Archetype Design

Welcome to the Gibbering Mouth article for March 5th, 2014. Today’s article is a Freelancer Foci; the topic is Archetype Design.

Huzzah! New article type! In my Freelancer Foci articles, I’m going to be talking a bit about design elements for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Things I’ve learned, things I’ve learned not to do, and other bits of useful tips and pieces of information to get your game design feeling as tip-top as possible!

For our first article, we’re starting with archetypes.

Archetype Run-Down

An archetype is a package of special class features and abilities specifically designed for one (sometimes two) classes that replaces a specific subset of class features with the set offered by the archetype. Archetypes were first introduced in the Advanced Player’s Guide and have their design intent based off of the old character kit concepts from 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons.

In the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, archetypes are typically designed in favor over fully expanded base classes. Let’s give a quick rundown as to the advances and disadvantages of designing an archetype over a base class.

Archetypes

Pros

  • Short and Sweet: Archetypes are quick and to the point. Archetypes don’t usually take up more than a page of design space whereas a class often needs several pages.
  • Class +1: Archetypes are excellent if your class is very similar to an existing class with just a few minor tweaks here or there.
  • Inherently Balanced: Archetypes make for a more balanced multiclassing experience than you would find from multiclassing. For example, you can regulate the character’s base attack bonus and saving throws a bit better and you don’t have to worry about your player doubling up on an ability that would put them ahead of the pack, such as multiclassing into two or three classes that granted sneak attack at 1st level to have +3d6 damage at 3rd level.
  • Concept from Level 1: You are immediately your character from level 1; no waiting around to multiclass into other classes to be who you want to be!

Cons

  • Cookie Cutter: Archetypes often take away player choice. Every member of every archetype needs to select every feature of the class in a specific order, meaning that every fighter with the two-weapon warrior play very similarly to one another. This is most prominent in classes like paladin or cavalier that already do not have much inherent choice to them.
  • Interaction with Prior Abilities: Plenty of archetypes in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game trade one ability while forgetting to trade or alter an ability that later builds upon that same ability. Plenty of FAQs needed to happen to explain about how one resolves this problem. For example, an FAQ announced that if a magus trades spell recall but not improved spell recall, then he instead gains spell recall at 11th level instead of improved spell recall. Excellent ruling, but its not mentioned anywhere in the book, meaning that players need to peruse the Internet in order to learn about this. (Note, this example applies to all classes, not just the magus.)

Archetype Design Tips
So after reading all of that, let’s talk about some things to keep in mind when designing archetypes.

  • Like for Like: When designing an archetype, one of the most important rules is to trade similar abilities for one another. Specifically, trade offensive abilities for offensive abilities, defensive abilities for defensive abilities, and non-combative abilities for non-combative abilities. An excellent example of this comes from the bard: many bard archetypes trade bardic knowledge (a skill bonus equal to half the bard’s level) for the same skill bonus on a different list of class skills, usually combined with a small benefit to mirror bardic knowledge’s “make all Knowledge checks untrained” aspect.
  • General to Specific: Generally speaking, an archetype’s powers should be “more specific” than the base class’s. For example, a fighter normally gets to pick a very wide variety of weapon trainings, so a fighter archetype will often trade that bonus for a more specific one as a balancing factor. The bonus itself often does not change, but restricting how that bonus functions or can be applied will often make things a bit more balanced in the long run. For example, a mobile fighter gains benefits similar to weapon training when he moves 10 or more feet in a round, which is more specific than weapon training.
  • Future Trades are a Bad Idea: You do not want to trade an ability on Tuesday for a bonus today. That is the hallmark of a min-maxer’s best friend, especially if it is a bonus that you can take once and then never really pay the piper for because you multiclassed into something else. As a theoretical example, if a paladin archetype allowed you to trade aura of resolve for a bonus feat at 1st level, why would you avoid that archetype? That bonus feat is a huge power boost to the paladin that he didn’t have to pay for in the present. All abilities that an archetype gives you should have some form of cost in the here and now, even if that cost is tied to a different ability earned at the same level.
  • Avoid Trading too Much: There are archetypes out there that drastically alter a class. If you have a rogue archetype that trades sneak attack for challenge, rogue talents for bonus feats, and evasion, uncanny dodge, improved uncanny dodge, trapfinding, and trap sense for something else, then what’s left of your class to be a rogue? When you write an archetype, it needs to be mechanically grounded to its base class, or else why aren’t you just making an entirely new class anyway? For a prime example of this, see the changes made to the gunslinger between the Ultimate Combat playtest and the final version: it literally went from an alternate class (an expanded archetype) to a base class in its own right because of how different the two classes were from one another.
  • When Broken, Sum of Parts is Less than the Whole: This tip is in regards to breaking the other tips mentioned above. Whenever you break one of the rules, whatever you gain should be less than what you give. For example, if you want to trade bravery, a small bonus on specific types of saving throws, for an offensive bonus (normally a no-no) then the offensive bonus that you receive should be unquestionably worse than bravery. For example, bravery scales, so maybe your offensive bonus is a +1 on damage rolls (worse than Weapon Specialization, a feat) and this damage bonus either doesn’t get better or scales much more slowly than bravery.

