Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Latest Thiefly Thoughts

In the nearly two years I've been writing this blog, a lot of (virtual) ink has been spilled about the thief class and its suitability in old school D&D. On a largely theoretical level, I've been more or less firmly committed to the "Just Say No to Thieves" camp, seeing the class as an unnecessary interloper whose presence lays the groundwork for a number of later unhappy developments. But theory that doesn't work in practice is bad theory and, as I've discovered over the course of the Dwimmermount campaign, the notion that the thief class is a priori bad is mistaken, or at least it is often mistaken.

Brother Candor employs a cynical, pipe-smoking woman named Gaztea, whom he hired in Adamas primarily as an information gatherer. However, she's also technically a Supplement I-style thief, which I allowed as an experiment to see whether her presence would affect the game in any significant way. Well, Gaztea has affected the game but not in any of the ways I worried she might. For one, low-level thief abilities are pretty hit or miss, with the exception of climbing walls. Second, Brother Candor and the other characters rely on Gaztea far more for her social skills, which is to say, her underworld connections in Adamas, than they do for her skills in picking locks or finding traps (She's also, of late, taken up the study of ancient Thulian and alchemy, but that's another story).

In many months of play, none of the things I feared about thieves ever came to pass. A big part of that, I think, is because I'm aware of the potential pitfalls and have done a good job of avoiding them. Equally important is that my players, especially Brother Candor's player, keep Gaztea's abilities in the proper perspective. They have the right frame of mind and don't see thief skills as an excuse for non-thieves not to try "thiefly" things. Indeed, I'd venture to say that Brother Candor, Dordagdonar, and Vladimir all spend more time finding and removing traps, for example, than Gaztea ever does.

The example of Gaztea is a good reminder to me of that eternal truth: the play's the thing. I can muster 1001 cogent arguments against the thief class from a theoretical perspective, but none of them are worth anything if, in actual play, the thief class manages to avoid all the dire consequences I "knew" would transpire. My experience also serves as a reminder on the design side of things as well: don't design rules with bad players in mind. Any rule, no matter how well written, can and will be abused by players looking to find a way to take advantage of a situation. I think many (though not all, by many means) of the arguments against the thief class arise from a fear of abuse by players or even referees and, while one should be aware of such things, I think it a grave mistake to make decisions based largely on how a rule could be abused.

In the Dwimmermount campaign, despite my skepticism, the thief class is working, so I'm going to continue to allow it, not just for NPCs but for any future PCs as well. Obviously, every referee must make a determination for his own campaign based on his own experiences, so I don't mean to suggest my stance ought to be universally adopted. Still, I have to admit to some small joy in discovering my long-held skepticism was misplaced in this particular case.

41 comments:

  1. Now how would you feel if someone wanted to join your group in the role of the trap finder and lock pick?

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  2. For me, the best part of the post is this:

    "Don't design rules with bad players in mind."

    You should design rules that will make good players rock, bad players will abuse them anyway.

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  3. Since the Thief was my favorite class in xD&D (closely followed by the Illusionist), I'm glad to see you found some small room for them in your campaign. :)

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  4. Thieves require tender care. Nine out of ten theif PC's in the campaign we play end up getting killed within a couple of sessions because they make bad decisions. So the DM really screens the character to avoid a waste of time.

    I had played a dwarven theif kit for a little while, and my primary use was to find/remove traps, open locks, and figure out other puzzles out in the dungeon krauls we were in. I Never put points into anything else because didn't see a need to. But then again I've never been into being a pick-pocket.

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  5. Although the changes are mostly cosmetic, my thiefophobia is lessened somewhat by dyson logos taking the percentage dice out of the class.

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  6. I'm actually going to experience Thiefless play for myself for once. My AD&D game suffered a TPK and we all rolled up new characters. But nobody took a Thief! So I'm going to see something I don't believe I've ever seen -- Thiefless AD&D.

    We'll see how it goes.

