Backgrounds and Archetypes: What's the Difference?


Prerelease Discussion


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I get the mechanical differences, but in terms of flavor, what determines whether something is a background or something is an archetype?

Gray Maiden, a prestige archetype, is obvious: You need to aspire and be taught to become a Gray Maiden.

Pirate is less obvious why it's not a background instead. What would the background version be--sailor?

Are archetypes always going to be profession requiring a class level and training? Is that what distinguishes them from backgrounds?

Liberty's Edge

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Thematically? There isn't always gonna be a difference in many ways. You can have a Gladiator Archetype pretty readily to go with the Gladiator Background, for example.

I'd say the big difference is that Background is how you were raised, or a pivotal role you once played. It's not necessarily an ongoing part of who you are and why and how you do what you do. Archetypes are pivotal to who you are now rather than just who you were.

Sovereign Court

I wish generic universal archetypes just expanded backgrounds myself.


I guess my question is should they be more distinct?

There's something bothers me about a character with a Pirate background, for instance, and a Pirate archetype . . . like we have two different ways of expressing the same thing?


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Personally I don't see the problem with having a Pirate Background and a Pirate archetype. The background is a level of baseline competence in being aboard a ship as a pirate (or as a privateer, or even a naval soldier. The name means not much to me). The archetype is more for someone who either decides to double down on their background, or decides to go into piracy (or the aforementioned naval stuff; as I've said, I'm not very particular on the names) after their background. My main issue is whether the Pirate archetype is a worthwhile substitute for class feats in a campaign centered around naval combat. From what we've seen, I'm unsure, but if this is the case, then I see no issue in having a background and an archetype which fill the same areas, since they don't necessarily compete with one another.


So this is a hard question to answer with just one archetype as an example. But if I had to guess... A background was what you did growing up before you gained levels and started adventuring. An archetype defines what you have done as an adventurer with some levels under your belt.

You can be a sailor without being especially adventurous. But once you decide to be a pirate, you've basically committed to a life of danger and daring. This might be part of why you can't be a pirate until 2nd level-- you need to have taken some risks and formed some experiences before you can claim that title and have the skills to back it up.

Does that make sense?


Tholomyes, I think the only place we differ is that I am very particular on the names and I really want a clear distinction there. (In my campaign, I play classes as distinct trades, so that everyone in-world knows and reacts to, for instance, the difference between a paladin and a ranger. A multi-classed character would probably need to belong to multiple guilds somehow to advance.)

Captain Morgan, I really hope you're right. I like both backgrounds and archetypes, and I think it would be a shame if the distinction between is at all squishy.

(Also, I trust you on this but what prevents someone from taking the archetype feat at 1st level?)


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An interesting houserule, assuming enough universal archetypes to go around, could be granting an archetype dedication (without the restriction on taking other archetypes) as a bonus for each background.

Grand Lodge

The Pirate Archetype makes you better at being a pirate. You can totally be a pirate before taking the archetype or even without taking it at all.


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Yolande d'Bar wrote:
(Also, I trust you on this but what prevents someone from taking the archetype feat at 1st level?)

They're level 2 feats at minimum. Can't take feats that are higher level than you.

Liberty's Edge

Milo v3 wrote:
Yolande d'Bar wrote:
(Also, I trust you on this but what prevents someone from taking the archetype feat at 1st level?)
They're level 2 feats at minimum. Can't take feats that are higher level than you.

We actually don't know that. The example ones are but I don't believe it's been stated as a hard and fast rule.


Yolande d'Bar wrote:
(In my campaign, I play classes as distinct trades, so that everyone in-world knows and reacts to, for instance, the difference between a paladin and a ranger. A multi-classed character would probably need to belong to multiple guilds somehow to advance.)

If that is the case, I'd run it as the same difference as a pirate with just the dedication feats or a pirate with 10 class feats from the pirate archetype (assuming there are 10 of them). It shows how committed you are, a sign of rank. If all you have is the background, then you have a low rank on your ship. You can try to fight alongside others, but will be slower than your peers and more likely to fall in battle. This means you wouldn't be sent into the thick of things very quick, you'd be left doing some support, managing the more mundane tasks of the boat.

