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Is there a way to ask in game (i.e. in a non-meta way) what a character's class is? There have been a few times when my character is meeting an NPC (allied combatant) or another PC and it's bugging me that I can't think of a non-meta way to ask what their class is.

My goal is to figure out what a character can do. I don't care (in this context) if, for example, a sorcerer is a bandit (that's background) — the point is learning that their fighting style is that of a sorcerer.

I've had my DM or fellow player tell me to RP finding out.

Anyone have any ideas?

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11 Answers 11

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There is no non-metagaming way...

...because class is a metagame construct: from the characters' perspective, it doesn't exist. There is no good way to determine "class" as a hard fact for the character, because a particular set of abilities does not cleanly map to the character's identity and societal position in-world.

To put it a different way (using D&D 5E terminology)...

  • You have a two characters who wear heavy armor without discomfort, swing a greatsword with skill, and call on the powers of a deity to enhance their abilities and destroy their enemies. Are you dealing with a War Cleric or a Paladin?

  • You have two characters who wear medium armor, wield a longsword, and cast arcane spells1. Are you dealing with an Eldritch Knight Fighter, or a multi-classed Fighter/Wizard?

To emphasize the difference even more... all four2 of these characters, if asked in game (without metagaming), may call themselves a knight.

Spellcasting

Even within the same class, knowing a character's class may not tell you anything substantial about their capabilities. Knowledge that a character is a sorcerer, for instance, doesn't tell you anything about how the character might fight. Even if one knows a character is a sorcerer, without observation or simply asking in-character (i.e. "Hey, finger wiggler, what spells do you know?"), there is no question that would give insight on how a sorcerer is going to fight that isn't also asking for metagame information.

NPCs

Furthermore, in some editions, NPCs are built entirely differently from characters - they don't have classes or levels at all. In those cases, the name of the stat block in use may be more descriptive than a class, but it's not guaranteed to have anything to do with the character's role or place in society.

To use another D&D 5E example, using the bandit stat block does not mean the character is a criminal. It could just as easily be a poorly equipped town guard or a mediocre hunter/trapper.

TLDR

The point is this:

A character's class defines what the character can do, not who they are. The in-character answers may have very little bearing on the metagame/mechanical answer.

1We could go even further if it's a Githyanki we're talking about; they get the appropriate proficiencies via race. We could be talking to a pure wizard, bard, sorcerer, or warlock.

2...or five...

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 24 '18 at 15:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ It should be noted that the beginning of your answer may explain why you cannot tell for sure which class an NPC belongs to, but at the same time you correctly explain how a PC can narrow it down by information that is indeed available in game. \$\endgroup\$ – Mars Plastic Nov 14 at 12:00
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If your group subscribes to the Murky Mirror concept of Roleplay, all you have to do is ask. It is thus assumed that your character asks one or more questions that will produce the same result.

Classes, Armour Class, Hit Points, Difficulty, etc are all abstractions to make the game easier to play. Your character in game has no idea what HP is, but will be able to judge how hard something is to take down. There's no way for you to know, so we use the HP value as a parallel.

Same idea with Skill check DCs or classes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes this could be deduced with a series of questions. For example you could ask for the characters personal philosophy (live by the sword, alignment, etc), how they prefer to fight (melee/caster). What kind of magic they like to use (arcane/divine/none). What can they do (raise dead, cast fireball, turn into an animal). Where are they from (remote village with no education for barbarian for example). From a series of questions the class of a character can probably be ball parked. \$\endgroup\$ – Tyler S. Loeper May 24 '18 at 13:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's interesting, because a player character will know their HP and act accordingly. Maybe this sort of thing should actually be delivered at the start of the game and kept tallied by the DM but not shared. A player with a high HP will try to keep track of how much damage they've taken, but will really only have a vague approximation, making a fight more like a real fight where you only have a sense of how much more you think you can hold up, which could lead to staying in longer than you should or surrendering before you absolutely needed to. \$\endgroup\$ – Anthony May 25 '18 at 1:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Anthony Did you read the Murky Mirror article that Kyyshak linked to? What you're proposing goes very much against the spirit of what Kyyshak is suggesting! The Murky Mirror concept says that it's not only OK but encouraged for players to use their knowledge to play their characters. Ultimately, it's impossible to fully disconnect a player from their character, so it's not useful to try to do so. And what a player knows is a rough but useful abstraction for what their character would know in-universe, so keeping a strict line between out-of-universe and in-universe knowledge is unnecessary. \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin - Reinstate Monica May 25 '18 at 20:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might or might not agree with that philosophy. But it's the philosophy recommended by this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Kevin - Reinstate Monica May 25 '18 at 20:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure if I agree or not, but I appreciate you acknowledging that it's a philosophy, not "the only way". I get the abstraction part, but don't know if I agree that there isn't a value to partitioning the player from the character in regards to stats. Mostly because that layer of abstraction doesn't actually map well to the in universe character. People are much less pragmatic, for one. But it's more about encouraging immersion. Many players approach the campaign/battle/story like a puzzle or a problem to be solved, focusing on their numbers rather than the story. \$\endgroup\$ – Anthony May 25 '18 at 20:54
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I've had my DM or fellow player tell me to RP finding out.

