Content of the article: "Things You Should Know About: The Rogue Class"
I'm trying to start a series of articles about different topics in D&D and similar RPGs. Specifically, I want to bring some context to terms that have become really common in these kinds of stories, but it feels like we might not know much about in reality (words like paladin, monk, lock-picking, pirate, barbarian, etc). And while I'm at it, I have a number of thoughts about a lot of these topics which I would bring to my players to shape how they view their characters and the setting they're playing in.
Quick shoutout, but a lot of my inspiration for this stuff comes from Gm Word of the Week. It's a podcast I've been listening to for a few years now, and it's full of insightful stuff like this from Fiddleback. And if you want to branch out from that, one of the collaborators on the early episodes of that podcast is The Angry GM, who writes a lot of articles on the subject of playing D&D. I'll probably get my research from other sources, but I already know that a lot of the stuff I bring up will come from these guys, so I figure I'll go ahead and source them (plus, if you aren't already checking their stuff out, they're pretty great even after several years of content).
This time, we're going to talk about the wizard class, and what they're all about. They’re often touted as one of the more powerful classes in the game, thanks to access to a wide array of magical spells.
The Rogue in 5e
The 5e PHB has this to say about rogues (Please be aware, this quote comes from the Rogue page on DnD Beyond, a free recourse provided by Wizards of the Coast):
Signaling for her companions to wait, a halfling creeps forward through the dungeon hall. She presses an ear to the door, then pulls out a set of tools and picks the lock in the blink of an eye. Then she disappears into the shadows as her fighter friend moves forward to kick the door open.
A human lurks in the shadows of an alley while his accomplice prepares for her part in the ambush. When their target — a notorious slaver — passes the alleyway, the accomplice cries out, the slaver comes to investigate, and the assassin’s blade cuts his throat before he can make a sound.
Suppressing a giggle, a gnome waggles her fingers and magically lifts the key ring from the guard’s belt. In a moment, the keys are in her hand, the cell door is open, and she and her companions are free to make their escape.
Rogues rely on skill, stealth, and their foes’ vulnerabilities to get the upper hand in any situation. They have a knack for finding the solution to just about any problem, demonstrating a resourcefulness and versatility that is the cornerstone of any successful adventuring party.
Skill and Precision
Rogues devote as much effort to mastering the use of a variety of skills as they do to perfecting their combat abilities, giving them a broad expertise that few other characters can match. Many rogues focus on stealth and deception, while others refine the skills that help them in a dungeon environment, such as climbing, finding and disarming traps, and opening locks.
When it comes to combat, rogues prioritize cunning over brute strength. A rogue would rather make one precise strike, placing it exactly where the attack will hurt the target most, than wear an opponent down with a barrage of attacks. Rogues have an almost supernatural knack for avoiding danger, and a few learn magical tricks to supplement their other abilities.
A Shady Living
Every town and city has its share of rogues. Most of them live up to the worst stereotypes of the class, making a living as burglars, assassins, cutpurses, and con artists. Often, these scoundrels are organized into thieves’ guilds or crime families. Plenty of rogues operate independently, but even they sometimes recruit apprentices to help them in their scams and heists. A few rogues make an honest living as locksmiths, investigators, or exterminators, which can be a dangerous job in a world where dire rats—and wererats—haunt the sewers.
As adventurers, rogues fall on both sides of the law. Some are hardened criminals who decide to seek their fortune in treasure hoards, while others take up a life of adventure to escape from the law. Some have learned and perfected their skills with the explicit purpose of infiltrating ancient ruins and hidden crypts in search of treasure.
Mechanically, rogues in this edition have the following traits and abilities:
- Rogues get proficiency in four skills, more than any other class currently in 5e. The skills they can gain proficiency in are a combination of physical abilities (such as acrobatics and athletics), skills of sensing danger (such as insight and perception), and skills related to acts of subterfuge (such as deception, stealth, and sleight of hand). They are also proficient in thieve's tools, which are used to pick locks and disable traps.
