Monday, October 5, 2020

Confessions of a Thief Hater

In its early days, one of the things for which this blog was well known was its poor opinion of thieves. I won't link to all the posts from the period between 2008 and 2010 in which I catalogued everything I disliked about the thief class, because there are too many of them, but you can find them easily enough using the search box or the tag "thief." In large part, my skepticism was part of my attempt to understand the three little brown books of OD&D on their own terms rather than through the lens of later accretions to it. Since I had never known D&D prior to the introduction of the class, I felt it was important to see what the game would be like without them. Was D&D somehow "incomplete" with only three classes – cleric, fighting man, and magic-user? Did thieves add something to the game that was otherwise have been missing? I had no idea and strongly believed, as someone trying to peer back into a past I hadn't experienced myself, that the only way to find out was to try and play the game as people had before Supplement I: Greyhawk arrived on the scene.

Was I too strident in my pronouncements about thieves in the past? Absolutely. I had the zeal of the newly converted and I let it get the better of me. Playing OD&D "straight" for the first time was an amazing experience, one that, I hope, gave me a few insights into its history and design, but it also clouded my judgment a bit. That probably explains why I got so much pushback in those days, with people popping up everywhere to defend the honor of the thief class, with some of them doing so in terms that were every bit as forceful as the ones I'd used to denounce it. True, some of the responses were intemperate, to put it charitably, but much of what I wrote was too. 

That said, I did quickly soften my stance, because, as I played OD&D more, my players and I saw that there was a space, if not necessarily a need for a character class like the thief. I was almost certainly recapitulating the experiences of others before me, but that didn't lessen the importance of experiencing it myself. As I said, I'd never played OD&D before and I didn't feel it was wise to make pronouncements about it without having tried it as written. Regardless, I eventually came to accept the thief class, at least in principle and have allowed it in all my games since.

I'm still not 100% sold on the traditional conception of the thief class. I have misgivings, for example, about the find traps ability, among other things, but I am no longer opposed to the very existence of a class like the thief. I presented the beggar recently and I also like the burglar; there are no doubt others I'd also appreciate. I'm still looking for the "perfect" version of the class, but I'm much less obnoxious about my reservations, at least I hope I am. This is a topic to which I'll be returning regularly, as I continue work through it.

25 comments:

  1. I suspect that the relationship between the folks in Lake Geneva and Fritz Leiber and his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser meant not, if, but when, thieves would be a part of D&D. I can remember playing, early on, in campaigns that didn't use the thief class. And, even later on, players choosing to ignore the class. The "detect skills" were handled with modified % dice rolls.

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    1. It's interesting you bring up the Leiber connection. I hadn't really considered that before.

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  2. While not "LBB", the thief made its way in to the game VERY quickly, first as a publicized house ruled class in 1974 (the year the LBBs came out), then almost identically written in Greyhawk in 1975. So while not 'LBB-pure', it was the first extra class made.

    The Thief, while not necessary (are any of them 'necessary'?) does fill a niche. D&D is full of trapped doors, trapped chests, etc., and no way to detect them outside of role-play. Remember, Find Traps is for small object traps not pit traps or room traps - anyone can find those on a 1 in 6 chance (dwarves have 2 in 6).

    You can make the exact same argument that the cleric is not necessary - undead can be fought in combat or run away from, you don't need a method to overcome them like turning.

    Glad you've softened on Thieves.

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    1. The interesting thing is that I know people who do make that argument against the inclusion of clerics. There's a small but vocal group who feel that fighters and magic-users are all you need. They're not wrong, but I would miss clerics.

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    2. fighters and magic-users are all you need

      Let them play Tunnels & Trolls!

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    3. I'd suggest that the main problems with Clerics are that the class design is effectively a F/MU hybrid with a different (though still very powerful spell list). It's also not an especially flavorful spell list -- a jumble of biblical miracles and vampire movies, and vague ideas about mono-and polytheistic traditions.

      Imagine what the Cleric might be with a a non-Vancian magic system based on specific deities...

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  3. Is there a thief class out there, in an OSR game or homebrew or something, that has dedicated thieves without adding new mechanics? Like they could keep the d6 rolls for spotting traps and secret doors but just have a better chance, maybe get a version of the dwarven dungeon sense, that kind of thing.

