POP Archives Deep Thoughts: Creating an Archivist in D&D
October is Archives Month in the United States and since I haven't had a lot of time to do anything related to the website or the YouTube channel, consider this my contribution for the time being that will likely carry me over until Christmas. Such is the life of a professional whose place of work sucks the creativity out of her while slowly destroying her soul. But at least the money's good, right?
Anyway, let's talk about some escapism where you can actually get your soul back while learning some cool magic! Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) helpfully facilitates the regaining of ones soul and also offers a lot of other things like owlbears, enchanted swords, and the knowledge that you've irreparably altered the economy of a small village by spending way too much gold because you didn't want to convert it into silver or copper. Way to create inflation, heroes!
Now, a lot of people like to play D&D as a means of getting away from their actual life and live out whatever fantasy scenario seems fun or intriguing. In the real world, you can't just take your vicious halberd into the office and not expect someone to call you out on it or remove you from the building. In the world of D&D, it would be weird if you didn't have an enchanted weapon strapped to your person at all times. But there are some players, like me, who try to convert aspects of their real life into the world of make-believe. For the purposes of this article, obviously, creating an archivist. Sometimes the source books and campaign guides can support building your vision. Other times, you'll find yourself searching for homebrew content depending on how specific and detail-oriented you're feeling and whether or not "accuracy" is super important.
Today we're going to focus on the Classes and Subclasses of D&D 5th Edition as well as some of the materials published in the Unearthed Arcana supplemental guides. I'm trying to cover what's mostly accessible to players regardless of experience without having to spend a fortune on other books and subscriptions or go digging through the Marketplace for homebrew material. Maybe I'll do other articles looking at Feats, Backgrounds, and Spells, but I think looking at Class is a good way of focusing character motivations and determining what type of archivist you want to play.
So, you wanna play and archivist but don't know what class to choose. A lot of people will default to obvious builds like a Knowledge Domain Cleric or some type of Wizard, but I think you can make a case for pretty much all of the officially published Classes as the starting point for an archivist. You also have the ability to multiclass in D&D, which provides a huge opportunity to experiment with how classes play off each other and how beneficial they can be to your character. For sanity's sake, I'm just going to go in alphabetical order because I can't be bothered with ranking the best and worst class for an archivist. It's not worth it.
Fun fact, there was a brief moment in time where D&D had an Archivist subclass under the Artificer. It was part of a beta-testing Unearthed Arcana where the Archivist Artificer was essentially creating metallic proto-computers as a means of storing knowledge. As stated in the text: "Archivists are 'masters of storing knowledge and creating artificial intelligences fueled by magic.'"
The emphasis on creating A.I. and packing the subclass with spells centered around psychic connection was interesting, but the tech-heavy nature of it feels out of place for an archivist, though I could absolutely see multiclassing with Artificer if you want an archivist with a specialty in conservation or preservation. Of course, your mileage may vary on this because it's your character and you can do whatever you want. Maybe your archivist is the creator of the first computers in your game's universe. Maybe they're trying to bring the archives into the nth century and nobody believes in them until demons invade or something. Maybe your archivist unexpectedly creates pocket prisons for capturing demons that can be utilized in some sort of battle arena with other archivists! Maybe your archivist is the creator of Pokémon!
Now, this might not be anyone's first choice for an archivist, but I would argue that having a level or two in Barbarian, if only to get access to Rage, would be appropriate since there are plenty of beleaguered and stressed out archivists/knowledge workers who could use an outlet for their anger.
If you go far enough to pick a 3rd level primal path subclass, I suggest Path of the Totem Warrior if only to gain the benefits of animals aspects to support your party. Another option is the Path of the Ancestral Guardian, which could be institutionally relevant for your archivist as they call upon their spiritual ancestors (real or metaphorical) to protect the archive and their allies. Kinda like the Oathbreakers, or the Dead Men of Dunharrow, in Lord of the Rings because ghost armies get shit done!
I think the Bard class has a lot more potential to support an archivist character than people realize. Bards are storytellers collecting tales or spinning their own yarns to entertain the masses. Archivists can occupy a similar role, especially when putting a collection together and the narrative it constructions or contextualizes. Bards also have features like Bardic Inspiration and Jack of all Trades that help with skill checks and give party members a little boost to low rolls. There's no shame in having a support role in the group, which is exactly where archivists find themselves in real life.
Subclass-wise the College of Lore probably works best in this regard. It leans heavily on proficiency and skills and a lot of archivists often have to work on the fly, depending on the institution, so having a Bard with more skills at their disposal and the ability to more easily adapt is a huge boon. Lore Bards are also specifically geared to gather knowledge and mysteries, which makes them excellent companions to their Wizard friends. Then again, you could also go for the Colleges of Eloquence and Whispers if you're feeling like playing an archivist who has some skills in public outreach or just wants to gather all the juicy gossip and do some old fashioned blackmail. Maybe you and the Archivist Artificer can work together to make recording equipment that's used for said blackmailing. Ya know, for fun!