Pick up pirate dedication and now you are faster and more agile. You are a combatant now, and are expected to defend the ship and even board other ships and attack. You have more respect and your rank as a pirate has increased.

Pick up boarding action, and now you are the front line. First to board the enemy ship and go on the offensive. As a result you are respected and trusted more, and have a higher rank. More respect.

Now you can be a pirate without the pirate background, but that means you were an outsider. You were not born into this, you took it up. You have a little less experience than anyone who was, so there are a couple benefits you must pick up the hard way, and in exchange you have a slightly broader set of experiences to apply to the situation, ones that could be to your advantage.

Under this, someone with the most experience adventuring as a pirate would likely be the captain, assuming they were ambitious enough to rise through the ranks. Thus the person with the most feats would lead. This feels appropriate.

That is how I would run it if I ran games where classes and archetypes were observable. Full disclosure: I don't, I am just guessing at how I would justify these archetypes and setup NPCs if I wanted them to all have the same archetype (and felt like building each one with PC rules).


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber

If you are houseruling that mechanics equal in world definitions then all you have to do is houserule different names that you prefer. If the player picking up the "Pirate" archetype is actually a Navy Enlistee then just change the name to reflect that. Mechanically it can stay 100% the same.

If he then goes rogue (but not Rogue because then he would have to join the Rogue's Guild) mutineers and starts piracy all you have to do is change the name of the archetype back.


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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

It's a valid point. Even if Paizo do clarify the thematic difference between a background and an archetype - that an archetype is the path somebody is currently on rather than where they came from - they're still mechanically very similar. An archetype is effectively the fourth block in the character build chain.


  • Ancestry
  • Background
  • Class
  • Archetype

I know we haven't had the multiclass blog yet, but I have to wonder - are archetypes even still linked to classes? If not, then it seems to me like archetypes should be renamed.

Preferably to something starting with 'D'.


sadie wrote:
I know we haven't had the multiclass blog yet, but I have to wonder - are archetypes even still linked to classes?

From the Archetypes for All blog:

Jason Bulmahn wrote:
We also wanted to open them up a bit, so we could build archetypes allowing more than one class to access their features and feats, as opposed to having to recreate a concept for every applicable class with an entirely new archetype. This doesn't prevent us from creating more specific archetypes as well, but it opens up the design space further.

So what it seems like to me, from reading this, is that Archetypes will be split into Class-Specific Archetypes, and Universal Archetypes.

I can't imagine how they're planning to make the distinction here, but it sounds interesting!

sadie wrote:

If not, then it seems to me like archetypes should be renamed.

Preferably to something starting with 'D'.

Try as I might, I can't come up with something for this!


Pathfinder Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber
mrianmerry wrote:


sadie wrote:

If not, then it seems to me like archetypes should be renamed.

Preferably to something starting with 'D'.

Try as I might, I can't come up with something for this!

Destiny or something like that. But we shouldn't make it a D anyway. The only benefit of that is for character gen to be A B C D, and I don't think anyone want Archetypes to be an assumed part of character creation.


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mrianmerry wrote:
sadie wrote:

If not, then it seems to me like archetypes should be renamed.

Preferably to something starting with 'D'.

Try as I might, I can't come up with something for this!

Why not rename them to Dedications?

That's the feat type they require.


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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

I was (mostly) joking about the letter 'D'...

mrianmerry wrote:
sadie wrote:
I know we haven't had the multiclass blog yet, but I have to wonder - are archetypes even still linked to classes?

From the Archetypes for All blog:

Jason Bulmahn wrote:
We also wanted to open them up a bit, so we could build archetypes allowing more than one class to access their features and feats, as opposed to having to recreate a concept for every applicable class with an entirely new archetype. This doesn't prevent us from creating more specific archetypes as well, but it opens up the design space further.

So what it seems like to me, from reading this, is that Archetypes will be split into Class-Specific Archetypes, and Universal Archetypes.

