Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "For NPCs Only: The Death Master"

Ah, that staple of Dragon from back in the day: the "NPC only" class. One of the oddities of the magazine was that, while there was a voracious demand for new character classes, as a house organ of TSR, it could never offer up a new class for use with D&D without a formal caveat, unless it came from the pen of Gary Gygax himself. Of course, this was done with a nod and a wink, as no referee I knew back in the day ever refrained from allowing his players to use "NPC only" classes if he felt they were well done and fit the spirit of his campaign. I know I never had any problems with it, though, to be fair, I was choosy and, in any event, most of the new classes presented in Dragon were so specialized as to have limited appeal.

Still, the presentation of Len Lakofka's death master class in issue #76 (August 1983) went above and beyond those of most other classes in terms of making it clear that it was intended only for NPCs. You can see the title of the article in which it appeared above. In addition to the "For NPCs Only" phrasing, there's the subtitle that calls the class a "monster" and notes that one shouldn't consider playing as a death master. Even more notably, the article itself begins with an "Introduction/Sermon" where Lakofka opines
The AD&D game should not have assassin player characters. In fact, no player character should be evil at all unless adverse magic affects him.
This is an interesting, though not unusual, point of view, especially as the '80s rolled on. It's also worth noting that assassins were eventually eliminated from AD&D in its second edition, a point of view even Gygax toyed with on occasion, though for different reasons. In any case, Lakofka continues in his introduction to explain that he feels evil is treated too casually in the game. One of his reasons for creating the death master class was to rectify this.
As a way of putting evil in its often without enough of a penalty proper place, here is presented an evil character that makes an assassin look like the boy next door. The death master is meant as a non-player character -- one the player characters and their party have to defeat. Please use the character that way only. If I ever run into a player character death master at a convention, I may turn evil myself. . .
Again, it's an interesting point of view, especially when viewed against the changing culture surrounding D&D at that time. Naturally, Lakofka's concerns had zero effect on me at the time, since there was for a brief time a PC death master in my old campaign -- brief, because he was eventually slain by the other PCs, but I allowed the class nonetheless. The PC in question was a formerly good character turned to evil by possession of the Hand of Vecna and who became obsessed with eliminating his former companions in the belief that they would eventually destroy him. He was right, as it turned out, though, ironically, his destruction was more the result of his repeated attempts to slay the other PCs than their own desire to see his life ended. In any event, I didn't heed Lakofka's warnings and I'd be amazed if I were the only one.

The death master class itself is somewhat interesting. It's basically a necromancer, with many powers over the undead and a collection of new spells. Beginning at 4th level, the class also gains the ability to make a variety of "potions, salves, and pastes" that replicate some of his spells and class abilities. At the time, I found it an impressive addition, since it spelled out a bit more explicitly the crafting of magic items than was seen elsewhere. In retrospect, I'm not sure a new class was needed, when new spells alone could have probably sufficed, but that was the style at the time. Regardless, I'm not at all convinced that the death master did anything to advance the notion that evil should be Evil and never an option for player characters.


  1. Ah the evil PC. I believe there is a list of "rites of passage" that every D&D group must go through before they become Master Players.

    The list is as follows in a loose chronological order:
    - Playing an evil campaign or PC. At some point they all end with the party killing every NPC in sight and then some variation of killing each other or just the evil PC. Subsequently they are banned or ignored.

    - Spending way too many real life hours controlling PCs wandering pointlessly through some home brewed world (with world being a euphemism for a dungeon, swamp, forest, planet, or universe as the DM see fit and his free time allows). Eventually the campaign peters out as the players move on, leaving the DM with pages of spiral notebooks or Word docs filled with places and plots never to be explored. Subsequently they are banned or ignored.

    - Adding guns or lasers to a fantasy themed campaign. This quickly ends once every PC has had a chance to use one of the weapons in at least two battles. Subsequently they are banned from the campaign or ignored.

    These are the "in game rites". There are some "out of game rites" as well such as: getting a wife/girlfriend to try playing, getting children to try, scrapping RPGs for complex board games, but these are for Advanced groups.

