The Rogue Class, Part Six
While there may be some additional articles in this series touching on rogues in D&D-like systems, this week I’m talking about the Rogue class of Fifth Edition. Up to this point, we’ve seen the class change from the Thief to the Rogue, lose its assumption of selfishness and even lawlessness (because the rogue turns out to be a great class for detective or inquisitorial work, as we see in 3.x), and turn from a combat-avoidant role to a strong contributor to a party’s success in combat. At each step of the way, the class has had a unique interaction with the skill system of its edition – maybe it’s the only class with a skill system, or maybe it just gets a lot more skills, used more effectively, than any other class. Spoiler, that’s not about to change.
(Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Avenger, Part Six)
This iteration of the rogue has a lot of the 3.x structure back, though some definitions have changed, and Sneak Attack has retained a fix introduced in 4e. The Player’s Handbook gives us three archetype options, and two additional “official” archetypes have come down from On High in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Naturally, there’s a vibrant home-brewing community as well.
The rogue gets:
- d8s for Hit Dice, an increase in durability that matches bumping the wizard up to d6s. Rogues are now on the same footing for hit points as clerics, which makes more sense to me than earlier versions.
- Light armor, no shields. Nothing could be less surprising than this.
- Simple weapons, plus four martial weapons – hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, and shortswords.
- Longswords and many simple weapons aren’t super useful here, since longswords lock them out of using Sneak Attack.
- Proficiency in Dexterity and Intelligence saving throws.
- If you don’t speak 5e, this is comparable to “good progression on Reflex saves, and some rare kinds of Will saves.”
- Four skill proficiencies, chosen from a pretty good list, and proficiency in thieves’ tools.
- Literally every rogue can handle locks and traps in 5e, but there are many ways to gain proficiency in thieves’ tools other than being a rogue, so you don’t have to have a rogue in every party to deal with locks and traps.
- Expertise, which is to say double the proficiency bonus, in two skills or tools (including the skills or tools the character gets from a Background).
- This helps to establish the rogue (and the bard, who also gets this) as a dominant skill-using character. It’s a nice boost at low levels and a commanding bonus at high levels.
- At 6th level, you get two more Expertise skills or tools.
- Sneak Attack, which has reverted to its 1d6-per-two-levels scaling, but can be applied only once per turn.
- In 5e action-economy parlance, a turn is each character’s individual turn. On your turn, you can deal your Sneak Attack damage once. If you get to attack on someone else’s turn, through Commander’s Strike or an opportunity attack, you can deal your Sneak Attack damage again.
- When I first saw that 5e Sneak Attack progressed to +10d6, I freaked out. Now that I’ve seen it in use for a few years (including the playtest period), it turns out that the once-per-turn limit makes it work just right.
- Thieves’ Cant, which lets you communicate ideas to your confederates while being observed by law-enforcement officers. It’s not a language, but a set of double meanings.
- Cunning Action, with which rogues start to exploit the action-economy system and face some round-by-round tough choices. This gives them a bunch of new ways to spend their bonus action, all of which are very good… but also competing with two-weapon fighting. The rogue wants to use two-weapon fighting to get another chance to deal their Sneak Attack damage on her turn.
- Six Ability Score Improvements/feats over the course of twenty levels.
- Uncanny Dodge, which doesn’t mean the same thing that it used to – now it’s a way to spend your reaction defensively, to halve incoming damage from an attack that you can see.
- Evasion, which is completely unchanged from 3.x.
- Reliable Talent, a rework of the 3.x ability Skill Mastery. 5e doesn’t have an explicit concept of “taking 10” on a roll, so this changes any roll of a natural 9 or worse to a 10. You use Reliable Talent for any skill in which you have proficiency.
- As a result, there’s just about no tension in your Expertise rolls anymore. It’s good for making you feel casually badass, but not broad-spectrum enough to remove all tension from your skill use.
- Blindsense, which lets you detect invisible creatures within 10 feet by sound.
- Slippery Mind, which grants you proficiency in Wisdom saving throws.
- Most high-level features don’t change a character in such a fundamental way, so this feature feels odd to me. Nothing wrong with it, I would just have thought it would show up earlier.
- Elusive, which denies enemies advantage against you as long as you aren’t incapacitated. It doesn’t impose disadvantage – it just stops attackers from gaining advantage. It’s a huge defense against enemy Sneak Attacks, if your DM uses opponents with Sneak Attack.
- Stroke of Luck, which improves one of your d20 rolls by one grade of success – turning a missed attack into a hit, or a failed ability check into a natural 20. This is pretty powerful, but it’s not that big of a deal for a 20th-level feature.
