Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Scoundrel, Part 1

So, let's see if we can get back into figuring out this thief/rogue/trickster class, shall we? From delving into discussions about thieves from the past, and my last post about objections to thieves, I think I've got six objections to a thief class. Thanks to Talysman, Dan, J.D., 1d30, and Theodoric for commenting on that post and helping me figure things out some more.  If I'm going to consider myself successful in crafting a new thiefly class, I'm going to have to address these six objections:
  1. Thieves don't have an established archetype like the other classes do. All the characters, whatever their class, are thieves, or at least "rogues."
  2. Thieves make it so that other classes can't do what they do. Before Thieves came along, all the characters had to pull their weight doing thiefly things like disarming traps and picking locks and pockets.
  3. Thieves encourage skill systems and skill systems are (or at least can easily be) bad.
  4. Thieves are more likely to fail at their special skills than other character classes.
  5. Thieves can infringe on the proper role of fighting men.
  6. Thieves encourage conflict within the party by stealing from other PCs.
I'm going to address the first objection in this post.

I'm thinking of two ways to establish an archetype. The first is to point out a bunch of cool, iconic examples and see if they all roughly seem to "fit." Here goes:
  • Cugel the Clever
  • The Gray Mouser
  • Bilbo Baggins
  • Han Solo
  • Anansi the Spider
  • Coyote
  • Reynard the Fox
  • Puss-in-Boots
  • Tom Sawyer
My lack of familiarity with Appendix N material is showing here, so other examples, especially from Appendix N, would be appreciated in the comments. I do think that this short list is enough to establish some kind of unifying, underlying idea that establishes an archetype. I agree with multiple people, though, that the name for this archetype really shouldn't be "thief." Thief is too specific a term for what this archetype is. Yes, examples of this archetype steal, but that's certainly not all they do. I'm not really happy with some of the other names that have come up as alternatives: specialist, rogue, trickster… I can see why these are all good names, but they just aren't as… evocative as I want. So, taking a cue from Han Solo, I think I'll name my new class the "Scoundrel". It evokes ideas like being out for one's self, twisting the rules, using trickery, etc., that I want someone who plays a scoundrel to immediately understand.

Talysman gave me a great second way to think about classes and archetypes when he commented:
I express archetypes as "I solve problems by ____". You can theoretically be any profession, but still be recognizable as a Fighter (solve problems by fighting back) or a Magic-User (solve problems by using magic.) 
So, how do thieves solve problems? I'm inclined to say they solve problems by their wits. For example:

  • When Cugel wants a wizard's collection of magic items, he tricks him into breaking his sword right before he's set upon by multiple attackers avenging their friend's death. When the wizard is cut to pieces, Cugel nonchalantly picks up the wizard's bag with said magic items and walks away.
  • When Cugel wants a private room in the inn, but the one private room is occupied, Cugel lures the occupant to an out-building and locks him inside it, and then takes the room for himself.
  • When Han Solo is being chased by an Imperial fleet, he locks the Millennium Falcon to the hull of the flagship so that it can't be detected, then lets go when they dump their trash before jumping into hyperspace.
  • When the Millennium Falcon is being searched on the Death Star, Han hides everyone in the secret compartments he uses for smuggling.
  • When Puss-in-Boots wants a giant's castle for his master, he tricks the giant into turning himself into a mouse and then eats him, freeing the castle up for his master.
  • When Tom Sawyer doesn't want to whitewash a fence, he tricks other boys into paying him for the privilege of whitewashing the fence for him.
There is some stealing in these examples, but, even when there is, that isn't the whole story. Stealing is only a part of the character using his wits to get what he wants. This supports the idea that "thief" is too specific a term for this archetype or class, and supports the idea that this archetype can be seen as solving problems with their wits.

Now, does this mean that they don't solve problems with violence? By no means! But it's not their first resort and they tend to use violence in underhanded ways. When Han is held at gunpoint by Greedo, he tries to talk Greedo out of taking him to Jabba, Han shoots him from under the table (and first). When Puss wants to take the giant's castle, he tricks him into becoming a mouse before he attacks him. Cugel gets others to kill the wizard for him. Scoundrels aren't unwilling to use violence, but they know that they stand a good chance of getting hurt or killed whenever violence is used so they avoid it when they can and stack the deck in their favor when they can't. This will be important later when we talk about the relationship between Scoundrels and Fighting men. 

So, I think this pretty firmly establishes that, while all the character classes in DnD are, on some level, thieves and grave-robbers, not all of them are Scoundrels because Scoundrels rely first on their wits to solve problems, not violence or magic, though Scoundrels won't hesitate to include violence, magic and thievery into their solutions to problems.

Next time I'll try to address the problem of Scoundrels taking roles away from other PCs.


  1. I think all your points are valid, but I still don't like scoundrel as a name. To me, that would be like calling fighters murderers, magic-users black magicians, and clerics zealots. All of those names are true to some degree to what they do, but bias the character as a knave or all around wicked person. And what about characters like Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, James Bond (and pretty much every other spy protagonist), or even Batman (though a good case for fighter could be made there, given how he solves problems). All of those characters would probably be of the thief class if inserted into a D&D world.

    Rogue is still perhaps the best name linguistically, I think. The only problem is that it has been tainted by association with the backstabbing assassin striker type of class from 4E and WoW (which by our standards would almost certainly be better represented as a fighter).

  2. Interesting. I actually chose the name "scoundrel" because I thought it carried a less "bad" or villainous vibe than "rogue." When I hear "scoundrel," I think of Han Solo, who's not wicked, but also not clean-cut, like, say, Luke is.

    The thing, is, of course, that different words carry different connotations for different people. While "scoundrel" connotes a certain mischievousness and roughness around the edges to me, but not necessarily a real wickedness, it does seem to connote wickedness to you. On the other hand, "rogue" seems to be more complementary from your point of view than it is from mine. Connotations, and language in general, can be tricky that way.