three archetypes that might be on the path to becoming core classes in D&D's future.

Artificer​

The rise of steampunk-style characters has been propagated by video games that regularly included magical tech in their settings. That in turn has created its own media offshoots, like Wakfu (based on the titular Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) and Arcane (based on the online battle arena game League of Legends). And of course, anime is a major influence, which was regularly mixing fantasy and technology going as far back as the works of Studio Ghibli with Castle in the Sky.

The artificer originally appeared as a specialist wizard in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Option: Spells & Magic, only to reach prominence in Third Edition with the Eberron Campaign Setting. It was an official base class in Fourth Edition's Eberron's Player's Guide. The artificer has since shown up Eberron: Rising from the Last War and Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, but it's not part of the core classes in the Player's Handbook.

The reason for that may be that artificers have built-in assumptions about the campaign universe that requires some "magitech" inclusion by the dungeon master, and not everyone may be comfortable with that default assumption. That said, clerics assume a divine connection to deities, barbarians assume a culture of raging primal warriors, and warlocks assume a (somewhat sinister) connection to other beings willing to exchange magic for power. It's not that big of a stretch to include artificer in the core rules and it may well be included in future editions.

Witcher​

The Witcher was originally a book series, which in turn inspired a video game franchise, which in turn created a Netflix series. Watching The Witcher series feels a lot like watching someone's Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and that's no accident. Witchers have a lot in common with rangers and in the original setting where they originated, may well have been inspired by them. But origins aside, the ranger has always been something of an uneasy fit for a witcher.

That's at least due in part to the revisions to the core ranger class itself. Xanathar's Guide introduced a proper monster slayer archetype that fits the witcher mold. And of course there's the Bloodhunter class created by Critical Role's Matt Mercer in The Explorer's Guide to Wildemount.

Gunslinger​

Critical Role is so popular that it's begun to influence the game that inspired it, so it's perhaps not a surprise that another of Mercer's creations, the gunslinger, fills a missing archetype. Like the artificer, the gunslinger presupposes a level of technology that is not currently the default in D&D. But also like artificers, gunslingers are everywhere, including in Vox Machina.

In the cartoon, Percival de Rolo is infernally-inspired by the demon Orthax to create firearms, justifying their inclusion in a fantasy setting that didn't initially have firearms at all. Since his debut, Percival is now considered the inventor of these kinds of weapons, which just goes to show how a determined DM can make the archetype's inclusion work in their campaign.

Will They Ever Become Official?​

Pathfinder, with its massive array of character options, is a good guidepost for the future of D&D. All of the above archetypes are covered as base classes, although they're not (currently) part of Pathfinder's core rules either.

Of the three classes, the artificer has steadfastly appeared in each edition, and with each debut a little less attached to the campaign roots of Eberron. Its inclusion in Tasha's completed that journey, so it seems likely that the next logical step is to include artificers in the core rules. If that happens, it's not hard to see a gunslinger being an option, either as a fighter or ranger archetype. And the Witcher-inspired class is likely not far behind, benefiting from a subclass in Xanathar's Guide (the Monster Slayer) and Mercer's own Bloodhunter class.

Your Turn: There are surely archetypes that are popular in fantasy-related media that don't fit any of the current classes. What did I miss?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca



DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Isn't the Witcher just a Hexblade Warlock?
The Monster Slayer concept can show up across any number of classes mechanically. But narratively the Hexblade and Witcher are not the same since in theory the Hexblade is all about the character making a pact with a sentient magical weapon, which has nothing to do with the Witcher concept. Ranger as the base class makes a little more sense since they are both hunters of things-- the only downside is that the Ranger's magical abilities are more nature-based, whereas the Witcher should be more arcane. And WotC did try a Monster Hunter fight subclass in one of the really old UAs, but it didn't go anywhere (I suspect due to the lack of magic and "hunting" being a ranger thing.)

I will say that for all the talk about folks wanting a Swordmage to be the arcane half-caster (to go alongside the Paladin and Ranger)... I personally think that the Witcher concept makes a lot more sense to fill that niche. Because the Witcher has a lot more story oomph to it than the generic "fighter/wizard" idea that Swordmages always get defined as. So a full class with a d10 HD, all armor and weapon proficiencies, a smidge of artificer potion use as its main class feature, and then a half-caster spell list for the Witcher's "Signs" would make more a more compelling concept in the D&D game in my opinion.

Granted... this will never happen just due to the issues of branding and IP licensing and thus we'd only have to go the mirrored "Blood Hunter" route... but if WotC could get the Witcher branding and conceits incorporated into D&D, it would make both much stronger.
 