Without its archetypes, the rogue class is mechanically solid enough, but doesn’t point in any particular direction beyond “agile combatant who is particularly reliable in non-combat applications” – essentially the same as it is in 3.x and 4e. In 3.x, you focus your concept with prestige classes or feat and skill selection; in 4e you use paragon paths, epic destinies, and feat selections. I’ve glossed over just how much characterization you can get from skill and background selection, but one of the strengths of 5e is that you can say an enormous amount about who your dude is with these choices.
Archetypes, though… they’re the Big Deal of differentiation. Any two rogues with the Thief archetype are likely to be pretty similar, but how often do you have two characters with the same class and archetype in a single campaign? Not quite never, to be sure, but rarely enough that differentiation within an archetype doesn’t need to be a guiding design feature. The three core archetypes are the Thief, the Assassin, and the Arcane Trickster.
The Thief gets:
- Fast Hands, a further expansion on Cunning Action to include sleight of hand, any use of thieves’ tools, or using objects.
- Second-Story Work, which makes the Thief a parkour expert – full-speed climbing, increased running jump distance.
- Supreme Sneak, which grants advantage on stealth checks if you move at half speed. Advantage + Expertise is as close to no-fail as it comes.
- Use Magic Device, which brings back one of the original thief abilities and stands in for a skill that got dropped after 3.5.
- Notably, this involves no ability check or other die roll – the 5e version just works and ignores all prerequisites. It’s handy, but not dominating, since a lot of items that require specific traits are as useful to rogues as an item the rogue natively qualifies to use.
- Thief’s Reflexes, turning the thief into minor speedster hero in the opening round of a combat. It’s great for getting out a jam, or establishing an early upper hand – it’s two separate turns of Sneak Attack damage, if nothing else.
If you want to play a speedy hero who practically melts locks and traps with the concentrated power of awesome (i.e., a bonus action is mighty quick) and points back to the original Thief class with superior skill applications and magic device flim-flammery, this is the archetype for you. It’s a great multi-tool, and does a good job of improving out-of-combat utility without completely neglecting combat potency. (Supreme Sneak in particular can be amazing in combat, if you’re clever about it.)
The Assassin gets:
- Proficiency with disguise kits and poisoner’s kits.
- Assassinate, which grants advantage on attacks against targets that haven’t yet acted in combat, and attacks against surprised targets are critical hits if they land.
- This is a huge opening-round bit of stabbing.
- Infiltration Expertise, making you a great spy. You can establish cover identities that stand up to normal levels of scrutiny. It takes seven days and some cash, so it’s a downtime activity.
- Impostor, which lets you mimic someone else’s speech, handwriting, and behavior, and stands up to a fairly high level of scrutiny.
- Death Strike, which is the assassin’s top-tier murdering power. When attacking a surprised target, you double your damage if the target fails a Constitution saving throw.
- Double damage on something that’s already a critical hit, let’s keep in mind. (20d6+5) * 2, so an average of 150 damage is a conservative estimate of 17th-level damage output on a failed Constitution saving throw here.
If you want to play a spy or, well, assassin, this archetype is here for you. There are better builds for sustained damage (Rogue (Assassin) 3/Fighter X springs to mind), but I like the out-of-combat features here too. It does a passably good job of sounding like Vlad Taltos’s long-term planning to put a shine on his targets, and that’s all I really want out of an assassin theme.
The Arcane Trickster is here to be the Gray Mouser. This subclass gets:
- Spellcasting, matching the Eldritch Knight’s one-third-rounded-up progression. They strongly favor enchantment and illusion, where the Eldritch Knight favors abjuration and evocation. Their spellcasting is based on Intelligence, so if you’re going to choose this archetype, you need to know that at 1st level or plan to spend a bunch of Ability Score Improvements on it. After all, enchantment and illusion are heavy on saving throws.
- Mage Hand Legerdemain, a nicely cinematic ability to perform many roguish skill functions at a distance with new functions of the mage hand You perform all of these functions as part of Cunning Action, so this is basically like getting the Thief’s Fast Hands feature, but at range and requiring an action to set up (the mage hand casting time).
- This feature is a close cousin of the 3.x Ranged Legerdemain arcane trickster feature, but without the uses-per-day limits. It doesn’t really need limiting, given its action cost in 5e.
- Magical Ambush, which flips your normal “advantage on attack rolls against targets that don’t perceive you” into “disadvantage on saving throws against same.”