- Rogues are built for indirect combat. They only gain proficiency in light armors. And their weapon proficiencies cover simple weapons as well as hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, and shortswords. Note that both shortswords and rapiers are finesse weapons (meaning, you can hit with your Dexterity ability instead of your Strength ability). The design of the class encourages a player to build a rogue with high Dexterity instead of Strength or Constitution, as Dex can be used to supplement your armor class, and your weapon attacks with finesse weapons.
- Rogues apply an expertise bonus to two skills they are proficient in, doubling their proficiency bonuses. They apply this bonus to more skills at later levels. At level 11, the rogue automatically gets a 10 on any skill checks they are proficient in. Rolls lower than 10 are rounded up to 10.
- Rogues get to apply bonus damage to attacks by making sneak attacks. If your attack roll has advantage (caused by a variety of conditions), or if the target is being threatened by another creature within melee range, you add additional dice to the damage rolled for that attack.
- Rogues can speak a special class-specific language called Thieves' Cant, a spoken language with a written counterpart that only other rogues can understand.
- Rogues get a bonus action on each round of combat to Dash, Disengage, or Hide. This ability greatly improves the rogue's movement range in combat, and allows them to avoid direct combat more easily.
- Rogues get a variety of defensive bonuses as they level up. At level 5, a rogue can halve the damage of a successful attack against them with their reaction for the turn. At level 7, a rogue takes no damage if they beat the Dexterity save on an effect would normally still deal half damage, such as a fireball spell. At level level 15, they become proficient in Wisdom saves, a common way to incapacitate non-magical classes using spells like sleep or confusion. At level 18, attacks against the rogue don't get advantage while they are incapacitated.
- At level 14, rogues gain blindsense, allowing them to spot enemies who are invisible or hidden.
- At level 20, rogues can turn a single failed attack roll or skill check into a success once per short rest.
Other Editions of D&D
The rogue was originally introduced to the game in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as the thief class. Thieves gained new levels the swiftest of the core classes in that game, and they had access to skills such as Open Locks and Move Silently, which would become staples for the class. These skills started with a low chance of success that was rolled as a flat percentage (with no skill modifiers or bonuses), and took several levels to increase the odds of success to a more practical chance. The thief also had the abilities to hear noises, hide in the shadows, and climb walls. The thief had access to the Thieves' Cant language. They also got an early form of sneak attack, then called backstab, which dealt double damage but required the target be attacked from behind and that they be unaware of the attack.
While they were not a part of the original Basic Dungeons & Dragons set in 1974, the thief was later added to the basic set as well. The thief in this version gained new abilities at higher levels, such as the ability to read any language and the ability to cast spells from magic scrolls.
AD&D also introduced the assassin sub-class to the thief. While the thief focused more on a variety of skills relevant to a dungeon-delving adventurer, the assassin focused largely on combat effectiveness. The assassin gained a "death strike" which instantly killed an unaware target on a successful hit. They also gained the ability to use poisons, and could learn certain arcane spells such as disguise self and true strike.
In 2nd edition, the thief was added to a category of classes known as the Rogues group, which also included the bard class. The rogue classes were described as those "living by their wits day to day-often at the expense of others". The assassin was removed from the game at this point, on the belief that a thief could be built with the skills necessary to imitate the assassin class. 2nd edition thieves could specialize in some skills, allowing them to master those skills quickly compared to other classes. They were given strengths in stealth, disarming traps, and "acquiring goods" in various ways.
At 3rd edition, the class officially became the rogue instead of the thief. The class retained its aptitude for skills, its ability to notice traps, and the sneak attack ability. Rogues gained the most skill points per level of any class in the edition, which was balanced somewhat by the use of the Intelligence skill to determine the number of skill points: rogues got the most as a base number, but a particularly intelligent character of any class could get close to that number. Rogues did retain a broad range of skills that they could spend their points into, and the flat percentage rates of the older editions were done away with in favor of using skill ranks and bonuses for any skill check. Sneak attacks now were dealt to any target who did not use their dexterity bonus to their AC during the attack (which could be cause by the enemy being prone, blinded, flanked, or flat-footed, and other effects). The rules also defined that the target creature had to be able to take critical hits in in order to deal sneak attack damage (meaning that certain monsters, such as golems, were immune to the ability).
