Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thick with Thieves

It seems like I’ve discussed thieves a lot over the life of this blog…and so why should I stop from posting something more.

I’ve never been one to play a thief. When I played D20, I had a dwarf who multi-classed as a fighter-thief in order to meet the duelist (prestige class) pre requisites. In my youth, my main character (over several years) was a 1st edition bard, who was more of a fighter than anything else. In Pat Armstrong’s on-line B/X game, I had the opportunity to play a thief for a single session.

That’s about it.

I’m writing this to explain I have no great love for the thief class…nothing particularly compels me to make it better or cooler or more effective. However, it IS a class I’m interested in keeping around, and it is important for me to emphasize what the thief class is.

Thieves are thieves.

I don’t see them as “rogues;” to my mind all B/X characters are roguish to some degree. I don’t consider them lightly armored fighters…a lightly armored fighter is a fighter with leather armor. I don’t even see them particularly as a “scout” for the party (though the thief in our group often gets used as one). Any character that requires a light source to “see” in the dungeon is going to have a damn hard time sneaking up on anyone.

Thieves are thieves. They are adventurers (just like all the other PCs), with a particular set of class abilities…what we call “thief skills.” Using the Rules As Written makes this class ability REALLY ineffective. SO ineffective, that he probably won't use any of them…with the exception of climb walls (a high chance of success) and backstabbing (automatically successful, assuming you hit the target).

What do you call a guy that climbs walls and backstabs folks? Especially considering his normal trappings (leather armor and some type of throwing/missile weapon to take advantage of a high DEX)? I don’t know…not a thief, though. Maybe a monkey commando or something.

So, I allow thief skills to automatically succeed in my game. I encourage thief characters to do more than climb walls and backstab. Many sessions we won’t even see backstabbing or wall climbing.

But we DO see the use of thief skills. Searching for traps, picking locks, moving silently. Our party thief gets to act like a thief and doesn’t face epic failure time and time again due to low percentile scores. It’s pretty neat.

Is there a downside to it? Not really. Let’s talk about it in practice:

Picking pockets: our thief player has only picked two or three pockets, generally NPCs in town. This has allowed him to pick up a treasure map that he could have otherwise purchased (without spending money) and take back some coins that he had previously used to bribe someone for information. He hasn’t made any fantastic hauls using the skill, but he has been able to add characterization to the way his character handles himself…without worrying about the chance of failure (and thus side-tracking the party with some sort of arrest scenario).

Opening locks: when there are locks to be picked, the thief gets his chance to open them. Without a thief, the party would have to resort to other methods (finding keys, using knock spells, bashing open chests with an axe, etc.). Allowing the thief to open locks gives the character a chance to shine, gives the party a chance to conserve resources (like knock spells), and allows the game to continue at a brisk pace as the players select the right tool (in this case, the thief) to overcome a minor obstacle. It doesn’t help against magic locks or puzzles, and so there are still ways for me (as the DM) to stymie PC progress, should I so choose. It creates incentive for the PCs to keep the thief alive.

Climbing walls: there are plenty of ways for a thief to fall and hurt himself without worrying about making climb rolls (our thief has fallen into a pit or two). Again, this makes the thief a useful tool of the party to save on other resources (levitation and fly spells), and provides the players with a method for negotiating some obstacles (like cliffs and such) without worrying about the thief dying. I DO require a roll for a hurried or “rapid ascent” (for example, when the thief was attempting to escape the grasp of a wraith in our last session).

Finding (and removing) “small mechanical traps:” probably the main item on the list that would make DMs hesitate with removing skill rolls. However, one must consider the limitations of the skill:

1) PCs must actually search an area for a trap to have a chance to find it.
2) The trap must be of the “mechanical device” variety for the thief to find it.
3) It takes time (1 turn) to search for traps…time for torches to burn out, or lantern oil to be used up, or wandering monsters to come around.

