Saturday, December 13, 2008

Building a Better Thief (Part II)

This post is going to be somewhat stream of consciousness in nature. I'm going to look at each of the OD&D abilities and give my current thinking about each. Note that I say current thinking. I'm prepared to change my mind through reasoned argument, so here's chance to convince of how I've got it all wrong.

Open Locks: I actually don't have a big problem with this ability. It's an appropriate "specialist" ability and one that not all characters were assumed to have prior to the introduction of the thief class. Likewise, magic-users could already use knock to achieve a similar effect, so it's not alien to the milieu of early D&D.

Remove Traps: This is a bit more worrisome to me, insofar as previously all characters could theoretically remove traps. It is my understanding that the thief class owes its origin to players in the Greyhawk campaign who wanted to hire someone who was specially trained to deal with removing traps, which is is why I call the class "dungeon bomb specialists." I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, why shouldn't there be someone trained in such things? On the other hand, why should such training be integral to only one class? I'd long used the Secondary Skills in AD&D and allowed characters with certain such skills to remove traps if I deemed it appropriate. Part of me wants to go back to a system like that, because the presence of a thief makes the other players lazy when it comes to dealing with traps and I don't want that.

Pick Pocket: I never had any problem with this ability, as it's specialized enough that very few non-thief characters have ever attempted to try it in my experience. Plus, it fits in nicely with the archetype.

Move Silently: This ability gives me pause, partly because I'm not quite sure what "move silently" is supposed to represent. Is it just the ability to sneak up on someone unawares -- and thus gain a greater likelihood of surprise -- or is it something more preternatural than that? Given that the thief is an archetypal "low magic" character class, I tend to favor the form interpretation, in which case I'd be inclined to give the thief a bonus to surprising an enemy and leave it at that. This gives him a clear niche without making other classes useless when it comes to laying ambushes, etc.

Hide in Shadows: Like Move Silently, I wonder what this ability is supposed to represent. Is it the ability to camouflage oneself so as not to be seen, provided it's dark enough? Or is another variant on being able to lay in ambush for someone? Part of me thinks this ability could easily be combined with Move Silently into a single one, but I'm not sure.

Hear Noise: Any possible objections I have to this ability -- which are few -- are overridden by the fact that, mechanically, this ability uses the same system as that for other character classes and that thieves are no better than elves, dwarves, or halflings till they reach level 3.

Climb Walls: I don't have a problem with this ability as described in Greyhawk, because it gives a system that's perfectly usable for other characters as well. A 1st-level thief has a 13% chance of slipping, with that chance decreasing by 1% per level attained thereafter.

Back Stab: Again, no real problem here. I'd allow any character, regardless of class, striking silently form behind a +4 bonus to hit. The additional damage bonus should probably be unique to the thief, or at least the increasing damage bonus should be. Must ponder.

Read Languages: I don't have any problem with a thief's ability to decipher treasure maps and ciphers, but I'm not so sure about reading dead or foreign languages. That just seems odd to me.

Read Magic: I know why this ability exists and I appreciate it, but I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense. I have many fond memories of thieves using scrolls at opportune times and of scrolls backfiring in amusing ways. Still, I'm not sure there's much warrant for this ability, particularly if one is reworking the class, as I am, to be more strongly archetypal and also more in keeping with the way other class abilities work. Must ponder this too.


  1. With regards to move silently, OD&D indicates that thieves are capabale of "great stealth", this rather implies that other characters are capable of "normal stealth".

    In AD&D, a successful use of move silently refers you to "surprise" and at the back of the PHB we are told that a magically invisible and silent party is capable of surprising on 4 in 6. Given that Elves and Halflings also have a simialr ability, and the relation to elf boots, I would assume that move silently is most commonly a percentage chance of gaining a suprise bonus when alone or otherwise in stealthy company.

    Hide in Shadows, I always figured to be a method of throwing off pursuit, or otherwise turning virtually invisible in the shadows when unobserved. Useful for gaining surprise in ambushes and such.

