Ninjas Are Dumb

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.

Comments (26)

Maxo (May 14th, 2007)

Agreed 100%. I also don’t like taking a Japanese cultural and historical icon and forcing it into a fantasy setting. I mean we don’t see a Roman Centurion Class or a Greek Oracle for instance. Ninja seems fitting for a Japanese Historical RPG, but not D&D…no it just does not fit.

deco (May 16th, 2007)

Ninjas are dumb in D&D because anyone who wants to be a ninja wants to be a Hollywood ninja - a stealthy, assassin-ish figure who is also a masterful fighter. With a katana. And no armor. And some sort of shadow/invisibility powers.

In other words, they want to be Jack Bauer.

As a result, any actual ninja class that is balanced invariably disappoints, and leaves a sour taste in the mouths of everyone involved.

dusty (June 10th, 2007)

i do think the eastern influence in dnd suck but i love the ninja samurai as classes. so in my campaign renamed them. ninja is the assassin(screw the prestige class) and samurai is sword master(does not use katana and wakizashi only bastard sword and short sword)

Cadbury (November 11th, 2007)

You’re all overlooking one very vital point, D&D is all about fun so who cares if some classes don’t balance out with others ? Players who stress over their stats and want to be the toughest person in the party often overlook the most important element of D&D… Role play.

Some of my most enjoyable characters have been the most ineffective combat characters I’ve had. I once played a Bard who’s highest stat was thirteen and he was so much fun because I knew he’d suck in fights so I focused on the R.P side of it all exclusively and my party knew he was weak so they were always vigilant in keeping him safe.

In essence he was the most powerful person in the party because he was charismatic and always protected, gained an excellent reputation and in the end I stopped using him because he hit twenty first level and we didn’t own the books for epic level campaigns.

Ninjas in D&D are fine as they are, don’t get so caught up on skills and the like or who’s the strongest etc. If it bothers you so much there’s something else to consider… Change the Ninja class.

It says in the D.M.G I believe it is, the ‘rules’ in D&D are just guidelines and not set in stone. In the end the final say on everything comes down to the D.M that’s why he’s called the Dungeon MASTER.

If balance is particularly important because of the type of gaming session that’s being played such as a gladiatorial arena match between players and one of them wants to be a Ninja then alter the class a tad, it’s that easy.

Well it’s not actually easy to correctly alter a class I will admit but if you know what you’re doing and can be bothered it’s a potential solution for balancing things out.

Also, keep notes. I love it when others come up with good stories or ideas for campaigns or interesting player class alterations and I always ask my friends to email particularly entertaining ideas to me. They’ve been the basis for hundreds of hours of thoroughly entertaining gaming.

That’s obviously my email address, if anyone who reads this has any material they’d care to share or would be interested in some of the campaigns I’ve written please let me know and I will be more than happy to send something your way.

Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read this and happy gaming !

Ben (November 26th, 2007)

nInj4z 4|23 73h h4XX0r

wolf (November 27th, 2007)

The closest class to a ninja is rogue.

rogues like ninja’s have stealth, magic(casting from scrolls), skilled combatant, and focus on agility and dexterity.

im a ninja (December 9th, 2007)

i dont se y ninjas are so dumb i think thar cool i gust startid a new charicter and hes a niga so NINJAS ARE COOL!!!!!!!

Wil (December 10th, 2007)


SilleyWilley (December 12th, 2007)

wil i think that was the point, looks to me sarcasm or a joke :P

I’ve played ninjas a little so far and they seem like and interesting class as well as giving a chance to making things interesting. like.. how a ninja got into a western midevil area or even gearing the entire campain towards a more eastern course. to me ninjas seem more like a prestege class with some of their abilities but like cadbury said above, if you don’t like it and it can be made fair, change it.

gandhi (February 28th, 2008)

"gust startid a new charicter AND HES A NIGA…" heheheheh

zombiemode (May 21st, 2008)

