Friday, July 30, 2010

D&D Essentials preview: The rogue

D&D Essentials class previews

The last of the four character classes to be revamped in Heroes of the Fallen Lands has been revealed today. The Essential version of the Rogue is known as the Thief (in yet another nod to old school D&D fans), and shares many of the mechanical innovations first seen in the Essential Fighter: a new power progression that lacks dailies and is based on applying modifiers to your basic attacks, and a wider range of class features, some of which are acquired at higher levels. We have been able to catch a glimpse of some of these powers and features, including interesting details such as the rediscovered ability to wield shortbows.

Shortbow rogues like Haley couldn’t easily be implemented in 4E, but Essentials will change that.

Rogue powers

The core of the Essential Rogue gameplay consists in a series of powers that alter basic attacks, resulting in effects that are very similar to those of an at-will attack. This follows a similar principle as the Essentials Fighter, though instead of stances, thieves get Rogue Tricks. These are movement actions that grant some kind of movement and boost your attacks for a turn. You start off with two of these but, unlike at-will attacks from a conventional class, you learn more as you level - and at a faster level than an Essential Fighter, too. So far, we have seen that extra tricks become available at levels 4 and 7, and it’s likely that more will come up at higher tiers.

From the three tricks we have seen, it looks like the attack effects won’t deviate much from existing at-wills. Tumbling Trick is a Cleave-like trick to deal Strength damage to a different adjacent enemy. Ambush Trick is a very welcome addition to the rogue’s arsenal, as provides an easy way to gain combat advantage against isolated enemies at short range. By comparison, Feinting Trick looks quite unimpressive, as it provides a bonus to damage based on your Charisma whenever you lack combat advantage - typically, you’d be better off dealing sneak attack damage with Ambush Trick .

More interesting is the way you can get different types of movement from your tricks: some of them simply let you move your speed, but Tumbling Trick actually allows you to shift 3 squares, which is quite an awesome thing to do at-will. Other powers should do even cooler things, such as “run along a wall or shift past an enemy”. It’s clear that Rogue Tricks have been inspired by the monk’s Full Disciplines, with the advantage that they are much more straightforward and easy to grasp. I really like this new emphasis on mobility for strikers, since it’s a feature of the role which is often forgotten in favour of raw damage.

The existence of Rogue Tricks has serious gameplay implications. First of all, there is a strong incentive for rogues to move before attacking. Each trick has a single movement type, so you’d really want a power selection that includes at least some tricks that shift, and some that move your speed. And your move requirements will influence the kind of attack you end up making. For example, Ambush Trick is an excellent attack but it doesn’t allow to shift, so if you have an enemy adjacent, you can only use it to attack that enemy in melee, sacrificing movement for that turn. It also means that rogues will be seriously hindered by the dazed condition, as it prevents them from activating their tricks.

Then there is the fact that you are actually using basic attacks instead of powers. It is unconfirmed, though extremely likely, that the first level class feature Weapon Finesse allows the use of Dexterity for melee basic attacks with light weapons. This means you can charge, make opportunity attacks and benefit from other kinds of effects that provide basic attacks without needing to take the Melee Training feat. However, all of these abilities may not be available from level 1 - there is another feature called Improved Finesse at level 9, so it’s possible that Weapon Finesse only works for attacks made during your turn, and Improved Finesse unlocks the rest. Anyway, Melee Training is a great feat to have for free, even by installments, and it only gets better when your basic attacks can benefit from Rogue Tricks and other class features. Also, you should keep in mind that Dexterity is now an option but no longer a requirement, and that you can have melee rogues attacking with Strength out of the box, or even with other abilities like Charisma, if you do take Melee Training after all.

As with fighters, rogues also have some special rules replacing encounter attacks. Instead of a choice of encounter powers, they get a power called Backstab at level 1, which can be used once per encounter when you have combat advantage and activates before rolling for an attack. It grants a hefty bonus to hit plus some damage, in addition to the effects you may have gained from a Rogue Trick. It is simple yet effective, easily outperforming most average rogue encounters (though not the best ones). Another difference with conventional classes is that they don’t seem to gain additional encounter attacks at levels 3 and 7. However, there is a feature called Improved Backstab, which should provide additional uses of Backstab in some way, maybe through a recharge mechanic.

Rogue weaponry

A defining quality of the Rogue class is their favoured weaponry, as they excel in the use of light weapons that other characters would dismiss due to their low damage. In game terms, this means that most rogue powers and special abilities specifically restrict the weapons they work with, as otherwise most players would go for the less elegant but far more deadly strategy of backstabbing with greataxes. The Essential Rogue handles this a bit differently.

None of the ‘attacks’ (that is, Rogue Tricks or Backstab) have any kind of weapon restriction. Rogues are only limited by their weapon proficiencies and the Sneak Attack feature. These have suffered slight changes, in that Shuriken proficiency has disappeared (not that many characters ever used them), seemingly replaced by shortbows, which make a triumphal comeback to the class. Another subtle difference is that Sneak Attack now works specifically with Hand Crossbows, instead of crossbows of any kind, as Superior Crossbows were excellent (if un-roguish) the weapon of choice of many sniper characters.

What this means for the Essentials rogue is that you can actually use a greataxe to Backstab, after all - it’s only the Sneak Attack (and probably Weapon Finesse) that won’t work. In practice, you’ll always want to Sneak Attack when possible, even with a measly dagger, but it would be possible to take a massive weapon (a Greatbow at range, or a Fullblade in melee if you are a Strength rogue or have Weapon Training) for backup. Feinting Trick could be a particularly interesting trick for these situations.

