Tag Archives: barbarian

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

I ran evil-themed D&D campaign once, but only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released Menzoberranzan City of Intrigue and promoted the book with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. Fourth edition’s Encounters program hosted drop-in games at local game stores. This season made the players evil drow and fostered backstabbing and intrigue. As an Encounters dungeon master, I questioned the wisdom of the theme, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. Still, I dutifully ran the campaign as intended.

My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If players’ actions defied their alignments, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Even so, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, the Greyhawk campaign run by D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it,” Gary wrote. “They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In a Dragon magazine issue 118 article outlining changes coming in second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook writes, “The assassin is a goner—virtually guaranteed. It is highly unlikely that any amount of appeal will save his neck. He is disruptive to party harmony and, more importantly, presents the wrong image about AD&D games.”

The thief also inspired in-party conflicts. Steve explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

“He’s a thief! He steals from everyone and ruins friendships,” Zeb wrote. But thieves reflected better on AD&D than assassins and offered a more popular archetype, so Zeb defended the class. “This is more a problem of how the player is using the thief, not the class itself.”

Nonetheless, the class name inspired thieving. Second edition started a rebranding by making thieves a type of rogue. The Player’s Handbook explains, “The character classes are divided into four groups according to general occupation: Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue.” By third edition, “rogue” permanently replaced “thief” as a class name.

Related: The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Related: A role-playing game player’s obligation

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7 Best Classes to Add to Multiclass a Dungeons & Dragons Character

During the unveiling of third-edition Dungeons & Dragons, I saw a member of the design team say multiclassing offered tempting options for every character, but that every class offered enough rewards to make the choice to multiclass tough. Ideally, D&D multiclassing strikes that balance. In play, third edition fell short of balancing multiclassing. Classes tended to stack extra features at level 1 and sometimes suffered “dead levels” offering few benefits, so multiclass characters tended to outshine their single-class peers.

In fifth edtion, multiclassing isn’t so optimal. The first level of an additional class delivers fewer proficiencies. Every class level delivers new features or at least more spell slots. So while each class brings goodies, characters that multiclass lose some advantages of focus.

Spellcasters pay the biggest price for multiclassing. The top level in each separate spellcasting class limits the highest level of spell a character can know or prepare, so every level of a multiclass slows progress to higher-level spells. Characters reach spell slots based on the sum of their spellcasting classes, so they may gain slots of a higher level than any spell they know. At most, they can use those slots to boost a lower-level spell. Spellcasters who veer from their main class for more than 3 levels will never gain 9th-level spells.

Most classes leap in power at 5th level. Barbarians, fighters, paladins, and rangers all get a second attack. Wizards and sorcerers gain Fireball. Bards and warlocks gain Hypnotic Pattern. Monks gain Stunning Strike. When single-class characters reach level 5, multiclass characters will fall behind until their main class hits level 5.

At level 4, every class delivers a +2 ability score boost. Until a character’s attack or spellcasting ability reaches 20, these ability boosts stand to improve almost every to-hit roll and to hinder every foes’ save. Multiclassers who stop leveling a class at 1, 2, or 3 miss a key upgrade.

Despite the offsetting drawbacks of multiclassing, just a level or two of a class can enrich a character. For some players, multiclassing yields the flexibility to match a character’s story concept. Other players just want power. Many players seek a unique concept.

Whatever your aim for your character, this list reveals the top 7 classes to add as a multiclass.

7. Barbarian

Generally, barbarian makes a poor second class. Few martial characters want to avoid armor. Spellcasters can’t cast while raging. Despite the limitations, 2 levels of barbarian make a gimmicky combination with rogue. The Reckless Attack feature lets your rogue gain advantage for Sneak Attack.

6. Cleric

For spellcasters aiming to become much more durable, two cleric domains make a good start.

A character who starts as a Tempest cleric gains heavy armor proficiency. At 2nd level, the domain grants Destructive Wrath, which lets a cleric use Channel Divinity to deliver maximum lighting or thunder damage. Most spellcasters can find use a for that.

The Forge domain also grants new clerics heavy armor proficiency. At 1st level, these clerics can use Blessing of the Forge to add a +1 bonus to your armor or to a martial party member’s weapon.

Update: In the comments, Rooneg raises an important point. Heavy armor demands Strength scores higher than any spellcaster needs, so most characters only benefit from the medium armor proficiency granted by every cleric domain.

