RPG Evolution: Don't Play This Class!

Dragon Magazine introduced fun classes that were only for NPCs. We played them anyway.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Dungeons & Dragons has had a complicated history with what distinguished a player character from a non-player character. One of the ways was through classes.

0-Level Characters​

In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, only the fighter attack matrix started at level 0, a designation assigned to many NPCs who were identified as "0-level" (dwarves, elves, and gnomes were never lower than 1st level). The implication being that everyday humans were less skilled than even a 1st-level fighter. Henchmen were a different story, due in part because they were considered supplementary characters to round out an adventuring party.

Some of this design was to reduce the cognitive load on dungeon masters trying to round out entire universes full of people. Not every character needed as much detail as a player's, so 0-level was an easy way to round out city watch, peasants, and guards without too much effort on the DM.

This didn't sit well with many gamers, who frequently used henchmen to round out their parties. If henchmen were going to be useful, their support skills would be critical, and it wasn't long before more classes were introduced with the explicit purpose of creating a set of abilities PCs didn't have. This gap was filled with NPC-only classes.

Class is in Session​

Dragon Magazine conceded the point at first, with the Alchemist class listed as a "new D&D character class" in the second issue. The class was simply presented without comment, with no specific language about whether it should be for PCs or NPCs.

The third issue introduced Healers and Jesters, each with their experience point advancement tables and their own spell lists. The Samurai and Berserker (noted as "highly experimental") class were listed as a "subclass," which bestowed some legitimacy on the class as a PC path without creating more rules. The Scribe and the Idiot were described as specialists without experience point tables, ensuring they were used as NPCs for hire.

The fifth issue featured the Witch, without advancement tables and referenced in the context of their appearance as a random encounter, firmly establishing them (initially) as NPCs.

And that was all the classes Dragon Magazine dabbled with for several months until the Ninja game along.

NPC Classes​

NPC classes were created at the intersection between PCs as commanders of small armies in dungeons and full-fledged characters who earned experience points and gained new abilities with each level. On the one hand, as non-players, they could simply be statted up with abilities (healers could cast healing spells, archers could fire arrows, etc.). On the other, NPCs were often additional characters controlled by a player, gaining experience points and a share of the treasure. This meant that the NPC needed rules to level up just like a PC did. Because experience point tables were unique to each class for AD&D, this also meant that if the class listed an advancement table, it was playable as a PC.

There was also the issue with co-creator of D&D Gary Gygax's concern as to what was official. By restricting official classes, it ensured the rule books could not easily be replaced. This didn't stop gamers from trying, with variant classes proliferating across unofficial sources in magazines like Dungeoneer, Imagine, Judges Guild Journal, and Realms of Adventure.

In Dragon Magazine #16, several pages were dedicated to Sheldon Price's Ninja class. The class has its own advancement tables, traits, and weapons. Tim Kask explains why:
Here it is, the DM's “hit-man”. Got a crew of too-powerful PC’s? Let a couple of Ninja show up, and they’ll be happily bumping off each other in no time. Have another NPC that has a score to settle with one or more PC’s? Let him hire a Ninja, or two. If a PC defeats a Ninja, it could become a matter of clan honor. And so on, and so on, etc. Have fun with this one. A word of caution — these are bad dudes. Don’t go overboard. This was originally submitted as a PC; it was far too powerful for that.
We can take his comments to assume that "bad dudes" are not something for players to play, and that due to their power, they were meant to be NPCs. The Ninja began a trend of shuttling any class that would presumably unbalance a campaign into the realm of NPC-only.

And yet, the class had an experience point table for advancement, implying that the character would gain experience points and level up like a henchman or a PC. If they weren't supposed to be in the employ of PCs or played by them, why include it?

Dragon Magazine #39 introduced the Anti-Paladin as a NPC, and provided page after page of advice to DMs as to how to play one, position him as a foe against good-aligned parties, and even as a temporary ally. Not surprisingly, the Anti-Paladin's a jerk, and working with him is supposed to be awful:
A single experience with this NPC, therefore, should teach an immediate and invaluable lesson in caution to any players!
By Dragon Magazine #45, NPC classes were everywhere. Assistant Editor Kim Mohan wrote:
Next in line are a couple of essays by Roger Moore in our continuing series of non-player character classes for use with Advanced D&D™, the Astrologer and the Alchemist. Actually, the new NPCs in this issue number three, counting the Archer subclass which is detailed in Leomund’s Tiny Hut as part of Len Lakofka’s examination of missile combat.
The Astrologer and Alchemist have no advancement tables, designating them as specialists that PCs could hire. But the Archer and Archer-Ranger is introduced as "a new non-player character class" but provides advancement tables and spell lists.

Dragon Magazine seemed to be sending mixed messages about what these classes were for.

