Guidance – Gibbering Mouther: Alex’s Birthday Rant about Archetypes and Versatility

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 archetypes and class variety.


I thought long and hard about what I was going to write about today, the day of my body’s birth. Normally when it’s my birthday week, I do an entire week of Iconic Designs. But today, on a day normally devoted to Guidance, that seemed like a waste. I have diplomatic immunity from Internet hate on my birthday, after all. (Right? This is how that works, right?!) And there IS a topic that I’ve wanted to talk about now that’s probably going to drum up a lot of hate.

So it seems like a REALLY good time to talk about said topic, because at least for one day, I am immune to criticism because it is my birthday.

So, what topic am I going to criticize so heavily that I’ve felt the need to save it for a day where I’ve got an imagined immunity to criticism?

Archetypes don’t actually make classes more varied, and they don’t really let you “be” your character concept at 1st level. Its all design theater.


Ah! No raging! NO RAGING! Jeez, let me at least EXPLAIN myself before you try to stab me with that!

All right, we all know the story that EVERYONE sings about archetypes. Its five years old at this point. “Archetypes are cool! Archetypes are awesome! Archetypes let two characters of the same class be totally different from one another! Archetypes let me play my character concept at 1st level!”

Yeah, you see, about that, let me ask you a question: Do they? Do they REALLY? Think about it.

I first started thinking about this topic a few months ago, when I was working on some archetypes for Paizo. I was writing a slayer archetype, and I had a very specific niche that I was asked to design my archetype for. “Okay,” I thought to myself. “That niche may be specific, but I can totally design a class that can do that. Let’s see what I have to work with.”

Now, obviously, I consider myself a good designer. In fact, because today is my birthday, I’m going to order a slice of arrogance cake instead of my usual humble pie and say that I am a Damn Fine™ designer. When you design an archetype, there are some basic rules that you should try to follow; basically all of them can be found in the archetypes section of the Advanced Class Guide, but I’ll outline a few of them below.

  1. Thou shall trade abilities of equivalent power for one another.
  2. Thou shall ne’ver trade an offensive ability for an equal or more powerful defensive ability, or vice versa.
  3. Thou shall never trade an ability for one that is a flat upgrade over another.
  4. Thou shall design with the entire package in mind, rather than a single trade.

See, I’m pretty good at what I do. I know the rules, and none of the rules are the problem: they’re all vital (and have been outstandingly effective) in minimizing power creep, which is an important. Power creep needs to be kept to a minimal so we can have a game where people can play diverse, customizable characters without setting a high barrier to entry for new players. Archetypes have provided an effective way to create new content without creating significant amounts of power creep.

So if its not rules, what’s the problem?

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Here’s a question for you: how many bard archetypes are in Pathfinder? No, I’m not going to make you check, I’ll tell you. Between the Advanced Player’s Guide and the Advanced Class Guide, 19 bard archetypes were published. That’s a fair number; bards are usually popular with the designers, so it’s a good class to look at.

So, let me ask you a question. Have you ever thought about the ratio pertaining to what class features those archetypes replace or alter is? No? Well, let’s take a look! (Note, for the purpose of this guide, any archetype that alters or replaces bardic performance as a whole will count as altering or replacing each individual performance.)

  • Spells 0% (0/19)
  • Bardic Knowledge 57% (11/19)
  • Countersong 31% (6/19)
  • Distraction 0% (0/19)
  • Fascinate 10% (2/19)
  • Inspire Courage 47% (9/19)
  • Inspire Competence 78% (15/19)
  • Suggestion 52% (10/19)
  • Dirge of Doom 31% (6/19)
  • Soothing Performance 10% (2/19)
  • Frightening Tune 21% (4/19)
  • Inspire Heroics 21% (4/19)
  • Mass Suggestion 42% (8/19)
  • Deadly Performance 5% (1/19)
  • Lore Master 57% (11/19)
  • Jack of All Trades 31% (6/19)

Now, there’s a good chance that you and I see something very different when we look at this list, so I’m going to share with you the pattern that I see: the lower-level the ability, the more often its swapped.

Let’s look, shall we? The highest-level ability on the list, deadly performance, has the second-lowest possible trade-out of any ability on the list. If we look at the abilities gained at Level 1, however, the lowest-rated one (aside from distraction) is countersong, which only has a 30% swap-out rate. Everything else is higher. Bardic performance has a staggering 57% trade-out rate, and inspire courage, the bard’s iconic ability, has a 47% trade-out rate. The highest trade-out rate is inspire competence, at 3rd level.

So, why do I think this is significant. This shows us the cost of the, “Be your character at 1st level,” trend: that designers often feel that if they don’t make a swap at 1st level, then no one will take their archetype. Is this a true statement across the board? No, but every class in the game has its “trends” for which abilities get swapped out. For bards, its bardic knowledge (and lore master, which is thematically tied to bardic knowledge) and versatile performance. For fighters, its bravery. For rogues, its trapfinding (and trap sense, which is thematically tied to trapfinding).

