Classes vs. Archetypes

A short observation.

What makes virtually every fantasy roleplaying game have a feel so unlike fairy tales, is that roleplaying games mainly relied on classes, whereas fairy tales rely on archetypes.

A character's archetype defines his place in the narrative; most importantly, his relation towards other characters. The handsome prince, for example, is (1) the object of desire for the maid, (2) the bane of the dragon, (3) the intended victim of betrayal by his younger brother; and so forth. How he will defeat the dragon, thwart his brother and marry the maid - whether by force, intellect or guile - remains an open question until the tale is told.

A character's class, on the other hand, defines his capabilities and dominant mode of action. The fighter is good with weapons; will attempt to defeat the dragon and the brother by chopping them into little bits; and will show off his biceps in orhter to woo the maid. What he will do, and what relations the other characters have to him remains an open question until the tale is told.

What are the virtues and vices of archetypes and classes respectively? I have a hunch that archetypes are more useful in serious stories, but I cannot yet make this precise.


  1. Hey Victor,

    I've always had an idea about that. Dungeons & Dragon grew out of Chainmail, a tabletop, medieval wargame. What they had were classifications based on military or tactical importance. When role-playing games were born out of these, they carried over into classes.

    As this and many other role-playing games evolved, the classes were developed into proto-archetypes. Now, what I've never understood was the intractability of Tolkien's and TSR's version of medieval fantasy. Everyone uses invention of Tolkien's. And levels? Don't get me started.

    But instead of deconstructing and building from there. Could we, just once, start from a different perspective? You appear to gravitate to story-based gaming. Okay, why don't you take a look at interactive fiction? My favorite is Zork. The 'text-based adventure game' has no levels or classes, but archetypical characters.

    Interactive fiction is not dead, far from it, but why aren't these being investigated? Why do we only look at the descendants of Dungeons & Dragons?

    Fang Langford

  2. Hi Fang,

    I know that interactive fiction isn't dead; I wrote a piece myself and won the Spring Thing 2006 competition. ;) (Though one day you must explain to me what the allure of the god-awful Zork is - when I try to play it, I see a bad parser, unevocative descriptions, senseless puzzles and random character death.)

    I am always interested in talking about IF, but I'm not quite sure what its relevance is to the topic at hand. There is, as you point out, very little IF that makes use of types (whether classes, archetypes or something else) that define the narrative position of the character. (Unless it be the often implicit "the PC is the one who is going to solve all these puzzles" type.) So studying IF isn't really going to be revealing when we wish to discuss different ways in which types and narrative hang together.


  3. Interestingly I find myself unconvinced by your idea of archetypes as more valuable for 'serious' stories. I do think that they're more valuable for certain methods of telling stories. Let's see if I can unpack that.

    The 'class' construction of characters is, for lack of a better way to put this, more similar to the way we understand people. At least it's how I understand people (sometimes). I construct models of people based upon their skills and abilities.

    The archetype model is one way of understanding people, but it seems to be a restrictive one. Under the archetype model you define people by their roles in society/whatever. You are the 'student' or the 'father' or whatever. And that means that you are expected and required to do certain things.

    It seems that in some way the archetype model changes the sorts of decisions you are allowed to make.

    Or something like that.



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