D&D Next: Rogues and Skills 5

There are a whole lot of interesting issues circulating around fighters and rogues in the new playtest packet. Back in this post I scratched the surface of the changes they’ve made to rogues, but just today I started to realize how deep those changes actually run. For my Aurikesh campaign that I talk about so much, a group of ten players has created a total of thirteen characters. They know perfectly well that the roster is going to change from adventure to adventure, so it’s not a “planned” party – it’s just people figuring out what they’d like to play, and assuming they’ll be able to build a functioning team out of that. Given that three of the players have created second characters that they’ll play to make party function easier, I have every reason to suspect they’re right.

So the odd thing that I’ve found in this small sample size is that only one player has created a rogue, but three people have created Dex-focused fighters with rogue-flavored Backgrounds, giving them excellent Sneak skills (heck, even untrained, +4 is nothing to sneeze at) and an assortment of other skills. Several characters of other classes have likewise chosen rogue-flavored backgrounds, for the very same reason. I love the Background system, though, and I very much do not want WotC to change that. I don’t think that system is a problem, though it contributes to something I see as a problem.

Before I completely dig into this, a few points:

  • Character Optimization Is Not Everything, but everyone wants to feel cool and have freedom of options.
  • The combat/non-combat divide is very much at stake here. There are a lot of pejoratives that get thrown around here, like “rollplayer” or “hack and slash gamers.” Let’s brush the superiority complexes and badwrongfun aside and actually talk player psychology. If players have to choose between “good at combat” and “good at non-combat,” they quite consistently choose to be good at combat. Combat is a huge portion of actual time at the table, but just as importantly, they usually don’t lose their characters if they are bad at non-combat.

At the same time as other classes are gaining access to skills that have long been the sole purview of rogues, rogues have been seriously dethroned as the leader in melee damage output. They are a few points behind fighters in attack bonus, and finesse weapons are not top damage-dealers among the choices of weapons.

Digression: I roll my eyes at the inclusion of the katana, but find it hilarious that aside from a different damage type, it is exactly as good as a quarterstaff.

Back to my point, as I mentioned in a previous post, a rogue’s Sneak Attack is the same, level by level, as a fighter’s Deadly Strike, but marginally harder to activate. Now, one of the math secrets of 3.x is that for roughly equal levels of optimization, a fighter stays about even with or above a rogue for damage, thanks to harder-hitting weapons, Power Attack, better accuracy, more attacks per round, and Strength applying to damage as well as attack. (The math becomes hazier when we start talking about two-weapon-fighting rogues, or the overall percentage of creatures that were immune to rogues Sneak Attack and criticals.) But 3.x did at least convince people that D&D rogues should be among the top damage-dealers, and at around the same time video games hammered home the same lesson.

Well, let’s look back at WotC’s stated design goals for the rogue. In three of the four tenets here, they’re harping on skill use as the core of their vision for the rogue. Trickery, evasion, and waiting for the opening; avoiding combat; superior use of skills than other characters: this is critical. They’ve given rogues 50-100% more trained skills than other characters – strangely enough, I’m okay with the way this works, because other classes are no longer pigeonholed into skills that aren’t useful. I’m okay with D&D functioning in such a way that the highly evasive character with the tiny weapons isn’t doing as much damage over all as the meathead with the greatsword, as long as the characters share out the awesomeness elsewhere.

We can definitely say for now that: “If a rogue can surprise an opponent with an attack, that attack might be overwhelmingly powerful” is not working out. The design problem WotC has here is that they are trying to link up the rogue and fighter Expertise progressions, but five sizes of dice are not a hell of a lot of granularity, and once you go up to a larger die size, you never drop back down to a larger number of smaller dice (that we’ve seen so far). If they created a way for the rogue to save up dice from round to round as they wait for that perfect opportunity, then that would be one thing. But they are (currently) locked to using the same size and number of dice as a damage expression or as a modifier to a d20 roll, and I think that will prove to be a very challenging constraint for them. If they can pull it off (even with a small number of workarounds or special cases), though, it will be masterful and elegant.

In previous playtest documents, they tried to handle the fourth tenet with a 3.x-style Skill Mastery mechanic, but better and available at first level: for all trained skills, the rogue’s minimum d20 result is 10, and it goes up from there. With that ability, not only does the routine look trivial, but tasks described as “hard” are trivial as well. I am thrilled that they got rid of that implementation, though I would be rather more receptive to reintroducing it so that the minimum d20 roll is a 4 or 5 – with an assumed skill bonus of +4 to +7 at first level, only the actually routine things become trivial. What they’ve done instead is… not completely dissimilar, but they’ve incorporated the Expertise mechanic, and made it so that a first-level rogue has… let’s see, do a little rounding and it comes to around a 25% shot at a task that the DM Guidelines document describes as “Nearly Impossible” (DC 25). So, um. Let’s say “the mechanics are not supporting the fiction quite well enough.”