The big gap that's most obvious to me is a pet-controller archetype. Someone whose primary strength is their minions (or one tough minion) rather than their own capability. A demonlogist, beastmaster, dragon rider, or even pokemon trainer. Someone bound to the spirit of their dead lover who uses ghostly powers to protect them. Someone watched over by a guardian celestial. There's loads of obvious examples. There's subclasses that kinda gesture in this direction, but they're kinda token. For example a beastmaster ranger's primary strengths are its regular ranger abilities rather than its subclass features, and the necromancer can get far more done by casting high-level spells to zap people rather than by ordering their undead servitor around. Pets/minions are afterthoughts, not primary capabilities. I think there's obvious space for a class built specifically around a pet. Subclasses can specialise more about what your pet is (an undead creature, the pack of wolves who raised you, etc), and give you specific bonuses and features appropriate for your critter type.

The other one I'd like to see is an unarmoured, non-militant cleric. Your humble cloistered priest, not someone stomping around in half-plate and a shield. This could also serve to cover the sort of occult-investigator who knows some magical blessings etc that you often see in Hong Kong supernatural films etc. But really, you could do this with some alternate class features. Swap all your armour/shield proficiencies for a monk's Wis bonus to AC, plus two skill proficiencies and an additional cantrip known at first level. Or something like that, anyway.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Besides the Summoner and the Swordmage, IMO the Captain and the Archer aren’t well done in 5e’s core, really requiring a multiclass of Battlemaster Fighter and Hunter Ranger to really hit all the right notes, which means at least level 8 before both subclasses are online and you have extra attack. Ouch.

Fighter/Rogue can also get most of the way there, but still not early on.

I would say in fact that there is no way to play a Legolas inspired character before level 5.
 


Jer

Legend
Supporter
I would say in fact that there is no way to play a Legolas inspired character before level 5.
More evidence for my belief that level 5 is level 1 if you want to come to the game with a competent character with a background.

There are a lot of archetypes that you can build with a level 5 character and multiclassing. 5e's surprisingly strong on that front - stronger than I would have expected when I originally read the rules.

Not the Warlord though. The game really needs a Warlord.
 



vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
Warlord (or even better, give its stuff to the fighter to pad at little its niche)

White mage! The armor-less support/healer spellcaster seen in many franchise and completely ignored by D&D in favor of a weird armored warrior of faith that is totally not the same thing as a paladin :p

Martial artists not camped in 80's wuxia movies tropes.

All in all, I dont think its a matter of missing archetypes rather than a possible need for D&D to revisit its inspirations and references in the light of the more recent medias.
 



The totemist shaman, or the nagual, a spellcaster with shapesifting powers about her totem spirit. How would be a summoner class with "incarnum soulmelds" about adding more monster traits to your summoned eidolon?


The cultivator, inspired by the Chinese speculative fiction, a martial adept.

The assasin, a mixture of stealth with some magic tricks, or martial maneuvers. Really it would be as an avenger (4th Ed class) + monster terminator.

In the past I suggest the concept of "cofrater" (member of a brotherhood), if you wanted your own version of jedi knights/force adepts. Really it would be the ardent class from 3.5 "Complete Psionic".

My version of swashbuckler is a fighter with only light armor, but with some martial maneuvers.
 

Stalker0

Legend
I would say the number 1 archetype that dnd doesn't support is the "at-will caster". Whether its the wizards of harry potter or the titular Mistborn from that said series, there are lots of stories in which a person is able to cast some form of magic "nigh-infinite" should enough magical material be available. While warlocks have some at-will ability it falls pretty short of the kind of feats many at-will casters can do in various narratives.

Dnd doesn't support this because balancing it with non-casters is exceptionally difficult, but it does leave a lot of narrative gap between dnd and various stories out there.
 


CreamCloud0

Explorer
Something I feel is unfortunate for the ranger(and while i love it this is a problem) is that it overlaps into several distinct archetypes but does none of them very well, the dedicated archer/ranged weapons user, the beastmaster, the herbalist/potionmaker/chemist nonmagical healer+buffer, the monster slayer, the explorer, all would be fine archetypes by themselves but because the ranger has one foot in the door of all of them it doesn’t feel justified making a new class so similar to something we already have
The swordmage has been mentioned, someone who properly intergrates and synergies magic and melee into a single style, not just ‘im a fighter with a small handful of spells’ or ‘warlock who has a single magic blade but is 95% a regular caster’.
A proper stealth magic user, who uses magic to supplement their sneaking, blink/invisibility, illusions, darkness/fog cloud, charm/mind control.
A blue mage/chimera type, who can absorb/mimic the body parts or abilities of the monsters and beasts they come across.
 




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