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  8. My experience also serves as a reminder on the design side of things as well: don't design rules with bad players in mind. Any rule, no matter how well written, can and will be abused by players looking to find a way to take advantage of a situation. I think many (though not all, by many means) of the arguments against the thief class arise from a fear of abuse by players or even referees and, while one should be aware of such things, I think it a grave mistake to make decisions based largely on how a rule could be abused.

    That's a great quote! :)

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  9. I wrote a similar amendment to the thief, dumping the percentile skills in favour of a single d6, in order to match the other "skill" tests in Labyrinth Lord, but based on my experiences with D&D4, I've decided that I quite like the way that the d100 makes the class feel distinct; after all, if the wizard can have his own subsystem, why not the thief?

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  10. I wrote a d6 based system for the Thief, although we're not using that class in our current game.

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  11. Stuart, it looks like we were thinking along similar lines there, although our conclusions were different. I changed my mind back to the d100, but it might change back one day.

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  12. "They have the right frame of mind and don't see thief skills as an excuse for non-thieves not to try "thiefly" things."

    Preventing this sort of thing is specifically why I tossed the d100 based "Thief Abilities" and integrated the class with the normal game rules for detecting noise and traps, climbing walls, and the like. The only abilities that only the Thief class has access to is picking locks and pockets (but the rules in that section point out that there's no rule against a Fighter using a swift blow with crowbar to open a lock, or a pocket).

    Thieves can't do anything that other players can't; they're just better at it.

    Honestly, in a game with as many locked doors and funky traps as D&D has, it only "makes sense" that someone wants to be the guy who's best at handling those problems. It also makes sense that someone would specialize it those problems. Given the style of play and the literature source material the Thief is a natural fit for D&D; much better than the Cleric, IMO.

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  13. "don't design rules with bad players in mind" IMO, that's the most important thing about rpg game design right after "don't design rules with bad GMS in mind."

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  14. Wait, the Thief is a good addition to D&D?

    It's almost like Gygax had played the game or something.

    Huh.

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  15. It's almost like Gygax had played the game or something.

    By that logic, anything Gygax wrote is holy writ that ought not to be questioned and should be used exactly as he wrote it -- like, say, psionics.

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  16. I think there are huge differences between how an NPC thief will be "played," and how a PC will act and react in the game world. I could have an NPC ranger who never does his ranger stuff. It has no bearing on how a player will go about running a ranger. I think the true test will be a player character. A few games in, I'm going to predict that you will ban them once again.

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  17. I'm a-guessin' we won't be seeing any psionics-driven thief-skill tables in your future, james.

    Anyway, I'm with you in regards to theoretical dislikes of thieves as a player class, although, being still essentially new to your blog, I don't have a clue if we dislike the same things. Anyway, my take is here.

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  18. Okay, you've established having a NPC thief has not harmed your game. I am curious what you think Gaztea being a thief class character had added to the game. If she had just been a fightingwoman who acted like a thief would the outcome have been any different? I ask because when adding something to the rules not only should it not be to the detriment of the game, but it should also add something worthwhile, otherwise it's just an unnecessary complication. In short even if there is no detriment, what's the benefit?

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  19. I've always played my thieves as smooth-talkers rather than as actual thieves. Except for that one time where I played a thief, who was actually a tinker/clockmaker that had been swept up in events beyond his control. I suppose it's all about who's driving the character.

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  20. In play Gaztea is more of a missile combatant than a frontline fighting man. Her armour class and lowish hit points make her a poor choice for taking hits, so we keep her in the middle of the party where she's kept safe. She uses a magic sling +1 we found somewhere to deal damage during fights.

    Outside of combat she's more of an information broker, She's good for fencing the loot we find and appraising it's value. Also she knows the right sort of people in the lower class cultures of Adamas that Brother Candor (being a right proper priest) and myself (being an elf from far away) have no access to.

