AKA “The Farm Boy Made Good.”
I’ve seen some disgruntlement over the Thief class’s D4 hit dice (we’re talking B/X and Mentzer here), and frankly I don’t get it. Well, I guess I’m not too surprised, actually…people want the Thief to have a higher survivability than the magic-user class. In AD&D, after all, thieves get D6 for hit points and magic-users get D4…and aren’t they more of a fighting class than the MU?
[Actually, I think the real question is how can one justify giving an AD&D magic-user D4 hit dice when a normal human gets D6!]
Okay, let’s forget all that and just talk B/X: A normal human (in B/X) has 1-4 hit points. That’s it. The village leper or a frail child might have 1 hit point, while the burly town blacksmith or candidate for the new season of The Bachelor might have 4 hit points. Regardless of what weapon system you’re using, a lucky shot from the weakest weapon (or opponent) has the potential to slay a Normal Man. These are the average chumps on the street with little awareness of danger beyond the mundane, and no real fighting experience or training. People of military and law enforcement careers call these folk “civilians” or “sheep.”
Now a first level human adventurer, of ANY class, is him or herself only recently elevated from the ranks of the sheep. As per the B/X monster section, once a normal human starts gaining experience points, the person needs to pick an adventuring class. [Maybe all PCs should start out with 1+ XP, huh?]
Magic-users, like normal sheep, have 0 combat training…they’ve been spending their time learning to pronounce un-pronounceable words, and studying the theory behind the secrets of the cosmos. It makes perfect sense for them to start with 1D4 hit points. Likewise, the fighter whose training is a bit more physically rigorous (to say the least) should have 1D8 hit points; a trained fighter is twice as able in combat, but until he (or she) gets a bit more experience, two peasants with pitch forks can probably take him down if they get the drop on him when he’s out of armor.
Clerics, depending on how you view them, may have some fighting training, or may be bolstered by the Holy Spirit (or the Chaotic power of Cthulhu), or perhaps simply benefit from cleaner living than the average normal man (they are Wise after all…they’re probably getting good sleep, abstaining from poor food and toxic chemicals, and get that daily, moderate exercise one’s doctor is always harping about). Thus they get D6s for hit points.
The thief, however, is about the closest thing to a "normal man adventurer" there is. If he fights better than a Normal Man (or un-trained magic-user), it’s more likely due to cleverness of tactics and willingness to cheat than any formal sword training. In fact, when using abstract, narrative combat here’s what you might hear:
Thief: “I kick the hobgoblin in the groin and club him with the pommel of my sword when he doubles over.” DM: “Roll to hit.” Rolls. “Got him!” DM: “Blood is flowing from the back of his skull; roll damage.”
Thief: “I reach down and flip some sand up into the ogre’s eyes and then try to hamstring him with my blade.” DM: “Roll to hit.” Rolls. “Missed!” DM: “The ogre sneezes at the dust, but is still able to block your blow with one meaty paw.”
Notice that there are no bonuses given in these narratives. These kinds of actions should be assumed to be part and parcel to the combat action…they are considered in the thief’s chances to hit. Higher level thieves get better attack rolls because A) their tactics are more clever, and/or B) they are better at executing the tactics they use. The thief is NOT necessarily Errol Flynn with a sword. Captain Blood was a military man…as was Robin Hood depending on the version of the legend you’re reading.
But back to hit points. Shouldn’t thieves, by dint of their “wiliness” get more hit points than a Normal Man?
Well, they already do…after they reach 2nd level. At first level, the thief is still an APPRENTICE (as their level title makes clear); they are still learning the ropes, those skills that make them an asset (or a detriment) to the adventuring party. Like the studious magic-user, they have their own studies to pursue, and combat is NOT the priority. Yes, they fight better than a Normal Man (ALL adventurers do, including MUs). Yes, they are more aware of danger than the sheep (all adventurers have better saving throws than a Normal Man). But unlike the crusading cleric or the war-trained fighter, the thief has no mandate to take the fight to the enemy. Theirs is the way of stealthy pilfering, NOT sword-play.
And so, they get D4 hit points per level (up to 9th). Remember that hit points for PCs (as opposed to monsters, including Normal Men) are NOT simply stamina or damage that can be absorbed before death. PC hit points are luck, skill at dodging and parrying, endurance/fatigue, and craftiness, as well as fitness and body strength.
So one might think that thieves, with their overall craftiness, their roguish luck, their physical fitness (have you ever seen a person that could climb sheer walls and contort into crawl spaces?) would qualify for MORE hit points than some of these other adventurers. I mean, if anyone should have “heroic survivability” it should be the thief, right? Well, guess what. The designers of B/X thought so, too.
Even though the thief only rolls D4 for hit points, they have MORE hit points on average THAN ANY OTHER CHARACTER CLASS EXCEPT THE FIGHTER.
No matter how your DM does 1st level hit points (straight roll, max HPs at level 1, or re-roll 1’s and 2’s as per the Moldvay rules), the thief will eventually “out-hit-point” all classes except the dedicated fighting man. They pass magic-users at level 10, Halflings at 12, elves at 15, clerics around 18-19, and dwarves around 23. By 24th level, all other things (Constitution, average dice rolls) being equal, the Master Thief will have better combat survivability than any class except the fighter, whom they’ll trail by an average of 18 hit points only.
Of course, this makes perfect sense. After all, the B/X thief has mastered all tradecraft by level 14…what more is there after that then to practice one’s sword play?
Those lucky bastards! ...er, Heroes!
The thief IS a heroic adventurer, but just like all the PCs, he has to start small and prove himself. If the thief has any mandate at all, it is to play smart...don't try to dazzle in combat with a frontal assault, don't get suckered into a disarming a trap when avoiding it works just as well...and definitely don't steal and backstab your team mates (unless they really, REALLY deserve it). Eventually, smart play will be rewarded by increased survivability...and even without flashy magic armor the thief will be able to hold his (or her) own.