After finishing up the Gamma World Campaign, Jamie volunteered to DM our next game and we were all pretty interested in testing out the DND Basic rules for Fifth Edition. So, she asked us to make characters using the 4D6 method. In looking at the Rogue, I’m inspired to play classes that I’ve never really done before. I’ll make a case here as to why I think all of the classes in this version, but especially the Rogue, are more balanced between each other than ever before.
So, here it is. I’ll give my impressions of DND Fifth character creation and the classes below it.
What really struck me with building a character in this edition is that every class appears to actually be useful, mechanically. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t try to pull a rabbit out of my hat every chance that I get. No mechanic tells me that I can grab a robot and swing it around like a flail or try to convince a mayor to aide us in a critical time. Still, the history of DND has been one of being forced to have either creative options, or combat savviness.
The rogue class has always suffered in DND as being the skill-focused class. The one where you were absolutely awesome at hiding and sneaking and stealing! But, asked to aide your comrades in a desperate battle against an army of Bugbears and you might as well not even be there. You just couldn’t do enough damage to justify your presence. Even with your sneak attack, which, historically, required you to get to places where you were vulnerable. I know, I know, this is an ironic argument coming from me, Mr. Role-playing, Not Roll-Playing. But let’s look at this from the bigger picture.
I’ve long believed that the only way the role–playing hobby stays solvent is if we train new role-players to be actual role-players, not roll-players. People can do what they want and I’m not trying to take freedom of choice from anyone. But when new players start, they often begin by defining what role-playing is by their perceived capabilities in the game. They have to start somewhere. Do you remember what it was like to be a new role-player? Do you remember what it was like to start playing a new type of RPG? You have to figure out how the game “works” and what the expectations are of you as a player. What can you do? What can’t you do? A good Dungeon Master and supportive group members will help you along the way, to be sure, but to some extent you have to figure these things out on your own. And where do you turn? Why, the character sheet in front of you.
Now, you’re no dummy. You look at that sheet and you say to yourself: “Damn, the rogue is great at being sneaky and stealing things and picking locks. Cool. I’m not in any place where I can do any of those things. I’m in a natural cave hunting a mythical beast. So, I guess since I can’t do any of that stuff, I’ll just help the party in combat until we get back to a city.” You’re attacked by a giant bat! So, like a dutiful party member, you leap through the air and stab the thing! For 2 damage. Woo. Talk about underwhelming. “I’m having fun with my friends. But this beast has like 100 hit points. So, although this character sounds awesome in concept, when I actually get it on the ground, it is completely ineffective. I get no rush from playing this character because they haven’t really done anything significant to help the group. So, I’m not going to select this class anymore.”
So, what do we, as a gaming culture, do with the rogue? Well, nothing. Unless you’re in a city-focused campaign or a min-maxer who is capable of finding the broken combos, there isn’t much you can do. Fourth edition didn’t do anything to improve the situation. It was well meaning. But it just fell totally flat. Fourth was the game of “square shifting” mechanics and the rogue was awesome at it. And, it just happens, at low level, this meant the rogue went from moving and pinging something for two damage, to moving, pinging something for two damage, and then moving again! Holy crap! Amazing! No, it really isn’t. It didn’t change the fact that the rogue was woefully ineffective in combat when run by an inexperienced player. And like the rest of us, the rogue became the least favorite class of new players. In the desperate hope of creating a mythical “balance” in the game, it meant that the designers purposely made some classes ineffective in combat and, therefore, boring to play except by the most forgiving, die hard player.
I have to hand it to the designers of Fifth Edition. They seem to understand the concept that class variety cannot mean that options is not synonymous with strength. In other words, what sets classes apart from other classes cannot be a difference in raw power. Here’s a crazy idea: What if we levelled the playing field and made every class potentially effective in combat? What if what separated one class from another was slight variations in skills, but any class could still be useful in combat?
The change was actually pretty simple. Most importantly, all classes have identical base proficiency modifiers for skills and attacking. Your level determines your proficiency, not your class. All characters, regardless of class, add a damage bonus according to their primary ability. Your class gives you options, not power. It also happens to greatly simplify character creation. Less numbers means that you can spend your thinking time being creative, not adding numbers.
For the rogue, specifically, Fifth edition also introduces the concept of “finesse” weapons that allow you to choose whether you use your strength or dexterity modifiers on attack and damage roles. In the past, rogue players were forced to choose between having a high strength and actually doing damage in combat or to have high dexterity and be great with their skills and defense. Unless you min-maxed your abilities, the rogue class always had an internal fight between strength and dexterity. You couldn’t have your cake and eat it too, so players felt confident min-maxing their way to success. Otherwise the rogue just wasn’t worth playing.
Now you can do both. We see this with Wizards as well. Spell slots are back, but those spells really pack a wallop, making the Wizard the powerful character that many a grognard has “feared” the entire time they’ve played DND. The inherent balance is that you can only do that a few times and you really have to pick how you use it.
Looking at Mordun Overland above, I’ve managed to very easily create both a skill- and combat- effective rogue. Since my rogue is using finesse weapons, I can choose Dex as my primary attack and damage modifier. This rogue, for first level, should be an effective damage dealer. Sneak attack becomes icing on the cake. As an experienced player, my focus shifts from “how can I avoid being an ineffective party liability in combat” to “how can I extend my martial prowess through nifty story-defining creative choices?” Its a subtle difference, but an important one.
Note the personality, flaws, goals and bond on the right side of the character sheet. The first two are options suggested in the rules. The bond and flaw “choices” for criminal didn’t really match what I have in mind for this character so I wrote two unique ones on my own. Sometimes we just want to have blanks to fill in. As a teacher, I’m not big on the concept of “worksheets” and I use them all of never in my classroom. But I do ask my students many guiding questions and provide them page spaces to write about them. Fewer great questions rules the day. This isn’t about responsibility and seat work. Its not about going through the hoops. Its about what is best to construct understanding. When we’re learning and exploring we sometimes need concrete markers that will allow us to spark our thinking on a topic. I like that Fifth explicitly provides these markers. That is all a veteran player needs to run with a character and its a great training tool for new players to allow them to begin to learn what great story-telling really is: living characters that are forced to react to extraordinary situations.
Before I conclude, I wanted to update my impressions of the Cleric. I expressed concern earlier that the Cleric might suffer from lack of creativity due to being forced to always be the dedicated healer and not having any variety in its spell load out. In other words, a healer forced to fill all spell slots with healing spells may be socially shunned by a (poor) group for not playing the character “correctly.” That, in of itself is a whole other can of worms that deserves an article. After closer examination of the Domain concept, it appears that the Cleric will have dedicated healing spells beyond the normal ones they can cast, at least assuming you pick the Life domain. So, it has been thought through and addressed at least partly. A good GM should give a party healer the option to be creative with their spell loadout, even if the rules don’t explicitly state that. It makes sense that the Life Domain would be highlighted in the free Basic rules for people new to the game.
So, I’m excited to playtest the Basic rules on August 1st and beyond and I’m eagerly anticipating the release of the PHB!