Thursday, April 4, 2024

(D&D 3.5) Complete Scoundrel

You know, maybe the true Scoundrels were the friends we made along the way. . . I say, because Complete Scoundrel (Mike McArtor and F. Wesely Schneider) never makes it entirely clear what, exactly, it thinks a "scoundrel" is. Broadly, I think a "scoundrel" (per this book) is supposed to be anyone who is quick-witted, strategic, and sometimes a little bit sneaky. But that really does just describe something like 90% of all D&D characters.

The book must be aware of this, though, because the inspirational media section is all over the place. Like, okay, I'll give you Indiana Jones, but Captain Kirk is a stretch, and Aragorn is a fundamental misread of the character. Then I got into the first chapter and the book starts pitching scoundrels of every alignment and every class and for a second, it annoyed me. I mean, I'm actually kind of intrigued by the idea of a Paladin with scoundrel-ish elements, but, also, there is a definite thematic tension there. Is the Paladin overcoming a scoundrel-y past? Are they using their scoundrel skill to compensate for a deficit of martial strength? Are they slowly losing the plot, re: their holy oath, performing underhanded deeds for the sake of "the greater good?" These are interesting questions, but perhaps they are too interesting for this drive-by treatment and even the Gray Guard prestige class (concept: a Paladin that's allowed to . . . generously interpret their oath for purposes of special operations) seems more like it's trying to substitute class mechanics for a literary theme. In any event, when it started talking about "Lawful Good scoundrels" my knee-jerk reaction was "is it even possible for a character not to be a scoundrel, under this book's definition?"

Eventually, however, I chilled the fuck out and just got on board with the book's jargon. And I'm glad I did, because it's a solid late addition to the game. It's a weird quirk of D&D 3.x that, despite having the most useless niche in the game, the rogue-focused books tend to have the strongest fantasy flavor. I think it comes down to the fact that "highly skilled, but basically mundane, with maybe one or two specific magical abilities" is more or less the quintessential fantasy fiction protagonist. So when you deviate from that ever so slightly, as one might do when designing a prestige class, you wind up with characters and organizations that are ideally suited for complex worldbuilding. The Psibond Agents aren't nearly as powerful as a Telepath Psion, but "what if there were people who could hijack your senses and the strongest of them could subtly nudge you with telepathic suggestions" is a premise that you could base a novel around. And sure, in the balance of the game as a whole, it's kind of a rip-off that skill-based characters have to expend valuable resources to become good at highly specific niche abilities whereas full casters can learn a variety of spells that each have comparable or superior utility (for example, a Psibond Agent needs to be an 11th level character to get Suggestion, but a telepath can get it at level 3 and a bard or wizard can get it at level 5), but when it comes to making good fiction, I really want these more focused magical elements. Give me a neat core ability that explores deeper into its implications as the character grows in power, rather than a grab-bag list of powers that aren't necessarily (or even likely to be) related to each other thematically.

When it comes down to evaluating the book as a whole, I'm torn. The best possible way to play D&D 3.5 is with a party made up of nothing but C-tier classes and if you're doing that, Complete Scoundrel adds a lot. But are you really going to do that? Because if you aren't, then Complete Scoundrel is just a bunch of new C-tier material. The Rod of Ropes is a super cool magic item that shoots grappling hooks and zip lines, but it's never going to compete with the ability to fly. Likewise, skill tricks fill a long-overlooked niche in D&D fantasy by allowing characters with sufficient ranks in a particular skill to access more efficient or effective actions (such as leaping off a horse and attacking an enemy on the way down), but the chosen power level - slightly weaker than feats with similar prerequisites - is the opposite of what it should be. There really needs to be more support for martial characters evolving into "peak human" superheroes at high levels, and Complete Scoundrel never quite gets there.

I guess my approach to these kinds of books is to view them as transitional fossils. We're less than a year and a half away from 4th edition at this point, the new mechanics are probably in a late stage of development, 3.5 is reaching the end of its lifespan, and that is the context for Complete Scoundrel. In that context, what's most interesting to me is how little 4e actually wound up in this book. I know it's theoretically possible, because Book of Nine Swords has been out for awhile, but it looks like maybe that was a one-off. We get references to the Spellthief and the Beguiler, but not the Swordsage. A real pity. What that says to me, though, is that this is a dying branch of the game. More 3.5 after 3.5 as a whole became moribund.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite read that way. There's no real sense of throwing caution to the wind. If I didn't know better, I'd say they were planning on continuing 3.x support for another decade, at least. But if we don't get the wild experimentation of people with nothing left to lose, at least we don't also get a half-assed effort from people who've given up hope. I think the Cloaked Dancer, Master of Masks, Mountebank, and Malconvoker (a demon summoner who's deluded into thinking they can be harnessed to serve the cause of good) are great additions to the game. Likewise, many of the magic items and legendary locations would make for great loot (though maybe only the Frog God's Fane and Iron Wyrm Vault could anchor an adventure by themselves . . . and possibly also the Highest Spire, if you fleshed out the pre-competition intrigue and trash talking). 

Overall, I'd say that Complete Scoundrel is a mature D&D 3.5 supplement, with setting flavor and game mechanics done as well as 3.5 ever did. I'll leave it to you to decide whether that's a recommendation or not.

Which just leaves us with one last order of business - surprise Planescape content!

Yep, one of Sigil's factions makes it into the book as a "scoundrel organization." It's kind of a shock, because as far as I know, this is an isolated incident. None of the other "Complete" books have gone into Planescape lore. And certainly, of the scattered references that pop up from time to time, I've not yet seen a recap of Faction War. So it's very clearly an intentional and loving callback to a classic campaign setting.

And yet, the faction they chose to bring back was The Free League, aka the Indeps aka the "none of the above" faction. Their leadership has been banished to an extradimensional maze, they have fled the city of Sigil, and now they are headquartered in the Outlands where they advance the cause of freedom by . . . not doing much at all, really. They are such big believers in freedom that they have no dues, no resources, no operations, no leadership, and no responsibilities. To join, you simply start wearing their symbol and maybe you, I don't know, oppose tyranny or something, when the opportunity presents itself, and maybe some shopkeepers will see your symbol and give you a discount or feed you rumors. 

I don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, here. I'm really, genuinely glad that someone is keeping the torch burning on one my favorite rpg settings (seriously, all the shit-talking I've done about it comes from a place of love), but why these guys, in particular? The only thing that ever kept them together was their self-appointed role as Sigil's defiant political outsiders. It was a running joke. They were the faction that was in denial about being a faction. Take Sigil and the other factions away from them and what's left?

Not much, as it turns out. I guess it was good to see them, but it was the rpg equivalent to running into one of your brother's high-school friends at the supermarket. You vaguely remember having roughly positive interactions with them, and then at some point you'll squint and say, "hey, didn't I play D&D with you that one time?"

Ukss Contribution: This book does one thing that I absolutely adore and wish more rpg supplements would do - it illustrates its concepts and mechanics through these delightful minifictions. Hey, they're talking about a thieves' guild, let's take a peek at one of the guild's secret correspondences. My favorite appears early on. A king is being manipulated by his (dare I say) scoundrel of an advisor - "a cat-sized dragonling."

ZOMG! Sooo cuute! I want one so bad!

Ahem. In any event, there will be some nation of Ukss where the power behind the throne is an unnaturally cunning baby dragon.

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