Rogues in Historical Context
The rogue is going to be a bit of a doozy when we talk about historical context, because the class appears to be a catch-all term for a variety of criminals, specialists, and anybody who lives by their wits or by approaching problems in a less-than-straightforward manner.
First of all, we can approach the classic thief. At its core, theft is the taking of someone else's property without their consent. There is a similar crime, larceny, which in many local laws is defined as the same act as theft. But larceny is reinterpreted in other areas to be distinct from theft, such as in the way the act occurs: a criminal commits larceny by taking physical property of another person which can be moved from one place to another, like a wallet or a carl in those areas, theft includes a larger range of items which can be stolen that are not covered by that definition, such as a person's identity, or the ownership of the person's house or car (not taking the car and moving it away, but manipulating events so that the criminal becomes the owner of the car under illegal methods). In any case, a number of crimes fall under this definition: pickpocketing (stealing goods off of a victim's person), and shoplifting (theft from an open retail store) are both forms of theft.
Burglary is the act of forcibly entering a location, also known as breaking and entering or housebreaking. The act itself doesn't involve theft, and a criminal can be accused of burglary even if they stole nothing during the act. This act can also include entering a public location, such as a store, during hours that the business is not declared open to the public. While a burglar could theoretically enter a location through the front door, many burglars look for alternate entrances to a building when they commit the crime: many climb to higher floors of a multi-story building, expecting that the inhabitants wouldn't bother to lock the windows of the upper floors or that the upper floors will watched and guarded with less intensity. Lock-picking is a common skill for a burglar, as locks are a common barrier used by property owners to prevent access to their property.
A robbery is a theft in which force, or the threat of force, is used to accomplish the theft, and thus is considered a violent crime. Threatening a person with a weapon, then, is both a theft and a robbery, as would assaulting the victim and taking their property afterwards. While robbery can occur using one's fists, armed robbery must involve the use of a weapon, and aggravated robbery involves specifically a lethal weapon (a weapon designed to kill: a gun or knife instead of a club), which escalates the punishment for the crime. This crime also covers the act of highway robbery or mugging, which happens in a public location such as a street. Extortion can be an offshoot of this crime as well, in which the criminal threatens to commit an illegal act, and demands payment or compensation in exchange for not committing the act: the threat to harm someone or something close to that person if they do not pay, for example.
While it isn't as active as the previous crimes, a rogue may also engage in fraud, or the use of deception for personal gain. Pretending to be someone else to convince a target to give them property or wealth would be an act of fraud. So would pretending to have an authority that your do not have (such as pretending to be a police officer, or a city official). Fraud may occur if nothing is stolen, but if a victim's rights were deprived of them as well: if you claim to be a police officer to enter a building, you deprived the owner of their right to ban someone from their property, and thus have committed fraud.
Another profession that is covered by the rogue class is the assassin. While "contract killing" may be included in this crime, assassination specifically is defined as targeting prominent figures of a society, such as a government or political official, or a popular public figure. While assassinations have happened throughout history, one of the more significant figures in this definition would be the Persian Order of Assassins, or Hashashins, who operated in the Middle East in the years 1090 to 1275, and for whom the term is named. The order's name is believed to have come from a drug of choice which their members indulged in: hashish, made from the resin or oil of the cannabis plant. The order was known for a strict code to which they conducted their business: they forbade the killing of innocents in the process of fulfilling a contract, and they killed their targets in a very public manner, to demonstrate the power of the order. They were known for their skill at reaching people under high security by carefully learning the culture of the target and their community, and slowly entering that community in disguise. The order's methods and details were highly secret, with most of our historical knowledge of the group coming from second-hand sources and rumors. Much of the order's history has been used in modern times as inspiration for the first Assassin's Creed title of video games.
