Yes, I know that it’s Rogue and that rouge is a red-tinted cosmetic.
I’ve been at this for nearly two years, and living out the nerd life for far longer. Surely I wouldn’t make such a rookie mistake!
Unless…a wild rouge successfully snuck in and switched the letters ar-
On this month’s return to the Fabletop, I’ll be talking about Rogues. The sneaky, stabby, surprise attacky thieves and rascals who make stealth rolls, go unnoticed, pick locks, poison weapons, and launch sneak attacks.
So, let’s take this from the top, shall we? Let’s roll for the surprise round.
First and foremost, let’s describe them for newbies.
Some classes charge from the front. Others stay at the back and launch fireballs.
These guys quietly sneak around the side to stick a knife in your neck. Then they steal your wallet.
Rogues are a character archetype defined by stealth, subtlety, and agility. They will sneak around, avoid picking fights, and be nimble enough to climb past traps and do acrobatics around alarms.
Back in the day of Ye Olde Dungeones Ande Dragones, Rogues fell under a category of ‘thieves’. They were the class that relied on cunning and tricks, instead of phenomenal magic or raw brute force. Out of the characters, these are the agile guys with the cloaks and daggers. The ones who dress up in dark camouflage colours, crouch about, and disappear to sneak around, avoid trouble, and disarm traps.
Because contrary to the popular strategy of “make the most efficient killing machine possible”, D&D was designed with PUZZLES which required THINKING to solve them, instead of raw muscles or magic spells. After all, the goal was to get treasure. And while some would SMASH or BLOW UP the monsters so that they can take the treasure, Rogues represent the mundane yet “most realistic” solution: Sneak in and steal it.
So while the joke is that a Wizard is Batman, always having the right tool for the job, how things REALLY should be is that it’s the ROGUE who is Batman: Agile and sneaky with no superpowers whatsoever. Or, more realistically, Bilbo Baggins: No combat skill to speak of, but quick on his feet and sharp with his wits.
Different games deal with their stealth classes differently, of course, but the Rogue, especially the D&D RPG Rogue, represents the character class in its purest type with its most iconic abilities.
- Stealth rolls. A Rogue has a much better ability to HIDE and AVOID DANGER so that enemies do not notice them. Sometimes it’s better rolls, sometimes it’s actual abilities like activating a “Go Invisible” button. This makes them popular scouts to go check out danger.
- Lockpicking. Or rather, not JUST lockpicking, but any ability to handle traps, locks, devices, and all manner of obstacles which cannot be safely bludgeoned or blasted to death. Rogues tend to have the most SKILLS to deal with inanimate things. And through using a Rogue’s skills, parties are usually rewarded: Unlocked doors leading to secret rooms, disarmed traps saving you from deadly poison, or sometimes even safely picking up the traps to use yourself later on.
- Fast but frail. Rogues are generally seen as pretty fragile, only slightly stronger than a Wizard, and tend to die in a few hits. Therefore, if you’re using a Rogue, you have to be carefully tactical to minimise risk; you can’t just have them wade through twenty orcs to get to the chest. HOWEVER, this is balanced by their speed and agility. Rogues are agile and nimble, allowing them to take safer routes like climbing up into the rafters. And if they HAVE to fight, they are surprisingly survivable because they’re hard to hit, so they have better odds of surviving a fight than a caster. Until something stops their movement, that is.
- SNEAK ATTACK. And here it is, the most spectacular yet situationally least realistic part of the Rogue: They can inflict BONUS DAMAGE under special conditions, most commonly if they are NOT SEEN, but sometimes if the enemy is OCCUPIED BY ALLIES. Rogues generally have this, and so are also assigned the role of “ambush damage dealer”, taking out or crippling the most powerful enemy in a single strike. Nitpickers will argue over whether it’s realistic for them to hit a critical spot with their modest weaponry (“What if the enemy is made of stone? Or what if they don’t have vital organs? Or they’re made of energy?”), but let’s face facts: Sneak Attack ADDS to the Rogue’s abilities, and they are THE MOST FLASHY THING for players to want to feel cool with. Being sneaky and useful is all well and good, but most players want to have the satisfaction of KILLING things for the glory, and Sneak Attack is certainly killy. If a Wizard is a grenade, Rogues are sniper rifles.
The flavour can be different, of course. In fantasy or realism, it’s just general sneakiness. In sci-fi, it’s cloaking devices. Sometimes it’s an ability to mentally mask their presence. Sometimes they’re subtle ninjas who fade into the shadows with no tales told, other times they’re infamous thieves wanted by three different cities. But as long as they have THOSE abilities, they’re recognisably Rogues.
All Rouged Up
Now here’s an interesting observation I had about the Rogue: They are simultaneously both MORE and LESS known than we think.
Now, sure, anybody who is into fantasy, gaming, and fantasy gaming will be aware that they’re part of the archetype trinity: Strength, Magic, and Stealth. And with more and more time for games to solidify, they’re practically a fixture. So we, especially those of us likely to read this blog and know this stuff, take it for granted that everyone knows what a Rogue is.
But believe it or not, Rogues are just as ancient an archetype as valiant warriors and almighty magicians in mythology. Sure, obviously assorted pantheons have ‘trickster’ gods and heroes who use stealth, cunning, and outright LIES to get in and out of trouble, like Loki. But even after that but before gaming, rogues…were a part of fairy tales and fantasy stories. And not just the era of Tolkien’s Hobbits; if you think about it, more than half of the world’s folk stories involve some adventurer getting into trouble, being sent to steal/win a solution, and using it to sneakily win over his rivals.
