Whither (Wither?) the Rogue?
Something that struck me recently as I was pondering the state of roleplaying games, is “Whatever happened to the rogue?” Is it my imagination, or did somewhere along the way the whole rogue concept get neutered? Do games have thieves’ guilds any more? Have locked, trapped doors really disappeared or does it just feel that way? And when was the last time anybody actually took ranks in Thieves’ Cant?
Granted, the rogue (thief, burglar, scout, choose your term) was always something of a problem character, particularly in a dungeon setting. Without townsfolk to pick the pockets of, it wasn’t that uncommon that he’d try to skim an extra share off of party loot, and worse, as they guy forever running up ahead, he was prone to hogging the GM’s time and attention for long stretches, leading to three bored players watching one guy having a ball … with the net result being that the rogue annoyed everybody at the table and generally made a crap game without a lot of careful compensation by the GM.
There are ways around that problem, such as putting trap-type hazards in the room with the monsters instead of sitting alone in the hallway, so the rogue’s moment to shine comes at the same time as the fighter’s and the wizard’s, but most groups seemed to handle it best by either all being rogues (or rogues-at-heart), or by beating the rogue senseless until he learned to behave as a functional party member, and then letting him “get away with it” from time to time to throw him a bone.
2E seemed in some ways to be the golden age of the rogue, with Lankhmar — the city of wickedness from which the Grey Mouser himself sprang — being an officially-licensed setting, and the awesome-from-start-to-finish Complete Book of Thieves, which included very nifty ideas on an all-rogue campaign (and got a lot of use as background during my various Fantasy HERO campaigns in Richmond).
3.x, by comparison, wasn’t real kind to rogues … traps, when they appeared, were generally designed so they could hurt anybody in the party, including the fighter, but the poor rogue only had a squishy little d6 hit die and a modest AC. Granted, if the trap called for a Ref save, the rogue would just point and laugh while everybody else went up in flames. But aside from unlocking the occasional door and un-poisoned-darting the occasional chest, the rogue didn’t actually have that much to do in the new “back to the dungeon” world.
4E was the unkindest cut of all, where a rogue’s job had nothing to do with sneaking, scouting, or even stealing treasure, but was all about trying to out-damage the fighter. Everything that used to make a rogue interesting (at least from the traditional rogue’s point of view that killing monsters is a dull and inelegant way of getting what you want) got lumped into a single skill called “Thievery,” and then a bunch of pointless combat skills were piled on.
I’m told that Essentials has relabeled “the mobile damage-dealer class” as thief instead of rogue, but I don’t have the product, so I can’t say if any actual burglary has been added back to the class. But given that “Essentials” is still 4E at its core, my suspicion is that at the end of the day, it’s still all about how you stab things, with infiltration and espionage still considered part of that boring stuff that happens between combats.
And don’t even get me started on playing a rogue-type in a computer game. I imagine the Thief: The Dark Project series probably did reasonably well, I never could get interested in the series … but for my money the only CRPG that really did the right thing by rogues was Quest For Glory II — which came out in 1991. (Although I see here there’s a recent remake! I’ll have to try that out.)
Anyway! I guess there’s not much left to say on the topic, other than a general lament on the current state of gaming. My current Pathfinder campaign has only a part-time rogue in the form of a ranger/rogue archer who dodges dragons’ breath weapons with amazing regularity, but has never picked a pocket in his life. I added a barbarian/rogue NPC to the party with the intent of adding some more tricks-and-trapsy goodness, but the last time a trap showed up, the party tank walked up to it and deliberately set it off, just sucking up the damage. (It was a great comic moment, but a low point in party subtlety to say the least.) Maybe later today I’ll roll up a rogue or two in Hero Labs just for the fun of it. They’ll get saved in the “Characters I’ll Never Get to Play” folder with the rest, but at least they’ll have lots of company. ;P