RPG Evolution: D&D's Missing Archetypes

Dungeons & Dragons' classes have expanded to include popular tropes from fantasy fiction. Now...

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

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
IT's a way to make them even more monstrous than the 3e LG Paladin already was.
Ok I read it, and it states that your allegiance to your faith is such that, when your duties to your faith require you to break your code of conduct, you still need to Atone, but there is no xp ding. And you still lose class features when you do this until you Atone.

I'm not clear how that makes you worse than a normal Paladin, since you still have to be Lawful Good, and serve a god of Justice.
 

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Vaalingrade

Legend
Ok I read it, and it states that your allegiance to your faith is such that, when your duties to your faith require you to break your code of conduct, you still need to Atone, but there is no xp ding. And you still lose class features when you do this until you Atone.

I'm not clear how that makes you worse than a normal Paladin, since you still have to be Lawful Good, and serve a god of Justice.
I'm gonna take it that you haven't met the lovely 'detect thump paladin.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Oh, I see now. You had to deal with Lawful Stupid Paladins. Yes, in that case, they would probably make some argument that being a Grey Guard justified their behavior. That's easy to solve.

EASY VERSION:

To Atone, someone must cast Atonement. See how they like losing their powers 100 miles away from the nearest town and the Cleric hasn't prepared that spell today.

EASIER VERSION: enforce Rule -1: don't be a d---.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I always thought that D&D was missing a general Adventurer class. Somewhere between a Fighter and a Thief where you are a character who learns a little fighting and a little trickery. You don't learn every weapon and armor as a fighter nor are you as shadowy as a rogue. This class would fit duelist nobles, highwaymen and bandits, swashbucklers, and caravan hands and guards.

Only way I could see it working is if the class had modes or stances to switch from offence to defence to show how it can't be equal to a fighter offensively and defensively at the same time.
That was the original idea behind the Bard being rogue/fighter hybrid with thematic powers.

generally light armour dex-fighter still isnt well supported
 


James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
The Bladesinger is currently the best at light/no armor fighting. Just let that sink in for a minute. After the Bladesinger I think it's the Valor Bard?

EDIT: oh or College of Swords. I don't have much experience with Swords Bards.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
WotC wasn't involved in the marketing at all? I thought I recalled some buzz about it on the WotC website at the time, but you know, a funny thing happens when you actually take aging penalties, you don't actually get smarter, wiser, or more charming.
Nope. WotC had nothing to do with The Book of Erotic Fantasy. In fact, there was a bit of a panic as WotC was waking up to some of the things folks could do with the OGL, and there was worry this could backlash against WotC.

Personally, I feel its part of the reason the 4E GSL was more restrictive than the 3E OGL.
 

Lycurgon

Adventurer
The missing class/subclasses I want include:

A Swordmage/Gish/Stabnerd - I want a warrior Spellcaster that studies magic and how to combine it with martial prowess. There are tons of available options that sit within this general concept but none of them do it in a way I like. The Bladesinger is fun to play but I find it too powerful. It is great to be an almost unhitable Melee combatant that can do decent damage with Melee spells but I feel it is too much when combined with also
being a full wizard that is already at the top of the classes power curve. Eldritch Knight is too much Fighter and not enough magic and lacks good options to combine magic and weapon attacks. The paladin is close but has the wrong flavour and has healing and other abilities that don't suit a studious arcane style Gish/Stabnerd. I want a class for this.

A warlord like leader type warrior, but I don't want a class for this I want a Fighter Subclass (a good one, not the Purple Dragon Knight/Banneret that attempts this). I want a Fighter that attacks and gives bonuses to allies (leads by example) and has ways to hand out Temp-HP. I don't want a mundane Healer like the original Warlord class, and I don't like a full-on lazy lord class. But I do want something in that ballpark. I know there are many people that would not find this enough, but I would find a 4e style Warlord to be too much for my liking.

A Shadowdancer/Mystic Ninja/Shadow Rogue - I want a magically enhanced darkness/shadow flavoured Roguish concept. This could be a class like the 4e shadow powered Assassin class, but I would be happy with Rogue Subclass. I know the Shadow Monk does a lot of what I want, but I want one without the martial arts/unarmoured and other style aspects of the Monk. A teleporting mobile shadow Rogue/Assassin.

Binder - having read several 3rd party 5e versions of the 3e Binder class, I have started to quite like the concept. None of the existing official material cover this concept. Ideally if it could be made broad enough to also cover a more general Spirit binder rather than just unique vestiges. A class that chooses to Bind with an Earth Spirit today to increase toughness and tomorrow an Air spirit for speed and defenses, or a anger spirit to give rage like furies, etc.

Regarding the Witcher concept, I do think it is very close to the Ranger in concept and place in society. I think a Ranger subclass that focuses on making mutagen/alchemical potions to enhance their powers with transformation would fit very well in D&D.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
You hit on what I think the problem is, which is that in theory the ranger covers all these archetypes, but in practice doesn't cover any of them well enough. Which is why the Witcher feels like a new idea but really isn't, just an arcane-focused monster hunter. Ranger COULD be that, but isn't, due to its nature bias.
If I were to split the ranger I think I would do it into three classes: the hunter, the explorer and the beastmaster, and let them all get more fleshed out individually.

The hunter is the nonmagic combat ranger I’ve seen people calling out for, it’s the ‘monster hunter’ but also the archer, gets the ranger’s favoured foes feature and hunter’s mark reworked as an ability rather than a spell, bonuses to ranged and thrown weapons and can use them in melee without disadvantage, very good in combat in general but stacks various specialisation bonuses to deal the real big hits

The explorer is the one who gets favoured terrains(Now with added practical functionalities!), tracking or finding things, stealth, nature, survival, and both magical healing and medicine skill, herbalism kit, some of the nature-y druid type spells too, The Explorer is a skillmonkey, as well as getting bonuses to things like climbing and swimming and all things exploration.

And finally the Beastmaster, emphasis on actual beasts rather than the underwhelming familiars it currently gets, special manoeuvres between beastmaster and creature rather than each attacking individually, the control beast/monster spell, animal friendship, animal messenger, a few summoning spells, find familiar, planar binding, until you’ve got your own little army at your beck and call.
 
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Jer

Legend
Supporter
Nope. WotC had nothing to do with The Book of Erotic Fantasy. In fact, there was a bit of a panic as WotC was waking up to some of the things folks could do with the OGL, and there was worry this could backlash against WotC.
IIRC they modified the d20 trademark license (remember that) to prevent anything like it from using the d20 trademark in the future. I can't recall if they changed it before or after the Book of Erotic Fantasy was released so I don't know if it included the mark or not (I don't own a copy so I can't check).

Personally, I feel its part of the reason the 4E GSL was more restrictive than the 3E OGL.
I think the overall shift in personnel at Wizards had more to do with it than any single incident, but I'm sure that it was another log on the fire for the argument that not having control over their game system was leading to them not having control over their brand. I also seem to remember certain developers being vocally upset that other companies could just use the entire system for whole new games as if they were "stealing" work that had been done by the Wizards team. (That one I may be misremembering - I definitely remember it being a justification for the GSL but I can't remember if it came from a developer or not)
 

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