Now, let’s look at some examples of where we can see these tips in action in real archetypes!

  • Like for Like: This one is easy. Almost every bard archetype that trades bardic knowledge trades it for a different skill bonus. Same goes for the fighter; virtually everything that trades bravery swaps it out for another super specific, defensive bonus.
  • General to Specific: In addition to my fighter example above, another great example of this rule can be found in oracle archetypes. Many oracle archetypes force the oracle to take specific revelations at specific levels, cutting down on the usual freedom and flexibility of the revelation system. That said, these revelations often break the normal rules of the oracle’s mystery, which makes the trade a fair one. See the aasimar’s purifier archetype from the Advanced Race Guide for an example of what I’m talking about.
  • Avoid Trading too Much: This defines virtually every Paizo archetype out there.
  • Broken Rules: Let’s talk quick about some archetypes that break these rules, for good or for bad. A handful archetypes break the “trade like for like rule;” a great example is the weapon master fighter, which trades armor training for weapon training at an earlier progression and replaces the weapon training progression with more offensive benefits. For the General to Specific rule, the freebooter ranger archetype trades favored enemy for an ability that grants a bonus to the ranger and his allies against one target. Now, this bonus is only half that of the favored enemy bonus, but it still takes an ability with a specific limitation and makes it more general. And for the “avoid trading too much” advice, the alternate classes break this rule (antipaladin, ninja, samurai) but they get around this by having full 20-level class tables and even a piece of iconic art in the case of the ninja and samurai.

The Ultimate Rule Breakers

That said, there’s one archetype that breaks all of the rules mentioned above simultaneously: the qinggong monk. For those of you that do not know, the qinggong monk is an Ultimate Magic archetype that allows you to trade virtually any of the monk’s class features for a “ki power” from a list of ki powers. This archetype spans two pages alone, can trade anything for anything, and often takes specific abilities and replaces them with general abilities, if you are so inclined.

Now, with that in mind, is the qinggong monk broken? No, because all of its powers are tied in to the monk’s existing resource: its ki pool. So while you’re trading a lot around, you’re not really getting anything that you can rely on all day, every day. In some situations you’re even trading passive benefits for on-use abilities. Because of the nature of ki points, this archetype isn’t all that broken.

On the other hand, another archetype that breaks all of the rules (except length) to glorious effect is the lore warden fighter archetype. This archetype trades the defensive armor training abilities for much more powerful defenses or for offensive benefits in some circumstances. It also replaces a very specific defensive bonus (bravery) for a very general defensive bonus (Combat Expertise) and at one level, it trades armor training for a massive, scaling combat maneuver bonus. This archetype is extremely powerful and breaks most of the game’s rules. Is it overpowered? Compared to other fighter archetypes, yes, but in the cosmic scheme of gaming? Not really.

Wrap-Up

As you can imagine, this article is only scratching the surface on archetype design, and that’s intentional. I can’t give you general advice that will help you design the perfect archetype for your needs: more than anything, freelancing is about freedom and experimentation. So keep these rules and tips in mind as you grab your pencil, keyboard, or tablet and get experimenting!

And that about wraps up my thoughts on Archetype Design for this installment of Freelancer Foci. What do you think? Was there anything I missed? Did you learn anything new? Have you designed any archetypes before? How did they go? Leave your questions and comments below and come back next week for more of my Gibbering Mouth!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune lore warden, and the first archetype he designed was the empyreal friar.

All Hail the MacGuffin!

Welcome to the third installment of Everyman Gaming’s GM’s Guide articles. In this GM’s Guide, we’ll be talking about plot MacGuffins.

Oh man, I’ve been promising this article for a few months now! Its time we talk about one of the most problematic elements in plot design: the MacGuffin.

Defining a MacGuffin

The term “MacGuffin” actually comes from cinema where it is used to define a specific type of plot device. Before we can define what a MacGuffin is, we need to first define the concept of a plot device, which is thankfully easy. A plot device is anything that moves along or maintains a story’s events (also called its plot). For example, the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings is a plot device; it gets Frodo out of the Shire, builds up a legion of elves and men, and both kick starts and drives the entire story along. That said, the One Ring is not a MacGuffin.

The difference between a MacGuffin and any other type of plot device is that a MacGuffin has little or no narrative explanation. This doesn’t mean that a MacGuffin is mysterious; the perfect example of a MacGuffin that everyone in the story knows about is the briefcase from Pulp Fiction. Narratively, we (as the audience) are not given much information about the briefcase. We know it glitters like gold and that its worth protecting (and probably valuable) but that’s it. In contrast, we know what the One Ring is, how it works, who made it, why it is important, and what will happen if the heroes fail in the narrative.

