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I am a fairly novice game master, but something I've never really understood NPC classes. As far as I understand them, they are noticeably weaker versions of PC classes (e.g. the NPC warrior in 3.5 does not get the bonus feats of a fighter). As a GM, I want to put the PC's up against powerful, exciting adversaries, and PC classes do just that.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but what is the purpose of NPC classes? Why use NPC classes for NPCs over PC classes?

(I apologize for the vagueness of the question; I'm terribly confused).

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NPC Classes are used for NPCs that don't play a major role in the story

The idea behind NPC classes are that they are not as powerful as PCs, and that they should be used for minor characters in the story. For example, in Pathfinder, the Adept class will be what most "priests" in a given church would be. They have some minor powers, and can cure wounds, but if you really need healing you'll need to go find an actual Cleric, which may be really hard to find in a small town.

Likewise, most city guards won't have PC levels, they'll have NPC warrior levels.

Most "normal" people will be Level 1 commoners.

You would not use NPC classes for a major villain

Major movers and shakers will have PC levels. If you are making a powerful adversary, NPC classes are not the way to go. If you've got Pathfinder, have a look at the creating NPCs section, and you'll see near the back there is an example of how to give an NPC regular Class levels. (Note that they still tend to have lower stats unless you choose to give them better ones).

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I suspect that the relative simplicity of the NPC classes is also a factor. It's a lot easier to generate and run a level 5 warrior than it is to generate a level 5 fighter. The extra complexity is worthwhile for a major NPC, but not for the swarm of mooks guarding it. –  AceCalhoon Jun 8 '11 at 20:49
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@AceCalhoon Yep! Though it all depends on the challenge/amount of work you're willing to put into the encounter. Another thing to remember that if an NPC only has NPC levels (at least in Pathfinder), their CR is NPC Level - 2 –  Cthos Jun 8 '11 at 20:56
    
Exactly. Anyone with a PC class is "special." Not everyone does those uber kinds of things. Most people are everyday and kinda suck, and thus have NPC classes. –  mxyzplk Jun 8 '11 at 23:24
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The answer dates back to the early days of the hobby. Sherman, set the wayback machine for 1975...

In the original D&D game, with only 3 classes (Fighter, Mage, and Cleric), the idea was that only heroes and villains had classes. (It wasn't until later that thieves as "heroes" was added.) NPC's who were not one of the PC classes, including the vast majority of fighting men, were either level 1 fighters or "level 0" characters, with HP but no ability to fight (Man-1).

In the fanbase, People added all kinds of specialized classes. (We're still talking before 1979.) Each with some measure of combat progression and specialized powers and/or spells.

Only two made it into AD&D, namely the Bard and Ranger, tho' Gygax and Arneson added a couple more themselves. (Gygax added thief, druid, and paladin, Arneson added Monks and Assassins.)

AD&D defined that, axiomatically normal people lacked classes, period. They fought as if level 0 fighters, they had HP by job or GM fiat, in the range 1-8+ConBonus... and saved as level 0 fighters.

Again, people added "NPC classes" - less effective than the PH classes, per XP, but still, they proliferated. None were official, but they were in Dragon, and that was good enough for many.

2E said the same things, but added a book of specialist classes later on.

3E comes along, and again uses the same core classes... but defines that they are not the majority of people.


Over time, the level of rulers also changed... Gygax has oft been quoth as having said kings were 1st to third level fighters in Greyhawk... Later published versions showed 6-9th level kings. Later still, 12-15th level.

In 3E, the king might not be a fighter at all... but he's almost certainly not a warrior.


In the 3.x DMG, you'll find a process for populating towns. This was a strong step away from the roots, and into the branches, of the D&D tree... those same ideas that, with enough classes, everyone could have class and level.

But, in order to have PC classes stand out, most people had to be weaker... hence a return to the old saw of NPC classes. And in the world building guidelines, about 90% of the population are in those classes. And those classes are only slightly weaker. (Actually, they're quite playable as PC's... and adepts are not too underpowered.

Reasons to use them are simple: they leave the number of really dangerous mid-levels less than capable of pushing around mid-level PC's. This makes generating them both simpler, and detailing out a population slightly easier. They're for your hired hands, farmers, wrights, temple staff, and the town watch. (Note: the watch leaders are fighters, and the priests are clerics... but the average joe is a warrior or adept.)

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Wow! I didn't realize there was so much history behind the NPC. –  NT3RP Jun 9 '11 at 16:25
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+1 thank you for the history lesson :) –  LitheOhm Sep 18 '12 at 4:33
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I think the need for NPC classes mainly came about with the new skill system. In AD&D, proficiencies were tied to stats. A "0-level" diplomat skilled in diplomacy would use his CHA in his attempts to use his skill. With the 3.x skill system, for the NPC to be a "skilled" diplomat, s/he needed to have enough skill points to reflect that skill. Since skill points were tied to levels, the diplomat needed the ability to advance in levels, or else be out of a job.

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