    She does from time to time pick locks and locate traps, but so far in Dwimmermount locked doors and traps are few and far between. Further it seems to me that more of the traps she's located we've disarmed or bypassed by party effort then by relying on her disarming skills.

    Could we do without Gaztea, certainly. Would we want do to without her, no. She brings a definite skillset to the party that the players lack. But it's a skillset that a player would be unlikely to take as it has not a tremendous amount of immediate utility. In short, it's a perfect role for an NPC.

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  21. Magnavox, thanks for taking the time to share your experience. It's good to hear that hear that she is a useful part of your entourage. I do wonder though if she wouldn't be just as useful in her given role without the thief class. If she were a fighting-woman mechanically speaking, what's to stop her from acting exactly in the manner she already does. I'm kind of driving at a couple of things here. Firstly what's to stop someone who is not a thief class from picking locks or locating traps, and if anyone can do those things what does the thief class really add? Secondly does your class define your role or does how you act define your role. Especially if your dealing with a minimalist class structure like Fighting-man/Cleric/Magic-user, is it better for the DM to introduce a new class for a new role or should it be sufficient for a player to act the role with an existing class and the DM arbitrate appropriately?

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  22. Now how would you feel if someone wanted to join your group in the role of the trap finder and lock pick?

    I'd allow it.

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  23. IMO, that's the most important thing about rpg game design right after "don't design rules with bad GMS in mind."

    Oh, indeed. I think too much time has been spent over the years trying to prevent jerky referees from ruining a game. Jerks will be jerks regardless of the rules structure you put in place, so why bother worrying about them?

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  24. I think the true test will be a player character. A few games in, I'm going to predict that you will ban them once again.

    I agree that a PC is the true test. However, to clarify: if I do allow them, I'd never ban them while the character still lived. As a rule, I never change rules that adversely affect a PC while that PC is still actively played.

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  25. Firstly what's to stop someone who is not a thief class from picking locks or locating traps, and if anyone can do those things what does the thief class really add?

    Well, in my campaign, not everyone can pick locks, so a thief is uniquely skilled in this area. However, even when dealing with locating traps, which is something anyone can do in my game, what the thief brings is specialization, much in the way that anyone can fight but only the fighting man is specialized for combat.

    Secondly does your class define your role or does how you act define your role. Especially if your dealing with a minimalist class structure like Fighting-man/Cleric/Magic-user, is it better for the DM to introduce a new class for a new role or should it be sufficient for a player to act the role with an existing class and the DM arbitrate appropriately?

    I view class as archetypes -- broad archetypes, admittedly -- so, yes, I'd introduce new classes if I felt that one of the existing classes couldn't be easily "bent" to accommodate a certain role. Thieves, as they've developed in the Dwimmermount game, are poor combatants, so they're clearly not a sub-set of fighting men and without magic they're not a sub-set of clerics or MUs, so there's justification for being a separate class.

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  26. Great post, and great experimental evidence. It speaks enormously well to James' intellectual honesty.

    Among the many things that were refreshing and clarifying when I obtained OD&D in early 2009 was the structure of the thief class re: traps. Namely (1) absolutely no finding ability beyond other PCs, and (2) only able to specially disable "very small" traps like a poison needle. Keeping that in mind instantly blew away a lot of my former problems with the class.

    As a side note, my mechanic for thief skills is (surprise) d20 + level + Dex modifier >= 20. Again, usually within 2-3 ticks (5% each) of the book tables.

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  27. I'm not sold (on idea that thief class doesn't detract/inhibit players from sneakin/thievin/figuring out traps rather than dice rolling traps).

    Like others I see substantive difference between NPC brought in later (after players have had a chance to gain the "proper perspective") and PC thief played from the start.

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  28. Like others I see substantive difference between NPC brought in later (after players have had a chance to gain the "proper perspective") and PC thief played from the start.

    It's perfectly reasonable for such skepticism. Once I have a thief PC, I'll be sure to report how things go.