If you’ve read my article on Archives in RPGs, then you’ll recall a Knowledge Domain Cleric was the recommended starting build by Matt Mercer, which makes sense when you look at how the Cobalt Soul is structured in Critical Role. After looking at how the Soul turned out in the actual play, I’m less keen on tying an archivist to a religious or faith-based class/subclass unless the goal is to play a zealous, hopelessly devoted character who believes in the purity of the record, or something. I mean, those people exist so it's not out of the question.
Don't get me wrong, there's plenty to like about the Knowledge Domain when it comes to having spells like Identify, Scry, and Legend Lore as well as the ability to learn a skill on the fly (temporarily) when the need arises. But there's also a lot of psychic spells that push this particular Cleric into some shady mind control areas that set off all the red flags. However, I will say that if you're going for a corrupted Knowledge Domain Cleric, then you are likely an evil genius and we should be friends. Knowledge isn't as cut and dry as we want to believe and sometimes the things you learn can change you for better or for worse.
On the other hand, you could make a decent archivist out of an Arcana Domain Cleric since it's based in the knowledge of magic itself and how it interacts with the multiverse. For the archivist who really wants to level up and go for literal God-tier.
Like the Bard class, I think Druids could make for an interesting build as an archivist. Depending on the type of fantasy setting, most documents and books are made of vellum, leather, and wood pulp paper, all of which a Druid could utilize or manipulate with their affinity towards nature. You might have to homebrew some stuff, but I think you could make an effective papermancer with the Druid class. I mean, I'm always striving to make a character as close to Yomiko Readman (Agent Paper) from Read or Die as possible and this could be one of those building blocks.
Nature as a concept provides deterrents to archival practices all the time. Red rot, rust, fungus and mold are all issues archivists deal with along with invasive insects like silverfish or any number of spiders, flies, etc. So if you go for a Circle of Spores Druid, then you might have the power to stop the decay of unique materials...or bring about their destruction. The same for a Circle of Wildfire Druid with, ya know, all the fire they'd wield among highly flammable materials. In the Unearthed Arcana there's a Circle of Primeval that looks fascinating if you're the type of Druid who wants to have deep knowledge and insight into the primordial nature of the earth.
And in all seriousness, being able to change the humidity or temperature of a facility to prevent damage to documents would be extremely useful as well. Just saying. Druids, man.
The Fighter class, like the Barbarian, is probably best suited as part of a multi-class situation. Fighters get features like Second Wind and Action Surge that allow for multiple attacks and healing. Tacking this on to the Battle Master subclass and you could easily make a stalwart archivist whose fighting skills bolster their magic. Archivists need to be able to defend their collections, so why not do it with a sword? Or many swords?
Just like the Barbarian and Fighter, Monks can make for a good multi-class if you want your archivist to go above and beyond to stop those who dare to attack the archives. Or you’re playing an archivist out to steal from other institutions and need some less bulky attributes. Monks are perfect for close-combat, but also redirecting attacks and using the environment to their advantage.
The Way of Shadow Monk could partner well if your archivist likes illusions and stealth while skulking the stacks. And the Way of the Astral Self might be useful if you’re an archivist who needs an extra set of ghostly hands to do your work - or punch someone while you're working because why stop processing when you can do both? Multitasking!
Like the Cleric, Paladins have a faith component, but they’re also capable fighters committed to an oath, which I find more appealing. How far is your archivist willing to go to protect knowledge or whatever is contained in the archives? What is the cost of your devotion to the archives? Paladins also gain immunity to disease or sickness, which would be handy if they’re facing a particularly bad case of rot or mold invading the shelves.
Every Paladin oath comes with different auras and forms of smite, which are super useful when supporting your party or just dealing huge amounts of damage. Oath of Ancients is more focused on nature, which could pair well with a Druid build. Oath of the Watchers seems like a good use of a Paladin for defending ancient scrolls and knowledge within the archives from creatures outside of the material plane. But you could also go the Oathbreaker route if your archivist takes a turn for the worst.
The Ranger might be one of the harder classes to merge with an archivist, but you can probably make it work if you take the metaphorical hunter out of the woods and turn it into a hunt for knowledge! Ranger’s also get animal companions, so if your institution is super lax on animals in the archives, then start building your menagerie of helpers and have the Cinderella moment you always dreamed of.
I like the idea of creating an archivist who’s also a Feywanderer or Horizonwalker, mostly because it gives them abilities that utilize charisma, summon fey creatures for help, or move between realms to avoid combat. Kinda perfect for an archivist who knows a thing or two about old magics and planes, but doesn’t necessarily want to engage an enemy up close. However, I do like the Swarmkeeper subclass because I like the idea of an archivist giving into the silverfish infestation and mastering them to do their dark bidding. Not that I've thought about it or anything.
