16 November 2011

What is the Rogue for, anyways?

Cast Knock just ONE MORE TIME

Here's a little something that I thought was interesting.

In the EnWorld.org thread entitled "I know the spell to solve the problem!" there's a rather telling post about the strength and, well, utility of the utility magic presented to classes. And I quote:

It starts with paladin's detecting evil, ruining careful disguises, to much stronger divination magics. Clerics asking the dead body who get the name of the murderer.
"Knock" spells that open any door faster than the thief can draw his lockpicks.
Charms that makes lies and bluff unnecessary (both as skill and roleplay). Creation spells that ruin any commerce system.

And then asks, essentially, what do you think? Is it a feature or a bug? Can you use it to enhance your game, or does it ruin the game?

 If you ask me, this is really two questions in disguise. The original poster is asking "Is it ok for characters to have useful non-combat magic?", and also "Is role protection valuable?" But even that's not what he's really asking. The problem is that magic can be (and often is) a substitute for 3e and 4e's skill system, such that magical characters are able to bypass the skill system by casting a spell or two.

One of the most-cited examples in the thread is that a wizard, at very low levels, gains access to the spell Knock, allowing him to "take away" one of the Rogue's oh-so-valuable niches. This niche happens to be represented by a single die roll that the Rogue's player makes. This apparently totally de-values the Rogue class, which has been spending its skill ranks level after level to have a chance of doing what a wizard can do with a nod of his head and a shake of his staff. Apparently, it's ok for the Rogue to have the ability to make die rolls endlessly to unlock things, but it's not ok for the Wizard to spend one of his extremely valuable spell slots to do the same thing.

The reason? Apparently, this steals the Rogue's time to shine. This is what kills me. If there are honestly groups out there who gather in a big circle and get all excited when the guy who chose to play the Rogue gets to unlock a door, then I apologize, but what the fuck are you all so excited about? You roll a d20. Once. Maybe twice, if the GM lets you roll until you succeed, and then you're just waiting for the right number to come up. You might as well hand-wave it and say "Rogues can open all locked doors, eventually." Honestly, if I was the Rogue, I wouldn't give two shits who unlocks the door, as long as there's treasure or a dragon or something on the other side. It doesn't matter who opens it. The roll is not the interesting part of the game, and acting like it is sounds extremely derogatory. Oh, wow, Rogue, you rolled such a good number! Now step aside and let the big boys fight the orcs, hmm?

This reminds me: The 3e Rogue is damn useless. No, please don't argue. It's a class that specializes in gaining skill ranks in a system where skill ranks are grossly undervalued, while simultaneously getting the ability to backstab things really, really hard. Outside of combat, the Rogue gets to do things nobody else does (which results in the rest of the party sitting around), in exchange for having one actual action that he gets to undertake in combat. He gets to poke people's spines or do nearly no damage. How exciting!

It's past time to unlink the backstabbing and the sneaking from the guy who does the lockpicking and trap disabling gruntwork. More than that, it's time to either make lockpicking and trap disabling an actual activity, or it's time to quit pretending that having a lot of skills is somehow a class feature. It needs to stop. Skill ranks aren't a real class fature. If you gave the 3e Fighter 10 class skills, he'd still be an awful class. It doesn't help anything to pretend that the Rogue is somehow a vital part of the party when you have to explicitly design parts of adventures with locked doors and traps just so the poor sap who picked the only class (other than a wizard, apparently) can deal with it.

This has been one of the things I've been trying to do in my own games. There needs to be a total de-linkage of in-combat roles and out-of-combat roles, such that you can have a wizard with mechanical knowledge, or a charismatic warrior, or an assassin with a knowledge of medieval history. This is how people in real life work.Why shouldn't it be the same with characters in a game?

All us assassins pretty much like the same things: stabby knives, long cloaks, puppies...

I think it's about time that the Rogue got an actual out-of-combat niche, something that isn't comprised of die rolls for things that don't add drama or interest to the game. After all, his predecessor (the Thief of oD&D through 2nd edition) had a pretty good niche. Anybody could scale walls, but he could scale sheer ones. Anybody could see a trap, but he had a psuedo-supernatural 6th sense about danger. All this in a game with 6 classes instead of 60, and maybe one unique mechanic per class. There were a tiny handful of differences between classes besides the hit dice and combat advancement, and still each class does something interesting.

