Finding the Reality in Fantasy

Finding the Reality in Fantasy: Archetypes


When most of us go out to the field or the woods to fight, we generally have at least an abstract image in our minds of who we are for the moment. This can be as general as a combative role we play for the duration of a specific encounter, or it can be as specific as having a particular person from a book or movie in mind when we draw swords.

Whether you just think of yourself as “the maneuverable one” or you picture yourself as “just like Syrio Forel,” the image you have in mind is what we will refer to here as the archetype.

I specifically avoid the use of the term “character” here because playing a character—as in a play or a role-playing game—suggests that the skill sets and personality are separate from those you possess “for real,” and the MMCG aims to encourage the development of real skill.

However, most of our ideas about combative archetypes are formed by Dungeons & Dragons or one of the many tabletop and computer RPG’s that developed from it. Therefore, the terms in which we may think—especially starting out—will generally be influenced by the “classes” presented in these games.

While we clearly do not have a role for fantasy archetypes such as wizards, sorcerers, druids and the like in the MMCG, the line blurs for classes such as bards, thieves, and monks. After all, we all tell stories and sing songs or play instruments at Mercenary Wars. Everybody tries to steal the other Company’s banner during the Night Battle. And we’ve all been in a situation where a weapon is lost or taken from us and we must make do empty-handed for a moment or two.

Still, the only RPG-like archetypes that truly see some analogue in the MMCG are the barbarian, the fighter/paladin and the ranger. That is to say, those who charge in and rely on strength and ferocity to win the day (barbarians), those who get armored up to one degree or another and rely in equal measure upon attack and defense to see them through (the fighters or paladins of RPG rules), or those who rely on speed, agility or ranged weapons to keep them safe (rangers).

This is not to suggest that you should base your activities in the MMCG on role-playing game standards or attempt to re-create the rules set of a specific game. Rather, if you come to the MMCG with the idea that “I want to be a ranger,” then perhaps you should start developing your skills and natural abilities towards the archetype with which you identify.

In the Weapons, Shields and Armor for Beginners articles, I suggest that in choosing your weapon, you consider the role you play (or intend to play) in combat. If your archetype plays into your perception of your role in the MMCG, and affects “that feeling” I talked about at the beginning of this article, then this section is for you.

This section will discuss historical versions of the three fantasy-combat archetypes , their historical behavior in combat, and the manner in which one might go about re-creating a historical version of that archetype within the scope of the MMCG. “Persona” is a term that is not often used in the MMCG, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important part of the experience. Put simply, without some guiding idea of the feeling you’re looking to capture or the experience you’re trying to re-create, then you’re just swinging foam or wooden weapons in the woods wearing funny clothes. That’s what “persona” means in the MMCG: the guidelines that allow you to enjoy yourself and the atmosphere the MMCG strives to provide.


“Barbarian” comes from the Greek word meaning “outsider” or “foreigner.” By extension, a “barbarian” was somebody in history who came from a culture outside of “civilization.” Generally, civilization meant Western Europe. However, the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe considered itself very civilized, as did the Muslim countries to the south.

Barbarian cultures in medieval Europe were typified generally by not being Christian. Often, their level of technology was the equal of Christian cultures nearby. However, when fantasy media speaks of barbarians, it is more often than not influenced by the works of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Lieber, who based their barbarian characters either on Iron-Age tribesfolk from Northern Europe, or on the peoples encountered by the Roman Empire during its aggressive expansionist period.

Therefore, Celts, Frisians, Jutes, Angles, Gauls, and other folk who generally provide a baseline for fantasy barbarians are not eligible for personas in the MMCG, since most of those people had been absorbed into the conquering society (i.e. Rome) before 800 AD. However, Scots, Irish, Vikings and—to a lesser extent—Mongols all sat on the borders of “civilized” Europe during periods of time that fall into the scope of the MMCG’s focus, and are perfectly reasonable “barbarian” personas to adopt (although Mongols are really on the edge).