    If you or any of the players in your group have not yet experienced all of the above please make sure to do so as quickly as possible otherwise they can come up at the most inopportune time. Only once the entire group has experienced all these rites of passage can you truly become Masters of the Game and know RPG bliss. Good luck!

  2. The other big draw for the death master -- he rolled a d12 for hit points!

  3. Ah, the death master. Necromancer classes have a special place in my heart, and I think the death master might be the first semi-official D&D necromancer.

    This class in particular suffers from the "NPC class" syndrome. I know that Lakofka here states that assassins should not be played as PCs also, but practically speaking I don't think anyone really followed that rule. They showed up in the original PHB after all, and thieves have always (at least as far as I know) had a backstab attack, which also makes them a kind of assassin.

    Anyways, I've always been dissatisfied with D&D necromancer classes, and I think the NPC class phenomenon has been a big part of the problem. It's not that I object to the lack of balance so much as the fact that virtually all of the iconic necromancy spells are pretty high level in D&D, making your "necromancer" PC not very necromantic until higher level. Animate Dead, is, after all, not available until 9th level (IIRC).

    Also, most necromancers have been done as a mutation of the magic-user class, despite the fact that most of the literary antecedents are not really portrayed as spell-casters. I prefer necromancers in the mold of Clark Ashton Smith, or even perhaps Diablo II (for a more gamist basis).

    I recently tried my hand at creating a playable B/X necromancer class that tries to tick all those boxes, and focuses on minions rather than spells.

  4. Even back then, I thought "NPC" only classes were bunk. If someone could come up with a good enough rationale, I'd let them play one. Even the evil ones, as long as they promised not to spoil the game for everyone.

    Although we did beat with couch cushions the guy who asked to play a multiclassed Paladin-Jester...

  5. I agree, NPC classes were absurd (though now I know some of the reasoning).
    While I agree that the fascination with evil is a very adolescent thing, I also find Lakofka's attempt at moralizing to be pretty sad.

  6. I'm with Len on this one. Evil PCs killing each other seems astonishingly pointless. I could maybe see it work in a lazy afternoon one-off game but how could you run any kind of coherent extended campaign with evil players? Forget morality, Player Killers (whether they are PCs or DMs) are boring.

  7. I don't understand why everyone thinks that evil PCs would necessarily and inevitably attack each other. Whatever your own personal conception of evil, consider examples of it in history and fiction. I suspect you will find that most evil people will work together while it is in their interest. In AD&D terms, this probably corresponds to lawful evil and neutral evil, but perhaps even chaotic evil in some cases.

  8. In any genre of game I might run, I very often give otherwwise normal NPC's special powers, abilities, or extra hit points to help make them a challenge and/ or special without making them super-high level individuals. You can have a 5th level MU take on a party of 5th level guys if he can summon up a stone golem from the nearby stone instantly, or raise 100 skeletons from the ground in the cemetary they are encountered in. Keeps the players guessing too "jeez, this MU must be 15th level or something!"

    These "special powers" are something a player can never have for his or her PC. PC's must jump through the usual hoops to get the usual stuff. No such restraint on a GM's NPC's IMO.

    As for evils, these types of characters can be handled well, and very often entertainingly, in the hands of mature and intelligent players. Some of the most fascinating characters in all kinds of media are evil. And evil characters can work well together. They can have similar goals as the usual "hero" types. It's helpful if they are all lawful or neutral in their evil as opposed to chaotic. Someone with chaotic evil as an alignment usually has mayhem and a "fuck you all" attitute that does not work well with enriching yourself without drawing a lot of attention.

    But when it just descends into helping disturbed geeks live out their power fantasies and them preying upon your game world rather than having interesting adventures and encounters it becomes something less than it should be.

  9. I must suggest a poll question like:
    [] Yes, I did generally permit Dragon magazine NPC classes to PCs.
    [] No, I did not generally permit Dragon magazine NPC classes to PCs.

    My personal experience was dissimilar from yours, although I guess most of the comments seem to swing in the "yes" direction. Still, I'm curious.