Smuggling is the illegal transportation of goods, people, or information. While smugglers most often transport goods which are illegal within the areas they move, a smuggler may also transport people who wish to enter or leave an area that would otherwise require strict channels for travelers to move through (such as immigrants hoping to circumvent a tight border control).
Espionage is the act of acquiring hidden information and bringing it to others. Spies have existed for most of human history, largely related to military actions between two nations or city-states. They often used false identities to gain closer access to state secrets, such as military plans or technological developments, and smuggled the information away to be traded to another power.
Piracy, as well as privateering, is an act of robbery carried out by the crew of a ship. It can include attacking other ships on the water, or a coastal raid in which the crew attacks a land-based settlement on the coast. While pirates have existed as far back as the 14th century BCE, pirates are most well known for the pirates of the Caribbean Sea, who operates during the 17th and early 18th centuries. This group of criminals largely started as privateers, professional pirates who were hired by heads of state to raid the ships of rival nations. Because North and South America had been discovered by Europe the century prior, and because the Spanish empire had demonstrated the large amounts of wealth which could be acquired in those continents, much of the activity of these privateers was directed at trade ships bringing goods to and from the Americas. After the wars under which the privateers were hired had ended, many found that their license to commit piracy had been revoked. Nonetheless, these men chose to continue their trade as proper pirates, raiding the same channels with less concern who whom they attacked.
An Aside about Locks and Thieve's Tools
Rogues are generally expected to carry a set of thieve's tools with them for opening locks, disabling traps, and other purposes related to entering areas what someone wanted them not to. To understand what these kinds of tool sets would contain, we need to talk a bit about how locks work throughout history.
For most of human history, locks were actually not very common. Locks are a fairly complex mechanism to produce, and for a number of reasons they were either too expensive or too easy to bypass for people to trust them. As a result, the most common security measure was a simple barricade, a plank of wood across the door or some other obstruction. To open the door from the other side, the owner of the location often used an elongated hook or protrusion, which would fit into a slot in the door to reach a hole drilled in the board and move it to the side. While this was a simple way to prevent someone from opening the door, any tool that could manipulate the board could bypass the obstruction.
Ward locks are one of the oldest lock designs, going back to ancient China and Rome. Because they were fairly simple to construct, they were the more popular lock used during the Dark and Middle Ages. The core of the lock is often a bolt, which would slide between the door and its frame, or in a padlock a piece of material would prevent the bolt of the lock from releasing. A set of obstructions are constructed in the inner workings of the lock, which would prevent a tool from simply turning the mechanism that moves the bolt. A specific key would be made, with a set of grooves meant to allow it to bypass the obstructions, so that it could turn in the lock and open it.
A common tool used by thieves to bypass these locks is the skeleton key. These keys have been filed down, so that they have enough of a protrusion to manipulate the lock mechanism, but the protrusions are small enough that they weren't stopped by the obstructions inside the lock. A thief may have several of these skeleton keys, meant for different locks.
Pin locks are an advancement on lock design. While they are still use din the modern age, and while the technology is fairly advanced compared to a ward lock, evidence has been found that pin locks have existed as far back as ancient Egypt and Iraq, made of wood at the time. The basic design is that the lock's mechanism is obstructed by a series of small pins, which each hang inside of a tube inside the lock. Normally, gravity pulled the pins down in between the bolt and the door frame, holding the two together. Similar to the ward lock, a key to this kind of lock has a series of elevated grooves etched into them. When the key is inserted, the grooves press the pins upward at varied levels, enough that all of the pins are cleared and the mechanism can move freely. This mechanism was uncommon in history largely because of the limits of metalworking: the moving parts in the lock are small, and needed to be able to move freely. And metalworking techniques from the ancient era were imprecise enough that most metal parts would have some kind o defect that could prevent the lock from working properly.