MacGuffins in Roleplaying Games

MacGuffins are in a bit of a weird place in Roleplaying Games. They certainly exist; for example, you can argue quite easily that Aroden’s death in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is the MacGuffin that drives the entire Inner Sea Region. For those that do not know, the God of Humanity mysteriously up and died one day, but nobody knows why. This is a MacGuffin; it is a plot device that explains much of the current turmoil experienced in the Inner Sea Region. That said, are MacGuffins good for every campaign setting? That’s a bit of a tricky question.

We’ve mentioned before that combat is the heart of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. That’s true mostly because mechanics and rules are the heart of any game. (In my opinion, the complete absence of rules from roleplaying is make-believe; the presence of even the smallest rule makes it a roleplaying game). When we talk about the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, 90% of the mechanics rules you see involve combat, which is where I’m coming from when I make this claim. So for that reason, if you involve mechanics then the mechanics themselves can’t be a MacGuffin. For example, if you have an all-powerful object that keeps the forces of Hell at bay, functioning as a massive magic circle against evil spell but never explain how the object was made, who made it, or how the object functions, then you have an acceptable MacGuffin. The MacGuffin’s isn’t explained well in the narrative, but it is mechanically sound in what it does. Likewise, the example of Aroden is fine because gods have few to no mechanics in place as it is, so understanding how a god can die is literally out of the realm of the explainable with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game anyway. You don’t need a sound narrative for a plot device in a story, but if it functions in game terms, it needs to provide some sort of mechanics to it.

MacGuffins Mechanics

So, let’s talk about “When MacGuffins Go Wrong.” A MacGuffin goes wrong whenever it provides a clear mechanical benefit that can’t be explained by the mechanics. For example, you don’t need to know why a pulsating shard of a wardstone gives you a massive, mythic boost: you only need to know what game mechanics that mythic power gives you.

But when you possess a magic ring that just sort of makes things happen for no reason, then you have a mechanical MacGuffin. In my GM NPC article series, I told the story of my friend who gave an NPC a magic compass that allowed him to teleport the ship, its cargo, and its crew (but not the raiders on the deck) to a random location. Now, teleportation is a clearly defined mechanic in 3.5 Edition. However, no teleportation spell explained for how every enemy on the deck was “spliced,” turning their bodies inside-out and killing them all instantly. This is what we would call a mechanical MacGuffin, and they’re often problems in the long run. Not because GMs should never, ever stray from existing mechanics or anything, but because poorly defined mechanics often turn into commonly abused player crutches. As an example, what if every time we were raided, we just used the magic compass to teleport away and instantly kill our invaders. It is hardly a challenge for us, while the invaders apparently can’t do anything to stop it. But the moment they can, then we the players cry foul because the GM is “ruining our super awesome trick” that was never really ours to begin with.

Unreal MacGuffins

Now, of course, the above only matters when we stop and talk about MacGuffins that you can fight with. When a MacGuffin doesn’t do something that involves mechanics, then you don’t need to keep them as rigidly defined. For example, if you have a magical dart that can be used to slay a god and nothing more, that’s fine. Go crazy. The rules can’t tell you how to slay a god or what slaying a god entails, so there really isn’t a good way to abuse that. When your MacGuffin’s “mechanics” go beyond the scope of the game’s rules, then you should feel free to do what you want with them.

For example, the GM who runs the game that I play Kyr’shin in has a MacGuffin that acts as “the key” to an anciently powerful artifact that has an extreme level of power, but to what effect we don’t know. As far as we know, this key has no effect except to activate this other artifact and no one in the story really has a strong idea of what it is or how it works. But we need the key to defend and repurpose the artifact, so the key is an essential element driving our plot forward. It is a MacGuffin in the truest sense of the word, but it effectively has no mechanical benefit to us as PCs. This is the sort of MacGuffin that you can leave as-is; it does something, but that something isn’t defined by the rules anyway, so it doesn’t need to be defined either.

Moral of the MacGuffin

The moral of the story is simple: narrative MacGuffins are fine. Mechanical MacGuffins become tools that the players come to rely on and seek to trivialize encounters with. Even the most mysterious narrative MacGuffin needs to have codified mechanics to it in order to prevent the PCs from trying to abuse it or become dependent upon it. Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to TELL the PCs about every little power that the MacGuffin possesses; you just need to be fully aware of what the MacGuffin can do and why.

And that, folks, is all I have to say about MacGuffins for now. What did you think? Do you use MacGuffins? How do you use them? How do you feel when your GM has a poorly codified thing like a MacGuffin in his story? Are MacGuffins a good thing or a bad thing? Leave your answers, comments, and questions below and I’ll see you next time for another installment of the GM’s Guide!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune MacGuffin, but I don’t know what that class is or what it can do.