Over the past few months, I’ve seen a fair deal of the playtest rogue from D&D Next. Tait’s been regularly using one in our D&D Encounters game, and it hasn’t been unusual to see another player with a rogue at the same time.
Mechanically, it reminds me of the way D&D Essentials handled the thief. I’m very fond of the Essentials thief. You’ve got a character who is good at skills, but who is also extremely effective in combat, though unlikely to be a front-line fighter. The key ability of sneak attack is very easy to achieve. It wasn’t always so!
It might come as a shock to newer players to learn that the Thief wasn’t in the original release of Dungeons & Dragons. The original set came only with three classes: Fighting Man, Magic-User and Cleric. The Thief came along in 1975 in the first supplement to the game, along with the Paladin. The Thief in original D&D was a relatively poor combatant, better than the Magic-User, but worse than the Fighter and Cleric, with few hit points, worse armour class, and limited weapon selection. The main draw of the Thief were their abilities with non-combat situations: they could hide, move silently, find traps and open locks. However, this was tempered with the chances of success being pitifully low – at first level, the thief has only a 10% chance of removing traps or hiding in shadows.
It’s hard to take the Thief seriously with these numbers. Their one “good” combat ability was to backstab – if they could attack silently from behind, they gained +4 to attack and did double damage, more damage being dealt at higher levels. It’s a great ability when it works, but the low, low chances of actually moving silently made it rarely a good option. I would not be surprised if a lot of the DMs back then just ignored the chances of success and just allowed the thief to act; I’ve read that Gary Gygax himself possibly ran the game that way.
This version of the thief survived for 24 years, with slight adjustments to the numbers to make them not quite as bad at low levels. 2E allowed them to be competent at a couple of tasks at the cost of being even worse at others. However, despite all the grumbling I’ve made about the thief, they did serve a purpose: in the exploration-orientated game of the early editions, having a character who can deal with mundane problems repeatedly without needing to expend limited magical resources is very useful. The AD&D campaign I’ve been running for the last two years may have magic-users with the knock spells, but they’re a lot happier if the thief can deal with the locked door first. Rich has occasionally managed to backstab something, but mostly is condemned to standing in the middle of the party, letting the odd sling-shot go when he feels he won’t hit the other party members.
The third edition of D&D made some very major revisions to the game, and the Thief – now the Rogue – changed greatly as a result. One of the big changes is that they were now competent with their skills from the beginning. No, they couldn’t do everything, but as the difficulty of the challenges somewhat scaled according to their level – rather, there were level-appropriate locks and traps – they always had a fair chance of succeeding, especially with the new Take 20 rule. The other change was far more substantial: they gained sneak attack, and primarily were able to achieve the bonus damage through flanking.
Flanking gave the rogue a strange tension: they were able to deal a lot of damage with it, but would often have to put themselves into harm’s way to use it, especially at low levels. The Tumble skill made it easy to get into flanking positions, from which the trolls could then attack the rogue. In theory, the rogue could snipe from the shadows, but the rules for firing into melee and the difficulty of actually hiding afterwards meant this could be an unlikely scenario, and tended to be quite dependent on the DM. At higher levels, their vulnerability decreased as they gained better magic items – Dexterity allowed for some incredible ACs in 3E – and their damage scaled upwards very quickly. With the sneak attack damage accruing on every hit, and with the rogue quite likely to be hitting three or four times per round, they were one of the highest potential damage dealers in the game. From an occasional backstab, they’d become a front-line combat character. Until they came up against constructs or undead, which were immune to sneak attack, and they became useless. Unfortunately, while the rogue became better in combat, the wizards and clerics got better at magic: a lot better. Scrolls and wands were also incredibly easy to craft, meaning that some of the signature abilities of the rogue – opening locks and finding traps – were often unneeded by the group.
Fourth edition kept the better chances with skills and the flanking/sneak-attacking rogue. The biggest changes to the rogue’s capabilities came from the fighter suddenly being a “defender”, a character who could stop the rogue from being attacked and force the enemy to attack him. Sneak attack now worked on everything, so you didn’t have the problem of the hot or cold thief; they were consistently useful and, due to the maths of 4E, having strikers made the combat a lot quicker and, as a result, a lot more fun. Mages and clerics also were toned down a lot, so the skills of the rogue became more relevant.
The Essentials line did something interesting: it gave its rogue-variant, called the Thief, powers that activated when it moved. The two most common allowed the thief to sneak attack an opponent adjacent to an ally, or to sneak attack an opponent that was standing on its own. Suddenly, the rogue no longer needed to be flanking to get its bonus damage in. This made the thief one of the most consistent combatants in the game. In one 30th level game I ran, the goblin rogue Splug dealt an average of 75 damage per round, and only missed most monsters on a 1! It was fun to have him in the group, but had it become too easy to get the bonus damage? One thing was sure: the combats ran a lot smoother with the Essential-style strikers in the group, especially the slayer (fighter) and thief (rogue). So, I didn’t mind so much.
It is from Essentials that I see the playtest version of the Rogue being drawn. The idea of competency with skills of 3E and later is definitely there, and the rogue is very much a major combat character otherwise. Unlike in 3E, the playtest rogue can only gain sneak attack once per turn, but, like the Essentials version, he doesn’t need to be flanking the opponent – he must either be hidden or have a friendly character adjacent to his target.
The most interesting feature about this rogue is the ability called Cunning Action. As a level 2 ability, it’s perhaps the most important feature about this new take on the rogue. Depending on which option you take, you can use it to “spring attack” – move up, strike, then move away with no return attack – to snipe – attack, then hide again immediately – and to move very fast indeed. Some rogues also get to be able to fight *and* disarm a trap or pick a lock at the same time.
The net effect of these abilities is that the playtest rogue becomes much more a strike-and-fade character than the toe-to-toe combatant it has occasionally been in the last two editions. Tait certainly has used the ability to hide after attacking a great deal, enough so that I have to be very careful to ensure he is in cover or shadow so that he can actually hide! I do need to sit down with the newer members of my Encounters group and walk them through how the rogue actually works – it’s one of the more effective classes in the playtest that I’ve seen. I’ll be fascinated to see if it keeps these abilities.
Personally, I hope that it does. The rogue’s skills have felt right since third edition, but its combat abilities managed to move a fair way past what I felt comfortable with. This new version of the rogue is certainly effective, it fights well, but in a manner unlike the fighter. Those are things that I value. The balance of the class? That we’ll have to wait and see for the full release before the full number tweaking is apparent.