  2. Do you as DM want to customize every trap? It seems that this where you have the most objection and I think it's because the "target" is specialized. Locks, walls, pockets, and backs are ubiquitous, but traps we hope are not. If you require PCs to role play every trap removal, you'll need to more precisely design each trap. Maybe this will mean less traps, which is good. On the other hand, I think a DM can be flexibile in the adjudication of dice rolls. Sometimes a successful removal roll might mean that the *character* has noticed a detail not immediately perceptible but that it still depends on the *player* to say what to do with it. And than sometimes as DM maybe you want an ACME posion needle thats disarmed with a dice roll?

  3. This is a bit more worrisome to me, insofar as previously all characters could theoretically remove traps. It is my understanding that the thief class owes its origin to players in the Greyhawk campaign who wanted to hire someone who was specially trained to deal with removing traps, which is is why I call the class "dungeon bomb specialists."

    I've not heard this before, James, so I'd be curious to hear more about where you read about/heard this origin for the class.

    What I have heard (from Paul Stormberg) is that the Thief class originated in a midwestern newsletter or fanzine, and that Gary imported it wholesale into OD&D---just as the Ranger, Illusionist, and Bard were incorporated into AD&D after publication in SR or TD. I don't recall the specifics of the newsletter, but can dig it up, I'm sure, if necessary.


  4. The more I've considered the thief's abilities, the more I'm convinced that there is at least an inkling of the Grey Mouser mixed in there. In particular, the ability to attempt casting spells from a scroll takes me immediately to "The Lords of Quarmall." Most of my recent efforts to replace the thief-by-name with a similar scoundrel have focused on how best to represent the Mouser in D&D.

    In fact, the BECMI edition provided a pretty good tool for this, I believe, in the Rake. This class dropped certain of the classical 'thief' abilities, such as Pick Pockets and Read Languages, but gave the character improved fighting ability (attack progression equal to a fighter, i think, while retaining the theif's saves and weapon restrictions). The result is a class that I think encourages a sneaky and resourceful mindset, provides the parties with some new options (such as picking locks rather than smashing doors), but also stands in as a rather capable swashbuckler.

    At any rate, I'll be interested to see where you go with this topic, James.

  5. The problem I see is with the archetype "thief". It's not archetypal enough. I believe I first read on this blog the idea that all characters in D&D are really thieves and scoundrels. Out looking for stuff and willing to kill the current owners to get it.

    I'd rename the class "Delver". Take that dungeon specialist idea and run with it. Something like a ranger for the dark places adventurers like to tread.

  6. I've had no problem with "silently," "in shadows" and "nearly sheer surfaces" -- because those are qualitatively exceptional feats, nearly magical in aspect.

    A tyro might be able to pick some locks -- but consider real-life experience! Brute force and ignorance can get things open as well, just not as neatly.

    The trouble with trap removal is how broadly some DMs have interpreted it. It's specified as applying to "small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)." I don't see it figuring in dealing with big man-traps or contriving Indiana Jones-ish stratagems. My rule: If a player can talk his way through the disarming, then it's a done deal. Relying on a dice-roll is reserved for the pro, to represent his special training, intuition, and reflexes.

    Reading spell scrolls used to irk me, because I figured MUs should be able to do it as well. The thing is, I was going by how other DMs played it. I know some folks will quibble, but I consider myself going at least as much "by the book" regarding Read Magic in making things harder than in other campaigns not only on thieves but on clerics. They differ from fighting men in this regard in being able to use scrolls -- not in understanding what is otherwise "unintelligible to even a Magic-User."

    For surprise attacks from the rear, one might go with (IIRC) the AD&D standard of +2 for non-thieves. I think it's also fine to treat the thief's full initial (level 1-4) bonuses as "ordinary," if that suits you.

  7. Read Magic is pretty much there to fill the Grey Mouser quotient, I think.

  8. Elven Cloak and Boots
    Gauntlets of Swimming and Climbing
    Read Languages
    Find Traps
    sundry magical attacks
    (Thief Class = not necessary, even to do what it does -- but it can still be a fun part of the mix!)

  9. A 90% failure rate at 1st level (and 20% even for a 10th-level Master Thief) is -- at least in my games -- generally worse than actually applying a bit of thought to how to deal with the possibility of a poisoned needle...

    ... but foolish is as foolish does!

