Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On Traps and Thieves

One of the interesting peculiarities about the Supplement I (and Holmes) thief class is that, while it possesses a "remove traps" ability, it does not possess a "find traps" ability, which wasn't introduced until the AD&D Players Handbook and also adopted by the Moldvay rules. (As an aside, it's worth noting that the Cook/Marsh Expert Rulebook lists only "remove traps" as a thief ability on its class tables, although one presumes this is just an editorial glitch). I surmise that the thief lacked an explicit "find traps" ability, since it was simply assumed they had the same chance to find them while searching as any other character class (1 in 6). Thus, thieves were adept only at overcoming traps once found but lacked any special skill in finding them.

In playing my Dwimmermount campaign, what I've noticed is that what I enjoy most about traps is not the question of whether the PCs will find them -- they generally do given enough time -- but how they go about avoiding them. The players have been very ingenious in the methods they've employed to defeat many of my traps. They've really gotten into the spirit of things, describing precisely what their characters do, often employing common adventuring equipment like iron spikes, 10-foot poles, and rope to sidestep hidden dangers. When they can't do this, they look for ways around the traps, by taking other passages or doors. It's really amazingly gratifying to see and a vindication of my experiment in old school archeology.

Consequently, I'm starting to think that it's not the thief's "find traps" ability that bugs me, but rather its "remove traps" ability. As I said, with only a couple of notable exceptions, the players largely intuit when traps are afoot; perhaps my dungeon designs telegraph the presence of traps too easily. Regardless, I don't find much fun in having the characters harmed through random trap damage because they failed a 1 in 6 dice roll. That's not to say I don't do it, of course. Several hirelings have died in Dwimmermount because of undetected traps, for example, but it's not something I derive any satisfaction from. On the other hand, watching the players grapple with a mysterious trap, trying to figure out what it does and how they might avoid its effects is something I do greatly enjoy, particularly when they figure out how it works only after they've accidentally sprung it.

I'm not entirely sure what all this means just yet. Although Brother Candor's henchman Gaztea is a thief, complete with a "remove traps" ability, we've actually not been using that ability at all, sticking with the traditional method of having the players describe what their characters do to avoid the traps. Even after 16 sessions of this approach, we haven't tired of it and, I think, prefer it to the traditional AD&D/Moldvay method of handling trap removal with a percentile roll. Granted, it means that the vast majority of the traps I place in Dwimmermount have to be explicable, which is to say, I have to be able to describe their components and context in such a way as to enable the players to find a way to defeat them. That's limiting on some level, but it also ensures that I can't produce "traps" that are little more than game mechanics waiting to interact with the "remove traps" ability. Dwimmermount's traps have to work, if you get my meaning.

So, while my stance on the thief class continues to soften, my opinion is still very much in flux and I'm finding a lot of my biggest dislike of the class, purely from a mechanical standpoint, centers around the "remove traps" ability.


  1. I never understood the disdain for the thief. In all honesty I have more issues with clerics and feel they are the odd man out in the class roster.

    The lack of find traps is intriguing and something I have used. I love the way the game plays without that particular skill and will continue using it.

  2. James,

    May I ask who would be better qualified at disarming an explosive?: An Explosives Expert, a very dexterous artisan, or a guy who used to hoe the fields, now holding an electric torch between his teeth?

    That is, to me, the essence of what Remove Traps is about, by way of analogy.
    --Likewise, detecting traps in our modern military context requires the use of that super-specialised tool, Silly String, to determine if there are tripwires daunting our troops before they enter a dimly-lit location.

    If traps in 'dungeons' are large, Grimtooth's-elaborate room-sized mechanisms, I think, again, that a thief with the mechanical skills and understanding of mechanisms in general are really the only chance someone has to avoid dismemberment or becoming red mushy paste.

    If, instead, 'traps' are magical puzzles that require sigil-bedecked dials and formulae to be defeated, then it is likely more a thing arcane, and the the provenance of the M-U.

    It really boil down to what you, as GM/Referee, define as a trap.

  3. @ JM: It's pretty explicit in the Moldvay (B/X) rules that a thief may ONLY:

    "remove small traps (such as a poison needle)"

    One would presume that large traps (pits, rock falls, scything blades) canNOT be removed. In those instances, the B/X thief may be able to FIND the trap, but the party will need to use "Old School" methods (spikes, poles, ropes, etc.) to evade or disengage the fiendish device.

