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

Dire Bare

Legend
Still, do we need hybrid character classes to fill roles a multiclass could fill? I mean we already have hybrid subclasses. Some of which really warp the game to their benefit for no good reason.

I'm not against new classes, but things can get out of hand if you have 5 or 6 options to do the same thing.
Need? This thread isn't about need. It's about WANT.

Multiclassing is awesome, but often achieves the desired result in a clunky manner.
 

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Still, do we need hybrid character classes to fill roles a multiclass could fill? I mean we already have hybrid subclasses. Some of which really warp the game to their benefit for no good reason.

I'm not against new classes, but things can get out of hand if you have 5 or 6 options to do the same thing.
"Need" will always be a useless standard in game design. We do not "need" anything, full stop. But, if I may, I will presume what you mean is "do hybrid character classes do something useful that a multiclass cannot?" Because that is actually worth answering...and is the thrust of my "60% blue, 40% yellow =/= 100% green" argument.

Multiclass characters in an à la carte multiclassing system are not, despite what they might seem, actually two classes blending together into a harmonious whole. They are discrete chunks layered onto one another. The à la carte multiclassing system is very easy to use (its strongest selling point) and, with some important caveats, relatively easy to balance compared to something like a "build your own class" system. But ultimately, it is equivalent to building your character with Lego bricks. If you want a structure to be green, you cannot achieve that via the sequence BYBYBYBYB at the chunky scale of actual Legos. Computer monitors are able to fake colors in that way only because they have extremely fine control--the "bricks" are sub-millimeter chunks viewed from half a meter away. To get the same kind of resolution with ordinary Legos, you must be viewing them from (roughly) 320 meters away. Such resolution is simply not feasible in most IRL situations--and likewise not feasible in D&D 5e, where you only have 20 levels, not hundreds. [Brief aside: I know that to be technically correct with RGB, it would need to be Red + Green = Yellow rather than Yellow + Blue = Green, but Y+B/G is what came to mind first, perhaps because of the Ukraine war.]

As a result, 60% blue, 40% yellow (or whatever other mix you might wish to examine) is not even a simulation of 100% green. It may have all the parts of green, but it isn't actually green. Now, here, it is important to unpack what I'm claiming with this visual analogy, not just rely on the visual analogy alone. The problem with the Eldritch Knight is not that it doesn't do magic, but rather that its magic is pretty much disconnected from its combat prowess, and that limits its potential as a Swordmage archetype. There's little meaningful interaction between the two sides, with the subclass granting only and exactly the following features (other than the spells themselves):
  • you can't be disarmed unless incapacitated, and can summon your weapon
  • you get a bonus action weapon attack if you cast a cantrip as an action
  • hit an enemy with a weapon, it gets temp. disadvantage against (only) your spells for a round
  • you can teleport 30' before or after you use Action Surge (so, ~3 times a day at best before level 17, ~6 times a day thereafter)
  • now you get a bonus action weapon attack if you cast a regular spell as an action

That's...it. Everything else is just Wizard spells, very few of which are particularly interested in blending combat skill into magic. There's nothing like the various Aegis effects of the 4e Swordmage, and because of the way EK spellcasting works, it's not possible to add spells unique to them. The teleport is kind of neat, but is going to go wasted a lot, because the best use of Action Surge is to lay the smackdown on a single target. The EK is, necessarily and inherently, incapable of truly blending its parts together. Mostly blue (the Fighter chassis is very good at fighting pretty much no matter what) with a slice of yellow (spells that mostly don't interact with your fighting ability), and there's essentially no way to make them interact any further because of the nature of both the overall Fighter class and the specific Eldritch Knight features.

I could belabor the point by doing a similar analysis of Bladesinging or War Magic, but I won't. The analogy--60% blue, 40% yellow is fundamentally not the same as 100% green--holds. The closest you can get is the Hexblade Blade Pact Warlock, and that gets a bunch of people really saucy about its very existence, soooooo....

