A frequent criticism of the fourth edition (4e) Dungeons & Dragons game is a perceived lack of variety within character classes. A player suggesting that all 4e fighters are basically the same is, from a mechanics standpoint, partly right – especially if he is accustomed to playing the game’s third edition (3e), which included extensive, official supplemental material and an ocean of third-party material, containing coutless feats and prestige classes that could make fighters very different, indeed.
One way to break those perceived limitations is to suggest that, while the game mechanics between 4e fighters can be largely unchanged, creating a character from a concept or archetype can create a very different role-playing experience with minimal rule alteration.
One source of “archetype inspiration” is prior editions of the D&D game, particularly the optional material from the game’s second edition (2e). Many “legacy D&D” optional rules, when applied as role-playing tools or used to modify the “flavor description” of 4e character powers, blend seamlessly into the 4e system.
During the game’s 2e period, TSR published The Complete Handbook Series, a group of 128-page rules supplements, each devoted to a specific race or class. Each of these volumes contained a numer of character “kits,” which could be considered the forerunners of 4e character builds. The kits essentially amounted to a short cultural description of the kit, followed by slight tweaking of rules, perhaps granting a non-weapon proficiency, modifications to starting wealth or equipment, or bestowing special bonuses and penalties based on how heroes of that kit would interact with their world.
The good news is that much of what 2e considered optional is mainstream in 4e.
For example, consider the Complete Bard’s Handbook. Old timers will remember that, in 2e days, the bard class was restricted to humans and half-elves; the handbook provided optional rules for “demi-bards” from other races, including the dwarven chanter and the halfling whistler. While the moderate changes in 2e bardic abilities presented by these kits mean little in a 4e game, they can serve as fine inspiration if viewed as character archetypes that can lead players to take unusual combinations of skills and powers.
To continue our example of the bard: under 4e rules, characters of any race can be a bard, so our halfling whistler is a viable character if the 4e Player’s Handbook 2 is in play. There are numerous 4e bardic spells which utilize the bard’s song – but who says she has to sing? From a game mechanics standpoint, whistling will work just as well, so our halfling whistler becomes an unusual character. The rules could accommodate a dwarven chanter with equal ease, with the changes being mostly cosmetic with respect to mechanics, but pronounced with repect to role-playing.
Just by considering this brief list of old character kits, a player can gain a concept that can guide character generation choices – race, class, skills, powers and equipment – that, when interfaced with the background of the dungeon master’s game world, can become more fun to play than “the average fighter:”
- The barbarian kits of dreamwalker and wizard slayer
- The bard kits of loremaster or thespian
- The dwarf kits of locksmith or ghetto fighter
- The elf kits of herbalist or infiltrator
- The fighter kits of Amazon and gladiator
- The paladin kits of expatriate or ghost hunter
- The priest kits of outlaw or pacifist
- The ranger kits of beastmaster or stalker
- The thief kits of bounty hunter or investigator
- The wizard kits of academian or savage wizard
Of course, since these kit titles are presented for inspirational purposes only, there is no need to restrict specific kits to their originally intended classes. Dwarves aren’t the only D&D race that can produce ghetto fighters, any more than paladins should be the only ghost hunters.
Other sources of archetype inspiration include old issues of Dragon magazine, particularly during the 1e period, when the magazine regularly published optional classes for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. In those days, the mariner, duelist, jester and cloistered cleric were separate classes in their own right, and any of them could serve as a 4e character archetype.
Another source of old-school inspiration can be found at the innumerable fan sites dedicated to “legacy” D&D – those editions that are out-of-print but still command a loyal following. The team at Dragonsfoot.org has produced a free download called The Manual of Professions that provides an array of character options that could serve as a guide during 4e character creation.
Of course, the potential sources of character archetypes is essentially limitless, but drawing from the D&D game’s rich history is a time-tested place to start.