Scaling the NPC Wall​

There were lots of reasons provided for why players shouldn't play NPC classes, even though mechanically they were presented as playable by anyone.
  • Power Level: In the debut of the Ninja class, players wanted rules to play a ninja but, because it was deemed too powerful, the class was presented as NPC-only. Presumably, that meant only the DM was supposed to use the rules, even though advancement was part of the presentation.
  • Special Rules: The traditional D&D system didn't easily accommodate radically-new ideas like spellcasting, special skills, or other unique traits. These rules came with the class itself, ensuring that it didn't totally unbalance the game by limiting power to just one character. In the case of specializations, their unique traits made them useful NPC henchmen to fill in gaps that PC classes didn't have access to.
  • Alignment: Asa the Anti-Paladin and Deathmaster demonstrated, the class was obviously a bad guy and meant to be a foe.
In practice, we played all these classes. Sure, they often killed each other off (Anti-Paladin, Deathmaster), or died in stupid ways (Jester), but others were valuable party members (Archer-Ranger).

Whether or not a class was required to flesh out a NPC says a lot about the style of play the edition encourage. Early D&D didn't worry about advancement of NPCs, but as the game evolved this thinking changed. By Third Edition, Dungeons & Dragons began treating monster and NPCs as entities that could be mechanically built from the ground up, including a set of NPC classes (Adept, Aristocrat, Commoner, and Expert) that continues today with Pathfinder. Fifth Edition split the difference with sidekicks, providing enough rules for players and DMs to manage NPCs without making them full-fledged character classes.

Mechanically, the NPC-only designation was a transitional state emblematic of D&D itself. Whether or not you can play a class says a lot about the game.

Your Turn: Did you ever play NPC-only classes as PCs?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

the Jester

Legend
I remember playing- for short times- a smith, an alchemist, and a death master. Or maybe the death master was an npc I ran, but if so, I played out a lot of his adventures. This was in the mid-80s, so the memory, while alive, is dim.
 

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rgard

Adventurer
I played one of the versions of the Bounty Hunter from Dragon Magazine. Also played a Black Priest from White Dwarf.

Edit: Also used a Necromancer class from White Dwarf as an NPC BBEG.
 


OTHG

Explorer
Yeah, many a DM has wrestled with this player question and later came to regret their decision. It kinda falls into the same category as don't kill peaceful civilians but then providing hitpoints, AC, and damage just in case characters want to! Or providing a whole pantheon of historical gods with stats that make them vulnerable. As many a player has once said, if we are not supposed to kill them, why do they provide the hit points and stuff?
 

Gradine

The Elephant in the Room (she/they)
I once played a Medical Droid in Star Wars D20 that came with a level or two of its own version of the 3.0 Expert. Didn't turn out especially noteworthy, all things considered.
 

Vincent55

Adventurer
Sure. In fact you could just go with "Character" and make everything else just options.

It's just a matter of preference. Some people like having multiple specially designed classes. Others prefer games with flexible skill systems, or other ways to differentiate.

Then want to mulit class into them to sometimes get only one thing, my way would fix that 90% as you pick the primary and then everything else is options, but sa you take Warrior as a primary well your casting would be limited to like that of a ranger or paladin for going other things or your a caster primary and would give up some defence and attack like abilities. But i also have seen no class games based on some versions of D&D knave being one that looks pretty simple and quick.
 

Mon

Explorer
I have fond memories of the Sentinel NPC class being used as hirelings and retainers. One in particular was either a PC or henchman on many adventures; either way he was memorable. A stalwart and sharp eyed sergeant of the city watch - don’t remember the character’s name because everyone just called him sarge. Good times.
 

Yeah, many a DM has wrestled with this player question and later came to regret their decision. It kinda falls into the same category as don't kill peaceful civilians but then providing hitpoints, AC, and damage just in case characters want to! Or providing a whole pantheon of historical gods with stats that make them vulnerable. As many a player has once said, if we are not supposed to kill them, why do they provide the hit points and stuff?
Honest answer?

Because not all combat in the game world is between PC's and NPC's. Imagine if the PC's have to defend a town during an invasion by a hostile force, and they're trying to prevent civilian casualties. . .knowing how strong those civilians are impacts that battle. Also, non-combat stats like skills can help get a baseline for comparison. . .if a PC smith thinks they're good, knowing stats for a typical journeyman or master smith at a local forge gives a good starting point for knowing "just how good is good".

Stats for deities aren't meant to be a super-high-level monster manual, but a way to quantify the powers and abilities of those deities relative to each other or relative to epic-level creatures. Is someone really "smarter than Apollo" or is something "stronger than Thor". . .and is this huge monster really something that could potentially threaten the Gods Themselves (or at LEAST be something non-trivial for them to dispose of)?
 

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