Rogues are fun to either fill out a multi-class build or as an archivist who steals knowledge and information from others (for good or bad). The most basic subclass to create your archivist would be Inquisitive as it plays into the information gathering, investigative side of Rogues. You have all the makings of a walking, talking lie detector as Inquisitor Rogues suss out secrets and unravel mysteries, which is very much in alignment with archival work.
There’s a Phantom subclass that links Rogues with spirits of the dead, which I think would be a really interesting way of playing up the relationship between archives and the morbid language often used around it. An archivist who literally gets guidance, advice, or knowledge from the dead sounds like a good basis for a character.
But if you find yourself going for a more traditional, stealthy build but also want to have a little fun with the mysterious stereotypes surrounding archivists, then going with the Arcane Trickster subclass might give you some extra bits and baubles through which to distract or mess with people who dare enter the archives without an appointment.
The inherent magic of this class gives your archivist character the ability to channel their gifts through a bloodline that is best suited for the archiving profession. Maybe you come from a long line of archivists - all charged with defending and preserving the archives while gathering information and filling in the gaps in the stacks.
The subclasses associated with the Sorcerer are very dependent on how you envision your character’s backstory and origin. I think the Clockwork Soul subclass is the most fascinating, to me, because it specifies that Order is a primary motivational impetus, which would make sense for an archivist. The entire purpose of the profession is creating or imposing order on the chaos that is an archival collection, so having an archivist who is literally bound to this idea in whatever way the cogs and clockwork manifest would be interesting.
Now if you wanted to go for the exact opposite of that, then consider playing a Wild Magic sorcerer who is basically the embodiment of Chaos. Having a character who could turn into a plant for an hour or randomly starts shouting for a full minute or casts Fireball on themself could certainly shake up the nerves and risk management skills of the archives. Because who doesn’t want their every decision and action determined by a random table of possibility?
Of all the classes, I think Warlock is the most relatable in terms of the relationship between a warlock and their patron mirroring that of the archivist and their institution. Everything the warlock is given is connected to how generous the patron is, which means those two spell slots can just as easily be taken away if you piss them off. So too with the archives. Anyone who’s ever had to ask for money, labor, or anything not initially provided understands the nerve-wracking flop sweat of taking your case to the people who have the power to make those requests a reality.
Warlock Patrons in D&D are fairly broad in their scope, which is great because it doesn’t limit the imagination of the player. No two Archfey or Great Old Ones are the same, so there’s plenty of room to expand on what your flavor of patron looks like as well as how beneficial or detrimental the pact is between them. This might be an instance where you could homebrew a patron for your archivist, but if you want to stick with the official subclasses, then I’d recommend either the Undying or the Great Old One because nothing says fun times in the archives like serving Cthullu or learning the secrets of life and death from Vecna. There is also an Unearthed Arcana subclass called the Seeker, which is literally about serving a patron who is a seeker of knowledge/lore/secrets if you want to be extremely on the nose about your archivist’s motivations. Or maybe you just want to be a Hexblade and curse people for transgressions made against the archives. It’s your imagined life, do what you want!
Another aspect to the warlock/patron pact is the boon that represents their deal. The one that most likely fits the archivist would be the Pact of the Tome, in which your patron gives you a Book of Shadows that adds to the amount of cantrips you have at your disposal regardless of your primary class. The Pact of the Talisman, however, gives the warlock a chance at turning a bad ability check into a success by adding an extra d4 to a roll. So if your archivist is big on using Intelligence checks for History or Arcana, having that extra boost might come in handy for making research breakthroughs.
Arguably, most people assume an archivist character will start as either the aforementioned Knowledge Domain Cleric or some kind of Wizard. I can see why: the Wizard class is entirely about learning magic through studies and requires a spellbook that the Wizard inscribes their spells into as their growth is measured in the level of spells they can master.
There are a lot of wizarding schools to choose from, but the most basic of the original schools were broadly focused on the type of magic the wizard studied: creating stuff, protection, calling on other beings, raising the dead, etc. As the supplemental materials have evolved, so too has the specificity of the wizard’s magical education.
The most recent addition is The Order of Scribes, which is essentially book magic for Wizards who love books. Most of the leveling features are about the connection between the Wizard and their spellbook, which could be interesting if your Archivist Wizard works in an archive of spellbooks from wizards of the past. Actually, that would be extremely cool since spellbooks act as an archival tome in their own right - a living, curated collection of a Wizard's growth and thoughts on magic. The marginalia of a spellbook must be wild! There’s also the School of Onomancy, which derives power from language, specifically names, but there’s room to work with how that manifests. Those in the archival profession understand the power of words and how descriptions and narrative have the ability to enhance a collection, but can also harm a person or a community based on what is considered “acceptable” language.
And so that brings our little adventure into character creation to an end. Now go forth and begin building your archivists!