The thing is, I think previous editions have done a pretty fine job of showing us that we don’t actually want the designers to just spike the DCs of various grades of difficulty, because for actual gameplay there isn’t a lot of fun or use involved in “if you aren’t a rogue, don’t bother,” just like there isn’t fun gameplay to be found in needing to be a fighter to even bother trying to hit a target’s AC. They’ve addressed that in this edition, thank goodness (though I admit that I feel they may have over-addressed it, as the highest AC in the Bestiary – which should challenge players up to level 10 – is 18.) The second tenet of rogue design does suggest that rogues have access to skill applications that other classes don’t, which is functionally true if the PC describes an action for which the DM assigns a DC no one else can touch, but without a fully-fleshed, skill-based stunt system, it’s unclear what that would mean in final effect.

That, then, is the summary of the issue: the rogue is the best at things that don’t have particularly clear effects. The clarity issue comes from presenting all skill checks as ability checks for which a player might, potentially, apply a skill bonus – but they worked so hard to keep even the existence of Backgrounds optional that they can’t clarify when a skill is meant to apply. At the same time, they’ve gone with predefined skills, so there’s a sense that it matters that this situation might or might not allow the skill’s use. This is the great thing about SotC-style Aspects – it’s always okay to apply them, and since the player and DM invented them, the player and DM can come to their own understanding of boundaries. Once we start talking about published adventures and appropriate levels of difficulty, though, it gets thorny and things start to Matter.

The other means of niche protection they’ve used in designing the rogue is another 3.x throwback: only characters of this class may attempt certain tasks, as there is no way other than being a rogue to become proficient in the use of thieves’ tools, which are required for those tasks. That feels like an afterthought of an issue, though; it was entirely absent from the previous playtest documents, and was added to these just to make sure that only rogues should bother with sources of the Disable Device skill. This technically meets the criteria of the second tenet, but it does so poorly and I dearly hope they will revisit this area of design. This doesn’t make people want to play rogues, because it isn’t phrased as a cool thing rogues can do – it’s phrased as a kind of punishment that only the rogue has a chance to avoid.

Okay, so let’s say they get rid of the Rogues Only Club rule and actually leave skills open to all classes (through Backgrounds) like they were in the previous packet. The problem remains: without clear and accessible combat applications for skills other than Sneak, the rogue is just like a fighter, except that he chose to be good at all the non-combat stuff rather than all the combat stuff. I think it’s great that they’re trying to keep the rules relaxed and groovy so that DMs can keep the game moving rather than feeling compelled to look up the rule and “get it right.” That’s excellent – seriously, it’s a huge part of why I am shouting from the mountaintops about this edition. But at the same time, some guidance in how to get the players into a descriptive, fluid stunt system is only a good thing. A library of DCs, effects, ways to clear those effects, and the like would go a long way here.

The previous playtest document was definitely pointed in this direction for rogues. They had given rogues an almost megadamage-like Sneak Attack scaling, but other than that, the two rogue schemes (Thief and Thug) had the same skills as other classes (well, a few more of them, but pulled from the same available list) with other applications. The new Maneuvers system makes rogues succeed at their skill checks more reliably, but it doesn’t change how the rogue uses the skill. Without some kind of new applications for skills (which would require more extensive and precise definitions for skills) I don’t see how the third design tenet could logically be accomplished.

Digression: Not to belabor this point, but I also think there’s a logical problem with the third tenet. A spellcaster can dispel a charm, so that’s a reasonable balance for the Charmed effect itself. But won’t a charm person spell functionally counter all of that work that the rogue has invested? The rogue’s network of persuasion is difficult to undo through nonmagical means – but the Charmed effect is impossible to undo through nonmagical means, other than waiting out its duration. I would like to see more parity here, as well.

These are all iterations on the same problems of having a skill system that have troubled D&D’s designers for as long as D&D has had a skill system. Large swaths of the gaming community decried skill challenges for a variety of reasons, but let’s mention again what they did right and why something like them is useful: a skill challenge turns a nebulous one-roll, pass/fail moment into a situation that can tolerate some degree of player or character failure, and mechanically incorporate player creativity at multiple narrative junctures. Because it occurs over multiple steps, tension builds, rather than hanging solely on one step. The number-one implementation issue is that creating a fun skill challenge on the fly is an order of magnitude harder than creating a fun fight on the fly.