I get, I truly really do grok, why a lot of players don't like what they call "class bloat." They see it as fiddly, persnickety. An unpleasable fanbase always begging for the next KEWL NU POWERZ, flitting from wasteful excess to wasteful excess rather than actually building something awesome. But...that's legit not how I see any of these things. I see it as "this is a clear archetype, one with either some solid presence in fiction or a fun twist on typical expectations, that really lacks for full-throated, serious support." It's not about being fiddly or persnickety, but rather about saying, "I can see how these parts COULD interact, but the rules as they exist don't LET them interact." The Warlord is to the Battle Master what the Druid is to the Ranger: not "part-X, part-Y," but "all Y." The Swordmage is to the Eldritch Knight what the Druid is to the Nature Cleric: sure, you can make a passable "nature priest" with the Nature domain...but it's not going to be anywhere near as satisfying, and you'll sure as heck never get something as cool as Moon Druid out of a Nature Cleric. The Avenger is a relatively new idea, represented in some modern media, a spin on faith and divinity poorly-represented in current D&D, where the Paladin is to much a clonky Big Damn Hero with a preoccupation for rules and the Cleric is a clonky Church (literally) Militant Priest focused on ministering: Avenger opens a space for a surety of faith that reads between lines, and has little interest in proselytizing and much more interest in holding clergy accountable. That it also has shades of "Demon Hunter" or the classic Van Helsing inspiration of the Cleric doesn't hurt at all.

I will say, if it were done well, I could actually see Avenger being a Rogue subclass, a divine equivalent of the Arcane Trickster. But it would need careful handling to not suck. So I'm not totally dogmatic about all these things needing their own classes. I just think most of them are worthy of their own classes, because they'll do something distinctive that isn't particularly feasible or even possible with the current classes and subclasses.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
First, Ezekiel Raiden, thank you for the in depth summary of your thoughts. As you may have seen upthread, I do want to apologize for forgetting myself that is this a thread about what we'd want to have, obviously, we'll probably never get some of our dream classes unless we make them ourselves.

Sometimes my inner game designer starts yelling in my ear and I get carried away.

I'm so used to mix n' match multiclassing that it's my go-to for expanding character concepts, that the idea of getting a 20 level class that perfectly replicates the fusion of two different concepts is like "yeah that'd be cool, but then we get Beguilers, Warmages, and Dread Necromancers- cool ideas, but that's just more stuff to keep track of."

And from the Psionics thread, I've seen some people are very resistant to another "magic" class, let alone one with the unique mechanics needed to make it not another Wizard clone.
 

I agree with the call for a marshal/commander class, but I think it could be worthwhile to implement that as one subclass of a new, non-magical Charisma based class. A traditional magicless Dark Sun bard could be another subclass of this one, as well as rabblerouser/revolutionary, dedicated non-magical manipulators, etc etc. It's always kinda bugged me that the 5e bard is a spellcaster first and foremost. As soon as you create a class that gets full spellcasting up to level 9, then any other class features they might have become distinctly secondary, even something as core to a bard as bardic inspiration. The spellcasting tail is wagging the inspirational dog.

You could probably do all of this as alternate bard class features though, replacing all of a bard's spellcasting. Give a 5e bard sneak attack and the assassin's poison use ability in exchange for their spells, and you're on the way to an Athasian bard, for instance. And a bard that swaps spellcasting for full weapon/armour proficiencies, Extra Attack, and the maneuvers of a battlemaster of the same level makes a pretty solid Marshal, and so on. WotC haven't done alternate class features of this magnitude before, but there's a first time for everything...
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
The Commander Bard would be a interesting take on the class. He is a student of history and tactics, and only cares about music in as much as it increases morale, efficiency of movement, and allows him to order his troops around when they are far from earshot.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
In honor of Wrestlemania being last weekend, D&D is missing the fantasy wrestler/gladiator that fights with exotic weapons, improvised weapons, archaic weapons, and grapples while building up hype and heat to fuel his or her showy signature moves and finishers.
I’ve been thinking about building up to a finishing move as a replacement for a traditional DMG/HP system.

