Unless one’s only exposure to RPGs at all was to only titles like Fallout where there is no magic whatsoever, one is easily familiar with two of the oldest archetypes: the Fighter and the Mage. Really, if anything, they’re ubiquitous to fantasy settings, and sci-fi tends to have their analogues as well. But in reality, the archetypes go far, far back. This article isn’t about mythology, literature, and D&D though. This is about how these two archetypes in RPGs evolved–and what makes them similar and different, one in the same–and asking an important question about game design. So how about we start you off with a couple of examples.
Meet Ace. He’s 22 years old, 6’2″, wears heavy armor, carries a sword in one hand and a shield in another. He doesn’t know a thing about that mumbo-jumbo magic stuff, he just knows how to hit people with that sword, and block attacks with that shield. He takes hits like a train, but the second someone throws a lightning bolt or sleep spell at him, he’s out like a light.
And on the other end, meet Lisa. She’s 5’4″, and doesn’t use anything more than a staff and robes–which do barely anything in an actual fight. However, she makes up for it by being able to throw fireballs, freeze people, and paralyze them with merely a word. Oh, and those robes don’t do anything for her survivability–she’s down the second someone gets up in her face and looks at her weird.
However, the question does add up: how do they play in a RPG? Well, it’s going to depend a lot on what era you’re talking about.
Say it’s the Nintendo era. Late eighties to early nineties. NES is the platform of choice, and all that. Ace would have barely anything beyond basic actions in combat. He could Attack, Defend(maybe), or use Items. But anyone can do that. He’s just better at Attacking than anyone, and depending on the game, his Attack would do multiple hits. And he’d have access to the strongest weapons, the hardest armor, and all the tools with which he could Attack his little heart out all day long. And it’d get no worse. And on top of that, he’d have the best HP as well, so he could take the most hits. If the designers wished, Ace might do his Attacking in a different way–sacrificing defense and power for accuracy and the ability to shoot at people with a bow from a distance, for example, or for extra speed and hits with a knife or shortsword or two–or even his fists. But the point stands that Ace would be simply attacking things over and over until they die. And he’d be perfectly happy with that.
Lisa, on the other hand, has the same options that Ace has. She can Attack, Defend(maybe), and use Items. And she is just as good at using Items as Ace is, even. But she can’t attack anywhere near as well as Ace could, nor does she have the ability to survive as long as Ace would if she chose to defend. But she also has another option. It’s called “Magic.” And let’s assume we’re leaving the healers out of this for now, Lisa’s all about the explodey stuff. With this magic, she can put the hurt on enemies as much as, if not more than Ace. Even moreso, if the enemies had a weakness to, say, Fire, and Lisa knew how to cast “Fireball”, she could take advantage of this, whereas Ace needed to make sure he had a flaming sword equipped before he could manage so much as that. Not only that, but Lisa can attack entire groups of enemies, or do other things like put enemies to sleep or poison them. She could do a lot more with that one “Magic” command than Ace ever could with his three commands! …as long as she has resources left. For, see, it takes some sort of resource, like Magic Points or Spell Charges for Lisa to use her magic, and once she’s out, she can’t use magic until she gets to go to an inn.
For even more comparison, both still had to upgrade. Ace had to get new weapons to keep up with enemies–because a sword made of silver has better cutting power than one made of steel (scientifically proven, anyone who’s been through the Marsh Cave knows exactly what I’m talking about), while Lisa had to get new spells to replace the old–the old ones often stopped mattering once the new ones were there, because they almost never changed in power–when you were fighting the Big Bad Demon King, for example, you wouldn’t use your start-of-game Fireball spell when you had your Nukeageddon spell you gained right after beating down his right-hand man! So, both had to constantly swap out their equipment for new stuff. But no matter what, Lisa would have the old spells available no matter what once she knew them, while Ace would only have his trusty Attack command with whatever weapon he has available. That’s how things were done, even through the early Genesis days, and people were just fine with it. Even if one ended up stronger than the other (given time in a number of these early games, fighters would frequently outstrip mages in sheer damage potential.)
Fast-forward about five to seven years now, to SNES and Genesis.. Everything’s different now, but Ace still has his sword, shield, and heavy armor. But what’s this? Ace has learned to do things -other- than attack?! Impossible! But what else can he do? Assuming he hasn’t learned some magic himself and edged in on Lisa’s schtick, chances are he’s learned one other skill. It’s on his menu where “magic” would be, even. Perhaps he’s learned to “Cover” Lisa, letting her worry less about taking attacks so she can focus more on blasting people. Or he can do a “Charged” attack, that is even slower but hits harder! Or perhaps he has his own small set of special attacks, which hit even harder than his normal attack, and sometimes do extra things like hit groups! And oddly enough, these attacks run off of similar systems, like their own set of MP or charges. But he can still Attack, and it still works, and he’s still able to take hits well. But strangely enough, he seems to be getting hurt more by fireballs and the like as of late, due to this lack of “Magic Defense” he seems to have. He’s less one-dimensional.
