Monday, July 27, 2009

B/X Thieves: The Party Malcontent

I realize that many Old Schoolers give the thief class short shrift as they fail to make an appearance in the LBBs; I, however, grew up playing B/X and AD&D and so the thief class was always present.  Well, in theory anyway.

See, no one in my old games ever played thieves.

Not really. Well, okay, one guy (Jason) played a thief for awhile but he was the first one to drop out of our regular gaming group. Fighters, Clerics, Magic-Users...even Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings (until the party reached higher levels) made frequent appearances. But not thieves.

Even in AD&D where the thief class had unlimited lever restriction for demi-humans, there were no thief players in my campaign world. Once the Unearthed Arcana arrived, there were a couple (my brother had a halfling thief named "Feazil Partiman") but these were just stepping stones to the much cooler (adventuring-wise) Thief-Acrobat character.

I mean, why the heck play a thief anyway?

Now, I'm not arguing there should be no thief class (as I said, I did not start with the LBBs).  I am asking, 'what is the incentive to play a thief?' Really, why do it? 

At low levels you've got lame armor, and (in B/X especially) lame hit points. Your "thief abilities" are negligible at best.  And yet, because you are the party thief, you will be expected to attempt to disarm traps or "scout ahead" with that ten foot pole. I just don't see thieves having a very high survival rate at all.

And yet, unlike magic-users...whose high mortality rate at low levels is off-set by their great powers and mid-high levels...thieves have little to look forward to in the long run. Oh, sure...they're thieving abilities improve to near infallibility in time. But magic-users can learn the knock spell at level 3, and clerics will pick up find traps (again level 3 in AD&D).  What the hell use if a thief? Magic-users can get spider climb or fly at 5th level...and anyway there are few instance when a party will encounter a "sheer surface" obstacle anyway.

No...there are really only two things a thief can do that no other class can: pick pockets and backstab. Now, would YOU trust a guy whose main unique power is "backstabbing?"

I suppose it depends on how you use this semi-assassination ability. In D20, of course, they rename it "sneak attack" and allow the rogue to use it whenever they catch a foe "flat-footed" making it much more utilitarian and party-friendly. In Old School D&D? Hey, I play by the rules:

From AD&D: "Backstabbing is a blow from behind, be it with club, dagger, or sword."

From B/X: "When striking unnoticed from behind, a thief gains a bonus..."

Emphasis added by moi.

Here's the real reason the thief gets sent to scout ahead. It's not that anyone thinks he's going to make that 20% roll to hear noise and then a 31% roll to move silently and somehow flank an opponent by hiding in shadows (40%...all percentages as for a 5th level AD&D thief). The REAL reason, is because the party doesn't want the thief behind 'em...where he can BACKSTAB.

I don't know about other DMs, but it's been a rare instance (and admittedly, this may be because there have been so few thieves in my games) where a thief somehow managed to get behind an enemy in combat. The only time I can think of was a beholder floating in the middle of a large chamber, and the thief used the monster's hordes of treasure to flank the think, while the rest of the party distracted it by frontal assault. 

Hmm...okay there HAVE been times when a thief was fortunate enough to find a ring of invisibility and thus used their backstab abilities more readily (these were mainly multi-class, assassin, or acrobat characters).  But really, the most use PCs got out of backstabbing was probably against fellow party members.

Let's talk about picking pockets.  How many monsters in the dungeon have pockets to pick. How often is this skill being used. WHO is the usual target for this skill? Why does it have a % reduction for higher level characters, when most NPC monsters are Normal Men or monsters with hit dice not levels?

This is an F your fellow party member skill. My friend Kris, who has played more thieves than any other character type, once told me that the great thing about a thief is that "you don't need to risk yourself finding treasure when you can steal it from someone else."

[side note: I decided to call Kris just to see if he remembered saying this. He did and still agrees with the sentiment; however, he states he tries NOT to steal from fellow party members and could only ever remember doing so one time...though he says he did NOT get caught]

Now again, D&D3+ with its tactical battle maps and such, make the thief class more of a WoW rogue that gets behind big bads and cuts 'em up. I'm talking about Old School thieves and they're place in the party.  What the hell is it, besides fostering malcontent and paranoia in its companions?

Anyway, as I work on my B/X Companion and try to make every character class interesting and viable at high level, these are things I have to consider, including how a Master Thief might evolve after level 14. I have some pretty good ideas (I think), I just have to write 'em up in a way that is clear and concise.


  1. Wow, you're very gamist, aren't you?

  2. Hmmm...if I remember my Forge lingo correctly, I believe my creative agenda is properly identified as "the bitterest guy in the world." But I'd have to check RE's essays to make sure.
    ; )

    Truly, it depends on the game. I can say that I personally hate Toon which is very anti-gamist in terms of what it facilitates. I would like to play Traveller again, which I don't find to be very gamist by default (and I wouldn't be looking for a gamist version of it). I don't mind "losing" when the stakes are right (which would be in line with a narrativist agenda). But D&D is D&D; when in Rome....

  3. Hmmm...


    1) We are the same age

    2) We both came into D&D the same way with B/X, in 1981, at 8 years of age.

    3) We've both spent too much time daydreaming about Blackrazor.

    4) And now we have nearly identical opinions on the Thief class.

