If This, Then That: Rogue Readers

If you always play a rogue in D&D, then I’ve got some books for you.

D&D Beyond summarizes your player class well: “Rogues rely on skill, stealth, and their foes’ vulnerabilities to get the upper hand in any situation. They have a knack for finding the solution to just about any problem, demonstrating a resourcefulness and versatility that is the cornerstone of any successful adventuring party.”

If you haven’t played D&D before and that sounds like something you’re into, maybe this is your sign that you should start playing.

The nonfiction books below will stimulate your curious, slightly paranoid, sniper-inclined, treasure-obsessed nature. You can trust me. I always play a rogue, too.

Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton, with Robert Schlesinger

Spycraft comes with a big disclaimer, which I’ll get to in a minute, but on the whole, I was continuously fascinated with the variety of gadgets and procedural solutions to intelligence problems, especially in the Soviet era.

In this book you can read about one-time pads for unbreakable, ciphered messages, concealment devices, like furniture modified to hide spy instructions (or people), doc cams (document cameras), audio bugs that looked like… bugs, and spy-dust, a tagging chemical used to track suspected American intelligence agents.

What I think you’ll enjoy most in this book, fellow rogues, is that for every intelligence problem discussed, the authors lay out the context and then go through each attempt and thought behind what led to the agency’s eventual, or various, solutions.

For example, when it became clear that Cold War- era American agents were followed extensively as they drove around Moscow with their informers in the passenger seat, the first solution was to test out certain moments which allowed the passenger to enter or exit the vehicle undetected. Then, to mask the disappearance of the passenger when the car was followed again, the agency developed a Jack-in-the-Box-style pop-up figure to mask that anyone had left the vehicle.

Disclaimer: Perhaps fitting as we talk about rogues (which sometimes rub shoulders or swap hats with bards), but Spycraft reads like someone got drunk at the tavern and decided to tell you old campaign stories, but not in the best way: many details are repeated and presented out of chronology.

That said, the whole time I read it I thought about new ways to look at traps in D&D, so if you can get through it and the fact that the book was approved by the CIA (so its accuracy is… rogueish, or at least, certainly unclassified), you might get some great ideas yourself.

Built:The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures by Roma Agrawal

Raise your hand if you’ve ever spent a half hour arguing with your DM about how exactly your rogue character could and would fit multiple priceless antique tapestries into their knapsack (with all the other belongings you need for adventuring) and scale a dungeon wall to safety. Raise your other hand if you justified your argument based on hours of research you did the other night on how textiles were shipped in Ancient Egypt, which is your DM’s basis for the campaign setting.

This book, another nonfiction, is all about structural engineering, with a mix of both historical and modern examples. If you want to map out your next heist into a fortress, you might want to know what material the building was made of, how the sewage is transported out, and some basic structural physics principles, such as tension and compression.

Agrawal, a structural engineer with a degree in physics and who worked on the UK’s building the Shard, lays out these sorts of details and how they play crucial roles in building design, from a church built over the filled-in Lake Texcoco in Mexico City to London Bridge (which didn’t fall so much as burn repeatedly).

Agrawal presents physics concepts and historical cases in a straight-forward, user friendly way that enables readers to understand complex dilemmas and solutions from the author’s trade. What I love best about Roma Agrawal is how passionate she is about the subject; she even has videos on her website demonstrating more topics in structural engineering.

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenburg

It’s impossible to talk about anything in D&D without talking about risk. And personally, when I’m playing a rogue, I try to take the least risky options for the biggest payout. That doesn’t mean I don’t have incredible moments; however, I calculate risks with my THAC0 score and dexterity stats in mind.

Even if you’re math-shy, this book is for you. Anyone can access logic, and the mathematical thinking Jordan Ellenberg breaks down is easy to follow and very similar to logic.

One of the simplest points I gained from it is the notion that just because something extraordinary has happened, the chances of that event occurring have not altered, but someone’s proximity to the event can make them feel that way.

Gambling and lightning strikes, for example: if you win in a game of chance, it’s tempting for a you to feel like your chances are therefore better than the next player. But if, for instance, we think of it as lightning striking, we know that the odds of being struck by lightning do not change just because you were struck. Thus, even without the statistics backing us up, we know that a gambler’s odds are no different just because they won once.

While there are as many different rogues as there are players enacting them, I hope these three books inspire your character and satisfy you until your next dungeon crawl.


About this Column: With occasional parentheticals a la Robin McKinley, If This, Then That connects the dots between niche interests for LSQ readers and the books that suit them.