Your DM is telling you she doesn't want you to find a clever tricksy question to get this information out of her, she wants you to immerse yourself into the world and treat it as if you were in this world. When you meet new people, they don't have a tag floating above them which says

Wendy, lvl 24 java programmer

You get an introduction.

This is Wendy, she works in R&D, she will show you around.

She could be a tester, a technical author, a scrum master or a developer.

How would you find out what Wendy does in the team?

You could look at what she is wearing. If it is a t-shirt with a cartoon or a top with a quote from Firefly, you could put money on her being a developer.

You could also ask:

So what do you do?

What job do you do round here?

Are you a developer?

This is what they mean. They want you to talk to the person (player or NPC), and to interact with them so that you treat this more like a real situation.

I am not going to give you in-game examples as they will never actually fit the situation you are in. (yes I am a mean mummy)

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It depends on what kind of answer you are satisfied with

First off, NPCs don't usually have classes. They can have jobs, ranks and titles, but their skills and power balance is handled differently from player characters. However, you can still gain intel on what their preferred means of combat (or general problem solving) may be.

Let's start off assuming you want 0 meta talk and discuss all this in-game.

Gaining information before engaging in a conversation: You can ask your GM to describe the NPC you are interested in, or have another party member describe their own character, based on visuals and characteristics. Maybe even ask if you can make a perception check to see if you find anything peculiar or definite sticking out about them (scorched eyebrows, the stench of several chemicals and a robe full of odd splotches could hint towards an alchemist / general wizard, as a rough example).

Actually talking to a (Non Player) Character: Crazy though it may sound, NPCs and PCs are supposed to be characters, people. Each person handles the sharing of personal information differently. If they know or like you, they may tell you more. If they're ashamed or secretive, they may lie or tell you very little.

Judging them by their actions: If you see your companion cry a prayer to scorch an enemy to ashes with a holy ray from the skies it's safe to assume they have some small spark of godly power inside of them.

Asking people who know them: Only a hand full of characters you encounter will be hermits. Someone, or some people will know the character you want to learn more about. At your GM's discretion you can try to find them, talk to them and see if you can learn more about the character's history or their...character, in general. That may backfire if they hear about you snooping in their history, of course.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The issue is that in this type of case, I want the meta information, but I'd need to obtain it via non-meta methods. I don't want to end up asking "are you a paladin, cleric, sorcerer, wizard, druid, rogue, barbarian, ranger, warlock, monk or bard?", since that's effectively meta in the spirit of the word (even if no meta terms were used) \$\endgroup\$ – Dan K May 23 '18 at 19:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Dan_K then you're basically out of luck. Asking for something specific and definite without asking for it (despite the fact there likely is no answer that satisfies you anyway) is fairly impossible. \$\endgroup\$ – Scrawnoisis May 23 '18 at 19:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Suggestion: Before asking the GM to describe the NPC and rolling perception, first inform the GM that your goal is to determine the class of the NPC. When the GM knows your goal, they can provide the appropriate level of description to accomplish their goals. That may involved not revealing what you want to know, but now the GM is doing that deliberately rather than accidentally. \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck May 24 '18 at 0:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ Speaking of being able to derive information from their behavior, isn't it also a bit flawed that the character would be as familiar with various classes as the player? Assuming you are a fairly intelligent fighter, and you are engaging with an NPC who starts chanting to a demon lord, how reasonable is it that the character would think "oh! I see you worship demons and know magic, therefore you are dark wizard and are capable of the following useful traits." I'm not sure I know enough about European culture to make precise assumptions. Let alone the 30 different types in a dungeon. \$\endgroup\$ – Anthony May 25 '18 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Playing on that last comment, I think it would be great if a player character saw an NPC perform some spell or chant and based on this asked the NPC for assistance on this or that quest, and the NPC responding "so what, you think all dark elf priests carry a red crystal? What century is this? Maybe you'd like to see me shake an evil stick too!" \$\endgroup\$ – Anthony May 25 '18 at 21:04
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There is something, in 5e, that (sort of) does what you want