Lock picks usually were used with two separate tools in tandem. First, the actual pick is designed to fit into the groove of the lock, where the key would go. The thin end of the pick is used to individually press the pins up into their housing, and away from the lock mechanism. Second, a sturdy flat tool called a torsion wrench is used to hold the mechanism in place, preventing the pins from falling back into their grooves once the pick is pulled away. A thief would be skilled at manipulating these pins quickly, so that they can bypass a lock within minutes and avoid being caught at the door.
Because ward locks were easier to make, and because ward locks were still easy to bypass, many locksmiths built the locks in places which were concealed. For example, a lockbox may have a false lock on the front of the container, which was connected to nothing. At the bottom of the box, hidden under a false foot of the box or behind a sliding panel, the actual lock would be out of sight so that only the owner of the box would know how to open it.
Traps, on the other hand, are designed to capture, maim, or kill intruders. Early traps were used in the neolithic era by hunters to catch animals. Traps were rarely used with the intention of capturing other humans, and these traps were often larger versions of animal traps. Simple traps were often held in place by a length of cord or wire, so that when an unsuspecting target walked into the wire they would release the trap. Pressure plates were another common triggering mechanism. When the trap is released, it may release a weapon such as a crossbow, or it may release a larger structure such as a net or cage, or a deadfall such as a falling tree trunk or boulder.
A thief would carry a set of tools for bypassing many security measures. Often in a tool roll made of cloth of leather, the tool set would have a variety of lockpicks for pin locks, as well as several skeleton keys to bypass ward locks. The tool set may also contain a small mallet, to tap against the structure for hollow chambers containing a hidden lock. It could contain a hooked protrusion for bypassing a simple barricade. For bypassing traps, the kit may contain a set of tools to cut and obstruct a tripwire without releasing the trap, and to remove and disable a pressure plate. In a fantasy setting, we may also include tools designed to bypass magical traps, such as a chisel to obscure magical spellwork etched into a wall.
The language known as the "thieves' cant" was developed as a way for thieves to communicate with one another in public, without alerting others to the fact that they were discussing crime. The language largely worked by simple substitution: certain words are replaced with other words which the speakers understand to have a new meaning. For example, "night" might be replaced by "darkmans", and "church" may be replaced with "autem". Using a string of these substitutions, a thief may explain a plan to enter a certain building at a certain time, without others aware unless they themselves had learned the substitutions. While all participants were still speaking a more common language, technically, the use of words would seem foreign to non-users, like a strange dialect.
The thieves' cant would also contain a list of symbols, which were left in public areas by other thieves to mark a significant feature, such as an entryway into a building, a fence for stolen goods, a safe place to hide from police, or a location commonly patrolled by authorities.
Many figures in history have published books that they professed contained a secret thieves' cant in their area, which buyers would purchase so that they could learn if a thief were discussing their plans around them. It is uncertain if these works were ever based in fact, as is whether the words listed were actual substitutions used by real thieves.
References for Rogues
Because rogues cover a wide range of professions, it can be difficult to narrow it down to a list of characters to reference for this particular class. However, we know that we're looking at characters who can be charismatic and witty, who can use tools to overcome situations, and who have a tendency towards illegal behaviors.
For a real-world personality that's a classic rogue, take a look at Frank Abagnale, whose story was played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can. Running away from home at a young age, Abagnale survived mainly through a series of acts of fraud and forgery. He assumed the identities of a Pan American airline pilot, a teaching assistant at Brigham Young University, the chief resident assistant at a hospital in Georgia, and a Louisiana attorney. In the meantime, he supported himself financially by developing a number of methods of theft and bank fraud. After six years, Abagnale was caught in Montpelier, France. After eventually returning to America and serving a part of his sentence in prison, he was eventually released him conditionally to serve as a consultant with federal authorities, as an expert on con artists and fraud.
For a reference that's a bit direct, you can take a look at the Thief series of video games, particularly Thief 3: Deadly Shadows and the later remake, Thief. The protagonist, Garrett, is an expert thief who uses many classic techniques to enter homes, open locks, and steal valuables by the cover of night.
