RPG Evolution: 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


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Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
"Even worse!" They cry, forgetting how there was an adventure where gnomes build a giant robot.
Don't remind me that gnome mechas are not core. In my mind, the reason why no one attacks the rock gnomes is because they have minivoltrons hidden in the mountains with illusions.

Scholar class needs Gnomish Mech Pilot subclass.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
They tried it in an early-on UA. Honestly I feel like subclasses kind of fill the same niche, and probably do it better -
That was the design intent - to get more cool stuff for characters up front rather than delaying the cool stuff until you picked up a prestige class or paragon path.

I think they went too far - I'd really like to see a paragon path-like implementation at level 11 as an add-on for tables that want to use it. My table really liked the paragon path idea when we were playing 4e.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
The only problem is, "light fighter" who isn't a Rogue is going to have to have some roundabout way to give them AC without heavier armor. Which devalues armor using classes when anyone can get competitive AC.

Otherwise they risk making another glass cannon that goes down the instant they annoy a major threat. And dear God, please let it not be anything like the Pathfinder Swashbuckler, where it feels like you get 4 new special abilities every off level.
Some sort of parry-master with different types of parries, feints, and ripostes would be interesting and perhaps represent the expert swordsperson... Of course then we'd have another DEX martial.

I'd like to see some more STR martials. Weighlifter. Brawler (Could be a Monk sub-class I guess). Things like that.
 

cbwjm

Seb-wejem
Having recently been looking at PF2e, it's really making me wish that classes in 5e gained all of their subclasse features at the same levels. I wouldn't want a warlord class in 5e, but a subclass that was for general use would be great so that any class could pick it up. You'd be able to create a few archetypes that could be taken by any class which would really expand the options for characters.

If this was the case, the strixhaven experimental subclasses in UA probably would have been published.
 

A diviner wizard who takes a lot of divination spells I think does this pretty darn well, as about as well as any "prognostication class" could without being exceptionally more complex. The diviner's power is really powerful and reasonable flavorful as "I knew that would happen".
I’ve done it with a Lore Bard with the Lucky Feat. Bardic inspiration is me telling you what to do to succeed. Cutting words is my using future knowledge to cause you to miss.
 



Minigiant

Legend
Supporter
The only problem is, "light fighter" who isn't a Rogue is going to have to have some roundabout way to give them AC without heavier armor. Which devalues armor using classes when anyone can get competitive AC.

Otherwise they risk making another glass cannon that goes down the instant they annoy a major threat. And dear God, please let it not be anything like the Pathfinder Swashbuckler, where it feels like you get 4 new special abilities every off level.

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.
 


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