Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Character Selection: A More Nuanced Approach (The Rogue)

Last Wednesday we took a break from some of the high end theory of GMing to talk about the playing aspect of RPGs. The post on Wednesday was about being a front line character. One of the beef tanks that takes the hits and dishes them back out. Today I wanted to move from the front lines to focus on one of my favorite classes, the rogue. For the purposes of combat though we're talking any character that relies on positioning, timing, and opportunity in order to bring a whole heck of a lot of hurt to the table.

Being A Rogue Means Being Batman
Straight up I'm starting with this. Why? Because it is the truth. Rogue type characters (thieves, bards, ninja, spies, etc) have a lot of power in them but it is all situational. Just like people always follow those "who would win" questions with "and Batman has no time to prepare" that is often the case with these classes as well. Give them some time to prepare, give them a plan, let them execute it and they'll destroy the opposition. Put them in a head on head fight and most other classes can deal with them in a variety of ways.

That means that as a Rogue player you need patience. You also need to understand that in quite a lot of situations doing your job right may mean you don't even get noticed, and that you will occasionally spend rounds setting up a kill shot just to have someone ruin it for you at the last moment, and you need to be prepared to roll with that. In my personal opinion very little gives as much frustration, or satisfaction, as playing a rogue.

Not For The Relaxed Mind
On the downside for being a rogue is you need to be mentally engaged. You need to be paying attention not only to what your GM is saying, to what your fellow players are doing, but also to what NPCs are doing and where they are placed. You need to be planning what to do if something goes down. Alternatively you need to be very good at thinking on your feet.

They'll Think You Should Be Like A Front Line
For some reason, even when they know it's not the case a lot of people will expect you to act like a front line fighter in a lot of ways. Yes you're a damage dealer - like the mage - but unlike the mage you need to hit the bad guy with a weapon to do damage which means you should be fighting. Spend a few rounds not actually in combat but moving into position and people will think you're doing nothing. Go into melee though and not only do you often lose your strongest weapon (backstabbing bonuses for the D&D crowd) but you are also likely to get gibbed and taken out of the fight.

On the other hand, there are times when you are going to need to be in melee and you need to accept that. In a lot of ways playing a rogue in combat is like walking a tight rope. There's a balance to be found in how much you need to be positioning yourself to try to get a big strike off, and how much you should just be going for regular strikes. Just remember, you can't do any damage when you're dead and you're going to end up that way a lot quicker than the other people made to go into melee.

Skills And Tools
The last thing for this I want to touch on is that a lot of characters break down into a couple of things to be extremely useful. For front liners a lot of the time it is Hit Points and Armor Class. For damage dealers it is often their damage per round they can do. For mages it is their spells they can cast. For rogues you basically come down to how high your skills are and what tools you have available on hand.

Remember this. Part of your job is the be the swiss army knife of the group. Yeah, you got a blade, but you're used to solve other problems more often than the ones that need cutting.

Your Thoughts?
Love to hear them. Sound off in the comments.


  1. I have a problem with the perception of roguelikes as swiss army knives. To be clear, I agree that perception exists, I just think it should go away.

    The reason Batman is Batman is that he does have an answer for every situation. Rogues, on the other hand are a constant disappointment (to the player and the group) when they don't have an answer (or more specifically, fail at the attempted answer) because they're *trying* to always have an answer.

    I imagine the magnitude of this problem varies depending on what edition we're talking about, but from the latter days of 2nd Edition through the modern successors to 3.5e, the one thing I've said more often than any other when playing a rogue: “Sorry, not that kind of rogue/thief/bard.”

    In other words, I learned early on that the rogue who attempts to be the jack-of-all-trades in more than just name ends up being the jackanapes-of-all-trades.

    I will admit that most of my experience is in an organized play setting. Home campaigns are more lenient and more prone to fudging in favor of having a good time (an admirable quality), so the versatile rogue is more likely to thrive there.

  2. Oh man, I was hoping someone would comment on that because it is a big point tha I completely forgot to cover here.

    Part of the problem with Batman is that he is a super high level character that spends all of his time being prepared. Which isn't something you can expect even a level 10 or 15 rogue to really be able to do. There is also the factor of "not that kind of rogue."

    The point I was trying to get across with the swiss army knife - which I think I did badly - is that as a rogue you are generally more utility focused than you are damage focused. Yes, you can do damage. Heck, you can do a LOT of damage, but you can also do a whole lot more. You can open doors, disarm traps, pick pockets, get information, scout ahead, sneak behind enemy lines, etc, etc. Heck, one of the best tanks I've ever seen played was a bard with Mirror Image, a ring of blinking, and a song to help boost defensive stats.

    But your point is true. You shouldn't expect a rogue to have an answer for everything. Just like you shouldn't expect a swiss army knife to be the best tool for every job (or even an applicable tool for every job.) But going in to playing a Rogue you also need to be aware that where a lot of people get a huge chunk of their power in direct combat application, a lot of yours comes in general utility.