Guidance – Design 101: Advanced Archetype Design

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about archetype design.

Archetypes. Without a doubt, this mechanic alone defines Pathfinder. There are tons of smaller innovations and newer add-ons to the game system that are more innovative then archetypes, but one can argue that the archetype mechanic did a lot for Paizo’s popularity. It proved that Paizo could learn from its predecessor’s mistakes, allowing the designers to add significantly more content while simultaneously reducing the number of ridiculous combinations that could potentially disrupt the game.

Moreover, archetypes gave players a way to define their character and her abilities from the moment she took her first level in an archetyped class, and it also allowed designers to further iterate on the fantasy for each class; you don’t need a two-handed fighter class and a two-weapon fighter class when they’re both, at their core, fighters.

Whether you’re designing for Paizo like Anthony or I do or simply trying to make a neat option for your PCs and NPCs in a home game, knowing how archetypes work and what makes a good archetype is extremely important to being a Pathfinder Game Designer. Because we all know how to spot a bad archetype. Right?

Now, if you want a guide to designing archetype’s that’s straight from the mouths from the people who make Pathfinder, there’s a fantastic arcticle on the subject in the last chapter of the Advanced Class Guide. You know, that chapter you never talk about because it isn’t one of the other rules-laden chapters. That chapter is an excellent guide to the basics. Rather than rehash something that’s freely purchasable, I want to share some of my own, personal design techniques and philosophies for when I’m making archetypes. Consider this an “advanced” course; you’ll need to understand and master Paizo’s techniques before you move on to mine.

With that said, let’s move on to my techniques.

Class Identity

Ironically enough, the most important part of understanding how to design an effective archetype is to understand the class that you’re designing the archetype for. More importantly, you need to understand what about that class players are attracted to, both from a thematic sense and a mechanical sense. Anyone can design an archetype that’s flavorful, and anyone can design an archetype that’s mechanically sound. It’s designing an archetype that is both of those things that is difficult, and what should be strived for when you’re working with this medium. Being flavorful isn’t something I can teach you; its circumstantial to what you’re doing. But learning how to make a mechanically sound archetype is, and along those lines, there are two big ideas that you need to understand when you’re making an archetype for a Pathfinder class:

  1. Is the trade fair?
  2. Does the trade impact the class’s fantasy?

We’re going to talk about both of these points, and we’re also going to talk about some archetypes that follow these rules really well, and archetypes that don’t. Hint: Most of the archetypes that break these rules are the ones that you don’t like.

Fair Trading

Archetypes function by swapping out one class feature for a second, new class feature. In order for an archetype to be mechanically sound, all trades that the archetype should be fair, they should roughly balance out in terms of power. Oftentimes you’ll get people talking about how an archetype “as a package” should balance out. Those people are incorrect. All trades that an archetype makes at a given LEVEL should balance out, but if you’re archetype is trading tons of low-level abilities with the promise of compensation at higher levels, congratulations. You just made a terrible archetype.

Perhaps the most famous example of an archetype that completely fails at fair trading is the Empyreal Knight paladin archetype, from the Advanced Player’s Guide. Aspects of this archetype are incredibly powerful; by 20th level, you have a paladin that can cast summon monster IX as a spell-like ability a number of times per day equal to her Charisma modifier, who is riding a flying, celestial mount and basically turns into an angel. However, in one of the most famously bad trades of all time, this archetype trades the divine grace ability, the ability to add her Charisma bonus on all saving throws she makes, for the ability to speak Celestial. A benefit she could have gotten simply by taking one rank in the Linguistics skill. A benefit that might ultimately be useless if she is an aasimar or belongs to a race that could pick Celestial as a starting language. The Level 20 Empyreal Knight might not be missing divine grace because the class gets a bunch of really cool powers and abilities. The Level 2 Empyreal Knight doesn’t care how cool she’ll look at Level 20; she cares about the fact that she got shortchanged now, at Level 2.

So, how can you tell if a trade is fair? Typically, archetype trades should trade a defensive ability for a defensive ability or an offensive ability for an offensive ability. If they’re going to cross streams, typically the new ability should be weaker than the old ability. A good example of this is the weapon master fighter archetype, which basically replaces armor training with weapon training, and then gets new powers when a standard fighter would have gotten weapon training. Yes, the class trades defensive abilities for offensive ones, but those new powers that the class gets are SIGNIFICANTLY underwhelming; they’re basically the offensive equals of armor training, if not slightly worse. This makes the primary draw of the archetype, “I get weapon training early,” rather than, “I AM AN OFFENSIVE GOD.”

Another good indicator that an otherwise powerful trade is fair is if the new ability is more limited in use than the old ability. For example, a slayer’s studied strike and sneak attack damage dice is INCREDIBLY good, so at first glance the sanctified slayer’s ability to trade out judgment for some sneak attack damage dice and studied target looks too good to be true. After all, judgment has limited uses per day while studied target is an at-will ability. However, the inquisitor has a lower base attack bonus than the slayer, meaning that her attacks are less likely to land even with studied target. Moreover, the applications of sneak attack and studied target are MUCH more restrictive than judgment; the latter of which has both offensive and defensive uses, doesn’t require any targeting, and is pretty darn flexible in whatever encounter it is used in. Studied target is superior for offense, but that’s about all it can do, and sneak attack damage dice can be countered by things like elementals, concealment, and the fortification ability. This is an example of one of the best trades you can possible make for an archetype; the trade results in a radically different, exciting option that looks amazing and cool, but isn’t necessarily better than the standard option.

Class Fantasy

Identifying what a class’s “fantasy” is can be difficult, and it really comes down to two different IDs: conceptual fantasy and mechanical fantasy. Not every class has both of these; Core Rulebook classes, for example, tend to be big on concept fantasy but not so much on mechanical fantasy. Newer classes like the bloodrager or the magus tend to have less conceptual fantasy and more mechanical fantasy.