Lisa has undergone changes as well! But they’re a good deal more subtle in nature. She hasn’t gained any new options directly. But then there’s the fact that her spells actually get stronger later in the game! Not at the same rate as Ace’s attack and skills, but they do! And on top of that, Lisa’s staves now do something other than keep her hands full! They actually make her magic even stronger! On top of that, her robes aren’t so useless. It seems like nowadays they make it harder for status spells to hit her, and she isn’t set on fire nearly as bad as Ace is when a fireball is thrown her way. Must be this new-fangled “Magic Defense” stuff she seems to have. She still can’t attack things without them laughing at her for her single-digit staffwhacks, though…and there are some things that her magic just doesn’t seem to work well against at all. Seems like this magic defense thing isn’t always better.
However, it’s notable that Ace and Lisa still have to upgrade their stuff. Ace still has to get new weapons, while Lisa gets new weapons AND new spells! And if Ace is using skills, he tends to replace those over time as well–at a slower rate than Lisa, and he can use them less often, but the parallel is still there. And on top of that, those skills for Ace tend, more often than not, to be “hit harder than Attack”. But given how well Attack scales up, his skills tend to scale up on a similar proportion, meaning they’re phased out less often than Lisa’s magic. But these skills–they were a new thing! Hip, cool, you name it, it was “neat” for Ace to do things other than Attack over and over again! And get NEW things to do other than Attack! And people liked it!
Now, let’s take a progressed evolution of Ace and Lisa, assuming Skill-Ace was the predominant version. Moving ahead, he gained new and new skills. Attack became boring, as one of those things that you never did unless you literally could not do anything else. Why do that when you had all those new fancy skills! Which also used MP! Or SP! But the point stood that he had more skills, and kept getting them as the game progressed! More powerful fancy skills with cool-looking attacks that Attack didn’t have, and new ones phasing out the old! Except…wait, this sounds familiar. Aren’t we seeing double here?
In case you haven’t seen it coming, it’s pretty obvious by now. Fighters and mages are seldom different at all by this rate. They both work in a similar manner, but one simply uses stuff that looks different, hits a different defense, and is elemental. In fact, they’ve become stat-flipped copies. Some games have their exceptions (Ar Tonelico 2 is a fairly good example; Vanguards(Fighters) have a set of attacks they can use to chip away at enemies, build combos, and support your Reyvateils(mages) in varied ways–but they pull double-duty as human shields in a timed-defense system. Conversely, Reyvateils don’t directly attack, but do one of two things; charge up an attack spell to be released either once out of MP that is spent charging or when commanded, or apply a regular healing/buffing effect on the party from round to round. However, vanguards’ attacks also charge up Reyvateils’ abilities in one or more ways; one type boosts charge directly, one boosts charge rate, and a third increases resistance to charge loss on being hit–both are important in their own ways.), but a lot tend to play warriors as stat-flipped mages without elements or status. Or sometimes with both!
So, opting to segue into game design, and a bit of RPG Maker use here, we have a dilemma–particularly regarding those pesky fighters. One way of taking them has them as the most one-dimensional things ever, while the opposite end has them being physically-oriented versions of their magical cousins. Which is better? Is either better? Is there a third option we can take? To look at this, out of the recent RPG Makers, it’s notable that two of them go to opposing extremes with their Sample Character builds. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I distinctly remember that XP went more for the “Fighter = Physical Mage” route for the most part–fewer skills than spells, but more often than not it gives the physical types skills not unlike how mages had magic. I don’t have it installed so I can’t go in-depth on them, but I have a more distinct recollection of how VX’s Sample Characters operated. There, you could divide characters up into three categories despite the class names: Fighters (Ulrika, Vera, Elmer), Mages (Bennett[even with his being a healer], Ylva), and Fighters-With-Magic (Ralph, Lawrence, Oscar), and the Fighters and Mages were of the first style I described; zero, one, and two skills respectively for the fighters–and the ones with skills found them generally not useful, so they were frequently attacking. Of which, Ulrika’s and Vera’s stats were pretty good for it, and they had good equipment options (Elmer flat-out sucked). Mages had jack all for equipment options, and their spells had poor scaling along with numerical effects dependent on skill bases. The last category…pretty much merged the aspects of the former two; They had a solid Attack option and nobody could argue with their equipment choices, but they also had magic attacks of their own. Full progression for Ralph’s lightning magic, half-progression for the other two. And two had healing on top of that! Some traded some stats for others, but the point still stands that they had the best of both worlds, and it showed.
This “Fighter with magic” deal is one of the other options available–for characters, anyway. Not so much a solution to the dilemma, however. But then again, gishes (D&D terminology for fighter-magician hybrids,) are always a pain to work with; they’re often either too strong, or not strong enough, depending. What of the Ar Tonelico 2 example described above? But that only applies to the very specific system it’s been built around. But, therein lies the answer. There is no one universal easy way to differentiate fighters from mages in a generalized manner while keeping depth to both. It all lies in the framework of the specific game. And the truth is, this isn’t necessarily even a problem. Some games may even openly welcome either end of the scale, or branch things out in their own way, but it’s ultimately up to the developer to pick out how they want it to work, and to work out how to make it fun.