Basically, where all of these archetypes have shiny new bells and whistles, they all also trade the same exact things in order to get those bells and whistles. A bardic collage convention with these archetypes could be summarized thusly:

“How many bards ditched lore class for something cooler?”
*Half of the audience raises its hand.*

Swapping Specific for Mandatory

You won’t often see this with the bard, but for classes like rogue, witch, arcanist, and slayer, a VERY common design choice is to swap out a class’s “choice options” for something of equal power that’s mandatory. Honestly, the slayer is the absolute biggest offender of this type of design; the slayer is 90% talents, and so most archetypes feel like they absolutely MUST swap out slayer talents for things in order to make them feel “different.” But let me ask you something: if you’re swapping out a “choose your own ability” option for a specific option, then how are you any different from every other character who takes your archetype? Where’s the uniqueness? Where’s the variety? Most important of all, where’s the CHOICE?

One might argue that you’re choosing to take the specific ability that the archetype offers, but let me ask you something: if the archetype’s ability is balanced around the power level of a choice option, like a slayer talent, and you’re trading a slayer talent to get it, then why not just make the archetype into a series of slayer talents? It’s basically the problem that the totem barbarian archetype, from the Advanced Player’s Guide, had, just wrapped in a different package.

You Are Not You At Level 1

One of the common things that I see people saying about archetypes is that they, “let their character be their concept at Level 1.” Really, do they now? There are NO abilities that you’re still waiting to level up and get? It is extremely rare for an archetype to actually make you super cool and awesome at that thing you totally want to do at Level 1; I actually can’t think of a single ability. In the intro for this article, I mentioned something called “design theatre.” Basically, design theatre is anything designed to make you feel one way when you use a character build or option, but doesn’t actually DO the thing that you’re feeling. There’s a surprising amount of psychology in being able to say, “I’m a Level 1 Two-Weapon Warrior,” instead of saying, “I’m a Level 1 fighter with Two-Weapon Fighting.” The former makes you FEEL like a thing, and all because you changed the name of your class around a little bit. But let me ask you something: when does the Two-Weapon Warrior archetype make you noticeably better at fighting with two weapons then a standard fighter? Level 5? Level 9? Never?

While the answer to that question is 100% opinion based depending upon how much you as a player value a specific ability that you’re getting in a swap, the unquestionable truth is that few archetypes make you better at much of anything right out of the door, and that’s because archetypes have design rules they follow. A good archetypes does not exceed the general power level of its base class significantly. You just feel like you’re a Two-Weapon Warrior because you took an option that tells you that you are one, with the promise that sooner or later you’ll get this really cool thing that’ll make you awesome at the thing you want to be good at.

Is this a bad design paradigm? Heck no! Because do you know what OTHER cool, named thing gave you benefits around Level 5 that made you better at things you wanted to be better at? PRESTIGE CLASSES.

This is fundamentally why I get flustered when people tell me that archetypes are superior to prestige classes because they, “make you the character you want to be at Level 1.” They most certainly do not. You still need certain feats and abilities, and the good fortune to reach a certain level before you get those powers. Archetypes and prestige classes are the same thing, really, prestige classes are just more upfront about the base abilities you’ll need to be successful with your build.

Improving Archetype Design

So, you probably think that by now, I absolutely hate archetypes and want them all to die in a fire or something. Actually, that’s not true. Despite my beef with archetypes, I still think that archetypes are an awesome tool in a designer’s tool kit for providing players with new options in a balanced manner. However, I think we have to watch more carefully in how we design them, and I think that this is a concern that we’re starting to see addressed in the Core Rulebook line.

The brute, the gunmaster, the warlock, and the zealot are perfect examples of vigilante archetypes that are doing it right: providing unique experiences for their associated class while simultaneously allowing for a breadth of unique character options. All of these archetypes have their own abilities that make minor changes to the vigilante chassis, but they also possess unique options that give characters with those archetypes interesting choices to make. Do I want blood chamber first, or do I want a familiar? Which is better for me? Consecrating areas or channeling energy? Do I care more about sending people flying when I punch them, or do I want my clothes to get large with me when I go into my brute identity? These are strong, flavorful archetypes that give players choices that ensure that even when they’re drastically changing their class around, they still have choices to make that will make them different than everyone else with their class and level.

That’s what I want to see more of, at least, and is what I hope to accomplish when I design archetypes.

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. If you like Alex's writing and are interested in supporting him while getting professional-quality material for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game while doing so, check out the Everyman Gaming, LLC catalog, which is listed under Rogue Genius Games at the following locations:

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1 Comment

  1. Have read quite a few of your articles now on my quest to become a better DM. I agree whole heartedly with you in the sense that I love the idea of archetypes but feel they fall flat in most cases. Is there anyway to see or find your own replacements for archetypes / prestige classes? I wish there was a solid system for building your own archetypes and keeping it balanced via the vanilla game without going overboard and upsetting balance.

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