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    1. There are several like that, I believe.

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    2. Lamentations of the Flame Princess has the Specialist class, and removes "Thieves." Everyone has a 1 in d6 on various skills (spot traps, secret doors...) but the Specialist has extra pips he can "assign" to various skills. (So if he spends a pip on spot traps it is now a 2 in d6.)

      With higher levels he gets new pips to "spend" on the pips of a d6 die for any of his skills.

      A player can focus how he spends the pips in a variety of ways, making a specialist who is excellent at sneaking and backstabbing, or at sensing his way through a dungeon and spotting secret doors, or handling hunting and setting up safe camps, or any combination.

      I think it is an excellent adjustment to the rules and worked very well in my campaign.

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    3. The challenge is defining what players rolls for their character when they do outside of spellcasting and combat. What modifies these rules. Except for a handful of items, the 3 LBB is silent on the actual rolls although it implied that characters can do these other things.

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  4. Glad I was sitting down to read this. Geez you've mellowed over the years, JM... ;)

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  5. For my part I jettisoned the thief. All classes can stealth, all classes can climb, all classes can pick locks. However it makes sense to me and my players that there are those who would be better at these other things. Hence I developed the burglar and other classes that are better at these other things.

    Folks can see what I did with the following link to a free download.
    http://www.batintheattic.com/downloads/MW%20Majestic%20Fantasy%20Basic%20RPG%20Rev%2010.pdf

    @James, the above represents part of been I been doing in the 10 years with my rules since I released the Majestic Wilderlands

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  6. I appreciate the value of being open-minded.

    But I have to say, back when I was digging into the OSR and read that people were yanking Thieves out of D&D, the game clicked for me in a whole new way.

    After all... all the player characters who delve dungeons are thieves in one way or another... so the thought of needing a special class for this seems odd on that front.

    And all characters can try to spot traps or backstab... and in my opinion is best done with descriptions in the moment and a conjured die roll based on the circumstances if needed.

    So why a Thief?

    All in all, the introduction of the class seems to steal basic activities from other player characters and distort the core activity of the game -- looting tombs -- and make it a precious activity for only one class.

    I might be repeating a few points from your original posts James. But what I'm saying is, if you decide to become cantankerous on this point in the future, I'll back you all the way.

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  7. I came to the game when the Thief was already a part of it.
    I love thieves, and often play one.
    I also never felt the urge to remove them (can't say that for the specialist classes, instead). .
    However, like a few other things in Old School D&D, I classify it as "good idea, poor implementation".

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  8. I wish you would elaborate on this space. Pick locks, sneak, and climb is great but not enough to build a class. Roll to find doors, traps, treasure is actively harmful to the game for those of use who like to roleplay those things out as described in the old school "primer".

    Cleric, on the other hand, is an absolutely necessary class. Got to put those draculas in the grave.

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  9. "I have misgivings, for example, about the find traps ability, among other things"

    I think you're conflating a later iteration of the Thief class with the Greyhawk one. Greyhawk only gave Thieves the ability to remove traps, not specifically to find them.

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    1. That's true. Along with the Holmes Blue Book rules, I think the Greyhawk thief is the only version that does it that way.

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  10. I'll admit that I've always been a pro-thief partisan, and I've never really cared for any such arguments that the thief is bad D&D. This is mainly because I don't (never have, never will) buy the line that traps and secret doors are meant to be found with role-playing and description. The game has always had d6 rolls for such things.

    That said, a recent video by Chris Gonnerman where he discusses how the game operates without the thief makes an intriguingly good point, and it's the only cogent anti-thief argument I've ever heard. Without thieves, everything thiefy is handled by magic, most especially by the intelligent swords with detection powers meant to fall into the hands of fighters. (Plus the likes of find traps, knock, elven cloak and boots, etc.)

    (I take pains to note here that these remain solidly game-mechanical phenomena that do not rely on vague DM fiat.)

    For my part, whether I use the thief or not is a matter of genre. If I'm playing straight medieval D&D, my feeling is that thief or burglar is too core an archetype to ignore. I use thief class, and I treat the thief's abilities as "above and beyond" ordinary attempts at stealth, detection, and so forth (as is common among old-school gamers). I also find it very helpful to think of the thief's abilities at the "party-wide" level rather than the "character-granular" level — which is to say, don't think of the low-level thief's crummy Find Traps or Open Locks chance as a poor character-class ability that rarely works; think of it as a last-ditch saving throw for the whole party to open a chest or door without making noise or expending magical resources.