  10. Grodog wrote: "What I have heard (from Paul Stormberg) is that the Thief class originated in a midwestern newsletter or fanzine, and that Gary imported it wholesale into OD&D."

    Wow! I didn't know that the thief was not one of Gary's creations. Very illuminating! :)

  11. The problem I've really had with thief abilities is, as others have alluded to, the fact that the chance of failure is so incredibly high at low levels.

    If I were to rebuild the thief for AD&D or 0D&D I'd probably make him better at certain things. Off the top of my head I'd give him an increased chance to surprise (for sneaking), rerolls or bonuses for saves vs. traps (for finding/removing traps), etc.

  12. Sounds like you're just further weakening a fairly weak class.

  13. Reading spell scrolls used to irk me, because I figured MUs should be able to do it as well.

    I know how you feel. As a houserule, I allow MUs to translate dead or foreign languages, as well as magical texts.

    The Thieves' ability to read such texts is based on Conan's ability read an old scroll of a dead language in The Jewels of Qwahlur. Conan's earliest career was a thief - an unverified brute who uses "force doors" checks for picking locks and pockets - but a thief no less!

  14. Malcadon,

    That's not quite the only precident, I think. Fafhrd and the Mouser also decipher ancient writings in at least one story I can think of off-hand, "The Seven Black Priests."

  15. Even though I consider myself very old school, I never used much in the way of traps. The odd trap door on occasion, but I do usually let everyone have a chance to detect those. Mostly I will trap a chest with poison needle or gas, or maybe slicing auto-blade. But in this case it fits in with the loot-getting thief mind set that lets him pick locks.

    Lock picking in the modern world is something we have all tried, and maybe succeded at. But we are all familiar with locks. In an old world, only locksmiths and thieves will know anything about them or how they work. I think I would not object to finding traps being thrown out unless it has something to do with a lock or door (or window).

  16. In his service to Gwaay, one of "The Lords of Quarmall," Mouser "had parchment-crackling in his pouch one spell ... given him by his own wizardly mentor and master Sheelba of the Eyeless Face." Using it, Mouser accidentally atomizes Gwaay's guard of twelve sorcerers.

    The way I would play it (if treating Mouser as a Thief with no MU levels), Sheelba would have used Read Magic to make the scroll readable by his client hero.

    That's IMO perfectly in keeping with OD&D. In AD&D, the PHB spell description specifically refers to the MU's ability to read. However, DMG pp. 127-128 muddy the waters a bit and may admit of different interpretations.

  17. Blame AD&D for stipulating (DMG p. 19) that "small or large traps can be found, but not magical or magically hidden traps." (emphasis added)

    I think it remains the DM's prerogative to adjudicate what activity is necessary to invoke a Thief's roll to find or disarm. It need not totally eclipse players' skill!

  18. "On the other hand, why should such training be integral to only one class?"

    Roleplaying is a game for multiple people to play together; if they have clear cut roles [classes] with abilities spread between them, then the team needs all of those people to function at the top of its game. Everybody is useful.

  19. I thought the Read Magic ability (with the goof-up chance) was taken from the end of Eyes of the Overworld.

  20. The difference between a thief doing these skills, and a non-thief is that the thief can do them quietly. It is much easier to take out a dungeon if nobody knows that you are there.

    Read Languages is not an exact science, it is an estimate of what it says. Even with a good role, you may only get 20% of the message, who knows if it is accurate or not! & Thieves casting scrolls? Well, this is just good ol fashion comedy.

    Hide in Shadows is just the name of the ability, shadows aren't needed. The use of it is hiding people or objects, and if you have time, yourself. Thieves suck at direct combat, their best fighting tactic is to hide with a crossbow and hope for the best.

    Find and Remove Traps is the ability to recognize a trap when you see it, and possibly disarm it, however not all traps can be disarmed. An identified trap may be avoided, and for this, he may have to guide his fellow adventurers through with his Hide in Shadows ability. It is still up to the DM to determine the nature of the trap. If it is a simple trap, just meant to tax the adventures with dmg, then it is defeated, no hp tax for that hall. However if it is meant as a puzzle or an obstacle, then no, a thief can't bypass it with the dice, that wasn't ever the deal.