    1. This would have to be yes. I have played a long time. I understand why the evil PC /NPC was consider taboo. At the time D&D was getting a lot of bad press. However, the first time i played a death master was at a convention. With premade charters that had their own back story already set up. We all rolled are stats and before we even saw what charters we were playing. I thought I was on fire when I rolled (3) 18, (2) 17, and a 16. Then their handed me a d8 and i rolled a 1. that's right. a charter with 1 hp. I had seen death master in Dungan. So no way was I expecting it to be in play. If that was not bad enough, his charisma was set at 3. had a faddish of burning incents, and using cologne. because of his smell. The only thing that keep me from just walking out was he had a few traits that I thought where interesting. ambidextrous, fast reading, and Percie mind. Their did stick me with a brother in the party that was good alignment. Trues out it was one of the best times i had, as a player. Though I spent most of the first session with the assistant GM, getting to second level to get Hp. After that we had a blast thou. even after the convention we played the Charters. We called ourselves the 5 lords. The six's player was a lawful good priest, yes we hated each other and was always tiring to kill one another. He did end up killing me, but my brother put me in a different body. Was some of the best time I can remember playing.

  10. Interesting juxtaposition with yesterday's post. The "voracious demand for new character classes" sounds to me like begging TSR to do your imagining for you.

    My point is not that one could come up with a Necromancer class by yourself, but that the best way to distinguish a Necromance from just a plain old boring magic-user, is in how you play the character, and is not a matter of what level you have to be to get such-in-such power.

  11. @Brian

    I think that's true of some subclasses like the paladin and the ranger. These could easily by modeled by the fighter class. But I don't see necromancers as a subclass of the magic-user in the same way.

    Unless you mean that the class features are totally irrelevant, and role-playing is the only thing that matters. If that is the point you are making, I don't agree. You can't roll up a fighter and 'play' them as a necromancer; I'm not saying we need heavy rules, but in D&D mechanics that differentiate classes do matter (at least to me).

  12. "I don't understand why everyone thinks that evil PCs would necessarily and inevitably attack each other ... I suspect you will find that most evil people will work together while it is in their interest."

    i think you rebutted your own argument there. Sure it will be in their interest to work together against the mind flayer; the minute they get to the treasure or the goal or get in a pinch, they will then necessarily and inevitably attack each other.
    at least they will if they are decent role players....

  13. Oh yes indeed, let's stick to 'good' PCs shall we? You know the ones. They come into your natural habitat or home and murder you so they can take your belongings.

    It's hard for me to read that there should be no PC assassins and maintain my composure without laughing my head off. If there were no PC assassins, the vast majority of D&D campaigns would lack PCs. You might as well say no thieves so we can all go home...


  14. This so clearly illuminate a problem with D&D as written. By classifying Evil, by character classes or alignment, you box in the bad and by boxing things in you have thus contained the problem.


    It means you have simplified a complex reality to sandbox morality and it turns sane and intelligent individuals into morons as they try to think and act in this constrained environment.

    Alignment leads to Brain Damage!

    This post's subject so clearly illustrate how intelligent gamers start talk like idiots as soon as the boxing in by Evil happens by rules, either NPC classes or alignment. Dave and Garys greatest mistake, ever.

  15. I love the Death-master for his ability to animate dead of various types as 1st to 9th level spells. For me the Witch Doctor or Gravedigger is an awesome NPC that really needed to be carried over into 3.0, 3.5/Pathfinder as a more viable class.

  16. on the "question of evil" although I don't choose an alignment for my characters, I give thought to their ethics or moral worldview. But it's easy to take for granted what "the alignment system" did to make D&D different from anything that came before it. In most every game, one assumes a "role" of some kind, whether it be that of a military commander or a real estate mogul. And you win by killing (the other players) and taking their stuff. The (self) imposition of some kind of ethical constraints is part of what gives D&D that extra dimension.

