Game the Game: Ultimate Dungeon Fantasy- Roguish Characters

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Rogues? Bah! Thieves!

I still have a pin from my first ever gaming convention, held at the Mountain Farms Mall in Hadley: Thieves Do It In Leather!

Thieves were where it was at for me! Assassins were cool, but always seemed like weaker Thieves. And then, there are the Elite Classes: Monks and Bards. And, what about the forgotten Thief-Acrobat?

1e made it easy, too easy. All Thieves were very much the same, their abilities progressed at the same rate. 2e allowed for a degree of customization. 3e and beyond made these skills. But the skill based approach made it so that anyone could be a Thief. Lame.

Thieves need their niche back. And is there room in that niche for Assassins and Acrobats? Let us take a look at the 1e Thief:

  • Pick Pockets
  • Open Locks
  • Find/ Remove Traps
  • Move Silently
  • Hide In Shadows
  • Hear Noise
  • Climb Walls
  • Read Languages
  • Use Magic Items
  • Thieves Cant
  • Backstab

Assassins had the %based Thief abilities, but at a reduced level, as well as:

  • Poison
  • Alignment and Secret Society Languages
  • Disguise
  • Assassination

And the Acrobats, what of the Acrobats, necessary so that the D&D cartoon can be enjoyed to the fullest? Acrobats were really the first Prestige Class. An Acrobat gave up the advancement of some Thief abilities (PP, OL, RM, F/RT) but gained

  • Tightrope Walking
  • Pole Vaulting
  • High Jumping
  • Broad Jumping
  • Tumbling (which was broken down into Attack, Evasion, and Falling)

So, should we allow for all these variants? How different should they be? Is an Assassin different from a Thief?

Some editions rely on skills, and this seems to make the Thief obsolete, excepting Backstab/ Sneak Attack. In 5e, a Rogue’s sneak attack can be almost too powerful.

With the goal being universal appeal and niche protection, let’s see what we can do to codify all these ideas and keep the Thief cool. Rogues are romantic, Thieves are down and dirty. Is there room for both, a dashing rogue, and a sneaky thief?

Fate Accelerated Edition has the following approaches, instead of skills:

  • Careful
  • Clever
  • Flashy
  • Forceful
  • Quick
  • Sneaky

Can we look at these approaches and find some inspiration. Inspired by FATE, but not wanting to subconsciously repeat, I came up with the following:

  • Stealing
  • Sneaking
  • Killing
  • Maneuvering
  • Infiltration
  • Social
  • Connections

My goal is to make Thieves cool again, to make being a Thief mean something, to encourage players to remain Thieves, and to work within a framework that has diminished the Thief to one or more skills.

What stays: Sneak Attack/ Back Stab, call it what you will. It will start at first level, and get better every other level.

This seems easy.

Assassins never seemed to click, I loved the idea of the Assassin, but the implementation has never been as cool as it should be. The 4e Assassin might as well have had “Shark Jumping” as an ability.

As I am banging my head against the wall, thinking about what Thieves were, what they evolved into, and what they can be again, I had a moment of inspiration.

I will remind folks that my design goal is to make something rules-light, rules-easy, with lots of open-endedness, recapturing the  core of the 1e classes and their intention, as well as niche protection.

I have been looking for a way to differentiate Thieves from the Skills based approaches in 3e+. These skill heavy games have marginalized the Thief, and turned the Thief into a  Rogue, and that can be ok, but I would argue the world needs more Thieves!

Then, inspiration came! Thieves are Secret Agents! Thieves are James Bond! So, instead of reinventing the wheel, I turned to other sources, specifically John Wick’s spy game: Wilderness of Mirrors. This game strips out everything but cool spy stuff. There are stats that tell what you do, an even more streamlined approach to the FAE idea, this time focusing on cool spy stuff.

In Mr. Wick’s game, spies have Expertises. Every spy has them to some degree, so every spy can do everything. Spies can:

  • use technology
  • lie
  • kill people
  • be strong
  • steal

There is bit more eloquence to the way Mr. Wick writes up the Expertises, but I want you to buy that game and not get him mad at me for just copying his words.