    Could it be you and I are the same person? Come to think of it, I really have no memory of what I did this afternoon...

  4. I love the thief. I'm playing one right now.

    The thief and the cleric are the "party's bitches" classes - they are utilities that every party needs. In exchange for this, they have the lowest XP requirements to level up.

    And backstabbing becomes easy once you get elven cloak & boots (90% invisibility in B/X) or a ring of invisibility. In our group the thief has been scoring at least one backstab every second fight now, and they've been devastating (he's lugging around a +2 sword and has dealt a nearly perfect 21 damage recently - making everyone in the party leap up and "huzzah!"). I recently killed a noble in a single blow while his retainers and he were trying to argue with our team about who had rights to that part of the dungeon.

    That said, I really look forward to the Companion thief. In B/X all the thief skills have hit 99% by level 14, so I'm curious which of Moldvay's suggested abilities for high level thieves you end up implementing.

  5. I've not played thieves a whole lot. I also don't have anything against them, aside from some of the questions that their "skill-based" class brings to old-school theory. I'm not even all that opposed to that, and came up with a "White Box Thief" system to sort of bridge the gap.

    The most memorable thief in my gaming experience way played by my brother. The guy was sort of a "fighter-lite" in many ways, much more like a sword-and-sorcery type rogue than a standard D%D thief.

    We never had much stealing-from-other-PCs going on, and I guess my opinion on that has been that it's a case of dumb players, not a dumb class.

    In our Labyrinth Lord game, I upped their hit dice to d6. I've never really understood the B/X d4 HD for thieves. They certainly should be more physical and tougher than magic-users, IMHO.

  6. @Meepo: Remember the first rule of B/X D&D is do not talk about B/X D&D... Are you getting enough sleep? :)

  7. When I played a thief I was lucky to play in games that were based around city with a thieves guild. He did have a high Charisma, so I played him as a con-man who would occasionally pickpocket and if ordered by the guild, backstab. The one time we did any sustained dungeoneering my thief was far too self-centred to scout ahead - he was Neutral after all - and died in battle.

  8. I just want to say, I appreciate ALL your comments (Meepo, MikeD, and all made me chuckle which is great). I have no specific replies, except to say, keep checking this blog! It's Thief Week at Ye Olde Blackrazor.

  9. I've always found that thieves are actually pretty useful in combat. You get lots of opportunities to use their backstab, provided you play a little to their strengths. I often find that the best thing a thief can do is hang out in 'stealth mode' off to the side, ignore the brawl entirely, slip behind some cover, and assassinate the crap out of enemy leaders and spellcasters.

    The trouble with them has never seemed to me to be combat - it's more that their wider role in the game isn't actually all that wide. They mostly do stuff that the other characters can do with mundane gear or low-level spells. I've always thought that thief-acrobat added a lot to the class - the ability to go places and do things other characters can't is an important facet of class design.

    I also rather like the approach taken by the dungeon-crawler game Angband, where the thief was also a minor spellcaster with a load of utility spells to help him find treasure and avoid the worst monsters. There's probably potential for a good variant class somewhere in the thief-as-magic-ninja approach.

  10. Something that you only sort of touched upon is the thief's ability to move silently... That's not something that's easily done by any other class. I know, I know...MU's and Clerics get the "Silence" spell soon enough. But that negates spell casting and can have some pretty nasty repercussions if used incorrectly. And sure, some magic items allow the ability, but a thief's move silent is a natural talent.

    I've always considered the thief to be the utility knife of gaming.

    The first character that I ever played was a MU, he died in a fist fight w/ a giant ant. The second character I ever played was a thief that I named Shadowfox. He ended up getting played from grade 7 (in 1977) all the way through high school and even a bit into university. I think he ended up being level 18 or something...which at the time I thought was completely ridiculous.

    I still have the character sheet too. Shadowfox was awesome...I loved playing that guy.

  11. Thieves have always been a popular character in the games I play and we seldom if ever have had to deal with the party-backstabbing pick pocket.
    Climb-walls is usually the trumping ability in low level games that makes thieves attractive as they will generally be the only adventurers exploiting the third dimension in low level play.

    Picking pockets is a way to earn some bar money and start the occasional barroom brawl.

    Hiding in shadows and move silently are worth it even at their low chances, since they should still be better then anything any other character can attempt in the domain of stealth.
    Careful and successful use is a player controlled surprise roll.

  12. Wow...I'm truly surprised how much commentary this post has generated compared to others. You folks are obviously connoisseurs of the thief class!

    When I asked, "what's the incentive for playing a thief," I was only being semi-rhetorical. I really do appreciate the feedback of the thief fans that read this blog.

    Thanks to everyone.

  13. The Thief is definitely a hot-button topic for the OSR. I've had similar thoughts about the Thief: I always found them BORING. I just posted some thoughts here: []

    Only one guy in our group ever played them and he was always being such a pain in the ass (picking pockets, etc.) that no one liked him (the character I mean). The climax was when the Thief was killed by Frost Giants. The rest of us thought maybe we ought to get him Resurrected, but we couldn't carry him while being chased by giants. So we chopped his corpse into pieces and stuffed him into a Bag of Holding. Unfortunately, everyone had such a good time dismembering the Thief that his player got mad and left the table.

    At least we never had anymore Thieves.