Character classes perform several functions in D&D. First of all, they provide some information to the players about what the game is about, and what sorts of characters fit in the milieu of the game. The archetypes of characters, in other words. Secondly, they provide game mechanical distinctions and roles for each player to engage in within the game world. They show players that there are trade-offs to be made in the game, as to be good at one thing necessitates being poor in some other area. Third, they facilitate easy (in theory anyway) character creation, as players don't need to micromanage every skill and ability of their PCs. This is a result of the first and second functions, but certain systems that load on carte blanche skill/feat/ability choices on top of a class system may not function this way in practice.
Game design, if we're working in that class-based paradigm, requires an understanding of these functions in order to make the game interesting mechanically as well as thematically interesting.
In a game of near-future dystopian adventure, classes like Mercenary, Hacker, Driver, Smuggler, Criminal, and Mechanic might make sense. Adventures would likely include fights, computer problems, lots of crime, escapes, and equipment/vehicle repair. They're the archetypes (well, some of them) of the genre. And while there are other archetypes in the fiction we might use as inspiration, something like a tattoo artist or rave DJ doesn't really provide much to work within the likely game mechanics of the system (assuming it's adventure based, rather than social role play based). Your mercenary may well be a rave DJ by night, but that's just extra color, not necessarily something that needs its own character class.
And no, I'm not about to try and steal JB's thunder by releasing a cyberpunk game while he's taking a break for Lent. Just using that as an example of potential classes in a non-medieval fantasy type game.
And so, we get to D&D. It has some archetypes from source fiction, of course, but also some that have just sort of become D&Disms over the years.
OD&D's LBBs had Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User as its archetypes. Well, also the Elf (Fighter and/or Magic-User), Dwarf (Fighter plus dungeoneering skills) and Halfling (Fighter plus a bit of wilderness skill).
But then supplements and later editions added in more archetypes. Thieves and Paladins, Druids and Assassins, Monks, Rangers, Bards, Psionic dudes, Illusionists, Barbarians, Cavaliers, Acrobats, Samurai, Shukenja, Sohei, Kensei, Ninja, Wu Jen, Knights of Solamnia, another simpler Bard, specialist Priests and Mages, Sorcerers, Warlords, Warlocks, Artificers, and on and on and on!
And of course, multiclassing and dual classing rules allow for mixes of the archetypes.
Most of you know all this already, but I wanted to get it down because what follows stems from this.
What exactly are the appropriate archetypes for a game to feel like D&D? Is it the bare minimum from OD&D of Cleric/Fighter/Magic-User? Is it those three plus the Thief? Is it Fighter/Thief/Magic-User as a few people have suggested? Just Fighters and Magic-Users, all the rest is fluff?
Or do we need a bit more to get the D&D feel? This is where I wonder what classes are in D&D simply because they're expected to be in D&D. Paladins and Rangers and Druids, for example. Obviously, we can have D&D without them. I grew up mostly playing BECMI, which only allowed druids and paladins/avengers once characters got to 9th level (if you played by the book), and the closest thing to a ranger was the Halfling class with its bonus to ranged attacks and 1-9/d10 ability to hide in the wilderness.
There's something about the AD&D class set-ups, whether it's 1E with the Assassin and Illusionist, or 2E with its simple Bard class, that just feels right to me, even though most of my early years I played without. And of course for younger players who started with WotC editions, a game without Barbarians and Sorcerers as standard might feel a bit strange. Does the "savage warrior" archetype need to be there, either for fidelity to the source material (i.e. Conan), or because it fulfills a needed game mechanical slot (combat plus wilderness skill)? Or is "savage" just something descriptive to tack on to the Fighter, like a Mercenary rave DJ in my cyberpunk example above?
So, I'd like to run a little informal poll here. In the comments, please tell me:
1. What are the bare minimum archetypes needed for D&D in your opinion?
2. What are the archetypes that give you the "D&D feel" and should be included beyond the bare minimum, if any?
3. What archetypes, if any, break that "D&D feel" for you?