I'm not going to touch on the Noble or Courtier in this post, although that's an interesting comparison for another day (maybe compared to the other Noble class from the Sovereign Stone and Dragonlance campaign settings too.) Rather, let's have a look at the four classes that represent sneaky skill users and killer types.
I mentioned in another recent post that I thought these four classes were all fine classes, but that they were redundant; there's no reason why any given campaign should ever use more than two of them at the most, and certainly not need to enable all four. I still believe that, so the purpose of this review, then, was to figure out where I wanted my campaign to land with allowable class selections.
Let's start with the Rogue, since it's in the SRD, and is therefore the most familiar of the four. The Rogue has a ¾ base attack bonus progression, one good save (Reflex), a d6 hit die, and a base skill point per level of 8, which is the best in the game. He gets Sneak Attack bonus damage improvements at first level and every other level thereafter, gets trapfinding, evade and uncanny dodge, and has an a la carte menu of special sneaky abilities that he can get in the second half of his career progression.
He's clearly not a front-line fighter with a mediocre BAB and a low hit die, but his enormous pool of skill points, extremely handy class abilities, and the potentially devastating sneak attack ability combine to make him a versatile and highly useful addition to any type of game, even one that (like mine) tend to avoid dungeons like the plague. In a dungeon environment, of course, he's also extremely useful as a sneaky scout who goes ahead, finds opponents and traps, disarms them, and sets ambushes for creatures along the way. His ability to use the Use Magic Device skill is a convenient way for him to even double up as a backup cleric or wizard if necessary, if he's got a wand, scroll, or other magic device.
Verdict: Rogues are one of my favorite core classes to play, especially since I prefer to stay away from spellcasters, and I find the fighter kind of bland. But, even an old favorite can use some new blood and competition, so that's where we get to the next three classes that we're going to look at.
Let's start with the "official" ninja; coming as it is out of the Wizards of the Coast product line, it's likely to be the next one most potential players will encounter. It also has a ¾ BAB progression and a good Reflex save, as well as having a d6 hit die. Ninjas have less skill points than rogues, but still quite a lot (baseline skill points/level is 6), and it has a very similar skill set of class skills (minus Use Magic Device.) It has an ability called Sudden Strike that is very similar to Sneak Attack (and the progression of it is the same) but which is slightly more limited. Like the rogue, the ninja also gains the trapfinding special ability and evasion (but not uncanny dodge). The ninja also gains a monk-like bonus to his Armor Class, and has an entire slew of movement related abilities, culminating in the ability to turn ethereal for short periods of time. These abilities translate very well into capturing the flavor of the Hollywood depiction of a ninja (which is no doubt exactly what they were intended to do). Whether they translate into tactical benefit in the game itself, however, is a bit more difficult to ascertain.
My opinion, admittedly not based on extensive playtesting, is that the ninja is inferior in almost every way to a rogue. With a rogue, you could get most of these same effects, or at least very similar ones, and have other benefits to boot. The ninja comes across as a poor substitute. If I wanted to make an iconic ninja type character, I'd be better off doing so using the rogue as a baseline, and pumping him up in sneaky skills and magic items that made me even sneaker and more mobile. Verdict: This ninja will not make the cut into my homebrew, although I might raid the class ability list for an ability or two to hybridize with whatever class I do settle on.
The Rokugan ninja is less official (having been published by Alderac Entertainment Group rather than Wizards of the Coast) but enjoyed at least some hint of officialness since Rokugan was also the featured setting of Oriental Adventures. The Rokugan ninja is also built similar to the rogue in many ways, but in other ways, it approaches a different kind of ranger. The Rokugan ninja was also built for 3e, not 3.5, so it differs in minor ways from the other classes we'll be looking at today, but I don't think that handicaps it overly. In fact, other than tweaking the class skill list (which I'd have to do anyway, since I'm also adopting skills from Pathfinder as a house rule) I think it stands on its own just fine as is with the other options presented here today.
The Rokugan ninja has a full base attack bonus, one good save (although it's Will here, not Reflex), a d6 hit die, 4 baseline skill points per level, and a rogue's sneak attack damage progression. He has uncanny dodge (but not evasion), poison use, an improved version of the Dodge feat, and a few other movement related benefits. In the second half of his levels, his class abilities taper off (not a problem for me, since I refuse to run a game up into the mid-teens or beyond, and very, very rarely would I anticipate playing in those levels again either) and become a bit sparse.
