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The Wisdom 8 Rogue

In his August 6th D&D Next article, Mike Mearls indicated that WotC had received some feedback regarding the rogue class and it’s ability to find traps. Some people felt it was silly for the cleric to have a better chance of finding traps than the rogue, simply because the cleric had a higher Wisdom score. WotC’s solution was to create a rule that allows rogue players to use the higher of either a +3 or their ability score modifier when using a skill in which the rogue is trained.

This is an absolutely terrible idea.

The problem:
Other people than me have pointed this out, but this “solution” effectively gives the rogue a score of 16 to 17 in any ability score related to a skill in which the character is trained. We don’t yet fully know how skills are going to work in D&D Next, but this seems like it would be horribly abusable. A character with a Charisma of 8 (-1 modifier) but with training in the Bluff skill would always get a +6 bonus on their Bluff attempts (+3 for the special rogue bonus and +3 for skill training). That’s just as good as a bard with a Charisma of 17 and training in the Bluff skill. Is that really fair? On top of which, the rogue still has another 17+ ability score (since Wisdom was their dump stat) allowing them to be good in another area (probably Dexterity) whereas the bard does not. This rule allows the rogue to ignore any penalties associated with a low ability score when using a skill, so long as they are trained in that skill. This does not seem fair to me at all. Another person noted that multi-class rogues wold be horribly broken, as the multi-class character would possibly now have two sets of skills they were trained in, meaning they would essentially have three, four, or even five ability scores of 16 to 17 for certain tasks depending on what skills they are trained in. This, of course, assumes that multi-class rogues will receive this special ability, which they very well may not. But even if they don’t, it still means WotC will have to specifically call attention to this fact, adding another condition to the multi-classing rules.

It is certainly true that people with a low natural talent for something can become quite competent at that thing with enough training and practice. Someone with poor balance can train for years and, with a lot of hard work, possibly become a great acrobat. Someone who is tone-deaf can, eventually, learn to play an instrument pretty well. If I really put my mind to it, I could, eventually, learn Japanese (I’m simply too lazy to actually do it). But someone with a higher natural talent in something is almost always going to be better at that thing than someone with a lower natural talent. Probably even regardless of how much training the person with low natural talent has received. The words “prodigy” and “phenom” come to mind here. We tend to make big deals out of people who are born with a natural aptitude for something, especially if it’s in an area that normally requires years of training or practice for “regular” people to master. So why should role playing games be any different? Allow characters with a high natural talent (high ability score) to be as good, or even better than characters with a low natural talent (low ability score), even if they have lots of training.

Additionally, the WotC solution does not represent the extensive amount of training a person would need to overcome that low natural talent in order to master a skill. In D&D 3.x and Pathfinder this training is represented by the skill ranks gained at every level increase and feats that gave bonuses to specific skill checks. D&D 4e gave all skills an increase as a character gained in levels, and also had class features and feats that granted training bonuses on specific skill checks. All of these things required some sort of investment on the player’s part, whether it was simply the time required to gain another level or the expenditure of a feat slot. It forced a player to “put in the time” before getting the benefit of the training. Allowing the rogue to choose between the higher of a +3 bonus or an ability score modifier right from the get go doesn’t represent an adequate investment of training time, in my opinion.

Some solutions:
First and easiest, simply don’t min/max your character. It’s pretty clear in the D&D Next playtest packet that Wisdom is the attribute tied to perception and awareness. So don’t give your rogue a low Wisdom score and then complain when a character with a higher Wisdom score is able to spot traps and secret doors better than you can. You’re asking for the best of both worlds and trying to ignore the penalties that arise from using a dump stat. This is the same as complaining how a fighter with a low Strength will do less damage with a hit, or how a wizard with a low Intelligence will know fewer spells. In other words, it’s utterly ridiculous. Besides, a rogue who is terrible at spotting traps could be an interesting and fun character to play. Raise your hand if you remember a famous “thief” named Bilbo Baggins.

For a more mechanical solution, WotC could decouple ability scores and skills. Rather than having certain skills always linked to certain abilities, allow the player to mix and match the two based on their character and the situation. Several systems already do this, most notably the new World of Darkness. There are suggested “default” attribute and skill combinations that get used fairly often, but players are allowed to use alternate skills if it makes sense for the given situation. For example, Wits plus Investigation is the default attribute/skill combination when looking for clues at a crime scene. But a player could ask to use Wits plus their Firearms skill to try and determine where a shooter might have been standing or what caliber of gun would leave a specific type of powder burn. Manipulation plus Persuasion is the default default attribute/skill combination to influence someone, but a player could ask to use Manipulation plus their Science: Chemistry skill in an attempt to influence a noted chemist they were interacting with.

