Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "The Jester"

"NPC classes" were a staple of Dragon during the years I read it regularly. I put the words in scare quotes, because I assumed then, as I do now, that the claim that these classes were intended "for NPCs only" was made with a nod and a wink. During the first few years after I entered the hobby, it was hardly unusual to run into guys who played ninjas or duelists or time lords, even though not one of these classes was recommended for use as player characters. I'm pretty sure I allowed a ninja in one of my old campaigns and I was probably guilty of allowing some others as well, but, by and large, my players were never long interested in any of these novelty NPC classes to play them for very long.

That goes double for the jester, which was introduced in issue #60 (April 1982) in an article by Roger E. Moore. I mean, it's easy to see the appeal of a ninja -- especially back in the early '80s, when they were everywhere -- but the jester? What's the appeal there? Perhaps I'm simply humorless and unimaginative but I have a hard time imagining either an adventuring jester or a need for a NPC class based around juggling, tumbling, and minor spellcasting. For what it's worth, neither did my players back in the day, though one player did threaten to create a gnome jester ...

Nowadays, I've softened my stance considerably regarding variant character classes, whether intended for PCs or NPCs. I don't personally see a lot of need for many of them, but then I know lots of people in the old school world who don't see a need for any classes beyond fighting man, magic-user, and cleric, so there's room for disagreement on this score. I'll also admit that something I do like about the notion of NPC classes: that non-player characters don't necessarily have to follow the same rules as player characters. That's something more referees need to keep in mind, I think.

31 comments:

  1. Not that "What's New with Phil and Dixie" was ever highbrow, but my 10 year old mind always thought that their Jester cartoon was particularly funny. http://www.airshipentertainment.com/growfcomic.php?date=20071007

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  2. Hmmm... I've never been a fan of new classes or sub-classes either, but a jester/minstrel character class is definitely in the canon of much fantasy, as a kind of amiable rogue.

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  3. Lol this post has brought up a lot of memories of trying, as a very green DM, to include as many of these NPC Classes in adventures and campaigns!!!

    Jon

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  4. "...but, by and large, my players were never long interested in any of these novelty NPC classes to play them for very long.

    That goes double for the jester,..."

    You never met my friend Cam. 6' 3" tall, 250 lbs., and you'd think he was born to be a kender.

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  5. I like the idea of a jester PC a LOT, I mean Dagonet was a Jester, right? It amazes me that Bards are -still in the game- when Jester is obviously such a way better idea.

    In terms of the mechanics as they played out in the game: whatever, I payed no attention, but in terms of how they COULD have played out?

    A bard who sings with a lute and suddenly everyone around him is better at fighting just seems a million types of cheesy. A Jester who magically makes the ring disappear off the evil sorcerer's finger and appear in a little kid's ear? Priceless.

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  6. My brother played a jester ("Tranco") for quite sometime in our high school gaming, but that's the only time I ever had someone play one.

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  7. Ironically, I played a Ninja character that claimed he was an out-of-work Court Jester. He dressed in garish vagabond clothing, used a drunken/clumsy fighting style that made it appear he didn't want to fight (i.e., let himself get hit in a bar brawl so he could fall backwards over tables, grab two tankards of ale, splashing the contents in the face of his attacker while drinking from the second - basically letting the attacker chase him around and tire himself out) but, where necessary, make it appear the attacker caused most of his own injuries. Sometimes, when you play the fool, everyone actually thinks you are. I managed to make it to a higher level with my antics than some of my fellows with all of their combat skills intact. :)

    The Dragon classes were always a great source of inspiration.

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  8. I always thought the campy stuff, like the Jester, was designed and played by people who really didn't like D&D and thought it was a silly game or a joke.

    We didn't allow any of this campy stuff in our games and we still don't today. The jokey stuff seemed to undermine the game to me and I always wondered if the designers were doing that deliberately. As if to say "We're tired of playing this game so lets just make up some stuff that will break it or make it seem foolish."