    If, on the other hand, I'm playing in a more modern setting (my own Engines & Empires game for example), I replace the thief with a "rogue" or "expert" type who has access to the same list of general skills as the other characters but simply gets more of them, and also benefits from other class abilities focused on dodging/evasion, missile-fire, gambling/luck, or other such stereotypically roguish qualities. The thief class, I feel, is too tied to a premodern milieu — it works well in a Renaissance, medieval, or swords & sandals game; but not so much in a pulp or sci-fi one.

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    1. "This is mainly because I don't (never have, never will) buy the line that traps and secret doors are meant to be found with role-playing and description."

      Page 13 Vol 3 The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures.

      CAL: Okay, what does the room look like — we’re examining the walls, ceiling, floor, and contents of the room itself.

      REF: (After checking to see if dwarves and/or elves are in the party:) The room is a truncated pyramid. The east wall is the truncated part, directly opposite the door you entered. It is 10’ long with another door in it. The walls connecting it to the west wall, the place you entered, are each about 35’ long. The west wall, which is where you entered, is 30’ long with a door in the middle of the wall. The elf has noted that there seems to be a hollow spot near the east end of the southeast wall. The floor and ceiling seem to have nothing unusual. The room contains the bodies of the gnolls, a pile of refuse in the north corner of the west wall, and two trunks along the wall opposite the one which sounds hollow.

      CAL: The elf will check out the hollow sound, one of us will sort through the refuse, each trunk will be opened by one of us, and the remaining two (naming exactly who this is) will each guard a door, listening to get an advance warning if anything approaches.

      REF: Another check on the hollow sound reveals a secret door which opens onto a flight of stairs down to the south. The refuse is nothing but sticks, bones, offal and old clothes. One chest is empty; the other had a poison needle on the lock. (Here a check to see if the character opening it makes his saving throw for poison.) The chest with the poison needle is full of copper pieces — appears to be about 2,000 of them

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  11. IIRC James, you wrote up a Thief class for Whitebox many moons ago in Knockspell #1 or #2. How do you feel about your own previous take these days?

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    1. I used it in the past and liked it well enough. I'd have to look at it again to see if I still felt the same way.

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  12. I marvel at this discussion and applaud you all for a blade-in-sheath forum. I have nowhere near the rules acumen - let alone the nuance(s) of the various editions - and stopped being an everyday DM/PC nearly 35 years ago. But it was one of the most joyful and creative times of my life, so here goes from a peasant's perspective, a man who can't really read:

    The goal is to have fun. Create something, explore something, decide on the glimmering cave or the dark winding tunnel. Argue about the merit of a left-handed dwarf in a 2X3 crawl patrol.

    Thieves were great. Any kid who has an older brother knows about thieving! If you get caught, you get abused. Same with your parents and neighbors. Being aged 8-14 is all about thieving and escaping detection. It is an entirely different skillset and methodology. In my view (let's be fair, in the corporate world we simply thieve with different techniques) the entire D&D arena is based on Getting In, Finding What, and Getting Out.

    It works for little brothers. It works for thieves.

    Getting too caught-up in the rules of anything usually hinders the enjoyment of it. Change the rule, overlook it, and get on with the adventure. Nobody ever looks cool staring at their cell phone. And nobody ever looked cool arguing over a fine point in three rulebooks. Life isn't fair. If your big brother ever finds that zippo you took off of him, he's going to light your big toe on fire. Learn how to get in, and get out. Be a wealthy gambler.

    Get on with the game! Thieves matter.

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  13. I always felt that the thief as a class was introduced to solve the problems that was introduced specifically for a thief to solve. I also have a problem with them being referred to as a thief outside a campaign set entirely in the thieves' guild (which even generated it's own D&D variant RPG for doing so). But there is generally a role for the character whose primary combat ability is to effectively avoid combat.

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  14. Mckinney had it right in Carcosa. Everybody is a fighter, unless you want to cast spells. Then you're a fighter who can cast spells. Specialists (thieves) are optional.

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