Friday, 15 May 2009

No Class

I've never understood games having an 'assassin' class. An assassin is just somebody who deliberately targets and kills other people for political or financial reasons. (Or a member of a militant Persian Ismaili sect.) Why have a separate class with separate abilities?

Similarly, barbarians. 'Barbarian' is just a pejorative term for somebody from a technologically-backwards society. (Or a member of a certain invitation-only rugby union team.) Again, why have a separate class with separate abilities?

People who want to play barbarians or assassins should just pick a class and then give them a barbaric background or a prediliction for murder through background and flavour. For example, a mage who kills people for money: an assassin. A cleric from an isolated hill tribe: a barbarian.

These things have always bothered me. I think similar criticisms can be levelled at rangers, paladins and thieves, and I suppose by extension all classes. What is a fighter but somebody who concentrates on fighting? Or a wizard but somebody who concentrates on magic?

I propose that a line should be drawn in the sand: Is the class based around a special focus on a certain skill which it does better than all the other classes? For example, a fighter, mage or cleric? If so, it's on the right side of the line. If however it's just a flavour thing which is entirely based on background and/or personality (for example, assassin, barbarian, warlord), it is Bad and Stupid and Wrong and Not A Proper Class and should be cast into the abyss FOREVER!


  1. In my house-rules, where everything is dual-classed (even fighters are technically Fighter/Fighter) Assassins are Thief/Fighter and Barbarians are Fighter/Rangers. Assassins' primary abilities relate to stealth and deception, and they are trained in the use of all kinds of weapons to accomplish their goals. Barbarians are fighters who come from harsh, unforgiving environments where stamina and survival know-how are almost as important as knowing how to use weapons.

  2. Nice writeup. Like the Ranger, I don't think Assassin or Barbarian are intended to be exactly how we interpret their names. Someone blogged about this recently: Rangers are not really protectors of the wilderness, like Druids are. They're really just bastardizations of Strider, from Lord of the Rings.

    Just like how Assassins in D&D were inspired of the Hashshashin cult and possess pseudomystical powers of murder. That's part of the reason my favorite class is the Assassin. There's a great deal of legends that a DM can draw on to make the classes less mundane and more mythical.

    The Barbarian is probably an amalgam of a number of warriors, but more than likely intended to capture the animal-like ferocity of the norse Berserkers, which, like the Hashshashin, were a pseudomystical cult-like group.

    Other interesting inspiration material, based on legend and history, would be Swami, Dervish, Mamluk, White Lotus Society, Indian Rope Trick, Adamantine.

  3. The barbarian class was invented because Conan made no sense under the original DnD rules. Here's a guy, he wears no armor, he's not dead. How? So they invented the Barbarian.

    Essentially, the class is a patch to make up for the fact that the original rules weren't complicated enough to account for the "I'm-not-wearing-armor-therefore-I'm-extremely-nimble" concept.

    The assassin was a similar idea. They wanted someone with the sneaking ability of a thief, but, then a thief couldn't use all the weapons a fighter could. But, hey, an ASSASSIN would never refuse to use any weapon, right?

    Fuck, now we have to make a class for it...

    Essentially, classes allow you to write less complicated basic rules. Without them, you have to build flexibility into the rules to model more kinds of behavior. It's a trade-off.

    I feel like the most "realistic" idea is probably a version of WFRP or (cringe) prestige classes. You start off as a nearly featureless jamoke, and as you grow and specialize, you gain the ability to do more stuff, but lose the opportunity to do other stuff.

  4. It's already been established by Jamused that the Barbarian class is more accurately thought of as a Berserker than anything. The Assassin, I think, is meant to reflect the more mystical qualities of the Hashashin, and perhaps the Ninja to some extent.

  5. *grunt!* What is this mast-nailing noise that disturbs my slumber?

    "The barbarian class was invented because Conan made no sense under the original DnD rules. Here's a guy, he wears no armor, he's not dead. How?"

    The blade-repelling effects of a slathering of Magic Frazetta Oil, of course!
    But Uncle Gary - deep in his excessive systematisation Blue Period - had to go and overthink it...

