The core of all tabletop RPGs is the hero fantasy. In whatever form that idea takes, the ability to create a character that will embark on this journey needs to capture the imagination of the player. Providing classes or roles to choose from is often the first distinction a player will make in shaping his/her character. However, once this class has been selected, most systems will provide various ways to customize your character to fit the theme or concept the player is looking to bring to life. The most popular RPGs tend to go in one-of-two directions: Options vs Archetypes.
Does the game system allow the player to choose from a list of feats or abilities to round out their character? Or, will the player select an archetype under his/her class that provides a pre-selected list of skills. Personally, I have played in many tabletop RPGs that utilize both designs, and I have had a great deal of fun utilizing each. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to both the option or archetype style of design. So, lets take a look at these design philosophies to compare.
This style of play was popularized by Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, and later perfected in Pathfinder. Once the player selects a class, he/she will be granted a number of base options for that class, however, beyond that, it’s up to the player to select their feats and abilities. Now, many of these feats have prerequisites that must be meet, which requires a bit of planning on the players part. As you can imagine, this allows the player immense freedom to create whatever type of character they can imagine. In addition, two characters of the same class can feel wildly different. This places the agency on the player to craft their character concept, but in doing so, the player should be more invested, and have a solid grasp on the character. This allows for the character to naturally evolve through the course of play. When leveling, the character is granted new feats, and the player can choose a feat that reflects different skills the character has picked up over the course of his/her adventure. Campaigns take place over the course of months and adventures never go as planned, so it would stand to reason that the character has the opportunity to change and adapt as well. A system designed in this way allows the publisher to release new feats, abilities, and spells, to which players can introduce into new and exciting character concepts, and almost create an endless breath of characters.
Tabletop RPGs at their core are creative endeavors, so one would think that this buffet of options would be the best solution, right? Well, there are some drawbacks as well. Often in games there is a desire to win, or be the best. Though this ideology doesn’t quite fit in RPGs, there are players that enjoy optimizing their character’s combat prowess. This will often cause a few feats and options to rise above the rest. Wizards casting the same spells or fighters all with the same cleave attack. All of a sudden, thousands of options turn into 3-4. These options can also be intimidating for new players. When showing a new player the feat section, I am often times greeted with hazy eyes, followed by the sentence “what should I take?”. There shouldn’t be any wrong answers here, however, if the player sees other, more experienced, players with a higher level of combat effectiveness, then the new player quickly feels that he/she made the wrong choice. This is most prevalent when leveling, due to the fact that if a prerequisite was not selected at an earlier level, then some options may not be available to the player. With no guidance in any of the books, these choices can be hard to make.
- Encourages player to imagine character concept
- Freedom/versatility to create that concept
- Classes can feel wildly different and re-playable
- Fun to experiment and try new combinations
- Publisher free to add new options and abilities in supplements
- Allows the Character to evolve through choices made during leveling
- Optimization can cause few options to rise to the top
- Difficult for new players
- Lack of guidance in books, and various books required for all options
- If not planned out in advance, some options are not available
Acting like sub-classes in some respects, the Archetype model is best known in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition. The base class is provided a list of skills and abilities, however, once granted access to the archetype list, this is when players make their final choice when it comes to rounding out their character. As the archetype comes with a pre-package set of abilities, it’s easier for the designer to balance the classes in a system such as this. It’s also much easier for new players to create a character that interests them, while not getting bogged down with almost infinite possible options. These archetypes are fully fleshed out with spells and abilities, and are often crafted with strong thematic ties. Was your rogue brought up through an organized thieves guild? Well, then selecting the Criminal Mastermind archetype not only provide a skill package that fits that character, but the theme also encourages role-play. Providing this small push from a character concept perspective, new or shy players will soon have a solid grasp on how their character would act. In addition, hearing new archetype options will be sure to inspire veteran players all the same.
Though publishers can craft new archetypes, they’re not as easy as say, crafting a one-off spell or ability. Play-testing and community feedback is required as an overpowered archetype could unbalance the game, and an under-powered one would see zero use. While I have read many inspiring character concepts wrapped in these archetypes, the player is fairly limited by the theme which was pre-selected. For example, the Rune Knight fighter uses the crafting of giant runes to leverage magic. All of the these spell options are flavored after the various giant types in D&D, therefore, tying the character to giants and giant culture whether the player wanted this concept or not. Veteran players can work with their DM to re-flavor or change some of these options, but it would take more work, and with little guidance from the game system… a fairly difficult task. A side affect of being locked into this theme and accompanying abilities, is that there is little in the way of replay-ability or variations in each individual archetype. Two 5th level Rune Knights will have the same spells and abilities every-time. So, this puts some pressure on the publisher to create more archetypes as time goes on, or risk players becoming bored.
- Strong thematic options as publishers can lean into the concept
- Provides players with a complete character
- Easy to pick up for new players
- Different Archetypes can take classes in different directions
- Inspiring concepts assist in role-play
- Each individual Archetype is the same
- No options to customize
- Forcing players into a concept or theme
- Reliance on publisher for new options
- Risk of archetype being under/over-powered
Honestly, I have had a blast playing in many different systems that utilize both of these design methods. If I had to choose, I would lean toward more player options. Sometimes you just have a crazy character concept in your head, and simply need the tools to make it comes to life. That being said, I have been inspired by the latest Unearthed Arcana archetype options which we have covered here on the site. So, what do you guys/gals think? If you had to choose, do you enjoy player options or the one-and-done archetype style of design?