  4. I think the remove traps is most likely required under the circumstance that they find a chest that has a trap, that itself can not be moved. The only way the party will get the contents, therefore, is with a thief who has remove traps as a skill. When it comes to dungeon traps, yup, we try to avoid them, and nope, I have yet to see a thief try to remove a dungeon trap. After all, how are you going to remove a pit trap with spikes, or a corridor that suddenly slants into a tube dropping the party onto the third level? But a nasty sneaky poison needle in a chest? Yup yup. Please Phineas, it's time for you to earn your keep. :)

  5. I think of the thief's % skills as his chance to succeed at a task, over and above the chance of another class, or a class-less peasant. Like Timeshadows says, it's a matter of personal skill specialization.
    If I have players describe to me just how they are going to deal with the trap, I may give them a carefully judged percentile chance to succeed. I then add on to that number, the thief's listed percent chance to succeed. If there is a thief there to perform the task.

  6. Having played a thief (Well, F/M/T) for most of my AD&D career, I'll have to admit my bias while objecting to James' agnosticism regarding our fantasy Fagins. ;-)

  7. James, I just don't get why people keep coming up with this "either/or" rule. Maybe you can explain your reasoning.

    How is it that you are "having the characters harmed through random trap damage because they failed a 1 in 6 dice roll"?

    First, they fail to find it by searching. Then, it actually springs (default 1/3 chance in OD&D) ... then they get a "second chance" (your 1 in 6, pulled from I don't know where and a figure you could of course change).

    The thief's trap-removal and (if used) trap-finding factors are likewise second chances -- or that is how I have always seen them. They did not suddenly cripple characters from being able to do what people could always do with a bit of brain power before.

  8. @JB - excellent point! Thanks for highlighting that, its amazing how many of these little things I miss...;)

  9. I think that it is fair to put easily defeated traps within a dungeon, after all, things do live in them, and most times then not, these things aren't the sharpest tools in the shed. Designing traps that won't effect a specific monster type, or easy enough to avoid that any idiot with a weapon can avoid it.

    In essence, it is a tax. None lethal but weakening. It will remind the idiot creatures of things to avoid without out right killing them, and it will also make those whom dare to enter that much weaker.

    In essence, we want to encourage all of the player classes, as they are all needed. Parties that don't have a thief will suffer for this defect. Only a thief can find the right valves to shut off the gas, cut the right ropes so the booby trap doesn't trigger, open the booby trapped chests and basically aid the party in sneaking in undetected for as long and safely as possible.

  10. "It's pretty explicit in the Moldvay (B/X) rules that a thief may ONLY: 'remove small traps (such as a poison needle)'"

    It's the same thing in Supplement I: "remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)". I adjudicate that pretty narrowly as well, and feel it solves a lot of problems.

    One technical point: the LBB don't actually specify any given d6 chance for anyone to find traps.

  11. At 20% to find and 20% to remove, that comes to a mere 4% chance for a 1st-level (AD&D)thief's special training to avoid doom -- odds of 24 to 1 against!

    That's lousy if that's all there is, my friends, but nice icing on a cake of precautions.

    Number one: Avoid messing with stuff when you don't know what it is. What's in that freaking chest, anyway? Who wants to "take one for the team" for the Evil Lich's collection of mold?

    Number two: Pay attention. Spring-loaded spears, flying arrows, scything blades and the like have to come from somewhere. Why does this door have holes in it at chest level? Opening the lid of a chest, you notice a sudden tension -- what's up with that taut wire?

    Number three: Just because a trap is sprung does not mean it's effective. You can erect a shield beforehand, or just stand out of the way. It's hard to fall 10' when you're on a 5' rope.

    There may be times when traps are tough to avoid except by chance. If some lunatic has chosen you at random to receive a letter bomb, then that's probably going to ruin someone's day.

    Mostly, though, I think "fair play" on the DM's part calls for opportunity to infer and bypass traps. For the sake of the game, they generally should not be mere instruments of terror.

    There should be a reason for a trap at location X, such that players can have a reason to look for one there -- rather than slowing the whole affair to a dull, overly cautious crawl.