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  9. I both played a Jester and had one in a campaign I ran. I was always surprised that it didn't catch on to the larger D&D playing audience.

    Now, that could be because, as cibet suggests, I'm not a really big fan of the game but that's not the real reason I liked the concept so much.

    Mainly it was because as I learned more and more about Medieval Europe, the less D&D seemed liked medieval times. Where were the Knights? Are Fighters Knights? Paladins? I didn't really get how to make that work as a kid.

    Things like a Jester class made perfect sense since I figured there should be Jesters in a faux-Medieval European or Western Fantasy setting. Makes more sense than a Ninja or a martial arts Monk class.

    Of course, I do have a rather well developed sense of humor and enjoy a bit of camp when handled well.

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  10. I don't like this level of specificity in a character class. If you want to be a jester, why not play a thief? Or a bard, if you're using them? Why would you need a whole new class when the existing classes support the character just fine?

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  11. Gotta' love that ballbreaker spell.

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  12. >>John

    "I don't like this level of specificity in a character class. If you want to be a jester, why not play a thief? Or a bard, if you're using them?"

    Erm perhaps because Jesters (or at least medieval jesters) were neither thieves nor bards?

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  13. I always assumed the Jester class was, at least partially, one of their April Fools articles. Here’s how they worded the race level limits:

    “Halflings may go to 12th level before their jokes get boring, and elves may go to 10th level before their jokes get too exotic.”

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  14. cibet said...
    I always thought the campy stuff, like the Jester, was designed and played by people who really didn't like D&D and thought it was a silly game or a joke.


    Why. So. Serious? ;)
    It was what you made of it.

    The jokey stuff seemed to undermine the game to me and I always wondered if the designers were doing that deliberately.
    I don't think Roger Moore would have really wasted so much of his time working for Dragon, etc if he was compelled to do bigger and better things. Why kill your cash cow?

    Now, WG7 Castle Greyhawk? That's a better example for you to use.

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  15. @Cardinal: Don't be obtuse. What I'm asking is, what abilities should a jester have that mean a jester PC cannot can't be adequately represented by either the thief or the bard class? Implicit answer: none. Ultraspecific classes undermine the idea of the main classes as broad categories allowing for player creativity.

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  16. I always assumed the Jester class was, at least partially, one of their April Fools articles.

    Almost certainly, although the article doesn't read as being wholly a joke, unlike some of their other April Fool's Day rules additions (like "Duh Jock" class from issue #72).

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  17. John@Cardinal is right. You can also approximate different special classes by allowing more exotic multiclassing than 1E/2E gave.

    As for having NPCs operate differently from PCs, I like to give NPC abilities based on the Thief percentage progression. For example, a Smith NPC might be able to support a number of men in an army equal to the Thief's Pick Pockets percentage (taking the Smith's level as equal to the Thief's). Similarly he could use the Climb Walls percentage for normal metalwork, Hear Noise for whitesmithing (gold and silver), and Read Languages for working with mithril and adamantite (wait until level 4, then low percentage). Of course, the racial modifiers don't work out exactly, but if you apply the Open Locks racial modifier to each skill it seems to make sense. That said, with all that work, you might as well just say the Smith has a 2 in 6 for metalwork, -5 modifier for mithril/adamantite, and gains +1 per level.

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  18. @John
    Without reading the article, I very much agree with you. If we're going to hew closely to what real jesters were, then we're probably talking about a normal human with a good sense of humor (and perhaps some kind of distinctive physical feature).
    I might feel differently if the article proposed a set of special abilities/limitations that were rooted in what distinguished jesters from other entertainers. But personally, my characters are always comical, clever, and charismatic, with or without bells!

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  19. I ran a LE human Jester as an NPC in a campaign that I had back in the day. She served as the emissary of one of the regional rulers and was used to seriously annoy and harrass PCs that said ruler had an issue with, especially as they reached higher levels.