In conclusion:
There’s no reason why you couldn’t try this in any game system that combines attributes and skills to give you a die roll bonus or a dice pool number. Allowing attributes and skills to be mixed and matched as the situation allows reward players for thinking creatively and gives mechanical support to aspects of their character concept that might otherwise have been missing. I was excited to see the stripped down, free form skill lists and the broad-based ability check mechanic in the first round of the public D&D Next playtest. I thought it would be a great opportunity for WotC to really inject some player-driven creativity into the D&D Next rule system. I’m less hopeful now, though I still have my fingers crossed.

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HyveMynd is a Philly native who's been living in Osaka, Japan since late 2005. When he's not sitting in front of a PC at work, he's sitting in front of a PC at home banging out notes for yet another homebrew RPG system that will most likely never see the light of day.

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6 Responses to "The Wisdom 8 Rogue"

  1. shortymonsterNo Gravatar says:

    Your first solution point is the most salient, but I would just like to add my own opinion if I may. Systems that allow for in-maxing, and this case, seem to actively encourage it, get what they deserve in the way of players.

    Now a lot of systems are open to this kind of abuse, but a player will have to go all out and a decent GM would know how to stamp down hard on it. That’s not the same as opening a bloody big loophole and watching the Munchkins go prancing through it. If someone wants to make a rogue who can’t spot traps, then sod them. They should still be expected to by the rest of the party, and a couple of critical failures attempting it should serve as a reminder why gamers shouldn’t min/max.

    *rant mode deactivated*

    1. JackNo Gravatar says:

      I don’t think this is just about min-maxing, though. A properly-built Cleric will be better at spotting traps than a properly built rogue, because Wisdom is the Cleric’s key stat, and is 2nd or 3rd for a Rogue (who, depending on your goals, needs Dexterity, Charisma, or Intelligence before Wisdom). The Cleric gets a 17 in Wisdom but the Rogue is designed to have other priorities.

      This was less of a problem in 3.X or 4E, but it WAS still there. It’s a much bigger issue in 5E because they’re trying to abolish the Skills system (as we know it), and that’s the mechanism 3rd and 4th had to smooth over to inherent flaw.

      1. HyveMyndNo Gravatar says:

        Thanks for the comments, guys. One of my issues with Dungeons & Dragons in general is the assumption that parties need to consist of certain types of characters that need to be built in a certain way. Shortymonster‘s comment of “they should still be expected to by the rest of the party” and Jack‘s comment of “a properly-built Cleric” reminded me of that.

        The idea that players are expected to build their character a certain way and then have them act a certain way in game simply because of the class they chose rubs me the wrong way. That being said, something about the class must have appealed to the player in the first place or else they would have chosen something else. On the other hand, if the game is designed with the expectation that specific roles must always be filled (Defender, Striker, Controller, and Leader for example) and that a group is somehow incomplete if some of those roles are missing, you run into a problem. Players feel pressured to select classes and options not because those choices are fun or fit the character concept, but because the group needs those areas covered. In my opinion, anything done because you have to do it ceases to be fun.

        “Well, someone needs to multi-class into something with healing or else we’re screwed.”
        “Who’s going to take the ‘skill monkey’ role this time?”
        “We need a tank to absorb damage since everyone else is squishy.”
        Screw that.

        Forcing players to change their character concept because of mechanical considerations really bugs me. I have no problem changing my concept due to fictional considerations or to accommodate the ideas of the other players at the table. But if the game mechanics are going to dictate the types and build of the characters in my group, then why allow me to build my character at all? Just give me the “properly” built characters that make up a “proper” group and stop trying to tell me that “I can play anything I want”.

        1. JackNo Gravatar says:

          Actually, my point was supposed to be right in line with what HyveMynd said — maybe I should have said “intuitively-built” instead of “properly-built”? Either way, if the game is going to promise that rogues are the trap-finders, the mechanics need to back that up; what people are pointing out is that 5e mechanics don’t do this because the rogue’s trapfinding is naturally trumped by the cleric’s trapfinding.
          And it’s an issue not because rogues want to dump Wisdom but because, mechanically, more of a rogue’s abilities depend on Dex and more of a cleric’s abilities depend on Wis. So *unless* you meta (and sometimes even if you do meta), the cleric will be naturally better a trapfinding, and the guy who chose rogue (in part) because he wants to be That Guy will be disappointed when the cleric is always better at it.

  2. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:

    I could see a feature allowing them to use the +3 instead of their stat on one or two of their trained skills. This would reduce the other problems without making them too min-maxed. I could see a thief that’s gullible and not too perceptive, but can spot a trap with uncanny accuracy.

  3. […] shouldn’t dictate how many magic items they can use at once. Just as players complained that Rogues should always be good at spotting traps despite having a low Wisdom score, I can see players wanting to […]

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