    For a "remove traps" roll, a heap of lightning-bolt damage dice often works well. That's not very subtle, though.

    Watch a few "caper" movies, or read novels about burglars, assassins or spies. If you get the chance, play with players wise in tricks of the dungeon-delving trade. A lot of them come down to not doing what a booby-trapper would expect the average target to do. Avoiding whatever got your last three characters killed is probably a good start.

  12. Oh, yeah: In a lot of (most?) applications, someone set up the trap to catch others -- not him/herself. People don't set up home or business alarm systems with no way to deactivate them. Even land mines are more useful when one can make a path for one's own side at need (and avoid a big mess when the war is over).

    A 25% chance to pick a lock is better than nothing, but better yet is having the key! (That simple solution is surprisingly often overlooked, seemingly more so in recent years.)

    Again, it's not a matter of "a dice roll or nothing". It might be a matter or something else instead -- or even of something else plus the extra chance a thief's expertise brings.

  13. Let's use common sense here! Nobody can "remove" a pit, but a thief may be able to jam the hinge so that the floor won't collpase. A thief can disarm the trap wire by tying it off without triggering the trap. A thief can block levers. That's what "remove traps" ability refers to. As to the question about "everyone else" having a chance to find or remove a trap, in case where the thief's ability is higher than everyone else's 1 in six, then the ability is used, if not, then the ability is added to everyone else's chance giving the thief a slight edge. Another issue is non-thief removing a trap. It's a question of role play over dice rolling. For isntance, everyone has a 1 in 6 chance of finding a secret door, but if the player tells me the actions of his/her charcater that would find the secret door in the real world, that character gets the secret door no matter what the roll says. By the same token, if a non-thief character finds a pit and throws some logs over it, tyhe t4rap is defeated and the party can pass over it. If the non-thief charcater finds a trip wire trap and tells me exactly what s/he does to disable the trap, since they lack the practical experience, they must roll percentile equal to their dexterity bonus or score a crit hit on 1D20. If they fail, they set off the trap and must nake a Dex ability check to avoid getting hit.

    And let's get real here, a thief is not a combat engineer, not even a tunnel rat since the parameters of the world are totally different, and player party is not laying a siege here. A thief is more akin to the point man sneaking alogn the trail in a crouch, his knife out, probing for trip wires.

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  15. Yeah, I've had a bit of a revelation regarding this issue and others.

    If the book says something, then many who like literal interpretations (Read as Written) then see things in that black and white way. They don't want real-world complications clouding the clear definition of how the game-coding-language operates the gaming engine. That's cool, and it makes a sort of sense to me. Not how I run, but that doesn't diminish its worth.

    I think, especially after the Trent Foster ‘awe’ post, that it has been crystallised that 197x is purely a philosophy and mindset, and not really a way of understanding things outside the box/text -until- the GM/Ref decides that they are going to -House Rule- it. Once HR'd, it becomes the new box/text by which to measure things. So, if the text of the '7x book being used says: 'xyz' then it is 'xyz' unless the Ref says that after some consideration it is 'zbd'. Good and well, and no need for those of us who do not take the game as 'BtB' as gospel to dogpile those who do. It's just the way those folks (perhaps the majority of the Old Guard, possibly not) want to understand and run their games.
    Now that I know that, I mean, really KNOW that to be the case, I'll have much less to comment on. Like Fundamentalism as regards Politics and Religion, dogmatic adherence is just the way some folks like to be, and as long as no one get hurt, its all cool.
    As regards the term ‘Luddites’, it seems as though they are only Luddites if the 'way forward' really is better. In this case, ‘the way forward’ may as well be seen as simply another branch on a tree limb. Those not following that progression (the '7x' progression) are still on the same tree, if not on the same branch, and that's great, as multiple branches hold more life-sustaining leaves than a tree with only one branch.
    So, I'm signing the Peace Treaty with the Literalists/BtB'ers while remaining as near and as parallel to that branch as I feel comfortable (T&T 5 over Ken's now-preferred 7.5, for instance), and not questioning anyone's sanity/tastes/understanding.

    It's all good.
    And just because it is so funnily co-incidental:

    Word Verification-
    * Joykill
    * Blutwine: Hopefully none of it is is ever spilt over this topic.