More changes

Other tidbits that I have collected from the preview article and forum posts are the following:
- Sneak Attack now works 1/turn instead of 1/round, meaning that rogues can have huge opportunity attacks, as well as becoming a Warlord’s best friend. Designer Mike Mearls has confirmed this as intended and will also apply to non-Essentials rogues, but other classes such as Warlocks and Rangers will NOT be getting a similar treatment.
- Feats and items that provide huge boosts to basic attacks (such as Deft Blade, from Martial Power 2, or Eagle Eye Googles, from Adventurer’s Vault) are being looked at for future errata, as they interact insanely with Essentials classes (as well as Seekers, though nobody cares about those).
- Class features include versions of First Strike (available at level 1) and Weapon Talent (at level 2), presumably granting similar benefits as the features of the same name for conventional rogues.
- Among the new class features are Skill Mastery (gained at level 3), Cunning Escape (level 5), and Combat Readiness (level 9).


Although Essentials rogues look as weird as the new Fighters, they seem a bit cooler to me. This may be in part because the Fighter preview was missing many important features (including the mark punishment), so we don’t really know how it will play out. In the case of the rogue, even though it still isn’t complete, the previewed rules are enough to build a playable character - and it looks like such character could be quite a blast to play. In addition, Rogue Tricks look more interesting than stances, offering variety, mobility, and a few strategic dilemmas. Overall, this is a class I’m looking forward to play.


  1. How does changing sneak attack to 1/turn allow its use on opportunity attacks? OAs always happen outside of your turn.

  2. I think a "round" is the entire round, i.e. every PC and NPC gets to go once per round.

    A "turn" is all the stuff you do when your initiative comes up, or (importantly) you get an Opportunity Action.

    So when a Thief's initiative comes up he takes his TURN and uses Sneak Attack. Then later in the ROUND an NPC moves away from the Thief, so he gets to take an Opportunity Action and on that TURN gets to do Sneak Attack again.

    I think... Can someone confirm?

  3. From the Compendium:

    Turn - On your turn, you take actions: a standard action, a move action, a minor action, and any number of free actions, in any order you wish.

    Round - In a round, every combatant takes a turn. A round represents about 6 seconds in the game world.

    Opportunity Action - Once per Combatant’s Turn: You can take no more than one opportunity action on each other combatant’s turn. You can’t take an opportunity action on your own turn.

  4. So Sneak Attack and Backstab can stack now, giving a total of +3 attack and +3d6 damage once/encounter. This is sort of off-setting the lack of encounter powers... But now that "Thieves" have access to shortbows (and still have access to rapiers) this is actually worse because your trading 2[W] = 2d8 for essentially 1[W] at 1d8 + 1d6 (from Backstab), but you're also getting a +3 to the attack roll, so that...

    Ugh, anyone got any idea how the math works out on that? I don't think I've ever seen a "simplified" mechanic that was so complicated...

  5. Theo - totally agree. While the intent may have been to simplify, they've really just redesigned the core classes - introducing two separate sets of combinatorial effects and creating the need to review the entire system for unintended consequences (like the need to errata items that boost basic attacks).

    While they keep saying this is not a new edition (well, despite one of the guests on the last podcast calling it that) they may have to create a new edition to fix all of the problems and inconsistencies that Essentials creates,

  6. Yeah, this quote:
    "The Essentials consist of 10 key products that will form the baseline experience for the roleplaying game moving forward." (from wizard's article)
    really makes me wonder.

    If you're releasing a set of books/products (10!) that are considered the NEW "baseline", how is that not at least a 4.5 edition? Isn't that primarily what 3.5 did over 3.0, revamp the classes..?

    Personally, I see these as supplement rules like the old "Complete X" books. My group is all local and doesn't have problems with sticking with an edition (we still play the original Deadlands game from Pinnacle). So even if this is "Stealth 4.5" I don't see us jumping from 4.0, just taking the 4.5 stuff that we like.

  7. Essentials feels like, while all existing DnD material is still kosher, it is being made obsolete. I mean, I don't really expect to see anymore content for any of the PHB3 classes, except for some Dragon stuff in the next few months, and obviously Psionic Power.

    Granted, fighters are still fighters, and new features that apply to the new classes tentatively apply to the old classes and whatnot, but still-I feel like psionic classes and, Monks especially (due to Thieves basically just stealing their shtick) ended up getting the short end of the stick by virtue of coming out last.

  8. Well in a way, PHB3 was sort of an "essential preview". It had the new power structure (power points, no dailies) that seems to be the starting point for Essentials. If Essentials is 4.5, then PHB3 might be 4.25.

    The problem is, of course, the monk. Which essentially (heh, saw the irony here on a re-read) used the "old" 4.0 rules (with the full-disciplines added). I'm not quite as pessimistic though. I think if you total up all the cool full-discipline moves a monk can pull off they still come out ahead of Essential Thieves.

  9. Well, after Psionic Power (and, to a lesser degree, Dark Sun), I think psionic classes, and monks in particular, are in pretty good shape. Sure, they kind of share mechanics with thieves, but they both have very different levels of complexity, and Flurry of Blows is a completely different beast from Sneak Attack.

    If there are any classes that suffer from coming out the last (pre Essentials), those are the Seeker and the Runepriest. When are these getting any book support, anytime soon? Not in Heroes of Shadow, that's for sure. That's not so much of a problem for the RP, which is pretty well rounded. The Seeker... not so much.