    The Assassin? Yeah, 80s ninja fad all over. ;)

  6. I've never understood games having classes at all (didn't even care for CP's Roles), but that's just me.

    And surely some assassins crept in from ERB's Barsoom stories where the Assassin's Guild was a such a prominent feature.

  7. This is one of those things where everyone draws the lines differently. And that's fine. But I'm pretty much in agreement with Chris. At this point, I'm pretty much down to three classes: Warriors, Wizards, and Thieves. Everything else is flavor.

    Paladins and Assassins are kind of the tip of the iceberg--once you need a separate class for fine distinctions, then you end up needing scores of classes (or prestige classes) and the whole concept of the Class-as-Archetype becomes meaningless.

    Zak saidI feel like the most "realistic" idea is probably a version of WFRP or (cringe) prestige classes. You start off as a nearly featureless jamoke, and as you grow and specialize, you gain the ability to do more stuff, but lose the opportunity to do other stuff.Despite what I said above, this is something I have been considering. You begin at 1st level in one of the three basic classes. At some point--4th level in my mind--you can move into a "sub-class" or something.

    Have a religiously-minded fighter? He can become a cleric.

    Have a lethally-minded Thief? he can become an Assassin.

    But it's just an idea right now.

  8. I think the location of the line depends much upon the game/DM/group. I tend to prefer fewer general classes, but I’m OK with any approach. Even one that eschews a line altogether.

    More important, though, is to never take the name of a class too seriously. Classes need names. Classes need short names. Short names are never going to be able to adequately cover what the class does and only what the class does. Even with the original three, a Cleric can be a fighter.

    So, when you see a Barbarian class, I’d urge you to put aside the name. Imagine it was the “Foo” class and judge it based on its mechanics and not its name.

  9. The funny thing is, in the stories, Conan did wear armour, and exhorted his compatriots to do likewise:

    "How did you get away?" he asked presently.

    Conan tapped his mail shirt and helmet.

    "If more borderers would wear harness there'd be fewer skulls hanging on the altar-huts..."
    - Beyond the Black RiverI'm not sure I can find the dividing line clearly, to be honest. The only difference between clerics and magic-users is their spell-lists. If I make up a new list of "powers", is that enough of a justification for a new class? The magic-user/cleric divide would seem to say "yes", which pretty much justifies making any class you want.

    On the other hand, I'm a fan of simplicity. If what you want is a horse warrior, or a desert bandit, or a woodsman, you ought to just use the fighter, since that's what they all really are. But where do you draw those lines?

  10. Well shit man, it's practically ALL for flavor.

    Maybe we should just call our characters "humanoids" rather than base them on a particular class.

    Guy throws a punch. OK, he's a fighter. On Sunday he goes to church. OK, he's a cleric now. Goes home and plays Guitar Hero. OK, he's a bard now.

    "It's D&D" I guess is my answer to anyone saying "why have this as a class?" We really need a better answer?

    The best answer for Assasin, though, is so you can have a cool assasin guild in the city for players to have as enemies. Teams of assasins striking at players on a crowded city street (doesn't make sense, but always looks great on the hex map) has always been one of my favorite encounters.

  11. I'm inclined to think that the purposes of classes are to allow players to quickly assume broadly understood archetypes. The abilities and other fiddly parts serve the purpose of reinforcing the same. And yeah, like the other poster said, Conan wore armor whenever he could.
    Of course, all this doesn't mean that I adhere strongly in one direction over the other, although when I do play a "class" focused game, I strongly prefer that these classes are recognizable, distinct archetypes. For this reason, I also favor "race as class" in these cases.

  12. Actually clerics and magic users basically being distinguished by their spell lists is a peeve of mine, that why I came up with the miracles system I'm using.

  13. Why?

    Why even have fighters or magic users?
    * Whies: Dats what I'm askin you! Whies?!

  14. jamused: Can you explain what you mean by "even fighters are technically fighter/fighter"?

    Anonymous: I have no problem accepting the concepts you describe - I just think those concepts are rightly seen as subclasses of other classes, rather than separate ones in their own right. To expand a little, I think 'fighter' can include any concept, from a medieval knight to a viking berzerker to a samurai; but that sort of thing is just down to flavour.