I recommend a look at the John Wick movies for a view of the assassin sub-class. In particular, the movies display a rich criminal underworld society, filled with secret locations, communications, and traditions that other assassins know and use to communicate with one another. For GMs with a rogue character, you may use these films as inspiration to build a thieves' guild in your setting, or to establish NPCs related to the rogue's backstory.
As mentioned in the historical context section, you can also look to the Assassin's Creed video games to learn more about assassins. Particularly, the first game, as well as the Ezio trilogy, are highly-rated games that explore the techniques of stealth, infiltration, and discreet killing that an assassin would need to know. The sixth title in the series, Black Flag, also sheds some light on the life of a pirate in the Caribbean Sea.
You can look at the story of Aladdin as an example of a rogue's backstory. The title character does not have much of a backstory, except that he is a street urchin who grew up homeless and without a family. We see him stealing to survive for much of the beginning of the story. As the story progresses, we see the character using his wits and charm to rise in influence and eventually marry the princess of the sultanate that he lives in.
Loki, from the Marvel superhero movies, is an excellent example of a rogue. He has some access to illusion magic, but much of his abilities come from his natural charisma and wily intellect. Loki understands how to manipulate people, how to blend in when he needs to, and how to hit his opponents where they are weakest.
A more classic example of the rogue is The Scarlet Pimpernel. This play, written in the 1900s, follows the story of the title character, an infamous scoundrel who rescues aristocrats sentenced to the guillotine during the French Revolution. The Pimpernel is an expert at infiltration, disguise, escape, and swordsmanship.
Questions for a Rogue Character
If you are building a rogue character, or if you're a GM with a player rolling a rogue, you may want to consider these questions:
- What caused your rogue to turn to a life of crime? Was it a matter of survival? Did your rogue have other options for making a living? Was your character's personality better suited for the underworld?
- Rogues encompass a wide array of criminal trades. Which skill does your rogue favor? Are they an acrobatic cat-burglar? a pickpockets on the streets? A stealthy assassin? An intimidating thug? A charming con-artist? What skills do they utilize to get ahead in this business?
- Who is your rogue's most common mark? Do they target the wealthy, going for large prizes? Do they rob the working class, who have less defenses against theft? Do they go after public institutions, taking their money from whoever uses those services?
- Many criminals want to make a name for themselves- even if it's in infamy. Does your rogue desire such a reputation? How would they like to be remembered? Do they leave a calling card when they commit a crime, so that they can be identified?
- Criminals often rely on allies for support, or at least for mutual benefit. Who does your rogue consider a business partner? A fence in the city? A thieves' guild? An inside man in a local bank or town hall? A wealthy sponsor who hires them for the odd job?
- Criminals also make their fair share of enemies. Is there someone that your rogue needs to watch out for? A rival thief? A wealthy nobleman whom they've crossed? A local city watchman who knows their face?
- Rogues often need to be ready to talk their way out of trouble. How would your rogue handle a confrontation? Would they take a dominant posture and intimidate the other person? Would they try to build a rapport and smooth talk them? Would they weave a cunning lie to throw the person off-guard? Maybe they would try to flirt their way to safety?
- What is your rogue's position on violence? Do they enjoy it when their work gets dirty? Do they feel that killing on the job complicates matters? Do they operate under a specific code of conduct, such as only killing armed guards or only harming nobility?
- Wealth is often the stated goal of a rogue, but the money is more likely a stepping stone to other things. What does your rogue really want? Power? Security? Social Status? Are they trying to demonstrate their accomplishments to someone in particular? Are they trying to prove, or disprove something?
- Rogues are known for having an experienced sense of danger. When your rogue is in a dungeon, or in a strange location, what do they instinctively look for? Pressure plates and tripwires? An exit they can use if a fight occurs? A hiding place to strike from? A hiding place that might contain treasure?
- How would you improve this rogue?
- Players want harder encounters
- I calculated the average damage output of four classic character options accounting for AC over all 20 levels.
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