Adding something to a D&D …idk.
 


I’ve been thinking about building up to a finishing move as a replacement for a traditional DMG/HP system.

Adding something to a D&D …idk.

The Buffy RPG had a stake-through-the-heart mechanic, which was a bit similar in concept. It was basically a regular HP system, but you could perform a stake attack. If you hit against an appropriate target, you calculated whether 5 times the regular damage of the attack was greater than the target's remaining HP. If so, then the target died instantly. If not, it took regular damage (stake-to-the-bicep is a bit less effective, presumably...)

I think there were circumstances you couldn't use the stake attack, and maybe disadvantages to doing so, which prevented you just spamming it all the time, but i kinda forget the details.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
I’ve been thinking about building up to a finishing move as a replacement for a traditional DMG/HP system.

Adding something to a D&D …idk.
I was thinking move like high damage for a D&D gladiator.

Like a signature move deals 1d8 damage per level whereas a finisher deals a whooping 2d12 damage per level. And you get a bonus or effect based on weapon used.

So a level 5 gladiator using a cestus finisher deals 1d6+10d12 bludgeoning damage and stuns.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
So building up momentum for a "finishing move". That sounds like good times. It's too bad you can't work a "entertain the crowd for buffs" system into things but not sure how that would work, who is going to applaud you? Still, the game Gladius for the Gamecube had an excellent mechanic for that, and one of the classes, the Secutor, was good at building up favor.

I would also like to see an ability to let the Gladiator get away with wearing light piecemeal type armor and still get some extra protection.
 

Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
So building up momentum for a "finishing move". That sounds like good times. It's too bad you can't work a "entertain the crowd for buffs" system into things but not sure how that would work, who is going to applaud you
The gods, of course.


Still, the game Gladius for the Gamecube had an excellent mechanic for that, and one of the classes, the Secutor, was good at building up favor.
Oh man. Gladius took forever to beat starting as the barbarians as they had only one heavy.

I could see gladiators taking multiple gladiator fighting styles like Murmullo, Samnite, or Retiarius.

Or maybe not real like ones like Ogre (club and shield), Triton (trident and net), Minotaur (unarmed or cestus), Werewolf (dual short swords).

I would also like to see an ability to let the Gladiator get away with wearing light piecemeal type armor and still get some extra protection.

I DM piecemeal armor as 2 AC less than the base armor with no Stealth penalty. So a plate belt, shoulders, greaves, and sleeves is 16 AC.
 

I agree with the call for a marshal/commander class, but I think it could be worthwhile to implement that as one subclass of a new, non-magical Charisma based class. A traditional magicless Dark Sun bard could be another subclass of this one, as well as rabblerouser/revolutionary, dedicated non-magical manipulators, etc etc. It's always kinda bugged me that the 5e bard is a spellcaster first and foremost. As soon as you create a class that gets full spellcasting up to level 9, then any other class features they might have become distinctly secondary, even something as core to a bard as bardic inspiration. The spellcasting tail is wagging the inspirational dog.

You could probably do all of this as alternate bard class features though, replacing all of a bard's spellcasting. Give a 5e bard sneak attack and the assassin's poison use ability in exchange for their spells, and you're on the way to an Athasian bard, for instance. And a bard that swaps spellcasting for full weapon/armour proficiencies, Extra Attack, and the maneuvers of a battlemaster of the same level makes a pretty solid Marshal, and so on. WotC haven't done alternate class features of this magnitude before, but there's a first time for everything...
Well, the idea I had had here was a baseline Marshal/Commander/etc. class was to repurpose the Warlock structure.*