You stated in a comment:

'I want the meta information, but I'd need to obtain it via non-meta methods.'

Have you considered the seventh level ability of Battle Master Fighters?

Know Your Enemy

Starting at 7th level, if you spend at least 1 minute observing or interacting with another creature outside combat, you can learn certain information about its capabilities compared to your own. The DM tells you if the creature is your equal, superior, or inferior in regard to two of the following characteristics of your choice:

  • Strength score
  • Dexterity score
  • Constitution score
  • Armor Class
  • Current hit points
  • Total class levels (if any)
  • Fighter class levels (if any)

Note: While this is related to what your asking for, it's a bit more limited than what you want. It only lets you find out how their total class levels compare to yours (not what class/classes those levels are in) and how their total Fighter class levels compare to yours. If the only NPCs your ever curious about are pure Fighters then this would go some way to solving your problem, otherwise, not so much.

That said, the other five categories of things that you can find out via the Know Your Enemy ability are much more widely, and consistently useful.

How does this Fighter class-feature help me? I'm a sorcerer.

Well, the fact that this feature even exists within the game does a couple of useful things:

  1. It tells us that giving you the meta information, that you want to know, for 'free' would almost certainly be imbalanced.

When you want to do something that renders an in-game class feature obselete that's a pretty strong red flag that you might be wanting to do something that could unbalance your game. In this case your 'free' question wouldn't just override the need for this ability - it'd actually be much stronger than this ability, providing you with more detailed (and less limited) information.

  1. However, if your DM is open to homebrew ideas, it sets a precedent for this kind of information being accessible to PCs, under the right conditions.

If your DM is open to homebrew, then you can point out Know Your Enemy as a precedent around which to shape a way for your character to gain a similar ability. I'd suggest creating either a magic item or a feat to be sensible way forward.

The feat, could be inspired by other mental feats like Keen Mind or Observant, and might look somethign like this:

Insightful

You have a mind that can, given enough time to observe an enemy, make accurate predictions about their abilities and possible courses of action. You gain the following benefits:

  • Increase your Intelligence or Wisdom score by 1, to a maximum of 20.
  • If you spend at least 1 minute observing or interacting with another creature outside combat, you can learn certain information about their capabilities. The DM tells you the what class levels, or spell casting levels the NPC has (if any).

If I was instead making an item (say, for instance The Ring of Knowledge, then it would require attunement, and I'd probably remove the ability stat increase. This is replacing a class-feature, so in order to keep it balanced there needs be a cost to taking it (whether that's taking a feat instead of an ASI, or using one of your attunement slots).

Caveats:

I'm aware that I've strengthened this ability 9as compared to Know Your Enemy), by suggesting that the DM provide the player with exact specific information, as opposed to just how the NPC's abilities compare to the player's own abilities. However, I don't think this would be overpowered as I've also removed the much more generically useful functions to learn about NPC's ability scores, armor class and hit points.

The risk with this feat is probably not that it would be too overpowered, but rather it might end up being quite useless. As has been pointed out by a number of the other answers, most NPCs don't have class levels at all.

