What are traditional turn-based RPG roles?

PLARIUM STAFF
12/30/2019
7 minutes read

Traditional turn-based RPG roles can be separated into three common character classes; fighter, mage, and thief. These are the most famous character roles in RPG history, and they can take many different forms.

These roles have evolved over time, from their appearance in early Final Fantasy games to their inclusion in modern turn-based RPGs. Developers have since added new roles along the way.

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This means you now have more choice than ever when building your team in a turn-based RPG. While titles may vary in their setting and time period, the traditional character roles remain at their core.

What is a turn-based RPG?

A turn-based role-playing game includes many of the free choice aspects and world-building tropes of a standard RPG. However, these games use a turn-taking structure for parts of the gameplay. 

Many RPGs rely on turn-taking to form the basis of their combat scenes, including Chrono Trigger and the Dragon Quest series. Players can select their preferred move from a menu; either an offensive move or a defensive step that responds to an enemy attack.

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This differs from other RPGs, where combat can be more frantic and immediate. Turn-based titles prioritize strategy over speed, so the management of different character roles becomes vital to your chance of success.

What are the most common turn-based RPG roles?

There are three main character classes in turn-based RPG games. These roles don't always take the same shape - developers adapt skills to match the theme of each game.

Fighter

  • Could be known as a warrior, knight or soldier

  • Reasonable offensive and defensive baselines

  • Generally effective at melee combat

Mage

  • Could be known as wizard or soldier

  • May be equipped with offensive or defensive spells

  • Can have special powers, such as necromancy or summoning

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Thief

  • Could be known as assassin, scout or rogue

  • Prioritizes stealth and speed over strength

  • Might not actually do any thieving!

The fighter, mage, and thief classes have proven so effective because they each have distinctive abilities. Every character choice you make can provide a completely different gameplay experience.

What other roles could you find in a turn-based RPG? 

As turn-based RPGs have expanded in size, the choice of character class has also grown. Roles with more specific abilities have emerged. Characters from these classes can prove invaluable to a successful turn-based RPG team.

Healer

  • Could be known as medic or priest

  • Restores the health of other characters

  • Limited or no offensive skills

Tank

  • High health points

  • Attracts enemy fire and soaks up damage

  • Buys time for low-armor classes (like mages or ranged units) to perform their attacks

DPS

  • Stands for 'Damage Per Second'

  • A character that deals significant damage on enemies

  • Usually inflicts damage in short but devastating bursts

How do traditional RPG roles work together?

RPG characters earn experience points and improve attributes throughout the course of a game, but it can be hard to create a truly well-rounded character. This is why it is essential to develop a team that features a healthy balance of RPG roles. Just having fighters may lead to a one-dimensional offensive strategy, while relying on mages may leave you susceptible to melee attacks. 

RPG roles can complement each other in turn-based battles:

  • Use healers to restore a tank to full health ahead of another assault

  • Deploy melee fighters to create space for mages to cast spells

  • Call on assassins to launch surprise attacks and pave the way for the rest of your forces

This raises strategic questions for the player. Should you focus on improving health on your turn, or stay on the offensive? What is the most effective order to deploy your forces?

The perfect balance of RPG roles varies across different turn-based games, but the value of team-building is always high.

How have roles in turn-based RPGs changed over time?

The reliance on fighter/mage/thief character roles is a trope of the RPG genre. You can track the usage of these character classes over several decades - even as far back as the 1980s.

The Final Fantasy series is one of the most influential RPG franchises of all time, with its first installment launching on the NES in 1987. IGN's review calls the first Final Fantasy "a deeper, more thorough and more challenging RPG experience than 8-bit Nintendo players had ever seen before". 

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This seminal game laid the foundations for future turn-based RPGs, including through its use of these character classes:

  • Fighter

  • Thief

  • Black Belt

  • Red Mage

  • White Mage

  • Black Mage

Black Belt is an early example of a DPS-type role. The choice of mages shows how the game developer Square were beginning to find variations within the traditional character class. The White Mage is a skilled healer, the Black Mage is strong in combat, and the Red Mage is a more versatile option.

Final Fantasy's gameplay, where players explore an overworld and gain XP through turn-taking battles, has been hugely influential on the RPG genre. Its character roles have been similarly significant. If you look at modern turn-based RPGs, you will see the legacy of pioneering games like Final Fantasy.

2014's Shadowrun: Dragonfall also uses six different character roles:

  • Street Samurai 

  • Mage

  • Decker

  • Shaman

  • Rigger

  • Physical Adept

The mage class is covered, while Street Samurai and Physical Adept are fighter roles. Shaman works as a healer, another classic role. The inclusion of Decker and Rigger shows how new roles have emerged. A Decker has technological aptitude, while a Rigger uses drones in combat. 

This highlights how roles can change with the theme of the RPG. Turn-based RPGs set in modern worlds or dystopian futures include tech-heavy character roles, but you wouldn't see a Rigger rocking up in a Final Fantasy game!

Modern turn-based RPGs frequently offer more roles than games first released on more basic consoles. For example, players have to choose from over 300 champions when forming their team on Raid: Shadow Legends. Those potential champions include Orcs, Undead Hordes, and Lizard Men.

With more choice, there is more flexibility when it comes to picking your perfect team. This also means that there are more variations when battling human opponents. 

What does the future hold for turn-based RPG roles?

Turn-based RPGs will never fully dispense with the classic fighter/mage/thief combo, but the way in which these tropes appear could be developed.

2017's Divinity: Original Sin 2 gives players the chance to modify six baseline stats, 17 combat abilities, seven civil abilities, and over 40 special talents. So many customization options really make the characters feel like your own.

We are also seeing technical developments regarding the delivery of turn-based RPGs, such as cross-platform play. When the next generation of consoles finally arrives, it will be interesting to see how game developers can further develop the roles and mechanics of turn-based RPGs.

A safe bet for the future is that we will see more of the same, in the best way possible. There will be new settings and new themes for turn-based RPGs, but the classic character roles will continue to be at the center - just as they have been for over three decades.

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