Ah, the rogue. Without one in the party, who would be there to pick the stubborn lock, probe the dungeon hallway for concealed pits, and lend a hand by backstabbing the party’s antagonist?
In terms of archetypes, D&D has largely promoted four major player character roles: Bruiser (those who fight), Blaster (those who spellcast), Healer, and Sneaker (see Sibling Rivalry: Take Two). With the release of this month’s Complete Scoundrel, we look back at this fourth role, examining how rogues have evolved throughout the game.
“The profession of thief is not dishonorable, albeit is neither honorable nor highly respected in some quarters.”
In 1st edition, the thief (and assassin sub-class) were given specialized access to certain abilities: “The primary functions of a thief are: 1) picking pockets, 2) opening locks, 3) finding/removing traps, 4) moving silently, and 5) hiding in shadows.”
These abilities were oftentimes essential to the success of a party, and could mean the difference between life and death. Who else could pick the lock necessary to get past a dungeon door, or disarm the poison needle trap guarding the villain’s treasure? The elaborate Thief Function Table (pg. 28 of the PHB) listed percentile chances for a thief to accomplish these principle functions; the table also listed bonuses and penalties depending on a thief’s race (dwarven thieves excelled at opening locks and removing traps, while half-orcs were less adept at picking pockets and reading languages). Every thief also hoped for the coveted 18 Dexterity, as high scores further increased their percentile chances. (One drawback? At 30gp, it often proved difficult for 1st level thieves to afford their requisite “thieves’ picks and tools” from the Miscellaneous Equipment and Items list.)
In addition to the party’s locksmith, other abilities augmented thieves’ sneaky nature: “Secondary functions of a thief are: 1) listening at doors to detect sounds behind them, 2) ascending and descending vertical surfaces such as walls, and 3) backstabbing those who happen upon the thief in the performance of his or her profession.” Ah, the backstab—providing a +4 to hit and increasing damage (double at levels 1-4, up to quintuple at 13-16), this allowed the thief a valuable niche in combat… provided their move silently and hide in shadows abilities could maneuver them into place.
A few additional and unique functions even further rounded out the thief: “Additional abilities which accrue to thieves are: 1) ability to speak “Thieves’ Cant”, 2) at 4th level the ability to read languages (such as for the assistance in reading instructions or treasure maps), and 3) at 10th level the ability to decipher magical writings and scrolls of all sorts, excluding those of clerical, but not druidic nature.” Plus, the 1st edition DMG even provided thieves the ability to set traps, using their finding/removing traps percentage.
With exclusive abilities, a potent backstab, and the opportunity at higher levels to utilize magic scrolls, the thief was a highly desirable role to fill—even if limited to leather armor, and a club, dagger, dart, sling or sword (short, broad or long) for their arsenal.
“Rogues are people who feel that the world (and everyone in it) somehow owes them a living. They get by day by day, living in the highest style they can afford and doing as little work as possible. The less they have to toil and struggle like everyone else (while maintaining a comfortable standard of living), the better off they think they are. While this attitude is neither evil nor cruel, it does not foster a good reputation. Many a rogue has a questionable past or a shady background he’d prefer was left uninvestigated.
“Thieves come in all sizes and shapes, ready to live off the fat of the land by the easiest means possible. In some ways they are the epitome of roguishness.”
By 2nd edition, thieves had become part of the Rogue family, which also included bards. Assassins had disappeared as a separate class, later revised as a kit in The Complete Thief’s Handbook.
Although similar to their 1st edition versions, 2nd edition thieves now shared out some of their exclusive abilities: 2nd edition rangers could hide in shadows and move silently; bards could climb walls, detect noise, pick pockets, and read languages. Interestingly, while adjustments to these abilities were still made for Dexterity, race, and now armor as well, thieves were given 60 discretionary points they could spread across their percentile chances, along with 30 additional points per level, allowing them to focus on the thieving abilities they most wished to specialize (thus, orcs could improve their pick pocket chances, while dwarves could further specialize in locks and traps).
Their arsenal had also increased, ever slightly, to leather, studded leather, padded or elven chainmail armor, and the club, dagger, dart, hand crossbow (!), knife, lasso (?), short bow, staff, sling and broad, long and short sword. At 10th level, they could also now read both magical and (finally) clerical scrolls. There remained a flat 25% chance to misunderstand and even reverse such scrolls, however (hinted at, but not quite defined in 1st edition); in 2nd, it explicitly stated that such a reversal was almost always detrimental to the thief and his party: “It could be as simple as casting the reverse of the given spell or as complex as a foul-up on a fireball scroll, causing the ball of flame to be centered on the thief instead of its intended target.”
From Bravo to Grandfather: A Briefer History of the Assassin
For a short period in the game’s history (namely, through 1st edition), the assassin enjoyed the distinction of being its own class, a sub-class of the thief. Oddly enough, when appearing in the Blackmoor supplement, assassins could only be Human in race and always neutral in alignment; in the 1st edition PHB, this second requirement was changed to “Assassins are evil in alignment (perforce, as the killing of humans and other intelligent life forms for the purposes of profit is basically held to be the antithesis of weal).”