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  20. Back when these classes first came out I too turned my nose up at them for being too silly, but nowadays I have to agree with Zak and say the idea of a Jester class strikes me as potential awesome.
    As to those who say the jester can be easily represented by the thief or the bard class, point taken I sure they could, nor can I see all jesters being the Jester class*. But there's also nothing wrong with having some who are Jesters, they could make a very entertaining PC/NPC. So what if they can be worked another way. This guy/gal happens to work this way. Why limit yourself?
    *This is true for the Cleric class in my campign as well, not all priests are Clerics, in fact most clergy aren't. Clerics are miracle workers and sort favorites of the gods, which can lead to a lot of political intrigue within a religion.

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  21. I remember this class. The best thing about them, was that they could use the Wand of Wonders without having to roll on the table, they could select the effect they wanted.

    Silly class, but I did play a number of the other NPC classes from that time: Anti-Paladin, Duelist, and Archer/Ranger come to mind.

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  22. @GrayPumpkin: Breaking stuff down into smaller categories is more limiting, not less. A character playing the Fighter class already has the option to be a barbarian, or a swashbuckler, or a gladiator, or whatever else. If you add a Barbarian and a Swashbuckler class, you haven't given the players any more options, you've just pigeonholed them - Fighters can no longer be swashbucklers, and Swashbucklers can no longer be anything else. Worse than that, start adding classes for specific archetypes and you get the players thinking they can't be gladiators either, because there's no class for that.

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  23. @John I don't see why that need be true, someone could say his fighter is a swashbuckler,but mechanically he's a strait fighter with a good dex.
    Some other guy can come along and say hey can I play this Swahbuckler class? Let's call it a fighter variant, limited to light armor and I don't know, maybe gets his dex to hit rather than str. Both are viable interpretations, both can exist in the same universe, they will play little differently mechanics wise, with one having an advantage in some situations while the advantage going to the other in other situations. Seems like win, win to me.
    I can see what you are saying be the case sometimes, but I a lot of that falls on the GM and how he presents things

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  24. I remember having a lot of fun playing a Jester in one campaign. It was a 2e D&D bard variant. No one expected him to last long, much less make it to 15th level, but it never got old for me. He provided comic relief and ridiculous, yet strangely effective, spell-casting support.

    I have fond memories of playing: "The most powerful Fool in the realm."

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  25. What do people think about Mimes as a sub-variant of Illusionists multi-classed with Clowns? (n.b. Half-Orc Mimes talk, but they don’t get any special abilities with weasels.)

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  26. Jester eventually became a class kit for rogues in second edition, though Fool would've been a better moniker. Being at least partially insane, anything trying to read their thoughts or attempting mind control had to make a roll to avoid becoming flummoxed. They could also communicate with just gestures to basically anyone with eyes and they had Fool's Luck. a +1 bonus to every roll except hit points.

    Somewhat related: Didn't Lloyd Alexander write a series of books about a banished court jester?

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  27. A jester is more appropriate in a game centered around urban and courtly intrigue, where their abilities could be relevant. In a campaign focused on dungeon exploration, they just don't fit well.

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  28. Ah, NPC classes---we loved 'em! :D My brother Phil ran an expanded version of Lew Pulsipher's Timelord throughout our longest running campaign, and we had several other NPC classes in various parties in our extended play groups: Anti-Paladins, Archers, Bandits, Berserkers, Bounty Hunters, Dreamer, Duelists, Entertainers, Healers, Ninjas, Samurai, and Witches(as well as half-ogres, too). I don't think we ever had someone run a Jester or an Incantatrix PC, though....

    Allan.

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  29. "I'll also admit that something I do like about the notion of NPC classes: that non-player characters don't necessarily have to follow the same rules as player characters. That's something more referees need to keep in mind, I think."

    I agree 100%. This is useful to keep in mind when using ideas from other systems in an OD&D style campaign.

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  30. The first thing that sprang to mind:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKD5pKzzXvU

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  31. I really loved the old Healer class...

    Is there perhaps an archive somewhere of all the variant classes and which volume featured them? I've been on a let's-buy-old-issues-of-Dragon kick lately and I could stand to add a few of these to my meager collection.

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