- In particular, this makes me think of Scarlet Witch’s ambush-mind-control sequence in Avengers: Age of Ultron. I wouldn’t normally build her as an Arcane Trickster, but this feature pushes her exact behavior in that sequence very nicely.
- Versatile Trickster, which gives you another mage hand You spend a bonus action to make the hand give you advantage against that target.
- The casting time of mage hand makes this an action you won’t use all the time, but it’s ideal for times when you’re stuck fighting alone or in the open and really need your Sneak Attack damage.
- Spell Thief, about as literal an expression of the archetype concept as you can get; ironically, it wasn’t part of the original 3.x arcane trickster. It also does exactly what it says on the tin – if someone throws a spell of 1st to 4th level at you (even if it’s not on your spell list!), you can potentially negate it and temporarily add it to your Spells Known. It’s not a dominating power at 17th level, but it is super stylish.
It’s a pretty iconic expression of a mage-thief, though one that sacrifices more on the “mage” side than the “thief” side. The spells available are great for expressing the trickster concept – you can get a long way on judicious use of charm person and disguise self, to say nothing of invisibility and suggestion. They sacrifice some raw damage output, but they make it back in crowd control and ways to avoid combat entirely.
I don’t have a copy of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide to work from, but previews let me talk a bit about the Mastermind archetype.
The Mastermind gets:
- Proficiency in the disguise and forgery kits, and one gaming set. (What fictional mastermind isn’t a chess champion?) Also two languages. Also you gain accent mimicry, so no one will know you’re not from Southie.
- Master of Tactics, which lets you spend your bonus action to Help an ally within 30 feet.
- This is a great expression of Mastermind-as-leader.
- Insightful Manipulator, which reworks the Battle Master’s Know Your Enemy feature to fit this archetype. I feel like there probably could have been one or two more questions on this list, but it’s pretty much fine.
- Misdirection, which shifts an attack off of you and onto a creature that is giving you cover.
- I’m not 100% sure what they’re going for here, but it’s ideal for holding hostages at knifepoint. Also, I wonder how it is intended to interact with the Sharpshooter feat that lets the shooter ignore cover.
- Soul of Deceit, which protects you from having your thoughts read and the truth of your words discerned.
- This means Moriarty can be brought in for questioning and lie to the magic-using investigators. Defense against interrogation doesn’t come up that often for PCs, but when it does, you’ll be happy to have this.
More than most rogue archetypes, these guys really seem like they’re set up to be The Villain to me. That’s mostly because I don’t think PCs receive cover bonuses from enemies all that often, though Misdirection also helps the mastermind let the party’s tank do her job better. This kind of hard de-taunt is pretty rare and powerful, though, because the potential for griefing your party is substantial.
A rundown of the swashbuckler is eluding me for the moment, but we all saw the draft in Waterborne Adventures, right? I can at least say that this is an archetype for people who want to play fighter/rogues without leaving the Rogue class, and it’s heavily themed on panache and derring-do. Their Fancy Footwork feature, in combination with Cunning Action, makes them even better at leaving an engagement than other rogues – attack with your action, get a free single-target Disengage, and Dash away, rather than Disengage and Dash. It also shuts down enemies that can normally make opportunity attacks even when you Disengage, as with the Sentinel feat.
Actually, it’s not clear whether this should trump Sentinel or the other way around. I’d propose a blanket ruling that, whenever two “yes I can” features are in conflict, you flip a coin as to which side applies its feature in that one instance. If it comes up a second time, even between the same characters, flip the coin again. That’s probably the only fair way to stop an arms race of “yes I really can” powers.
This brings us to the end of the 5th edition Rogue, and the current History of the Rogue. I’ll link a few of my favorite home-brewed archetypes below (I hope you’ll excuse me if several are of my own creation). The class still mostly fills the same role as it did in OD&D, but with a lot more engagement in combat and durability. It fits enough different themes that most action heroes who aren’t explicitly about wearing heavy armor could be some flavor of rogue: Sherlock Holmes, Batman, James Bond, the Gray Mouser, every Assassin’s Creed assassin, Zorro, Robin Hood, Jason Bourne… we love high action, and rogues are great at all kinds of things that belong in action films. (Other than John McClane, who is more of a fighter.)
A Selection of Home-brewed Rogue Archetypes:
Mastermind (a variant that pre-dates the SCAG)
Woe Bearer by AnarchyDice
Barber by Stands in Fire
Holy Slayer by Stands in Fire
Jinx by Stands in Fire
Brigand by Stands in Fire