Unlike other classes that grant armor proficiency, a level of cleric keeps spellcasters on pace as they gain spell slots. As a drawback, your spellcaster will gain little benefit from the 13 Wisdom required to multiclass as a cleric.

5. Bard

At first level, bard delivers light armor proficiency, a skill, and Bardic Inspiration. Most multiclassers continue to gain Jack of All Trades at level 2. This adds half your proficiency bonus to every ability check where you lack proficiency.

Levels of bard combine easily with charisma-based spellcasters.

4. Warlock

Characters dip into warlock for 2 levels to gain 2 Eldritch Invocations. For charisma-based casters, the Agonizing Blast invocation upgrades Eldritch Blast from an ordinary, weak, cantrip attack to a powerful option. Devils Sight makes a dangerous combination with the Darkness spell. Mask of Many Faces lets a deceptive character scheme past obstacles and break a few adventures. Ignore the shell-shocked look on your dungeon master’s face; they love it.

When you calculate a multiclass spellcaster’s spell slots, Warlock levels don’t add to other caster levels. Still the warlock class combines especially well with sorcerer. See 7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing.

3. Sorcerer

Many of the Sorcerous Origins bring appealing perks at level 1. The Divine Soul’s Favored By The Gods feature lets you add 2d4 to a failed save. I like mobile characters, so the Storm Sorcerer’s Tempestuous Magic strikes my fancy. Before or after casting a spell, the feature lets you fly 10 feet without provoking.

Multiclassers add sorcerer to gain the 2 metamagic options available at level 3. Quickened Spell, Twined Spell, and Heightened Spell may rank as the best. Subtle Spell helps in adventures that feature role play and intrigue.

Characters rising in other spellcasting classes can trade spell slots for the sorcery points that fuel metamagic options. Except in the sort of dungeon crawls that exhaust spell slots, most mid- to high-level casters rarely use all their slots anyway.

2. Fighter

The first level of fighter ranks as the most useful single level in fifth edition. Characters who start as fighters gain heavy armor proficiency.

Level 1 also delivers a fighting style. The Archery style brings a +2 to ranged weapon attacks and benefits every sharpshooter. The Defense style grants +1 AC and keeps your spellcaster from harm. The Protection style helps save your allies. Protection lets a shield-bearing character impose disadvantage on an attack against a character within 5 feet. First-level fighters also gain Second Wind.

Levels 2 and 3 bring fewer rewards, but the features suit players who enjoy bringing big damage spikes. At 2nd, Action Surge lets fighter take an extra action once between rests. At 3rd, the Champion archetype scores critical hits on a roll of 19 or 20. This combines brilliantly with the paladin’s Divine Smite feature. If you stick with fighter through level 3, you should probably stay with the class to level 5 for the ability score boost and the Extra Attack feature.

1. Rogue

At 1st level, the Rogue class delivers Sneak Attack, but the Expertise feature may benefit dabblers more. Expertise doubles your proficiency in two skills. Second level brings Cunning Action, the best prize for multiclassers. Use a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide.

As a bonus, characters who start as a rogue gain 4 skills while most other classes just get 2.

A level or two of rogue fits with most multiclass characters.

What’s your favorite multiclass combination?

Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins

I have only run an evil-themed D&D campaign once, and only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released the Drow Treachery cards and the Menzoberranzan campaign book and promoted the products with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. I’ve served as a dungeon master for every season of Encounters and never considered skipping Council of Spiders, but I questioned the wisdom of promoting an evil, backstabbing campaign, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If the player’s actions defied her alignment, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Still, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from  classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second-edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In third edition, “thieves” became “rogues” to discourage similar mischief. Steve Winter explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

Of course, you don’t have to play a thief or assassin to “just play your character,” and to instigate fights among the party. In the Legacy of the Crystal Shard Encounters season, one player embraced the corruption of the black ice and seemed tempted to disrupt the party. This time, I felt willing to forbid any action that would make the players war amongst themselves. But first, I set in-game events that challenged the character to choose between the black ice and his other loyalties, and to the player’s credit, he chose to cast aside the corruption.

Games of Paranoia aside, I no longer see “I’m just playing my character” as an excuse for disruptive play.

[February 15, 2014: Updated to indicate that “thief” became “rogue” in third edition.]

Next: A role-playing game player’s obligation