Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of what you can do, it’s all about class. Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, a character’s class picks up where their backstory leaves off, giving them the skills and abilities they’ll use on their life of adventure.
Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in this “Playing D&D with class” is the usual musings that accompany any topic and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in D&D 5E.
As a longtime player and DM, i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization, and when it comes to making characters i’m a purist – multi-class characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what.
The ultimate dungeon delver
As one of the core four classes in D&D, along with the fighter, cleric and wizard, the rogue as it’s called today fills the spot not covered by the other three. A scout, stealth master and surprise striker, a rogue is the character you want watching your back. With their focus on a variety of skills, the rogue is one of the most versatile classes in D&D and in 5E is certainly one of the most popular as well.
The thief’s first appearance in D&D
Originally a fan creation, the thief as initially presented in 1975’s Greyhawk supplement quickly became a favorite class. The suite of special skills that a thief brought to the table – climbing walls, picking locks, disarming traps, hiding in the shadows, moving silently, picking pockets, listening (??) and striking unaware enemies for extra damage – were all activities that players found invaluable. In those earlier days of D&D, gameplay was centered around dungeon delving, with DMs creating dangerous labyrinths for players to defeat rather than elaborate sprawling sagas for characters to take part in.
To that end, i imagine there had to be a fair number of players who were put off by the thief. After all, why couldn’t their fighting-men and magic-users engage in those same activities? Wouldn’t it behoove any of them to be sneaky, ambush the bad guys and unlock those treasure chests? Codifying the rules for those and handing them off to the thief might have felt like to players like their non-thief characters had diminished abilities.
On the other hand, having a thief in your party meant the other classes could focus on what they did best, leaving the thief to become the master of his own responsibilities in the dungeon. The original thieves were very, very squishy, without the clutch evasion ability and other defenses they’re known for today.
By the time AD&D came around, thieves were solidly in the mix with other classes, expanding their versatility by allowing characters of any race to pursue the class without a level limit. They also gained a subclass of their own, the thief-acrobat introduced in Dragon Magazine #69 and officially added in 1985’s Unearthed Arcana.
The thief-acrobat began here. Since the advent of straight-up skills in D&D this class became superfluous
In 2nd edition AD&D, the thief became a subclass of a sort under the Rogue group, along with bards. Thematically, thieves retained their identity as robbers but added the notion of being treasure hunters and skill specialists, moving away from being considered straight-up criminals.
When 3rd edition rolled around, the “thief” was left behind for good, solidly becoming the rogue class. As such, they reflected their place in the D&D class pantheon as masters of skills. Gaining their signature evasion ability, rogues became an excellent “dip” class, with many character builds benefitting greatly by a two-level jaunt in the rogue class for a ton of skill points and that sweet, sweet evasion.
D&D 4E, with its focus on tactical grid-based combat, gave the rogue a ton of mobility to get around the battlefield and strike at key targets, along with defining some of their flavor options as swashbucklers and brutal thugs.
Now, in 5E, the rogue is firmly cemented in D&D gameplay. Many people consider the 5E rogue one of the most balanced and well-designed classes in the edition, with a solid core of abilities and terrific archetypes to choose from like the classic thief, assassin and arcane trickster. Adding to those already excellent choices are two more from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide: the mastermind and the swashbuckler.
Everyone loves a rogue
As a testament to 5E’s design, it’s pretty difficult to make a bad character of any class. Math and mechanics aside, i’m not just talking about optimization here – even characters without really high stats and with unusual combinations of backgrounds, races, classes and skills can still be effective and fun to play.
The rogue in particular benefits from 5E design because they have no resource management to worry about and all of their core abilities are passive bonuses. Even for the things that require a roll based on an ability score, because of 5E’s bounded accuracy (i.e. flat math) a lower ability score won’t have a too terribly adverse effect.
Interestingly, many of the rogue’s areas of expertise in previous editions are not their sole purview in 5E. Mobility, stealth – even picking locks – are no longer rogue-only activities. Anyone with a set of thieves’ tools can attempt to pick a lock. Proficiency with said tools makes the task easier, and rogues by default have proficiency. But! There are several other ways for nonrogues to become proficient with thieves tools.
Basically, what 5E rogues offer is skill in a broad array of areas, expertise in a narrow selection of skills and an overall canny character that can get around quickly and easily, with several unique defenses that make up for their squishiness compared to classes like fighters and other physical combatants.
