Having recently quit playing Star Wars: The Old Republic (for good this time... I hope), I have been thinking about the game a lot lately--specifically, its class system and how it manages to feel both appropriate to the Star Wars universe and relatively unhackneyed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how important the cultural archetypes are to RPG design.
My thoughts correlated with the implicit findings in a paper by Csenge V. Zalka, wherein she develops a methodology to convert traditional heroic narratives into pen-and-paper RPG modules. One of central points of her method is to let the players play as well-known mythological characters (such as the Argonauts or Knights of the Round Table), who have several unique abilities and properties derived from their original myths that make them instantly recognizable even after the players fill in the rest of their character sheets. This way, the necessity for traditional classes is completely eliminated.
This is important, because even though RPG players nowadays rarely think in terms of playing specific mythological characters/archetypes, all contemporary fantasy character classes and "races" (the key archetypes upon which "role-playing" is built) are derived from Dungeons & Dragons, which borrowed heavily from The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien, in turn, from Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic, as well as Finnish myths. This is why so many complain that contemporary fantasy RPGs all feel the same, and why titles like The Witcher, which borrows themes and archetypes from Middle-European and West Slavic folklore instead, are popular darlings. For the record, science fiction RPGs are not off the hook, either: remember that their classes are frequently based on the distilled-to-gaming variation of fantasy templates
So how does SWTOR break the mold? Sure, it does follow the aggro-based class paradigm (tank, healer, DPS) perfected specifically by and for MMOs, but it also does something very smart: for its class concepts, it borrows the "cultural" archetypes of the Star Wars movies (and I would argue that Star Wars is definitely a culture of its own in the meantime), and lets the players play not as classes but as iconic characters from the movies. Specifically:
- Jedi Knight, a.k.a. Jedi the Defender, master of lightsaber combat, is obviously Luke Skywalker from the original trilogy. Luke does not quite master the Force magic in the movies but gets rather handy with his lightsaber. Plus, the JK's first companion is an astromech droid and a dead ringer for R2-D2.
- Jedi Consular, a.k.a. Jedi the Diplomat, master of Force powers, is a bit more difficult to pin down, but if you think of JC also as a mentor and take their specialization in telekinesis into account, then it becomes clear that JC's archetype is Yoda in the original trilogy and, perhaps more fittingly, Qui-Gon in the prequels.
- Smuggler is Han Solo with his Wookie companion. Do I even need to elaborate on this?
- Trooper is perhaps the least obvious archetype. In fact, I don't think it even comes from the movies. The prequels have the clone troopers, but these are depicted as disposable grunts, while the Havoc Squad is an elite special forces unit. I'd therefore contend that the Trooper's archetype comes not from the movies but from the unfairly forgotten and conspicuously Jedi-less game Star Wars: Republic Commando, which proved once and for all that you don't have to use the Force to turn the tide of a war.
- Sith Marauder, a.k.a. Sith the Enforcer, master of lightsaber combat, is Darth Vader. While the Sith Inquisitor carves their own path to the top, the Marauder rises through the ranks by carrying out the Emperor's will.
- Sith Inquisitor, a.k.a. Sith the Mastermind, master of Killing Everything With Lightning, is Emperor Palpatine, who used his wits to rise to power and his incredible lightning-them-to-death skills, to stay there.
- Bounty Hunter is Boba Fett and, perhaps more faithfully, his "father" Jango, who proved that you don't have to be a Sith to fight a Jedi Knight to a standstill.
- Imperial Agent is an archetype that does not exist as a single character in the movies, but is more of a composite character of all the non-Force sensitive uniformed servants of the Empire, such as Grand Moff Tarkin and his like. Furthermore, judging by the number of Chiss-exclusive subplots weaved into IA's storyline, I would say that IA's key archetype was Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn's novels. And James Bond.
So what does this teach us about RPG development? Not much if your game takes place in the Standard Fantasy Setting™. However, if you are basing your game on a cultural milieu that isn't predominantly Anglo-Saxon inspired, then consider doing the same work as Ms. Zalka and Bioware Austin did: identify the heroic archetypes found in the cultural tradition of said milieu first and codify them into RPG-specific classes second.
EDIT 04.06.2014: Just found an article providing an in-depth look into how the modern class archetypes came to be: The Evolution of RPG Archetypes.