Patron and Pact would switch to Leadership Style and Tactical Focus. Your Leadership Style determines what mental stat you use for your Leadership Bonus, and gives you additional basic tools to work with: Bravura (Cha) is aggressive and risky, Resourceful (Wis) is defensive and tricksy, and Tactical (Int) is for fighting smarter, not harder. Tactical Focus, meanwhile, shapes more heavily the specific actions you'll favor. So there could be a Rogue-influenced "Commando" or "Infiltrator" option that exploits stealth, hands out advantage to allies (to trigger Sneak Attack), and does other skulduggery and "never fight fair" stuff. You could have the classic 4e Warlord, perhaps even calling it the Warlord subclass. You could have a "lazy" subclass--which would then help any DM that hates the "lazy" concept by making it very easy to ban, with all the attendant Tactics (replacing Warlock Invocations) requiring that Tactical Focus.

But you could also get more creative. You could have a Mage-Captain that specializes in enhancing ally spellcasters, an Exemplar that weaves in some divine magic, a Woad Warrior that throws in the Druid/Barbarian primal-instinct flair. There's a lot of directions you could go that would make sense for the directions skirmishes and warfare could develop in a world where supernatural powers demonstrably exist. These would be cool embellishments on the core concept--in the same way that Eldritch Knight is a cool magical embellishment on the core Fighter concept, rather than a true instantiation of its own distinct concept.

*The only part I'm still struggling with conceptually is finding a good, effective replacement for the Mystic Arcana. I've had some suggestions but nothing really grabbed me. That's why I've focused most of my very minimal attention on other class design ideas over the years.
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
In some previous games, I offered the option for rangers/paladins and bards to ditch their spells and gain the Battlemasters maneuvers instead, with Smites/Hunter's Mark being class-reserved maneuvers (this way you could have 3 versions of Warlords: Wis-based, Cha-based or Str-based)

One efficient ways of going about the Warlord is to take the ''improved Help action ++'' features line of the Expert Sidekick class, and bolt them on a class that uses the UA Mystic's warlord-y disciplines (mantle of X, precognition etc). There you go for the general class, just have to find good archetypes.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I was thinking move like high damage for a D&D gladiator.

Like a signature move deals 1d8 damage per level whereas a finisher deals a whooping 2d12 damage per level. And you get a bonus or effect based on weapon used.

So a level 5 gladiator using a cestus finisher deals 1d6+10d12 bludgeoning damage and stuns.
Very high specific numbers aside, I could dig that.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
"Need" will always be a useless standard in game design. We do not "need" anything, full stop. But, if I may, I will presume what you mean is "do hybrid character classes do something useful that a multiclass cannot?" Because that is actually worth answering...and is the thrust of my "60% blue, 40% yellow =/= 100% green" argument.
(...)
I know that to be technically correct with RGB, it would need to be Red + Green = Yellow rather than Yellow + Blue = Green, but Y+B/G is what came to mind first, perhaps because of the Ukraine war.]
RGB is an additive mixing system used in LCD screens among other things, where you start with black and add keep adding light toward white. CMY (although we often go with red, blue, and yellow) is a subtractive mixing system used in pigments in paint among other things, where adding colours ultimately means adding subtraction, eventually fading black once you've subtracted everything.

I'm not bringing this up (just) to be pedantic (I mean, who doesn't like being pedantic!); this can also be applied to rpg design; whether a character is a sum of it's parts, blended with various levels of resolution, or whether a character is the sum of its filters, again with various levels of resolution.
 

RGB is an additive mixing system used in LCD screens among other things, where you start with black and add keep adding light toward white. CMY (although we often go with red, blue, and yellow) is a subtractive mixing system used in pigments in paint among other things, where adding colours ultimately means adding subtraction, eventually fading black once you've subtracted everything.

I'm not bringing this up (just) to be pedantic (I mean, who doesn't like being pedantic!); this can also be applied to rpg design; whether a character is a sum of it's parts, blended with various levels of resolution, or whether a character is the sum of its filters, again with various levels of resolution.
Okay. I'm not sure where you're going with this.
 

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