Game Design: Diving into the Rogue Class

The rogue archetype comes under many names: assassin, mercenary, trapper, thief, underhand, rogue, and others. Chances are if you find yourself designing a character that uses stealth and trickery, attacks with a dagger or shortsword, and is more nimble than your average character: you’ve got yourself a rogue.

Likewise, rogues come in all shapes and sizes. In this document I hope to outline some of the more common facets of a well-designed rogue class and provide some contextual information that should let you decide exactly what functional purpose you want to use your rogue in when it comes to:

  • General game mechanics
  • Team composition
  • Relative power levels

For the sake of not snowballing this article into a million billion pages, I’m going to ignore how rogues can possibly fit into plots, as there’s way more options there than I can possibly include here. Instead, I’ll be talking about the gameplay goals of including a playable rogue for a player, and how you can design that rogue class to accomplish those goals.

General game mechanics

Rogues are a great class for introducing new mechanics and stats that other classes wouldn’t otherwise bring to the surface. Some stats that rogues often introduce are:

  • Agility/Dexterity: This sees many forms, commonly factoring into a character’s damage, attack speed, movement speed, reaction speed, or other time-sensitive factors to battle.
  • Evasion: The ability to sometimes evade incoming attacks entirely, instead of taking some armor-reduced amount of damage.
  • Critical Hits: The ability to sometimes deal a multiplier’s worth of damage, often 2x, 3x, or 4x.
  • Luck: How often a character manages to evade an attack or land a critical hit can be extrapolated from their agility, but also often factors in their luck. Luckier rogues find themselves somehow surviving and dealing tons of damage in battle!

Additionally, the unique theft mechanic rogues afford gives the game designer a chance to expose players to more kinds of item effects on an effectively opt-in basis: a diverse item pool available via stealing allows curious players to explore new kinds of items without overwhelming less-curious players that are content not to steal.

Team composition

You can break down team compositions in a lot of ways, and many of them have been written about far more in-depth elsewhere than I’d be able to go into here. But in general, a “balanced” team composition rides the middle-ground between damage output and survivability, with an optimal component of utility (which can go either way).

Very often, rogues fill the utility role. They may use their stealth to serve as a battle-initiator in real-time games, or they may employ powerful finishing moves, or poison their dagger for a slow death, or stir dust up to keep enemy accuracy/vision down. Whatever they’re doing, it’s often not just straight-up damage, tanking damage, or healing others. It could be — but it’s often not.

You can choose to have your rogue fill a more damage-oriented role in a myriad of ways. Some approaches often lead to combo attacks (multiple attacks in a row, or attacks that get stronger with each subsequent hit) or critical hit strategies, while others lend more towards elemental approaches: poison daggers, fiery arrows from afar, frozen sickles, electric whips and nunchaku that paralyze their target, and so on.

On the other hand, rogues can also fill a more supportive role in the form of various tricks up their sleeve. Generally, supporting roles fall into two categories: proactive (preventing damage initially) and reactive (healing damage already done) — rogues make a lot of sense in the former, but can find their place in the latter as well. Some approaches to proactive support are lowing enemy accuracy (see: “playing dirty”) by throwing dirt or sand, manipulating the shadows, maiming or disabling enemies, distracting enemies, and other forms of trickery.

And, of course, the other skills that can often be seen accompanying rogues are traps. These can accomplish all of the above in an asynchronous manner (setting a trap and moving on) and provide a different kind of playstyle in games that permit it. Traps can be both offensive and defensive (and can be used either way!) and give a much grander presence to an otherwise-singular entity. Instead of wondering who’s lurking in the shadows, your enemies begin to wonder what else might be hiding in wait.

Relative power levels

Depending on your intentions for each of the above, your rogue’s power level relative to other playable characters can go a long way towards hammering a point in, hinting at something to come, or intentionally giving your player options.

Let’s break power levels down into three groups compared to your average character power level:

Your rogue is weaker than average

When a character is “squishy” (easily killed) or generally weak, they often make it up for it in other traits. The glass cannon mage explains this best: magic often affords massive damage — if you can keep your mage alive long enough to cast their spells.

