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.