Dragon assistant editor Mike McArtor really likes ninjas in D&D. I don’t. Here’s why.
The class system of D&D has long worked on a basis of four classes – the fighter, the wizard, the cleric and the rogue. There’s some leeway for change, but the basic four archetypes must always be filled:
- The warrior, who presents opponents with tough opposition and specializes solely in combat
- The mage, who is physically weak but defeats challenges using powerful offensive magic
- The priest, who is of middling toughness but supports the group with mostly defensive and restorative magic
- The thief, who is quite weak but overcomes challenges in clever, skilful ways like sneaking, backstabbing and trapfinding
There’s some leeway here, and room for mix-and-matching abilities. You can see, for example, that the paladin is a warrior with some priest ability, while the new duskblade class is a warrior with some arcane. Neither of these lose their class focus, and both fit into one of the four main roles.
This isn’t the case with the ninja classes that edge their way into the D&D game. The problem is that ninjas don’t fit perfectly into the game’s class system. Initially they seem to fit as a thief, but the usual implementation is a kind of rogue-monk combination who relies on arcane abilities. Essentially, it’s shifting the thief archetype from Intelligence based to Wisdom, and therein lies the problem. What we end up with is a ‘dumb’ rogue.
D&D balance also says that whatever abilities a class grants must balance with other, similar classes. We give monk abilities and magical enhancements to the rogue to create the ninja, so what does he lose? Frequently, he trades in his skills and a big part his sneak attack, and there’s where a problem lies. Your ninja, in exchange for improved combat and magical ability to remain unseen, ends up the weaker spy and assassin for his level. Even on a practical level, you’re replacing the party’s thief with a skill-light sneak attacker who can’t pick locks or disarm traps. The rogue’s clever intelligence and skill is vital to the party!
What, then, is the correct way to implement the ninja in third edition? One way might be as a rogue/monk synergy prestige class representing a certain secretive assassin order. Another might be a series of variants, trading rogue abilities for magic and techniques. Even more simply, the best ninja is frequently just a combat-specialist rogue outfitted with a few cheap alchemical and magic items, dipping perhaps a level into monk and taking a feat to use Int in place of Wis. Sometimes the simple approach is best.