I can't imagine how they're planning to make the distinction here, but it sounds interesting!

What I meant to ask was something more specific than this, and relates to multiclassing.


  • In Pathfinder 1e, each archetype is specific to a class. You can be a Rogue (Thief) + Alchemist (Mad Scientist), for example. The Mad Scientist archetype is attached to the Alchemist class.
  • In Starfinder, archetypes aren't specific to classes any more, but they are still attached to class when you take them. You can be a Soldier (Cyborg) + Envoy (Phrenic Adept). The Phrenic Adept archetype is attached to the Envoy class, since it replaces class features.

In Pathfinder 2e, archetypes have some requirements, need a dedication feat to unlock, then provide further feats. We know they're not necessarily specific to a class, but are they still attached to a class? If I play a Rogue + Alchemist with the Pirate archetype, am I playing a Rogue (Pirate) + Alchemist, or am I playing a Rogue + Alchemist + Pirate? Is there even a difference?

Understanding that is key to seeing how Paizo sees archetypes now. Are they specialisations of classes, or are they specialisations of whole characters? It so far seems to be the latter, which is why I'm not sure the old name 'archetype', with its connotations of class-specialisation, fits them.


Sadie wrote:

What I meant to ask was something more specific than this, and relates to multiclassing.

  • In Pathfinder 1e, each archetype is specific to a class. You can be a Rogue (Thief) + Alchemist (Mad Scientist), for example. The Mad Scientist archetype is attached to the Alchemist class.
  • In Starfinder, archetypes aren't specific to classes any more, but they are still attached to class when you take them. You can be a Soldier (Cyborg) + Envoy (Phrenic Adept). The Phrenic Adept archetype is attached to the Envoy class, since it replaces class features.
    In Pathfinder 2e, archetypes have some requirements, need a dedication feat to unlock, then provide further feats. We know they're not necessarily specific to a class, but are they still attached to a class? If I play a Rogue + Alchemist with the Pirate archetype, am I playing a Rogue (Pirate) + Alchemist, or am I playing a Rogue + Alchemist + Pirate? Is there even a difference?

    Understanding that is key to seeing how Paizo sees archetypes now. Are they specialisations of classes, or are they specialisations of whole characters? It so far seems to be the latter, which is why I'm not sure the old name 'archetype', with its connotations of class-specialisation, fits them.

  • We don't really know how multiclassing works in PF2e yet, but based on the Archetypes blog and the general structure of classes and feats, I'd be absolutely shocked if the sorts of archetypes previewed are attached to the class you are when you take them first feat. That really defeats the entire purpose of the modular character design that PF2e seems to be going for.

    In other words, I strongly suspect that you'll be playing an Alchemist(4)/Rogue(5) who has dedicated herself to becoming the most piratey pirate of all (Pirate archetype, 3 feats).


    In a setting with classes as actual discernable things in the world rather than abstractions to represent a common set of skills/power sources, then archetypes would probably be seen as classes yet shorter.


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    You know, I absolutely didn't mind calling these new archetypes archetypes... But calling them dedications actually seems like a pretty decent idea.


    Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

    As in, it's something your character has dedicated themselves to. That actually fits.


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    Pathfinder Adventure Path, Lost Omens, Rulebook, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

    More realistically, I think "Path" probably describes how I see these new archetypes. They represent something that the character is doing with their life.

    For example:

    Quote:

    Joseph was born on the Chelaxian coast, and grew up in a Noble household. On reaching maturity he trained as a Fighter, with a focus on duelling with swords, as would be expected of a young nobleman. When his family's financial interests called him to visit the Mwangi colonies he discovered a love of the sea and turned his training to the life of a Pirate.

    This basically explains why they're disconnected from classes, why you can't take them until 2nd level or later, and why you can't easily take more than one of them.


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    Wow. I think I also prefer Dedication to Archetype.

    Shadow Lodge

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    Background: what you did before becoming an adventurer.
    Archetype: what you do now, as an adventurer.