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  29. "You can't legislate for bad play" is my version and it's core, I think, to what is wrong with later editions. Far too much effort goes into defining and controlling what a character or monster can do for fear of allowing unbalanced (ie, "bad") play. Challenge ratings are the exemplar of this sort of design.

    But bad players and bad DMs will either find some loophole you didn't think of, or will simply ignore the rules they don't like. What are you going to do? Arrest them?

    The idea of the thief as a character class has never bothered me; there are lots of role-models in books and legends to base the character on. The same can not be said of the D&D cleric which has been far more difficult to justify over the years than the thief.

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  30. James: By that logic, anything Gygax wrote is holy writ that ought not to be questioned and should be used exactly as he wrote it -- like, say, psionics.

    I think that would lead to a much better game than the other extreme, which seems to assume that Gygax lost his mind and his design sense sometime after writing the LBBs (or *gasp* sold the hell out for that evil MONEY).

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  31. I don't mind the thief class personally, but avoid the trap of it being treated as the only class that can find and disarm traps.

    One of these days I'll try and write up my Picaro class to represent fighters like the Grey Mouser who are more based on finesse than heavy armour and weapons. Mainly need rules to represent ability to avoid damage from attacks without using heavy armour like plate.

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  32. Dave- I always found the Thief-Acrobat to do a great job of that.

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  33. "...avoid the trap of it being treated as the only class that can find and disarm traps."

    A meta-trap, as it were.

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  34. Nice post. The evidence is that the thief grew out of play. Sometimes the difference between RAR and play is suprising.

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  35. "The idea of the thief as a character class has never bothered me; there are lots of role-models in books and legends to base the character on. The same can not be said of the D&D cleric which has been far more difficult to justify over the years than the thief."

    Agree with this, of course. Very strongly.

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  36. The problem with archetype hunting is that EGG and friends were actually forging new ground.

    Despite the fervent wishes of many in the old-school community, D&D is not a pulp simulation, was never meant to be, and is bad at it.

    D&D is its own genre. Inspired and influenced by the pulps? Definitely.

    But something unique.

    My own approach to D&D is pretty much the opposite of what James describes. Rather than assuming the class had no reason to be there, I assume it does, cause Gary put it there (or approved it being there).

    Only after something has proven unsuitable or damaging (high Full Plate Armor!) do I consider removing it.

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  37. Rather than assuming the class had no reason to be there, I assume it does, cause Gary put it there (or approved it being there).

    Gary approved stuff being there because someone in his group wanted to play it. That's where stuff like the Monk and Psionics came from. Someone wanted to play Kwai Chang Caine or Doctor Strange. :)

    So I'd say you should have stuff in your game if someone in your group wants to play it and it would make the game more fun for everyone else as well.

    I wouldn't add stuff just because it works in someone else's game though.

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  38. Stuart: Gary approved stuff being there because someone in his group wanted to play it. That's where stuff like the Monk and Psionics came from. Someone wanted to play Kwai Chang Caine or Doctor Strange. :)

    I don't see how this invalidates anything I said.

    If a player wanted to play a Monk, I would allow it. Only once the Monk had proved itself harmful to play would I consider disallowing it, which was my original point.

    Rather than deciding before hand that the Monk (or Thief) would harm my game and saying no to a player, I would wait and see.

    This has only happened to a class once in my entire experience with AD&D and that was the Bard.

    One player got to play one and after seeing the class in play I announced to the players that he would be the last of his breed.

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  39. Sure, I don't disagree with that.

    What I'd allow a character to bring in mid-campaign is a bit different from what I might present to everyone as options at the beginning of a campaign though.

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  40. James, months late commenting on it but I'm going back through and reading all the Dwimmermount posts (I'd been skimming to this point) and one thing stands out at me:

    don't design rules with bad players in mind

    There is a huge irony there. Much of the evolution from OD&D to 3.x is insulating players from bad DMs by providing more rules than rulings.

    And here we are, in the OSR, protecting the game from bad players.

    Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

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