Put simply, conceptual fantasy is the class’s elevator pitch, while mechanical fantasy is the powers and abilities that define the class. For example, if I’m playing the barbarian, my conceptual fantasy is very Conan-like; a big, strong person who is capable of dealing tremendous amounts of damage. The barbarian’s mechanical fantasy, on the other hand is raging. Getting into that emotional moment where you tear your enemies apart. When you design an archetype you do NOT want to compromise either of these two feelings, the conceptual or mechanical fantasy of the class. Of the two, conceptual fantasy is REALLY hard to mess up. It is super flexible and is often evoked using flavor text. As a designer, it’s the mechanical fantasy that you really have to be careful about breaking, and you’re significantly more likely to break that mechanical flavor if you’ve never played a given class before. Typically, its trades that break mechanical fantasy that make players unlikely to take your archetype, especially when the trade is poor.

When I think of archetypes that compromise mechanical fantasy, the first archetype that comes to mind is the spellblade magus, from Ultimate Magic. What’s the spellblade? Good question. You probably have never heard of it because no one ever takes it. Why? It trades out spellstrike for an ability that is considerably less than spellstrike. Force anathema basically lets you sacrifice your spells to create a “force dagger” in your off-hand that you can either attack with via fighting with two weapons or utterly ignore and cast a spell as if you weren’t holding anything. That last part is cool, except you’d have to still take Two-Weapon Fighting (the ability doesn’t let you reduce the penalties for fighting with two weapons, nor does it allow you to use spell combat to attack with the anathema as an off-hand weapon). More importantly, it trades THE reason that people take magus levels: spellstrike. That cool, awesome ability that allows you to cast touch attack spells through your sword. This archetype isn’t a bad idea, let’s be honest, but the fact that it trades one of the two most important abilities for a magus’s fantasy for an ability that has little to no practical use is a HUGE strike against the archetype. Hence why you never see it talk about.

Now, this isn’t to say that an archetype can NEVER trade an ability that is a core part of a class’s mechanical fantasy; it simply means that the trade needs to be REALLY good, like, if not slightly better than the original ability, almost identical. Paladin archetypes are historically excellent at this; smite evil is one of the paladin’s core mechanical fantasies, and tons of archetypes trade that ability for other things. And in almost every case, what you get in exchange for smite evil is worth it. Its often not as strong in offense or used in a completely different way (such as being a defensive ability or an ally-buffing ability instead of the offensive juggernaut that is smite evil), but the trades are fair and valuable, so the archetypes themselves don’t suffer.

And that seems like a good place to end this installment of Guidance. What do you think? What archetypes have you encountered that make really good or really poor trades? What makes a good archetype for you, personally, and what makes an archetype something you would never consider? I was thinking about doing an article where I talk about the different class abilities that make up each class’s mechanical fantasy; is that something you’d be interested in? Leave your comments and questions below, and I’ll see you back at the Know Direction Network next time for another installment of Guidance. Take care!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.

Alex Augunas

Alexander Augunas lives outside of Philadelphia, USA where he tries to make a living as an educator. When he's not shaping the future leaders of tomorrow, Alex is a freelance writer for esteemed Pathfinder Roleplaying Game publishers such as Paizo, Inc, Radiance House, Raging Swan Press, and more, and also acts as a co-host and blogger on the Know Direction Network, where he has earned the nickname, "The Everyman Gamer." Recently, Alex has forayed into the realm of self-publishing through his company, Everyman Gaming, LLC.


  1. James Krolak Reply to James

    Good article. There are so many archetypes out there now that it’s not hard to find many that are bad because of the reasons you mention. My biggest frustration is the White Haired Witch. Though the “class fantasy” for it being a witch archetype isn’t bad, the mechanics end up being horrible. It basically makes a witch into a melee sort of character, but the base class is a horrible candidate for that. In addition, it trades out all hexes, which is a witch’s most iconic and, arguably, most powerful abilities. It doesn’t help that the archetype is horribly written, either. There are so many aspects to the hair that aren’t clearly spelled out, though it seems the author of it had obviously intended it to work a certain way.

    • Alex Augunas Reply to Alex

      Yes, White-Haired Witch is another good example. Not because it trades hexes, but because what it gains in exchange is so grossly underwhelming compared to what it gives up. (Like I mentioned in the article, Studied Target + Sneak Attack is slightly more powerful than judgment. For damage. Judgment is significantly more versatile, so the trade ends up being fair. Witch hexes are extraordinarily power, but the hair-based powers do not manage to come even close to what you lose.

      • James Krolak Reply to James

        I would agree. I played through all of Emerald Spire with a Sanctified Slayer and it played about the same as a normal Inquisitor. I would lean towards slightly different tactics (positioning and trying to get my Studied Target in before the enemy died) but still felt about as powerful as the base class. I still think the Witch is mechanically a poor choice for the White Haired Witch concept.

  2. Carl Cramér Reply to Carl

    I feel a lot about this subject, and I feel you summed up it pretty well. The key elements is identifying the identity of the archetype, what you call conceptual fantasy, and then transforming that idea into mechanical fantasy.

    The second most task is to decide what to eliminate from the original class; to define the conceptual fantasy by excluding elements from the more general pre-archetype class. The knife master rogue is an example; by removing all weapons but knives the archetype gains a distinct identity.

  3. Nice article. One group of examples that jumps to my mind is how many fighter archetypes toss away armor training, when that was pretty much the only unique trick the fighter gets at low-mid levels (until WMH came out, anyway). It has been nice to see the fighter archetypes evolving more toward swapping out bonus feats for unique abilities.

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