Because many of these cultures lay further north than most of Christendom, fur did tend to see more use in their clothing than in more southern countries. This, however, does not give the MMCG re-enactor carte blanche to swathe himself in wolf skins and leather and say, “I’m a barbarian, so it’s accurate.”

By the age of plate armor, most “barbarian” cultures had been Christianized. Therefore, most barbarian personas will tend to fall earlier than the 1300’s. As a result, sword and shield, or spear and shield will see more use than longsword or greatsword. Axes (both one and two-handed) and maces were popular weapons for “barbarian” cultures. Armor will be mail or leather, with little plate (if any) seeing use.

One thing on which both Roman and medieval chroniclers agreed with respect to barbarians was their ferocity during combat. Doubtless, this was partly due to the fact that barbarians were often encountered while their land was in the process of being annexed (which would make anybody fierce). However, it may also be partly due to living in a society where the principal religion features gods of war who demand tribute and/or sacrifice.

Of course, the “berserkers” or “bear-shirted” are some of the most famous barbarians. These semi-legendary warriors were reported to be seven kinds of nasty on the battlefield, even biting into their own shields in their frenzy. As if medieval dental hygiene didn’t already leave enough to be desired.

If you’re the type whose main tactic is “run at them and hit until one of us goes down,” and you’d rather stay free of restrictive or heavy plate armor, you may identify more closely with the barbarian archetype.

For the sake of comparison, below are a fantasy barbarian and a historical barbarian.
Conan the Cimmerian and a Viking. Don't they look fetching together?

Both pictures are of human men. That’s about the limit of the similarities between the two. While Frank Frazetta’s famous painting of Conan certainly captures a visceral “barbaric” quality, a medieval barbarian would be baffled to see somebody going into battle wearing that little clothing.

As a “barbarian” in the MMCG, it is neither safe nor advisable to rely on strength to win your battles. However, ferocity, intimidation and physical prowess are all factors that can be safely put into play with some common sense.

And you’ll be thankful that real barbarians wore clothing when Frostwar rolls around.


While the term “fighter” is fairly self explanatory, the term “paladin” has taken on a somewhat mystical aspect. It is derived from a Latin term meaning “from the hill where the Emperor’s house is,” and therefore connotes a position of official power. To the medieval mind, “paladin” meant one of Charlemagne’s 12 semi-legendary knights (whose deeds were comparable to the legendary Knights of the Round Table). A paladin is essentially a knightly figure. However, the term “knight” in the MMCG is restricted to a certain group of members, and so to avoid confusion, the knightly armor-wearing class of fighters throughout history will simply be referred to as “warriors” since “paladin” suggests an especially accomplished knight.

The elite few warriors in early medieval Europe generally came from a social class that could afford the expense of weapons, armor and a few horses. Later, a professional class of men-at-arms arose from the middle class that acted as both mercenaries and as masters-at-arms. The bulk of warriors throughout the Middle Ages were also farmers, craftsmen, and villagers who were pressed into service either as part of a feudal obligation, or through the necessity of defending their homes.

All cultures in Europe boasted a warrior class, whether derived from one social class or many, so those wishing to fight as warrior archetypes in the MMCG have the freedom of choice of the entire range of the MMCG’s historical and geographical scope.

Many fantasy warriors fall either into the heavily-armored knightly class, or into a lightly-armored “multi-purpose” adventurer class. While the heavily-armored fantasy knights are often fairly close in equipment and purpose to their historical counterparts, the “adventurer” warriors popularized by Dungeons & Dragons present a bit of a historical quandary since “adventurer” at the time tended to be synonymous with “out-of-work mercenary” which really meant “bandit.”

Medieval Europe having a dearth of convenient monsters to slay for fun and profit, most free-wandering swordsmen traveled in bands and either robbed travelers or—if the band was large enough—held towns hostage for ransom.

These adventuring mercenaries might be well-equipped knights, or they might be commoners with little to no armor and a single weapon to their name. Because of the broad range of social origins and equipage presented by this archetype, it is difficult to make any absolute statements concerning their role in combat. However, a few things can be stated with some certainty.