You'd need to know, from your DM, whether this feat was likely to have any real use in your campaign, or not. If, as is common, he wasn't planning to give class levels to many NPCs, then you might want to forget this idea, or add back in some of the extra functionality from Know Your Enemy, such as AC and HP, for instance.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ That feature is a great example of filtering in-game data into meaningful meta-data for the player. Good find! \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov May 24 '18 at 16:19
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It depends what classes are in the setting that you are playing in (and the answer may be, "Class X is multiple things", especially in 5th edition, where the "background" is stripped out of some of the classes).

For example, you might ask a NPC if they serve a deity and if they answer "yes" they may be a cleric...or a paladin...or a bard who's "on a mission from God!". However, that NPC does not necessarily have a class, and honestly, I don't think you actually care what their class is (unless you've had a prophecy "when you meet a cleric, turn south" or some such riddle). What you care about is their capability to help you reach your goal (in this case, win in combat).

What I actually recommend is asking what you want to know, either in general terms i.e. "What can you do? What skills, training and talents do you have?", or specific ones i.e. "Can you heal my ailing friend?".

After all, how much does it matter if you get cure wounds from an NPC, if that NPC is a Cleric or a Druid(noting that the "Cleric NPC" Priest doesn't get Channel Divinity despite casting level 3 spells and the Druid NPC doesn't get wild-shape).

If you want to know if they have specific abilities, ask. "Wild shaman of the forest, can you take the form of a wild beast, as the rumors claim?", etc.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaveSherohman Here is a closing parenthesis so you don't need to feel an unresolved tension all day :) \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp May 24 '18 at 15:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaveSherohman: Fixed. That's what I get for looking something up in the middle of writing an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – sharur May 24 '18 at 17:12
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“What do you do?”

A class is just a job description.

Sometimes you can tell what a person does just by looking at them - a person in combat fatigues with a rifle is probably a soldier, a person in surgical scrubs is likely a doctor or a nurse but could be an orderly, a person with a hammer and a nail bag is a carpenter or a builder or maybe a lawyer who likes to work on the house at the weekend. Ok, sometimes it’s not obvious - especially when they’re all inebriated on Saturday night.

However, you can always ask them.

Why would the fantasy world be different?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This seems to be at odds with what the OP is asking. They give the example of a sorcerer being a bandit (per its background). If the PC asks what they do and they answer honestly, they would say "I'm a bandit", not "I'm a sorcerer". \$\endgroup\$ – Thunderforge May 25 '18 at 14:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Thunderforge Actually OP references bandit as a background, which is an 'origin story', not a 'profession'. Asking "what do you do?" or "what is your favorite method of combatting foes" or something is precisely the best way to determine someone's class. "Oh, magic you say? Did you learn this through practice, or were you born with it?" is an good follow-up question to determine whether the character is a wizard or a sorcerer, for example. \$\endgroup\$ – TylerH May 25 '18 at 14:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Thunderforge To pile onto TylerH's comment - my Ranger in ToA began life as both hunter and part-time highwayman. Before becoming an adventurer, he was part of a local "militia" who held up selected merchant caravans (who had not paid protection money) on the roads away from towns and cities. You could call him 'bandit' and (by his history) you'd be right. In Chult, he's a Ranger(Gloom Stalker) on a quest to save his brother from dying ... \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Nov 13 at 13:33
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I think, maybe the question you are asking is the wrong one. What information do you really want to obtain?

If you asking for a class, you are basically asking for the set of abilities, characteristics and background story that makes up that class (e.g. a wizard has spell-casting abilities, is usually very intelligent and spent years on studying and mastering his arts).

Instead, ask for the details you actually want to know, e.g. How do you fight?, What special skills do you have?, What can you do? or even What do you want?

In-game, there is no class, and even on the meta level, the class does not mean everything. So in-game, just ask the people about themselves. If you talk to a craftsperson, you don't ask them What class of craftsperson are you? but you ask them What do you do? or What services do you offer?

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Ask your DM for the meta-information straight up

D&D has basically two worlds: a lower level world (characters, places, ect) and a higher level world (players, stats, dice). Traditionally, these are referred to as "in-game" and "out-of-game" or "meta-game". When you play D&D, you usually always do so through the filter of your DM. You are going from the higher level into the lower level through your DM. You declare actions and your DM filters it into meaningful data. You also filter information from the higher level into your lower level character.

