As of late I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim. Even a year after its release I still love it and I doubt I’m alone. The fact that it’s still selling at its release price would say I’m right. As for the game itself, I love some of the innovations Bethesda attempted. My absolute favorite is the fact that there is no class system. All you have is a list of various skills and associated perks, leaving you free to mix and match as your heart desires. You could play as an archer that summons various minions, a warrior that is also skilled in offensive magic, or an assassin in heavy armor.
Thinking further on the lines of classes, I began to reflect on RPG class systems in general. If you had to break all the various iterations into a few categories, you’d be left with three archetypes: the Fighter, the Magic User, and the Thief. These classic character types are almost inescapable in western RPGs. There are many variations and expansions but at their core they are based on those three fundamental classes.
Those familiar with the history of RPGs will also know of the history behind this character class paradigm. As with most things in RPGs, you can trace the fighter, mage, thief model back to Dungeons and Dragons. In the first edition of the tabletop game, there were three classes: Fighter, Magic User, and Cleric. The first supplement added the thief class. Since these humble beginnings, many have expanded on these core classes but have never really left them behind. One example would be combining two classes, giving you the likes of the Paladin (Mage + Fighter), the Monk (Thief + Fighter) and the Druid (Thief+ Mage). Other systems you give each class a sub-specialization, such as offensive and defensive focused fighters, close range and long range thieves, and mages that focused on offensive magic and others on defensive/ healing magic.
At this point a natural question comes up: where did Gary Gygax (creator of D&D) get the idea for these archetypes in the first place? While I couldn’t find any sort of definitive answer in my research, I do have a suspicion: the various heroes that you find in myth. By and large, different heroes have different approaches in solving the problems they’re presented with. You have your strength heroes, such as Hercules, Thor, and Beowulf. There are the heroes that use their cunning and wit, such as Odysseus, Robin Hood, and Hermes. Lastly you have your brainier heroes, the likes of Athena, Daedalus, and Theseus. I believe that it’s these archetypes from humankind’s most ancient stories that provide the inspiration for the modern hero tales we find in RPGs.
Warrior, mage, and thief. With deep origins in nerd culture and the oldest human stories, I doubt we’ll see these three classes go away any time soon. It’s a wonderful thought that through RPGs we’re carrying on a tradition of storytelling that has existed as long as human have walked the earth.