As to role protection, well, I've talked about that to death already, but if you're new here, let me put it this way: Role protection has no place outside of combat. In combat, each player should have something interesting to do, an enemy that is easier for them to fight than other classes, and a weakness that other party members must fill. They should also have something interesting or useful to do when they cannot attack directly. This is because when the group is fighting, everybody's fighting. Everybody's focused on the same thing.

Outside of combat, there's no reason that the guy playing the warrior should be bored, and one class should be doing everything. There's no excuse for it. Every player should be able to contribute (somewhat) equally inside and outside of combat, and it's not for some sort of "game balance" thing. It's so people aren't sitting with their thumbs up their butts, waiting for somebody to make six d20 rolls so that they can get to something that isn't boring. It's not about character balance. It's about Player Balance. Having entire segments of the game where a player's character has nothing to do is Bad Game Design. There's no two ways about it.


  1. 1: Rogues/Thieves exist because there is a need for their skills on the adventure. If the spellcasters load up on utility spells they won't have combat magic. This and their general weakness means they make poor scouts. And what happens when you find a room with a dozen locked and trapped doors? Resting uses time, a precious resource. What about dead magic zones? You could always just refuse to adventure in dead magic zones, but eventually you'll come across something you really need that can be found therein.

    2: Rogues/Thieves exist because as a class, they represent people who specialize in stealth. The other classes don't really do that. If there are people who specialize in stealth and you want to model them in the game, you need a class or skill set or whatever.

    3: You're right, the 3E/4E skill systems suck and are worthless, but it's because there are much easier ways to handle skills and having tables of DCs is bloaty and poor design.

    4: If you start defining skills, and you have feats, and class abilities are basically just pre-selected feats, why bother with classes? But if you get rid of classes and Vancian magic it isn't really D&D anymore and people will balk. After all, you expect certain things from Monopoly or Chess or D&D. Why bother making a version of D&D so heavily modified that it bears no resemblance? Just play a different game.

    5: Boredom during combat is not a failure of role protection. In my experience it's probably either splitting the party or else one PC is super-powerful compared to the others.

    If the party splits up, I usually try to get things over with really quickly and I don't hold back on encounters / traps / etc. If I roll a random encounter with 7 Giant Toads and the 3rd level Assassin was sneaking along alone, he's boned unless he can flee. This discourages splitting the party up.

    If one player makes a super-powerful character, that's not only a failure in your game system but also a failure as a DM. While you can "legally" build a Hulking Hurler or Pun Pun Kobold or Pazuzu-Gate-Wish thing in 3E, any DM who allows that shouldn't be surprised when the games becomes unenjoyable for all involved. There's a reason the game has a referee.

    Note that 3E had the "take 20" mechanic so you don't have to roll multiple times. Just add 20 to your bonuses and see if that's enough to open the lock.

    Finally I don't think players should expect to be 100% engaged and active at all times. In a game with 5 other players you will not have your turn more often than 16% of the time. If a player needs to be the center of attention and have his desires fulfilled at all times to be satisfied, he needs to go play a video game because that's not how games like D&D work.

    6: Classes are not all equal. This means if you want an easy play experience, play a Fighter. If you want something more complicated, a spellcaster (or psionicist!) can be fun. If you want a really tough PC you can choose one of the more powerful classes (like Cleric). But some classes represent "hard mode" D&D, and Thief is one of them. I think a lot was lost in various attempts to make all the classes equally complex and powerful.

  2. That's quite a comment. I'll try to address your points here, but please forgive my brevity.

    1) I'm not sure how to address this point, because it's really 4 or 5 points in one. But I will say that intentionally negating a character's use (for example, by putting in a dead magic zone, or having a large number of locked doors) is, if not bad game design, then not very nice, not to mention very specific. Piecemeal solutions to the current problem that promote the status quo feel like a workaround instead of a solution. The problem remains: The wizard can, in limited or perhaps not-so-limited amounts, subvert a part of the rogue's "niche."

    2)Stealth and lockpicking, burglary, pickpocketing, and backstabbing are not the same. There are assassins who could care less about pickpocketing, or thieves without an ounce of combat skill, but under the current rules, they wouldn't even really be rogues. You'd either have to cripple your class or take another class altogether. There should be a solution.

    3) This really is the crux of my argument. The way 3e/4e skills are presented is nothing short of awful, and the sneaking class suffers for it by having its main abilities accessible by anybody, while no other class suffers this fate. You can't pick up berserking with skills.