In many aspects, the assassin presented an even more powerful version of the thief: they could employ a shield while the thief could not, thus gaining a slight edge in protection, as well make use of any weapon. Plus, the assassin could implement poison, while every other class either stated “never” or else gave a question mark in regards to its legality. Perhaps the most powerful facet of the assassin, however, was their melee prowess. They attacked as thieves, could backstab, and—if they surprised a victim—could attack on the Assassination table (from the DMG), with success equaling outright death.
Assassins also had access to thief abilities, albeit at two levels lower; plus, they could learn alignment languages, spy, and employ disguise. In addition, they gained experience and fees for their assassination based on their level and the level of their victim… much of which led to certain difficulties in playing a 1st edition assassin, as their abilities crafted an adventurer that best operating independently from the rest of the party. After all, how inconspicuous could a disguised assassin be with a fully armored fighter on the right and a chanting cleric on the left? Yet how could it perform an assassination or complete a spying mission on its own, without the rest of the party cheated out of the chance to participate and gain experience themselves? If the assassin had a sub-role all its own, it was not always one easily slotted into a standard D&D session.
Beyond thematic difficulties, mechanical restrictions further balanced out the assassin’s powerful abilities. To carry out an assassination, the DMG implied that the element of surprise alone was not enough, but that the assassin needed to present a carefully detailed plan of action (“a complete plan of how the deed is to be done should be prepared by the player involved, and the precautions, if any, of the target character should be compared against the plan”). Even the assassin’s special use of poison ran the risk of being noticed by others; all non-assassins had a cumulative 10% chance per round of noticing a poisoned weapon, which would result in either a cry for the city watch, outright attacking the assassin, or both.
In 2nd edition “the idea of an assassin, a hired killer, has been divorced from any particular character class.” Instead, the assassin kit was developed for The Complete Thief’s Handbook, which required or recommended many of their former skills, now added to the secondary skill list open to all characters (disguise, voice mimicry, and gather intelligence). Poison use and identification occupied a great deal of the assassin’s kit description, which now codified how an assassin slipped a dose into a subject’s drink (now using the pick pocket percentage at +5%), as opposed to 1st edition’s statement that the assassin “detail exactly when, where, and how the poisoning will be done. The DM will then adjudicate the action.”
Likewise, while some playtest versions of 3rd edition retried the assassin as a separate class, it ended up a roguish prestige class, given abilities that met the original theme of the assassin while better facilitating its utility within a party: poison use, death attacks, and hiding in plain sight (for which even the assassin has limits: “He cannot, however, hide in his own shadow”).
“Rogues have little in common with one another. Some are stealthy thieves. Others are silver-tongued tricksters. Still others are scouts, infiltrators, spies, diplomats, or thugs. What they do share is versatility, adaptability, and resourcefulness. In general, rogues are skilled at getting at what others don’t want them to get: entrance into a locked treasure vault, safe passage past a deadly trap, secret battle plans, a guard’s trust, or some random person’s pocket money.”
By 3rd edition, the “rogue” had become not just the name of the family but of the specific class itself—and for good reason. As stated in their description above, rogues had never truly been limited to “thieving.” Rather, they played a many-faceted role within a given party.
Fitting with the modular nature of 3rd edition, rogues no longer possess exclusive use of their former abilities; instead, Decipher Script, Disable Device, Open Lock and the like have become class skills for rogues, who are given a high amount of skill points to spend upon them. Likewise, the concept of backstabbing evolved into the more mechanically sound (and universally applied) flanking—but which rogues are able to take better advantage of with their sneak attack bonuses. In addition, the rogue’s class abilities have retained the flavor of their sneaky nature, with evasion and uncanny dodge; plus, their trapfinding means rogues can use Search to find traps of DC 20 or higher, and Disable Device to disarm magical traps.
Complete Scoundrel looks to further expand this fourth role of the game, providing ways for every class to practice a bit of roguishness, not to mention providing new tricks and tricky gear for the rogues themselves (who wouldn’t want a rust monster wand?). For example, every character could use a little luck: the Victor’s Luck feat allows characters to reroll critical threat confirmations, and the Better Lucky Than Good feat means that natural 1s can be treated as natural 20s!
“As personas for characters, scoundrels represent a style of play rather than a class. They’re the sneaks, the cheats, the bluffers, and the opportunists. They use improvisation and imagination to gain an advantage, exploiting a weakness or a hidden benefit in even the worst situation,” from Complete Scoundrel pg. 4, which continues philosophically: “Anyone can play a scoundrel.”
Have your own tales of dungeon daring, shadow-sneaking, or backstabbing prowess? Favorite thieves of your creation? We'd love to hear abou them, either on the message boards or sent directly to us at: email@example.com.