Friday, February 26, 2016

Want to Play a Ninja, But Your DM Said No? Call it "The Agent" Instead

So, back in 2015 I published a fairly well-circulated entry titled Want to Play a Samurai, But Your DM Said No? Try Calling it a Knight Instead! There was a lot of discussion on both sides of the issue, but the main point I was trying to drive home was that, unless your class is specifically tied to a place in the world's canon, it's just a name used to refer to a set of skills. For example, in Pathfinder, a Red Mantis Assassin is a specific member, of a specific organization, which lives and trains on a specific island. A Hellknight, or an Eagle Knight, is tied to a specific country, and has to follow the orders and edicts of the in-game organization. Even a Harrower is part of a particular tradition that is prominent in the nation of Varisia, and among its native peoples.

No base classes have that inherent tie to a certain section of the world.

"None of them." - David Stonefist, Ulfen Wizard
We, both as players and as DMs, tend to see character classes in terms of tradition, and the art style of the iconic character. That impression can be hard to shake off, which is why characters who subvert stereotypes can leave you asking, "how can you do that?"

For example, a heavily-scarred half-orc with a lash at his hip and a take-no-prisoners attitude could be a bard just as easily as a fighter. The bare-chested brawler with a cestus on his right hand might be a monk, or he might be a magus, suckering his opponents in close before hitting them with a spellstrike. The tall, broad-shouldered princeling with the dragon crest on his masterwork armor might have been born into a house of privilege, but his blood bred true, which is why his character sheet says he's a level 5 barbarian.

Which brings us to the ninja, and why they don't have to be what you think they are.

A Rose By Any Other Name

Let us break down this class for a moment, and ask what it does. It is a skill-heavy class meant for infiltration, whose combat focuses on tactics and unexpected strikes, and which undergoes rigorous training in order to master extraordinary and supernatural tricks. Masters of disguise, these characters are one-half monk, and one-half hitman.

Sound like someone familiar?
Take a moment, and ask yourself how you'd feel about this class if it was called The Agent, or The Spy. Or if we gave it a fancier title, like The Hidden Hand or The Shadowstalker. None of those has changed the mechanical capabilities of this class... but what they have done is removed a term many people use to try and tie the class to a specific region, and culture, in the game world.

Now, let's say you create a character that is a cultural ninja. The character is an agent in the employ of Tian-Xia, spies for the government, and uses her skills to infiltrate secure structures to steal secrets, or assassinate targets. That character doesn't necessarily have to have ninja levels. She might, instead, be a rogue. Or an alchemist. Or a ranger. Or some combination of those things, with another class entirely. The name of the class doesn't mean anything in-character; it's just a handy way to refer to a particular package of abilities.

Final Thoughts

This isn't a new issue, and it isn't one that's going to be resolved one way or another any time soon. But I do have one more point that always crop up whenever I talk about this issue, as I found to my surprise when I wrote What's In A Name? How Your Character's Class is Limiting Your Creativity.

Your character class isn't supposed to be an in-game term for people with your skill set. It is something that exists as a meta concept to allow us to talk about the game mechanics that underlay the roleplaying that is supposed to be going on. Sometimes this is clearer than others.

Case in point.
For example, we all pretty much acknowledge that no one goes around calling himself a rogue. No one claims to be a barbarian, especially not when they're making a case for why they should be hired to do a job. A character with ranger class levels might think of herself as a woods guide, or a trail warden, and an elite scout might call himself a ranger as a military designation that has nothing to do with his class levels.

This gets hinky when it comes to other classes, though. Wizards are the easiest example. In character or out of character, a wizard is a wizard at most tables. Also, despite their rarity, many gamers feel that a paladin will be called a paladin in-game, regardless of the nation they hail from, the creed they follow, or even the languages they speak. There is no way to completely eliminate this in-game appropriation of out-of-game terms that I can think of. However, eliminating as many meta terms from in-game usage as possible can lead to much more satisfying, much more inquisitive, games. And if you invert expectations, players are less likely to take things at face value, and to think of them in meta terms.

For example, the next time your players have to seek out the Dean of Conjuration at a wizard's college, make that character a sorcerer. If they're having a meeting with the head of the thieves' guild, make the actual leader the hulking thug with barbarian levels everyone thinks is there as muscle. For added points, put a decoy behind a desk who is a stereotypical slick-talking con man, but who is much further down the chain of command. And if they're seeking out a cleric, direct them to the unassuming fellow who lives in the low district who ministers to the poor. He isn't a priest, but for some reason the gods chose to work through him.

Thanks to everyone who stopped in, and I hope you found this week's Fluff update useful. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! As little as $1 a month helps me keep the faucet turned on, and the content flowing your way. Lastly, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

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