  17. @Brendan -

    I agree with you in theory about evil PCs. Whenever I run a game in which I'm willing to allow evil PCs (which is most of them these days), I always take pains to point out examples from television: Arvin Sloane from "Alias" (Lawful Evil), Jayne Cobb from "Firefly" (Neutral Evil) and Gaius Baltar from "Battlestar Galactica" (Chaotic Evil). Evil characters can be multi-dimensional and make for some interesting intra-party conflicts and moral quandaries.

    Unfortunately, in practice, I have never seen a player play an evil PC that way. I've only ever seen them play them as Chaotic Stupid: spitting in the eyes of important NPCs, publicly defiling holy places, always blatantly stealing from the other party members, carrying imaginary grudges against them and stalking them with murderous intent. It always ends in tears.

    I think it's quite possible to play an evil PC well; I've just never seen it happen.

  18. It's because of brain damage.

    ...yeah, I'll shut up for now.

  19. @Devin--

    They should play monopoly or risk or diplomacy or any of the number of really great games where you charge exorbitant rent to paupers, knowingly send thousands of our brave men and women in uniform to their deaths just to distract other despots from your true intentions, routinely form alliances that you have no intention of maintaining and generally, as my grandmother liked to say, "play for blood."

  20. Playing evil characters as anything other than Chaotic Stupid requires a level of experience and maturity that is probably beyond most players if they are either young, have experienced little of the dark side of life, or still believe there is any value in what politicians and the media have to say. Examples of Lawful Evil "characters" from real life who worked together without preying on another abound throughout history. One obvious example would be the Waffen-SS in WW2. Perspective, of course, is also a key element. Chances are given the alignment system of D&D as a reference point, many people around the world who find themselves on the receiving end of America's neverending attempts to save them from themselves may view such efforts to be a form of Lawful Evil.

  21. When I played AD&D (last about 15 years ago) I nearly always played evil PCs. If I get nostalgic for that edition at all, it was because evil was so we'll defined and delectable.

    But this probably deserves its own post over on my own blog.
    ; )

  22. Show of hands, please...... everyone who ever chose Loviatar (The Maiden of Pain) as their deity...

  23. "A Charm to protect you from evil?"
    "I AM evil!"
    ---Kubotai from the only good Conan movie.

    I played a Mind Flayer and also an Assassin years back and did pretty good. Heh, years back, I was "Munchkin" D&D.

    Tried later when I got back into D&D to get a "Torturer" character like out of Gene Wolfe's books, but the DM was a bitch control freak too used to self abuse to the LOTR stuff.

  24. Have played evil characters and have run campaigns with evil characters. I've never seen it as a problem if one avoids the temptation to engage in cartoon acts of evil. I think its important to aim more towards The Godfather in terms of developing evil characters with actual motivations and moral compasses (granted, twisted moral compasses). The characters and campaigns have to make sense within their own sphere, and can't just be acting badly because you can.

  25. All praise to my glorious mistress, Loviatar, the Maiden of Pain. Many yeons ago I played a very fun Halfling Anti-Paladin/Cleric of Loviatar, LOL.

    (IIRC in my teen years my characters tended to worship Loviatar, Freya, or Inanna - Deities & Demigods version of Goddesses Gone Wild).

  26. Nilonim wrote: "Sure it will be in their interest to work together against the mind flayer; the minute they get to the treasure or the goal or get in a pinch, they will then necessarily and inevitably attack each other.
    at least they will if they are decent role players...."

    Necessarily and inevitably? What?

    There's no shortage of real-world examples of evil people who managed to get along with everyone other than their victims, sometimes for decades. Bernie Madoff, for example. Or the two judges in Pennsylvania who sent many innocent kids to prison because the company that ran the prison was paying them. The judges weren't mugging old ladies on the street, but they were still doing evil.

    Heck, even Osama Bin Laden didn't go around killing his neighbors on a whim like some kind of hungry werewolf on a rampage.

    I think real-world evil people generally don't apply their evil tendencies equally to all potential victims.

  27. My best stunt? Hiring a prostitute, beating her to within an inch of her life, and then healing her.

    Why else would you be a cleric? :D

  28. Oops... that previous post was supposed to start with:

    (raises hand for Lovithar)