With a fight, everyone instinctively knows the stakes of failure. Everyone can, in the opening round or shortly thereafter, get a feel for the tension and risk of the scene. Everything that writers and actors need to make a good scene – conflict, stakes, motivations – a fight does that shit for you. Skill challenges are everything else: conflict where the stakes and motivations are much less clear. In a physical challenge, for example, the stakes and motivations are often very similar to a fight: if I fail I will get hurt or die; I am in this conflict because there is filthy lucre on the far side of it. But the conflict itself? The mountain doesn’t want you to fall off of it and die. Your struggle is against your own limitations. It’s nonsensical for the mountain to roll against you; you don’t alternate turns with that enemy. Yet in a fight, it’s clearly the opponent’s turn that is the time when tension might increase in a conflict.

Actually, there might be a decent idea there – Fate or whatever should have either a list of options or a randomized table of the horrible things it tries to do to you on its “turn,” creating tension in the scene. But God knows we groaned and mocked Pendragon every time the weather crit on us. If anything, though, this would exacerbate the problem of coming up with something cool on the fly. I think my main way to solve this would be a Challenge Manual – in the same way that no one expects a DM to gin up monster stats for 2-5 monsters without book support, maybe 100-200 pages of compiled sample skill challenges would be good, with tips for how to tweak them. Also a very good area for third-party support!

To bring this rambling train of thought back around to rogues: the system wants rogues to be the best at using a nebulous system that isn’t yet well-designed for building tension. When a player chooses to be a rogue instead of a Dex-based fighter with a rogue-like Background and/or Specialty, what is she trading off? An average of two hit points per level, 1-2 points of attack bonus, access to several of the most desirable Maneuvers (in exchange for a mixed bag), a better rate of gaining new Maneuvers, proficiency in medium and heavy armor, proficiency in a good many weapons, and an extra attack per round at sixth level. Not exactly a tough call yet. I hope that the one rogue in the party right now will prove me wrong, though, and that I will be able to put the right kind of emphasis on skills that she’ll have fun.

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5 thoughts on “D&D Next: Rogues and Skills

  • Neal McClellan

    I am so tempted to make a High Elf Rogue with the Skill Specialist Background. That's a grand total of 12 skills and Detect Magic at-will.

    Right now my thought on Sneak Attack is that it shouldn't be divorced completely from the Expertise Dice, but that it should be an Auto-Crit that you spend an ED to activate when you hit with and attack with advantage. You can spend additional ED that could be rolled for even more damage on top of the massive amount you get from critting. I think that would allow you to deliver huge hits, but since you don't have to take Sneak Attack, only those who want their rogue to be silent killers would be burdened with the ability.

  • Brandes Stoddard

    That's… quite a solid angle on Expertise, actually. That sets the math to exactly what I wanted it to be, but in a more coherent way than had occurred to me. I'll strongly consider just using this as our houserule. Thank you!

  • Neal McClellan

    Thank you. With the new maneuvers, I'm beginning think the Expertise Dice system should progess as an increasing number of d4's instead of the mixed d4/d6 progression I mentioned before or the current playtest progression. I think that it lends a level of consistency to the expected numbers and it doesn't make the maneuvers where you roll and take the highest for saves and skills overly ridiculous. To me, an additional bonus of +1-4 seems more reasonable for those uses.

  • Brandes Stoddard

    Yeah, I'm pretty worried about how the game is going to challenge characters with d10s for Expertise dice while still being remotely playable for characters without them. Most of the cases where a rogue's Skill Mastery applies, that's the only thing they need Expertise dice for in that round. +1 to +4 seems more reasonable, though rolling a fistful of d4s is not as satisfying as a fistful of d6s, regardless of what you do with the results…

  • Neal McClellan

    D6's more closely match the math they have now, and would probably be more acceptable to the general gaming public. Maybe something like…

    1. 1d6
    2. 1d6
    3. 2d6
    4. 2d6
    5. 3d6
    6. 3d6
    7. 4d6
    8. 4d6
    9. 5d6
    10. 5d6
    11. 6d6
    12. 6d6
    13. 7d6
    14. 7d6
    15. 8d6
    16. 8d6
    17. 9d6
    18. 9d6
    19. 10d6
    20. 10d6