A weaker-than-average rogue often manifests as either a squishy rogue (low HP) or a low-damage rogue. The former is often complemented by some form of evasion, while the latter often comes with a large critical hit multiplier. You may take a lot of damage, but you can luck out of some of that damage altogether. You may not deal a lot of damage, but you can luck into a large amount of damage through a critical hit.

The other way to make up for being weak now is to be extra-strong later (often with the caveat that leveling up will be particularly difficult, since they’re weak now). Such a spike in power can come with stat level curves transitioning from a gradual increase into an asymptotic one, through super-powerful items that only the rogue can use (for example: a dagger that always results in a critical hit), a borderline-abuse in mechanics (for example: raising your evasion stat from a base 10% evasion rate to 90%), or more.

Or perhaps the items you can steal with your rogue are super-valuable, and you need to made a trade-off between keeping him in the back-line (hiding, healing, evading) or up close and personal, stealing valuables from the enemies.

The most important thing about being weaker than average is that a character needs to either make up for that weakness now or later. Otherwise, your players either aren’t going to bother with the character or are going to dislike them the whole time they’re forced to use them.

Your rogue is about as strong as average

On the surface, it sounds like most playable characters should be about as strong as any existing character, right? Well, no — not really. Minor characters and those who only serve the plot can get away with being boring, but, well, are still boring. If you want your rogue to be about as strong as your other characters, you can obviously do that — but here are a few tips and tricks for making them a bit more notable aside from their strength:

  • Use them to introduce a new game mechanic or feature, such as evasion, critical hits, stealth, battle positioning, multiple hits, combos, etc.
  • Take advantage of players not being as interested in them as other characters to use them as a supporting character for someone more meaningful.
  • Emphasize their uniqueness hard. What makes your rogue a rogue? Is it the ability to steal? Can they do something super-unique like throw their items? Can they teleport around? If they’re not going to be crazy-powerful, they need a cool-factor that can pull them through.

Your rogue is stronger than average

For a rogue, this is probably the rarest of the three choices, but comes with its own set of advantages and perks. When a character comes in stronger than your average power level, you have to ask yourself: why?

Some common answers include preparing the player for a hard boss fight, exciting the player, showing them what a higher power level is capable of, or just giving the player a subtle urge to level up the rest of their characters.

Rogues, specifically, have a few traits and themes you can take advantage of if you want your rogue to be stronger than average:

Thievery

If your rogue has the ability to steal items, there’s also the inherent trade-off between attacking or stealing (assuming stealing does no damage). This kind of choice empowers the player to battle how they want to: either using the rogue to finish enemies off quickly, or using their less-powerful allies to whittle them down while the rogue steals items for the group. This can be a powerful tool for persuading players to level up the rest of their team just a little more, so they can comfortably battle one-man-down while the rogue pilfers away.

Betrayal

Rogues aren’t exactly known for being friendly and reliable. Whether he’s a mercenary, a foe-of-a-foe, or just an unknown adventurer offering to help out (for now), there’s always the chance that a character could betray the rest of the party and go off on his own again — or join the enemy. Rogues fit this archetype well, and an abnormally powerful rogue gives the feeling of a double-edged weapon too powerful to handle: take advantage of him/her while you can, because they may just stab you in the back and kill everyone later. Makes for some great tension when you hint or hammer at this idea in dialogue.

Luck

Rogues implicitly (or occasionally explicitly) rely on a stat many other classes don’t: luck. Whether it’s a percent-chance to dodge an attack, or a chance to land a critical hit, rolling the dies always seems to follow rogues.

You can play with this idea in a myriad of ways: a relatively-normal power level can quickly turn powerful when the rogue in question is “feeling lucky”. Providing a temporary boost to their luck (affecting their strength) is a great way to show the character off initially with a huge power level, while allowing for that luck to wear off (or reverse!) later on, bringing them more up to speed with your other characters.

In conclusion…

Rogues are almost always an auto-include in games (right after warrior, mage, and cleric) yet probably see the most variance in implementation. While you can customize any class to fit exactly the goals you want to accomplish by including that class, the important thing in class design is to be cognizant of what effects you’re having on the player and their opinions of the game.

Don’t “just include” any class into your game: be mindful of what it accomplishes and tweak it to be the class you need to nail the gameplay.

An author—of literature and code.

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