So why does everyone love a rogue? Rogues as a base represent a certain relatability for players, akin in many ways to fighters. They don’t rely on magic, supernatural connections, spiritual fortitude or otherworldly influence, nor do they have a limited pool of resources like spell slots, rage or ki. Instead they rely on the same sort of training and discipline that a real-life person could achieve. Rogues are dashing adventurers who represent a gamut from the best to the worst that a person can achieve through cunning, guile and skill.
Any sort of character concept can be fulfilled by the rogue, because when it comes right down to it, the rogue is simply synonymous with skill experts. Taking backgrounds into account, a rogue could just as easily be an acolyte, folk hero, hermit or sage as a criminal, charlatan, entertainer or pirate.
A rogue can rely on strength or dexterity for fighting, and avoid direct combat altogether and instead bolster their allies – something the mastermind archetype in particular excels at. They can bend their will towards arcane magic, focus on thiefy skills or concentrate on deadly attacks.
Looking for inspiration
There are countless fictional characters that showcase the versatility of rogues to inspire your D&D characters. The Gray Mouser comes to mind immediately as an arcane trickster, as does Bilbo Baggins as a thief. Solid Snake is definitely a rogue assassin. Inara from Firefly is very mastermind-y.
One of my favorite characters that i’ve played was Zorax the neutral half-orc rogue assassin, very clearly a rip-off of Zarak the Evil Half-orc Assassin.
Everyone in the party advised me away from the assassin archetype and often urged me to use a weapon other than a dagger (rapiers being the obvious suggestion). But i stuck to my guns…or knives in this case. With an urchin background and a story that involved being on the downlow after being set-up by his gang leader (or sort of evil Fagin who led a gang of adolescent thieves), Zarak evolved from a brutal, greedy thug to…a brutal, greedy thug with a conscience, loyalty to his adventuring company the Red Larch Irregulars, and his own version of a soft spot for unfortunate children.
Come to think of it, my very first D&D character ever was a thief named Zorax, too, way back in the mid-80s when i started playing D&D. That never occurred to me! That iteration of Zorax was an elf IIRC who spent his days adventuring with Mordecai the fighter. The pair of them made a great team, with Mordecai tanking and Zorax flanking, while both of them shared the spotlight when it came to talking with NPCs, exploring dungeons and investigating plots, intrigues and situations they became involved with. i only have a few solid memories of the character. One is a dramatic showdown fight on some docks in the rain against a dark elf assassin. Another is he and Mordecai traveling to the Nine Hells, where all the devil lords were having a meeting and we fought all of them. Lastly, after the Immortals Rules were released, Zorax and Mordecai entered the realm of superheroism. The Nine Hells incident may have coincided with that; my memories are pretty fuzzy.
Back on track though, a starting point for imagining a rogue character is anyone who relies primarily on skills and savvy to succeed. Going from there, your rogue can work towards and evolve in so many different directions as to how you want to fight, explore and interact with your game world.
Roles not rolls
As with any class in D&D, the best advice i can offer is to set mechanical concerns aside and instead focus on creating memorable characters. Unusual race, class and background combinations are just as viable as character built to take advantage of every stat and ability. What you’re giving up from category A only means you’ll be stronger at something in category B or C.
D&D gives players a chance to create the kind of game they want to play, using as many or as few of the rules as those gathered at the table wish. At the core, it is a group-centered game and your characters come to life as individuals working with others to achieve their goals, so what works in one group might not be optimal in another, and that’s something number crunchers might overlook.
For the rogue class, high Dexterity and Intelligence and sneak attacking from the shadow is a perfectly excellent way to play a rogue. But don’t rule out the countless other ways to bring your rogue to life. A thief might rely more on Strength and athleticism to traverse crumbling ruins or scale a tower to reach the treasure inside. An assassin might use Charisma and disguises to infiltrate and gather intel. An arcane trickster can be the party’s scout and battlefield controller, relying on their Intelligence and magic to charm opponents and create distractions. A goliath can be a brutal striker, and a dwarf might be a crossbow-wielding master of locks, traps and gadgetry.
The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, give the rogue a try. At their core, rogues are nimble and mobile, utilizing a smattering of skills with expertise in a few to overcome all sorts of challenges. No matter what path you choose, a rogue is going to shine when their expertise is needed, be difficult for enemies to pin down and offer a wide variety of options for players to explore as they progress in level.
Consider the role your rogue will play, how their background and skills combine to make them a unique individual in the game world. Will they become a hero of the people? A criminal with a heart of gold? An elite operative? An expert in their field? Like any character, your rogue comes to the table with a story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be written.