  16. Thank you to everyone who posted comments to this thread. Much food for thought here and I may be on the verge of overcoming my mental blockage about the thief class. More on that when I have something substantive to say.

    But thanks again to everyone.

  17. At first, I thought the distinction between small/large traps was pointless, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve changed my mind.

    Large traps—pits and such—work well as puzzles. Small trap—e.g. poison neddle—less so. The restriction of the thief’s remove traps skill to this makes a lot of sense to me.

    BTW, I’m not sure the discrepancy between Moldvay’s Basic and Cook/Marsh’s Expert is an editorial oversight. These were developed in parallel, and I believe that—when I asked—Marsh said that there wasn’t a lot of direct coördination between him and Tom. I think Tom just thought of it as included Find without thinking of it as a change while Steve was sticking closer to the Supplement.

    Although, I guess the distinction isn’t really important. I’m just fascinated by the actual process that led to these works.

    On finding: If I’m doing my math right, while a single PC has a 1 in 6 chance, 3 PCs have a 91 in 216 (42%) chance. Make one of them a dwarf or add a fourth PC and the odds continue to improve. So, 1 in 6 actually isn’t so bad when you look at it from the party point-of-view.

  18. y dungeon designs telegraph the presence of traps too easily.<

    Well, if you be running an old school dungeon, you be setting some traps. Why you have to lug them poles and spiked around.

    In my campaigns, almost nobody has those things (if they are a regular player in my games). They know they won't be running into much in the way of typical traps. Not that I hate them, I just don't want them to be a big party of consistant play. I get more juice from interesting combat encounters, and PC/NPC relations. Once I had an enire mansion be one big trap, but that is a special occasion.

    An interesting tidbit about find traps: I just remembered the 1st ed. monks have an open locks ability, but no trap finding ability. Why do they even have open locks?

  19. Disdain? I see no evidence of disdain in this post, merely a disagreement.

    I guess this is just another example of someone using an emotional appeal due to lack of ability to construct a logical disagreement to the opinion of another person.

    I weep for the younger generation. "Anyone who disagree with me must be wrong!"

  20. I was referring to the apparent disdain for the thief that is all over the classic forums. It seems like everyone now has a new take on why the thief is a bad class or a fix for the class. That was my point. I will admit that disdain may have been too harsh a word.

    I do resent that fact that if I disagree with the notion that the thief is flawed or want to know why there is so much against the class I am automatically a dumb kid. It is things like this that have kept me from fully supporting the so-called OSR and just on the sidelines.

    I respect you guys. Each and every one of you but all I wanted was some understanding on why there was something against thieves.
    --Julian Grimm

  21. FWIW, my stance on thieves is softening -- quite a lot in fact -- and I owe it to my many interlocutors here, so, please, don't ever feel it's inappropriate to ask for an explanation about why some old schoolers have a problem with thieves. It's those questions that have kept me thinking about the topic and changing my position.

    As for the reasons why thieves are so often deemed "interlopers" in OD&D, there are lots of reasons, ranging from the fact that they weren't in the LBBs to the fact that they introduce a de facto skill system to the fact that the class, as written in Supplement I, is insufficiently archetypal. Some of those criticisms are, in my opinion, more cogent than others, but all of them contain grains of truth worth considering, even if you do like thieves.

    Bear in mind that I adore the paladin class and many old schoolers consider it every bit as much of an interloper as the thief -- maybe more so.

  22. (shrug) I neither said nor implied "dumb". I will say, however, your leap of logic highlights my original point very nicely.

  23. James,

    Thanks for the info. I am curious as to if the same feelings hold true for the Druid, Monk, Assassin, and other classes introduced after the LBBs.

    FWIW my S&W game has a type of thief though we went with calling it a rogue. This was due to us thinking that thief like assassin was a job title and not a class. Our version still has the remove traps ability but other characters can also do the same. Our thought was that the rouge was more specialized at that sort of thing. As for archetype we see the class as a Han Solo type of scoundrel that is not limited to just thievery.

    Our take on the class came mostly from my wife who helped design the version we use.

  24. On a side note, is there any chance of you sharing some of those traps you talked about in the post? I'm looking for some ideas.

  25. On a side note, is there any chance of you sharing some of those traps you talked about in the post?

    Probably. I'm a bit overwhelmed with stuff at the moment, so it may be a while before I get around to doing it.