The more heavily-armored troops tended to act as shock troops. That is to say, whether mounted and using a lance, or afoot and using hand-to-hand weapons, the heavily armored warriors’ role in combat was to break the opposing side’s resistance through a combination of offense and defense.

If you’re the type to use both attack and defense to good effect on the field, and you like having the extra security that more armor can provide, than perhaps you’ll identify more closely with the warrior archetype.

For the sake of comparison, below are a fantasy adventurer and a historical “adventurer.”
Dungeons & Dragons Justicar, and a Flemish mercenary circa 1430

You can see that both are armored, but not to the point of restriction (as with full plate harness). Whereas the Justicar on the left wears a leather vest and some sort of integral boots-and-greaves (along with that snazzy aviators’ scarf) the Flemish mercenary on the right is armored and dressed in a way meant to be practical, not to make a visual statement (he can leave that to the Goedendag he carries). All in all, each one strikes a nice balance between armored protection and mobility for attack (and retreat if necessary).

As a “warrior” in the MMCG, wits and patience will serve you just as well swiftness and strength. It would be a good idea to study your opponents, both in action and at rest, to see what sort of fighter they might be.

Most participants in the MMCG fall into this warrior archetype in that they balance attack and defense.


A “ranger” is one who literally “ranges”: that is to say, one who explores and scouts. Rangers in fantasy literature and games tend to be the stealthy, sneaky fighters who are as skilled with a bow or crossbow as they are with a blade. Woodsmen, trackers, scouts and huntsmen are all medieval examples of this archetype. In many fantasy settings, rangers represent the wilderness-living outsiders who work alone and prefer to strike quickly and from a safe distance.

In the Middle Ages, woodsmen could range from royally sanctioned guardians of the forest and the game within to half-starved outlaws who poached the king’s deer in order to eke out a living. Obviously, those of lower standing would not be able to afford any weapons but what they could make or steal.

The subdued Welsh under the reign of Edward I of England (and later kings) often made good “rangers” because of their comfort with wild terrain and their quick, accurate shooting ability with the famed longbow. Robin Hood has already been indicated as an archetypal medieval ranger.

At events, the ranger archetype is the person who waits for three hours in the shadows with arrow nocked, while their opponents draw steadily closer. It is the person who stays behind the shield wall and fires volleys of arrows into the enemy’s midst, or goes sneaking through the rocks and thicket to get behind.

If you’re the type who doesn’t mind getting in a tangle when it comes to bladework, but would prefer to let your bowstring do your work, you may identify more closely with the ranger archetype.

For the sake of comparison, below are a fantasy ranger and a historical woodsman.
Soviless the Elf and Chaucer's Yeoman from the Canterbury Tales.

The Dungeons & Dragons Ranger at the left contrasts with the historical character of Chaucer’s Yeoman on the right. However, both are reported to be skilled in woodcraft, and both have a hint of green about their clothing. Each is skilled with a bow (at least, the picture on the left indicates that the ranger knows how to use a bow, and Chaucer describes the archery equipment of his yeoman as well).

For those who identify with a ranger archetype, speed, skill and agility will be the attributes on which you’ll most want to focus. If you are already naturally agile, quick and skilled, then the combat role of this archetype will come naturally to you.

Other Archetypes

Are there other archetypes not covered here? Absolutely. What if your preferred method of attack doesn’t fit into one of these archetypes? Suppose you’re interested in learning how to fight with peasants’ weapons like the flail, staff and scythe? Go for it—if there’s a fantasy design or character that appeals to you, the steps provided will help you to adapt the fantasy template to a historical version.

One last note: don’t be shy about speaking to other members of the MMCG about your interests. If you feel that you’d like to go on more “sneaking around, ranger-y” missions, just ask to do so, or volunteer for them. If you want to be the tank who holds the front line, speak up. After all, one of the main purposes of the MMCG is to have fun, and if you’re feeling trapped by your role in battle or in the group, then it’s time to get in touch with that inspirational spark that made you want to take sword in hand to begin with.




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