Agreed with cadbury. ninjas are more “in the fray” than rogues in combat and outside of it can be incredibly useful due to invisibility. A rogue can sneak into a room undetected, a ninja can do back-flips through it unnoticed. Ninjas are more about style than anything else, and in the words of Scoundrel(the E needs an accent mark), “it doesnt matter if you live or die, as long as you look really awesome doing it!”. So what if their not a walking swiss army-knife?

shogo238 (September 7th, 2008)

A few key things I haven’t seen within these posts (though I may be blind and deserve a thorough flaming after this)pertains to one aspect mentioned earlier, that people don’t want to see a Japanese style character in their campaigns. Here is a couple of things to consider.
1) In the D&D worlds, whether or not its Ebberon or the Forgotten Realms, the maps are not 100% completely drawn. Leaving the DM to say that the ninja could indeed be from some far off uncharted land.
2) I read above, someone stated that you don’t see Roman Centurions and what not in the D&D setting, but then again, if you want to keep things 100% medeval, then shouldn’t the concept of monsters and such be taken out for the bonafide 1600s European setting?
3) Lastly, as it was so well put, its a fantasy adventure setting! No one gripped when they had ninjas fighting next to knights in the Final Fantasy series… Why should D&D be so different?

Stealth-Elite (November 7th, 2008)

Amen to that

I’m playing a ninja in a game, and HE is all about style and flare, hes not the great damage outputer when im out of ki but who needs to sudden strike when you can run up a tower wall and throw the sniper with the crossbow off it or put contact poison on a wizards book and watch him wipe it away because he thinks its dirt.

Im all about the acrobatics though and you get that in spades with the ninja class. I would like to see a rogue jump 30 feet without a running start or run up a 100 foot wall(i love speed climb with double move speed)

and so what if you get like 2 less skill points per level, A real ninjas dont use diplomacy and cant use use magic device so look there are where your extra poits were going anyway.

ace master (December 23rd, 2008)

i think ninjas are REALY COOL cause if it gets poison to a dagger goes erethreal and randomly backstabs a monster ya got yerself a good advantedge

Zhen Tae (January 23rd, 2009)

One of the players in my group killed off his sorcererous king to switch to a ninja. It sounds like he did it because running on walks was such a mind-flip, he couldn’t resist. I’m the rogue in the group. Just for irony’s sake, I’ll probably sneak attack him in his sleep.

To Stealth-Elite: I think a rogue with the Run feat and spider climb could keep up with a ninja’s shinanigans. Also, a rogue still has more skill points to put into tumble, jump, climb, etc. And it is as easy for a rogue to take craft poisonmaking as it would be for a ninja. Yes, I see what draws many to the ninja class, but D&D allows a lot of creativity, versatility, and specialization. It is up to the player to know how to shape a character into what he or she wants.

On another note, this has been an ongoing question: how many blades can a ninja fit on his body without using D&D magically altered pockets? 32? more or less? would so many blades hinder movement, like armor would? In my practical experience, for every blade, I usually need a sheath, just so none of my bits and pieces gets sliced when I start running. Sheaths and steel aren’t very flexible, so yeah, it does hinder movement some, but then again, I don’t go jogging with thirty-some knives. D&D is clearly fantasy, so annoying things like real-life situations aren’t really a problem. For in-game, how would you play this? Should a ninja still have flexibility when fully armed?

Zhen Tae (January 23rd, 2009)

Ah, “walls”, not walks. Sorry for the typo.

Quicksilver (August 25th, 2009)

I believe that if someone wants to add a class, and that if someone wants to play it, and it doesn’t ruin the fun, that it should be allowed.

As far as i can tell, the ninja class sucks and i wouldn’t want to play it. However i would enjoy playing it by trying to emulate it with a rogue (use magic device to use “techniques” or power moves). I also enjoy the writeup for the samurai, but the whole “2 masterwork weapons at first level is norm” pisses me off. I can’t afford that, and its not fair to the other players.

Pingwin (September 7th, 2009)

If you want a toe-to-toe ninja who can stand in combat like a fighter try using a ranger as a class. You get some stuff to ignore but good attack rates and the two weapons style combined with light (or no) armor works decent.

Still has stealth and all, but no sneak attack.