I'm not quite sure what role he would play in the game. I've never seen one in play, so this is not a playtest assessment. He's very similar to the rogue in many ways (especially with the sneak attack and lower hit dice, I'd expect his role in combat especially to be nearly identical) but hits a little harder due to his improved BAB. He doesn't have nearly as much flexibility and with somewhat weak and bland class abilities, especially as he progresses into higher levels, and only half the skill points, I would still anticipate that he plays like a subtle variation on the rogue in most respects. Although with the higher BAB, it would be tempting to make him into a more mobile front-line fighter, that's probably ultimately a losing proposition, as with only a d6 hit die, and a need to maximize STR and DEX before CON, he'll go down way too easily, I think.
Which ultimately makes me question how necessary this ninja class really is. I think it could benefit from a reassessment of class abilities, giving it more to choose from, and possibly more abilties in general. The Complete Adventurer ninja could be raided for potential abilities to add. Verdict: A good baseline for an alternate ninja class alongside the rogue, but it's too bland and probably a bit too weak as is to be a tempting alternative. A re-appraisal of its class abilities could give it just enough flash to stand toe-to-toe with the rogue.
Freeport's assassin class isn't strictly a ninja, but it's a sneaky killer; it's really a ninja in all but name. For that matter, in most respects, so is the rogue class, but let's not split hairs, shall we? The assassin is meant as a full 20-level replacement for the assassin prestige class, except without spellcasting, and as such, it has some similar abilities. It has a ¾ BAB, a d6 hit die (making four for four on the hit die), two good saves (Reflex and Fort), a backstab ability that works as "yet another almost Sneak attack ability" (but different from the Complete Adventurer's ninja ability "Surprise Strike") that doesn't upgrade quite as often as the rogue sneak attack ability, uncanny dodge (but not evasion), and a number of interesting class abilities, including an a la carte list very similar to the rogue's (except focused on killing rather than generic sneakiness; actually, these would make great additions to the rogue's list of abilities to pick from, and shouldn't prove unbalancing at all as such), poison use, an improved Fort save against poisons, the ability to make money when in an urban environment off of killing contracts (a small mini game that takes place between sessions, I'd imagine). The assassin has a baseline skill point total of 6 per level.
My first thought was that the assassin was completely redundant with the rogue, except having a slightly more flavorful menu of options. I still believe that it would play almost exactly the same as a rogue in combat (making four for four there too) but outside of combat, it could do some different things. And a fresh look convinces me that this class is actually more different from the rogue than I had initially concieved. Verdict: A nice class that plays like a darker, alternative to the rogue. The contract mini-game to kill NPCs off-screen for cash is a fun idea, but probably one that won't get used very often, honestly.
Final Verdict: Well, time to lay all four of the classes out side by side and decide what to do with them for my camaign going forward. There's a few caveats up front: 1) It wasn't ever really an option to replace the basic rogue--he was going to make the cut no matter what, and 2) four rogue-like classes is about two rogue-like classes too many for me.
That said, it's not as simple as just picking one of the three alt.rogues and adding it to my line-up. I think I can do a little better than that, and once I've done so, I'll post the houserules here, on my modular campaign setting elements wiki (houserule page, linked above), and eventually integrate them into my consolidated personal "SRD" document that contains all the rules I intend to use for my ideal campaign (which is, as of right now, hypothetical anyway, because I'm not going to be running for my group anytime soon; we just started an adventure path in which I'm a player, and then I doubt I can convince the group that it's my turn to run again already after that since literally all of use want a crack behind the screen.)
In my ideal world, what I'd do is kill all three of the rogue alternates and cannibalize their elements to create two unique rogue-like classes; one that's based heavily on the existing rogue (but with just a few elements taken from the assassin and mixed in as options) and one that's a splice of the Rokugan ninja and the Freeport assasin with possibly an ability or two from the WotC ninja too. My goal is to not exceed the existing rogue in power (although possibly add a bit more options for characters who want to go a slightly different direction with their character), but to have two classes that are equally attractive from a mechanics perspective, but which focus on sufficiently different mechanical ground that they don't tread on each others' toes, even as they cover the same conceptual niche. A bit tricky? Yeah, probably. But I've got good source material to work with to make this happen. I think it'll turn out just fine.