    Zak: I'm coming around to WFRP more and more, actually. It's a good system, and arguably does D&D 3e better than D&D 3e itself. But that's another post.

    Rach: But those should just be subsets of the fighter or thief classes, in my opinion.

    Chris: That bloody Conan has a lot to answer for.

    Jerry Cornelius: Classes make no sense at all, but they're just one of those things, like hit points, that I think you just have to accept about D&D. D&D is a terribly designed game, but that's part of the charm - perfection in imperfection.

    Matthew: Three core classes and everything else just flavour - my thoughts exactly.

    Robert Fisher: Fair points, although I would still argue that the concept of a barbarian, even if you call it 'foo', is just a type of fighter and not different enough to warrant a class.

    trollsmyth: There is a school of thought, of course, which says that clerics and magic-users shouldn't be separate classes. I think James M. was talking about this at one stage.

    Brunomac: "It's D&D" I guess is my answer to anyone saying "why have this as a class?" We really need a better answer?I suppose that's what it all boils down to at the end of the day.

    entertheoctopus: If you prefer race as class, you're alright in by book. Welcome to the blog.

    Timeshadows: Why indeed. You have to accept there's a difference between fighter and barbarian though - call it a different level of abstraction, or something.

  15. Sure. Basically in my house rules everybody is dual class, with the class advancements coming every other level; so a Fighter/Thief improves as a Fighter on odd levels, as a Thief on even levels. Thief/Fighter would be the reverse. So technically somebody who is just a fighter is a Fighter/Fighter, improving every level. It's just a convenience for how I've written the charts.

  16. Noisms: I'm somewhat in agreement. I think it's one of those things that could go either way. and that if they were subclasses that there'd be some clamoring that they're different enough to warrant their own space.

    Admirably enough, 4e did do away with the assassin as anything but a specialization for Rogue, and they managed to make the barbarian a very uniquely distinct thing. Sort of a druid with more hitting-stuff-with-a-greataxe. Still think the name may not be fitting, but I imagine they kept it for legacy's sake.

  17. Fair points, although I would still argue that the concept of a barbarian, even if you call it 'foo', is just a type of fighter and not different enough to warrant a class.

    Again, though: Don’t look at the name to decide if the concept warrants a class. The question isn’t whether “barbarian” warrants a class. The question is whether a specific class that you have in front of you has merit no matter what it is named.

    Personally, I’m still going to answer that question differently in different contexts. And even still, I don’t know that my decision isn’t basically arbitrary in any case. (Even as much as I loathe the A-word.)

  18. I love classes. The more the merrier. The beauty being, if you don't like them, don't use them.

    However, I do not like too many classes in the core rules - the fewer the better in that case.

    It's the same argument as fewer generic skills or more specific skills? There is no correct answer, because games are an abstraction and will always break down at some point.

  19. Noisms: You most certainly are correct that the gritty, historical contexts surrounding each class allow for little variation in human performance. After all, in this world, we are not much more than flesh, blood and bits of bone.

    D&D, or what D&D seeks to capture, does not lie firmly within the perceivable world, but rather, it lies somewhere at its threshold.

    I imagine the D&D fantasy world to be more dream-like than real. It's more of a nexus or crossroads where all these half-real characters from history and literature may meet one another, compare notes and then go back to wherever they came from.

    Gritty campaigns might use just three classes and then use sub-class rules to describe and model anything other than thief, fighter, wizard. But giving each class its own pedestal, as a unique signifier, however, keeps that mystique from legend about it.

  20. You know... I read this article just the other day, and have to say that it's a great discussion of the whole deal. I support the ideas expressed, and I think it really is a solid readthrough for anyone contemplating character design.

  21. I have also been confused by both the Assassin and the Barbarian classes. As others have pointed out the Barbarian should more properly be called the Berserker. If I ever run another campaign I will be using that term rather than Barbarian. I've suggested online before that the Assassin class is redundant. Don't *all* adventurers get paid to kill things? At least indirectly if not directly. But I am always shouted down. The reply comments point out that are all classes then fighters as well? I mean they kill things as well. It never goes well after that...