But here’s the thing: Rogues are the LEAST FLASHY of the archetypes, and it’s possible for them to be OVERLOOKED.
As a newbie going into fantasy with nothing but my knowledge of stories, I must admit that Rogues slipped under my radar for quite awhile. See, I came into fantasy games with knowledge of fairy tales. And to me, fantasy was DRAGONS AND FANTASTIC BEASTS, versus KNIGHTS WITH EPIC SWORDS and WIZARDS WITH MYSTERIOUS POWERS.
Those were the things which STOOD OUT AND GRABBED MY ATTENTION. So despite the fact that Rogues were there from the start in both the games and in legends, they never crossed my mind until later that they were Player Characters you could pick and play. Sure, I knew what thieves were, I knew thieves existed, I knew the fairy tales of the guys who stole the magic treasure…but it never occurred to me that WE could be THE Thief who stole the magic treasure.
Because when we come right down to it, people come into the game wanting to be entertained. And while some players are just natural stealth-fanatics, if a player wants to just get in there and wreck stuff, then they’ll find the APPEARANCE of “the tough warrior wading through with strength and skill and a huge warhammer” or “the arcane master hurling fire and lightning into the room and destroying half of it” to be MORE OBVIOUS and MORE SATISFYING than just “the thief who stabs the guy…REALLY HARD”.
What’s Mine Is Mine, What’s Yours Is Also Mine
So that’s WHAT the Rogue is. But WHO is the Rogue? (Or WHY is the Rogue?)
Now, like most characters, Rogues don’t actually have restrictions. That’s reserved for a few conditional ones like the Paladin or Druid.
HOWEVER, Rogues ARE based on thief archetypes in fiction. They are SNEAKY, RESOURCEFUL, and INDIVIDUALISTIC. So although in theory a Rogue could be whatever personality the player decides for it, there are a few stereotypes:
- Rogues are SELFISH. They will think of themselves and their interests first. This doesn’t necessarily make them amoral; “think of yourself” can simply mean taking care of your own happiness by staying out of trouble and treating your loved ones well. However, they generally aren’t likely to be considered the “loyal, principled, do things for justice and die for the cause” types.
- Rogues are GREEDY. An obvious choice given that their whole gimmick is THIEF. The most common object of their desire is treasure, and Rogues will gladly nick stuff off their party members if they can get away with it, selling the Ranger’s family heirloom for drinking money even though they already called dibs on the big golden idol in the treasure hoard. This is probably the most harmful stereotype in a partying group, as a Rogue player could grief others by going after their stuff, or could be ostracised for it despite their best efforts to be trustworthy. Thankfully, a good group who’s on the same page can roll with it as an endearing, quirky flaw and source of conflict.
- Rogues are CUNNING. Sneak Attack and Stealth already contribute greatly to this; they’re your STRONGEST TOOLS, so you are ALREADY USING THEM. However, they are also seen as the ones who will CHEAT or LIE to get what they want. Where players trying to play a “goody two shoes” character will at least accept things at face value or try and take the path GMs offer, the Rogue stereotype is going to find a back door and an easy way out. Use poison to cheat at the duel, carry an ace up their sleeve in card games, sell out the guy who hired them to his enemies. There are plenty of ways to argue about the morality of this outlook, but the bottom line is that, seeing as they like to be sneaky and actually WANT to take advantage of enemies, Rogues are seen as the sort who will fight dirty.
- Rogues are INDIVIDUALISTIC. Sometimes it’s not on purpose; the very function of a Rogue (be sneaky, break into places and steal stuff) means that they are seldom part of respectable, official organisations (unless your campaign has a Church Of Kleptomania or something). What they do, after all, often means they have to bend rules and go it alone, meaning their playstyle isn’t suited to being good with teams. However, it is ALSO a PERSONALITY stereotype. With romantic thieves like Robin Hood being seen as anti-authority individualists living life on their terms, Rogues can be seen as freedom fighters, anarchists, or terrorists depending on who’s asking, stealing from the rich/those they dislike to give to the poor/themselves. They want to live life on their own terms, and resent being told what to do, especially by know-it-all Lawful types.
And there you have it. What a Rogue is, what they do, and who they tend to be. None of these are set in stone, of course, because Rogues seldom have hard limits to their personality and alignment.
You could make a Rogue who’s a delightful team player with a supportive group, a family man who happens to have a Rogue’s skillset.
You could make a Rogue who, far from being a subtle, is a gentleman thief who charms the pants (and gold) off their mark.
You could even make your Rogue a complex character with personal codes and goals who is not easily defined by small boxes.
However, the Rogue’s stereotypes exist for a reason. Apart from player design, apart from worldbuilding, they came about because of a Rogue’s FUNCTION and what they DO. And what they do is steal and sucker punch things really hard.
You don’t have to be STUCK with them. But their influence will ALWAYS be around, especially because they are BUILT INTO THEIR ACTIONS. Either what you do will inform how you think (i.e. I sneak about and Sneak Attack, so I think it’s OK to fight dirty for the greater good), or the world will look at them with those stereotypes based on their deeds, the way we judge people by their actions.
So even if your Rogue is totally devoted to the Church of Law and Charity, they’ll still get dirty looks from the clergy for breaking the law, even if it WAS to expose a corrupt governor.
I suppose it’s just like they say: That which you pretend to be, you eventually become.