  • Example: You say you'd like to attack, you make meta-game rolls and add up damage, your DM takes that information and applies it to the in-game model he has, and usually relays the result of that action in either a lower level or higher level filter. Much of the in-game and meta-game knowledge is unknown to you.

When you ask your DM for meta-information, you're not breaking any rules

Your DM can give you meta-information as filtered information. Your job is to filter this information into your in-game character.

  • For example, we often ask our DM "How does he look?" meaning "Is his HP low or high?". He may say "He looks pretty bad", we can use that information in a non-meta in-game meaningful way. Well why wouldn't my guy attack the guy that is nearly downed to get him out of the fight?
  • Or, in your case, you might say "What class is he?", and your DM can filter that into something like one of the following:

    • "He appears to be some kind of caster, but you're not really sure".

    • "It's pretty clear from what you know about this character that he's a Warlock".

    • "You have no earthly clue what this character does or is".

    • "He appears to be a priest of some sort, but you can't tell if he's capable of fighting"

Perspective: third-person or first-person?

This is, of course, a third-person narrative about the conversation we're having, which is a good way to speed things up and stop beating around the bush. If you play D&D through only first person interactions (meaning you don't break character), this answer may not be helpful to you. In those cases, your strategy is very different. You'll be talking to "real" people, and you should treat it that way. But this tactic is well covered by other answers.

So why do we speak this way, and why does our DM give us this information readily? Because it avoids dancing around the issue, loopholes, and deceitful questions. You and your DM are playing together, not against each other. When you ask for meta-information, you need to realize that you(the player) need to filter this information to your character and not abuse that information (which is why it's often hidden from you). Your DM needs to know why you're asking and what you plan to do with this information.

  1. Avoid abusing meta-information and your DM should give it to you.

  2. Avoid asking for "harmless" information that you then plan to use to your advantage.

  3. Avoid tricking your DM into giving you information.

  4. Be honest with what you want to accomplish with the information and your DM will filter it into meaningful data.

As always, your in-game world might actually have these classifications. Characters might actually classify themselves as a Warlock or a Fighter or something of that nature.

In-game spells and abilities that provide meta-game knowledge

I think Tiggerous's answer to this question provides more reasoning around the exchange of in-game to meta-game information. The Know Your Enemy feature and Insightful feat are programmed into the game to distill information into meaningful data, even if characters don't actually know their own stat blocks and classes. These are great examples of ways and reasons your player character can know certain information about other characters.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I have stickied this answer in my browser for future reference; this is a superb distillation of some good role playing principles, and the overlap between In Game and Out of Game spheres. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast May 24 '18 at 13:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast I'd like to thank the academy, God, and my DM \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov May 24 '18 at 16:15
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Play 20 questions and ask class-specific questions that will allow you to eliminate classes that they are not.

So assuming the NPC or player character is friendly enough setup a hypothethical situation and ask how they would respond. Then keep asking class-specific questions until you have eliminated all the other classes.

For example :

So Dr. Strange what would you do in Situation A?

I would cast Magic Missile.

Ok, How many times can you do that a day?

Do you need to read a spell book to prepare spells?

Have you made a pact with an external being?

Do you worship a god?

and so on and so forth until you eliminate each class.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Of course, actual people hate this conversation style so your charisma stat better make you ridiculously good looking. \$\endgroup\$ – lly May 28 '18 at 4:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Once the monotony of doing this to several NPCs has set in, depending on the setting's literacy rate, you could try to switch over to giving them personality quizzes. Unlike interrogation-style conversations, people eat those up and you could carry a notebook with class-clarifying formats. (Paladins would opt for purity tests; monks for drinking games; mages for your world's version of 'Which House are you?') Leaves it up for the GM to have his fun with high IQ baddies gaming the quiz results as well. \$\endgroup\$ – lly May 28 '18 at 4:20
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In addition to the the methods in this answer, the Mastermind Rogue also has a relevant ability - Insightful Manipulator:

The DM tells you if the creature is your equal, superior, or inferior in regard to two of the following characteristics of your choice:

  • Intelligence score
  • Wisdom score
  • Charisma score
  • Class levels (if any)
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protected by Community May 24 '18 at 7:08

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