Don Diego Vega (October 22nd, 2009)

Good day,
I used the Ninja class to make a character much like Zorro. The skills fit enough.

Just my 2 coppers.

hanzo hittori (November 3rd, 2009)

Hey yall,
i play a ninja in my cousins campaign, i like how it works. i didn’t make a hollywood assassin, but instead made a historically correct ninja who follows a person of royalty and spys on people for him

Nick (December 10th, 2009)

I find that if you want to play a “masterful warrior” Ninja, then the Ranger actually works best. While having less HP than a fighter, you can choose to be a powerful attacker from range or in melee, and the toughness trade-off gets you the skills you need to sneak well. Ninjas also were assassins, and had to be able to locate their mark, so the tracking is a big help and fits with the fluff of the idea. Personally I like the unarmed combat method of Fighting, and so recommend multi-classing 3 to 5 levels of Monk. If you prefer a more mystical style Ninja, then 3 to 5 levels of Wizard and the Spellsword Prestige are your best friend.

Fireforge (April 20th, 2010)

I have been working on an interesting combination, ninja and swordsage from the tome of battle. i think the swordsages martial abilities especially the shadow hand ones, adds the the often supernatural flair we commonly conceptualize ninja’s to have. not to mention the shadow hand fluff fits brilliantly with the ninja concept. i gure its a good way to maximise combat effectivness while keeping all the lovely roleplay and character depth potential of the ninja class.

Nick (May 12th, 2010)

I find that the Ninja is a great D&D character archetype, but it is often approached incorrectly. I agree that D&D is a class system with four basic roles for the party, and if you take a little of each you get a character who is essentially good at nothing. That’s where I take a different approach.

Take a look at historical Ninja. They operated in small groups, and often each Ninja would develope their own specialties within the arts of Ninjutsu. Certainly one could be a knowledgable scribe as a cover identity and another a skilled bugei as his alternate identity. Naturally these two would be of different levels of skill and fit different roles within their Ninja team.

I prefer to look at classes that have the core Ninja abilities (Hide & Move Silently) and find ways to make them fit my character idea. Below are a few ideas I’ve used to represent Ninjas very well in my opinion.

Swashbuckler/Wizard/Spellsword > Mystical Ninja
Ranger(Distracting Shot)/Wizard/Bladesinger(or Spellsword if Human) Martial Ninja
Rogue/Wizard/Arcane Trickster > Skilled Infiltrator/Mystical Ninja
Scout/Beguiler > Impersonator

Try out your own ideas. You don’t have to just take the Ninja class. Also Shadow Scout from Oriental Adventures is an excellent prestige to add a Ninja feel to any class.

Mizerman (April 4th, 2011)

I agree that the classic fantasy role playing doesn’t involve ninjas. The rogue is pretty close but the thief really is the closest to a ninja assassin since they both have to be stealthy and use tricks to subdue opponents.

Jay (April 10th, 2011)

I like Monks and Ninja’s in my games. I don’t see them as out of place. My game does not take place in western europe, or even Earth for that matter. So I see nothing wrong with having a Ninja in my game.

chimera0010 (April 23rd, 2011)

I have to say ninja’s arent always dumb. I happen to be a dm and started my players off on the four basic rolls. My friend mara picked the theif/rogue and found sneaking is fun but in a fight she is more liking up close.

So she opted to work on her speed and accurecy n not sneak around enemies during a fight to use a sneak hit. with that she started getting critical hits. at some point she did increasure her movement speed so she can get around enemies quicker and took up job classes so she can work with plants and chemicals to make poisons, smoke bombs, and grenades.

as she put it “sneaking is all fine but when your with the group and in a fight there is no point to snooping around”. In the end she ended up becoming the “ninja” of the group and worked on her speed fore dodging and critical hits so thatif our fighter cant handle the group of enemies then she can come in and take them down 1 by 1 in sincle combat with her weapons, use a grenade for bigger enmemies, and using ki powered skills fo combat.

so all i have to say the ninja class is not dumb if you work it right. its the player who is dumb if they dont even know what they are doing.

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