    4) You can change quite a bit about D&D and still have it feel like D&D. I postulate that you could rid yourself of classes entirely and it'd still feel like D&D. As proof, I offer the Unearthed Arcana SRD, freely available on the internet. Look under "Generic Classes". Still very D&D, while offering a pretty decent degree of customization.

    5) I agree and disagree. Role protection doesn't ensure that you're not bored, and I definately agree with that. It's entirely possible to have an extremely boring role (healbot...) and nobody else is stepping on your toes. But I think having a good functional role during combat helps with the second thing you mentioned, the super powerful character. If each player is doing different things, it's hard for one character to hog the limelight. It's one of the best things to come out of 4e, in my humble opinion. The two or so times I've run it, everybody had something to do in combat and nobody felt left out, even the guy who built his character kind of, well, differently.

    I'm not going to cover split up parties because there's never really been a good way to deal with that.

    Super-powered characters are both a failure as a DM and of the system. If you have to step in and say "No, that doesn't work," that's what the rules should have said in the first place. For example, with the rules as written (as anybody who's played the game knows) in 3rd edition, the Cleric and the Druid are both significantly more powerful than the Fighter, Rogue, or Barbarian by the simple fact that they get to cast spells. You don't even have to tweak the rules and you get casters who outshine the mundanes by every meaningful metric. That's certainly a fault of the system, and fixing it requires either being unfair to the people who picked a better class or reworking significant parts of the system to make it work.

    6) I agree wholeheartedly with this, even if the rules don't support it particularly well. Part of the problem is that the Rogue's skills were demoted, as I mentioned, from being representative of a very high, almost supernatural, level of skill to a very basic tinkering that anybody could do if they wanted. This does two things: Removes lockpicking and sneaking from regular characters, and makes the Rogue a very mundane character who just happens to have the right skill ranks. I'd give a lot to see the poor guy returned to his AD&D or BD&D glory days.

  3. Thanks for the response. I agree that 4E seems to have done a good job of balancing classes and making it so everyone always has something to do.

  4. And here I was hoping you'd discuss it back again.

    Honestly, I'm not a fan of the way 4e's done much of anything. The classes are too balanced to be interesting, and everybody ends up doing the same thing in and out of combat- in combat you have marginally interesting ways to do one of four or five things, and outside of combat everybody's rolling skill dice or whatever, because the game's turned into a damned roll-fest for everything.

  5. I disagree mildly with

    3) This really is the crux of my argument. The way 3e/4e skills are presented is nothing short of awful, and the sneaking class suffers for it by having its main abilities accessible by anybody, while no other class suffers this fate. You can't pick up berserking with skills.

    Fighters. The only thing they get that nobody else can: Weapon Specialization, Greater Weapon Focus, Greater Weapon Specialization (and that 'nobody else can' isn't quite true anyway... and these feats kind of suck). Lots of full BAB classes out there, lots of good Fort save classes out there (often the same group), and so on.

    Other than that, I have no disagreement. Skills (and rogues) appear to suffer the same difficulty fighters do -- "they are mundane and thus cannot do awesome stuff".

    Which is why I didn't go this route in Echelon. Talents all get to be awesome at higher levels (Sense Motive goes from "I think he might be lying" and up into mindreading at higher tiers, Shield Proficiency eventually gives you the ability to stop dragon's fire, Heal skill eventually lets you bring people back from the dead, and so on).

    I haven't actually considered Open Locks (or Disable Device -- I might make them the same thing) so I can't rightly say what they'll do at higher tiers, but they will be at least as good as knock.

    As much as I can, I try to have talents be a mix of combat-useful and out-of-combat-useful, skill monkeys don't feel left out because they suck, and spell casters don't win because they not only get raw power but have scads of options that let them replace the mundanes because they are awesome.

  6. I'm glad you mentioned Fighters, they're in just as bad of a place as Rogues. In 3e, at least.

    The only things they get are terrible and not worthy of being the Fighter's only class features (I mean, really? Whirlwind attack at what, 13th level? The Cleric can almost raise people from the dead, and the Wizard can rain death on armies, and the Fighter can spin?)

    But anyways, I definitely feel you. I don't know why fighters and rogues (my two favorite classes) get shafted quite so hard. At least Rogues get something to do out of combat, at least by the rules, even if it isn't fun. According to the game's official fiction, all fighters are good for is swinging axes and they're not even very good at that...


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