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    Pathfinder Card Game, Companion, Starfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Charter Superscriber
    Deadmanwalking wrote:

    Thematically? There isn't always gonna be a difference in many ways. You can have a Gladiator Archetype pretty readily to go with the Gladiator Background, for example.

    I'd say the big difference is that Background is how you were raised, or a pivotal role you once played. It's not necessarily an ongoing part of who you are and why and how you do what you do. Archetypes are pivotal to who you are now rather than just who you were.

    This. Pretty straightforward.

    Side note, I like calling universal archetypes, dedications instead


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    Yeah. What if universal archetypes (like "pirate") were called Dedications, and class-specific archetypes (for instance, "tome eater" for occultist only) retained the name Archetype?


    It might molify some people, though they have promoted "archetypes are now core" for a while now.


    Captain Morgan wrote:
    It might molify some people, though they have promoted "archetypes are now core" for a while now.

    They might still be. The playtest doesn’t cover all the content of the final book. But fancy (ie traditional) archetypes Being APG content would also make sense.


    I'll throw my hat in the ring as someone who prefers the term "Archetype" to "Dedication," though I'd prefer it more in its adjectival form.

    "Jack Silver a rogue and is the archetypal pirate."


    Cheburn wrote:
    "Jack Silver a rogue and is the archetypal pirate."

    My only issue with that is that it only requires a single feat for jack to be "the archetypal pirate.": Thats not , IMO, a shining example of being a pirate vs someone that's taking every single pirate feat. Gaining access to feats is different from gaining abilities that show/prove the archetype's theme. IE, very few pirates will be have identical abilities, making the archetype nebulous at best. In fact, a background [pirate] is more archetypal that the archetype is as everyone that has it gets the same set of abilities.


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    graystone wrote:
    In fact, a background [pirate] is more archetypal that the archetype is as everyone that has it gets the same set of abilities.

    I feel that's a real misuse of the term. Of course, what makes something an "archetype" of anything is open to debate IRL, and there is always opinion and judgment involved.

    Let's look at your example though. Since we don't know what it does, let's assume for the second that the Pirate background gives you:

  • Two ability boosts.
  • The fictional "Rope Climber" skill feat
  • Training in the Piracy Lore skill.
    which is pretty similar to other backgrounds.

    So you have two characters:

  • One is good at climbing ropes (useful on ships), and knows a few things about piracy.
  • The other knows how to sail, can move and balance effortlessly on a ship as it pitches in the sea, knows how to use a hatchet, scimitar, and spear, and is amazing at acrobatics. As they continue to advance, they also get better at swimming and learn to board enemy ships with great success.

    Your claim is that the first is a better typical example of a pirate in a fantasy game than the second? It's a bit like claiming that the very archetype of a soldier is ... anyone who's completed basic training, because all soldiers have done that.


  • graystone wrote:
    Cheburn wrote:
    "Jack Silver a rogue and is the archetypal pirate."
    My only issue with that is that it only requires a single feat for jack to be "the archetypal pirate.": Thats not , IMO, a shining example of being a pirate vs someone that's taking every single pirate feat. Gaining access to feats is different from gaining abilities that show/prove the archetype's theme. IE, very few pirates will be have identical abilities, making the archetype nebulous at best. In fact, a background [pirate] is more archetypal that the archetype is as everyone that has it gets the same set of abilities.

    Dedication would be a substantially worse label for you, then.


    Cheburn wrote:
    Your claim is that the first is a better typical example of a pirate in a fantasy game than the second? It's a bit like claiming that the very archetype of a soldier is ... anyone who's completed basic training, because all soldiers have done that.

    It is my claim that the first is more 'archetypal': full stop.

    The archetype is a single feat plus 0 - unknown feats which ends up with the 'typical' pirate impossible to know: each one 'dedicates' themselves in it as much as they wish, so just how much they typically will and/or can invest in pirate feats is up in the air.

    A background pirates would ALL have the same abilities, so you can easily point to what an 'archetypal' one of those is.

    Captain Morgan wrote:
    Dedication would be a substantially worse label for you, then.

    Not so: it take real dedication to escape one and be able to take another. ;)

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