But I think this can work.

So, I have a bit of a back and forth with Scott, and we come up with the following:

  • Acrobat
  • Arcanic
  • Assassin
  • Swindler
  • Thief
  • Thug

Great, you say to yourself having read this far looking for something interesting, or just killing time at work, what does it all mean, and why, and how does it work?

First, explanation:

Acrobat- tumbling, climbing walls, doing cool movement based stuff, a legacy term for 1e.

Arcanic- using magical items, deciphering ancient scripts, understanding unknown languages, understanding complicated traps. It is derived from Arcane, which yes, in D&D circles means magic not divine, but is being used here to refer to magics as well as mysteries and secrets, and instead of arcanist, which might have specific definitions, arcanic, is a derivative of mechanic, which has both utilitarian and criminal definitions.

Assassin- killing people, poison use.

Swindler- charming people, long cons, short cons, disguise.

Thief- stealing stuff, this would cover disarming locks, sneaking around, breaking into a building listening.

Thug- using force and intimidation, shadowing people, gathering intelligence.

So, how does these bits work? In keeping with my philosophy of avoiding frobt-loading classes and encouraging multiclassing as well as single classing, I offer the following:

At 1st level, and then at every even level, a Rogue (yes, I know, I didn’t like the term, but given that Thief is now an ability…) can assign one point to each of these six abilities. Each ability can be taken three times, so an 8th level rogue, who has 5 picks available [1,2,4,6,8] might have Acrobat- 1, Arcanic- 1, Assassin- 3.

These points may be used for Advantage dice with appropriate rolls. Additionally, some abilities might have additional effects:

Acrobat- a point may be expended for the session to avoid some catastrophic event, by jumping, rolling, falling out of the way.

Arcanic- a point may be expended for a session for a reroll when applying effort to an Arcanic related task.

Assassin- each point increases the base sneak attack dice, they start at a d4, and move up d6, d8, d10. A point may be expended once per session to allow a player to make an attack roll against a target using their Int as their ability and opposed by the targets Int or Wis. If successful, this “attack” does damage equal to the sneak attack damage, it is poison, or a trap. However, expending this point, does effectively reduce the players sneak attack dice appropriately immediately following.

Swindler- a point may be expended for a session to narratively, and retroactively have just the right thing, or to have put in place something unexpected. Think of this as the Leverage ability. The player would announce what they had done, which no one expected or noticed!

Thief- a point may be spent for a session to improvise what they need for a particular action, within reason. Maybe the player describes how they earlier pickpocketed the appropriate something, or truly, how they can make something out of nothing. This is not a chance for a character to avoid having to roll, if a players needs a specific key to open a door, or a wax seal, they will stull need to work for that, this is more when everyone thinks there is no chance a character might have something, they can come up with it: stripped naked, they still have thieves tools.

Thug- a point may be spent for a session to call upon previously unknown contacts for assistance.

Now, if I were given the power of Mike Mearls, and could actually design UD&D from the ground up, there might be more granularity within these abilities, but because I am going for very broad strokes so that UD&D can be a template on top of other rules engines, getting too specific would miss the point.

And when they decide to edit this blogpost down for Reader’s Digest, this will be my gripping conclusion: Rogues, previously known as Thieves, have been twisted and evolved to such a point that the joy of the Thief is missing. With skills being a necessity of later editions of the Dungeons & Dragons, the Rogue has been marginalized, and is known for some mobility and sneak attack, but in so doing, one has taken away the niche and role of the Thief, the player who wanted to be a bastard, who wanted to be sneaky, who wanted to lurk in the shadows with a cloak pulled up obscuring their face. We need to get that back. Later editions of D&D are like Denzel Washington in Book of Eli- white teeth. We need to get back to some differentiation, Thieves were an ugly necessity of an adventuring party, don’t marginalize Bilbo.

I will next tackle Monks and Bards, two of the most unique classes that have had varying success in their post 1e iterations.

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