Ah, the Rogue. Such a misunderstood character class or archetype if you use a classless system. A lot of the issues with the Rogue is it's such a WIDE concept to capture. At it's baseline you have the OD&D thief, but it can spin up into high concepts like Han Solo (pilot/rogue) or Solid Snake (Fighter/Spy/Rogue) characters. And what skill sets do Rogues exactly get? Social? Sneaky? Assassination? Breaking & Entering? Finesse Combat? What mix is valid?
Well the answer is YES! and "Depends on the setting". And that's where the real issue with the Rogue pops up. They are a Chameleon class. What is that? It's the one class above all others that adapts to the setting and rule set. This is because so much of what the Rogue does is dependant on how the game engine and setting tropes interact. Let me give you a few examples-
Shadowrun - The Face, Decker, Security Rigger, Technomancer, Stealth Ops. Seeing as how one of Shadowrun's BIG THINGS is Heist missions, it doesn't surprise me the game offers the most options for rogue-like characters. Shadowrun is way up in my "TAKE" style game play featuring a weird mix of covert action, sneaky skill use, and deadlier combat options.
GURPS - A Rogue style character in GURPS tends to be a skill monkey. High IQ and DX helps with off setting the massive dump of points into all sorts of breaking and entering skills, logistics, bluff and fast talk. And lets not forget the urgent need of allies and contacts.
D&D - Oh boy...this is half of the reason why people get confused about Rogues. There has been SO MANY types. Early on the Rogue was basically a Thief with specific % rolls on thief actions. 3E Rogues were sneaky combat machines who specialised in skills over a lot of other features. 4E rogues were light armored skirmishers who specialized in set-up tactics. And well, there are countless variants. D&D's idea of the rogue has been his huge ugly mess...but we'll get to that. Hell, the Bard qualifies as a Rogue thanks to edition nonsense.
Numenera - The Jacks of the settings are basically Rogues. Except they also are part Fighter (Glaive) and part Wizard/Cleric (Nano). To add to the confusion they get unique speed based attack options that neither of the other 2 classes in Numenera get. To fit into the setting they stand in between the two pillars of the setting and get little things to make them unique like crafting and disabling attack options.
The list goes on but notice how the Rogues mutate based on the setting and options the game engine offers them? I thought about what exactly Rogues do. This is how I came up wit the idea of "Take" game play from my earlier BIG 4 post. But let's break it down into easy to follow career paths. These are just rough central focuses of Rogues I've picked up on over the years.
Face Man - People specialist. They focus on social systems in games, exploiting character mental weaknesses. The catch with this build is a LOT of it is NPC/GM dependant. If the GM is only handing you hard line militant foes that always seem to see past your ruse, then this variant is NOT fun to play.
Breaking & Entering Expert - Maxed out skills versus traps, security systems, this build is one part engineer one part acrobat. The Thief-Acrobat of old was this class to a T. The catch is, unless the rest of the party is willing to give the B&E expert time to work he might as well be another combat character. Being sneaky takes time in game as any Decker, etc knows.
The Assassin - Most Rogues specialize in well, non-conventional combat tactics. They rarely will walk into stand up fights. Sneak attacks, dirty fighting, low blows, psychological attacks. You can boil the concept down into a sneaky assassin who uses the environment and various tools to end his foes. If you ever play the Hitman series of games, the trick was to hit your target quietly and move on. Smooth. RPG terms the Rogue from 13th Age, 4E, and variant builds from Pathfinder (Ninja, Slayer, etc) are all this. Get in, find and opening, drop foe, get out. The hitch? What if it is a social game or the group needs you to deal with traps? Then your skills don't always fit.
I highlight these 3 paths because Rogues in total suffer from what I call "Situational Overspecialization". That is to say, unless the game take the time to break down the Rogue into specialities that fit one of these 3 or offers skill packages that round out their abilities it is far to easy to build a Rogue that turns into a one trick pony. I can't tell you the number of near-unplayable Rogue builds in far too many systems because of this.
But there is HOPE!
Lets look at the Star Wars Edge of the Empire: Smuggler and it's variant classes. This is a good outline how to build a functional rogue. First you build a foundation. This is a handful of useful skills that will always help the party. Maybe a little B&E like lock picking, or security systems. A pinch of stealth. Maybe a hint of fast-talk. With that out of the way, then layer on your primary focus. Yes, this means you won't be uber specialized, but at least this way you won't fall into the niche trap that Rogues so easily do.
The Rogue is a hard class to master. It's not not quite the mental gymnastics of a caster, but it does take a very good understanding of the mechanics of the game, the expectation of the missions, and finally how to play support and overall coverage protection for the party. In many ways a good rogue doubles as a leader for a group. Not so much in the face to face (but they can be) but in the making the big picture of a game work.
It's dangerous to go alone. Take a Rogue!