Having the ability to find traps doesn’t mean the thief will necessarily find anything…and it speeds up play. Let me give a couple of “actual play” examples:

- The party comes to a dead end. Some party members want to search for secret doors, the thief searches for traps. No traps are found (there aren’t any). The thief gives the “all clear,” based on his knowledge as a subject matter expert. The party can breathe a sigh of relief as they look for secret doors.
- The party comes to a door. After listening and hearing nothing, the thief kicks in the door. The door opens smoothly and the thief plunges through and down an 80 foot pit (the dungeon garbage chute, well-used by the resident denizens). There was no “trap” to find, but the thief still takes a spill.
- Examining a ruined bedroom with a collapsed ceiling, the party finds skeleton still in the bed, a large boulder having apparently crushed the victim’s skull and upper torso. The thief levers the rock from the remains and sees a silver and sapphire necklace beneath amongst the crushed bone fragments. Excitedly grabbing for it, a fist-sized spider scurries from beneath the bed covers and bites his warm flesh, filling the thief’s veins with poison. Another party member bludgeons the creature but the thief writhes on the floor in agony.

Just because thieves automatically find traps, doesn’t mean caution can be thrown to the wind. Trip wires, floor plates, poisoned needles, and covered pits are all readily found by the searching thief. Magical traps, crumbling stonework, and live animals are NOT so easily discovered…and even when they are (by a detect magic spell, dwarf, or careful prodding with a 10’ pole) they cannot simply be disarmed by the thief.

Does allowing thieves to “automatically” find mechanical traps make the dungeon non-hazardous? No. But is it useful to have a thief in your party? Absolutely. No one wants to deal with a poisoned needle if they don’t have to!

Hiding in Shadows/Moving Silently: While I haven’t been a stickler for it, my baseline consideration for moving silently is that the thief not be heavily encumbered with jingling treasure. However, even if the thief “sneaks ahead,” he still has to roll for surprise himself with any creatures encountered. So long as he’s not (and he’s not carrying his own light, giving himself away), he should be able to creep upon monsters unnoticed and leave, reporting back valuable intelligence to the party. He cannot simply “take on” enemies by himself, as they’ll probably surround him and kill him. Allowing move silently gives him a way to contribute to the party and again, conserve resources (like clairvoyance and wizard eye).

I can’t recall any instances of hiding in shadows to date. Usually, the players are “on the move” and by the time the thief finds himself in a situation where he’d LIKE to hide (i.e. when the party is spotted by monsters), he is unable to hide (having already been spotted). The party does not set-up a lot of traps or ambushes for monsters.

Hear noise: If there is noise loud enough to be heard, it is heard. If it’s not, it’s not. I’m not sure why this needs to be a special skill. Demihumans hear better than humans.

All right, I think that’s about it. Likewise, for dwarves I allow their “stone knowledge” skill to work automatically (if there’s something to discover, they discover it…so long as they’re looking). I also allow PCs automatic insights into certain aspects of a dungeon/adventure based on their class…for instance, clerics know religious items when they see them or have an idea what might be a profane act within a given holy place, dwarves and elves recognize items that were crafted by members of their own species, etc.

So far, none of these things have been a problem in the game…I am completely satisfied that the danger/risk level is still high in the game, and pleased that thieves are more effective at their main class feature, i.e. their skills. For me, it makes the game feel a little more tactical and a little less of a “crap shoot.” PCs are in charge of deciding what action they want to take, and the thief isn’t playing Russian Roulette every time he tries to use a basic ability of his class.

Let’s face it: no other class faces gross bodily harm for failing to use a class ability. If a cleric blows a turning check, they don’t have to make a save versus level drain (for example) the way a thief needs to save versus poison for missing a disarm/find traps roll.

Let me contrast this system with EARLIER games; here’s what I saw:

- Thieves skulking around the back of the party, shooting arrows or looking for a good opportunity to backstab in the midst of an encounter.
- Thieves hoping they wouldn’t be called on to use any of their thief skills.
- Players complaining when they were called on; especially if they then failed (and risked death because of it).
- The only “risk-taking” thieves were newbie players, ignorant of possible consequences (last seen with Vince in White Plume Mountain). Fortunately for Vince, his character started at mid-level (6th or 7th) for the adventure AND he was extremely lucky on more than one occasion with his skill rolls.

Don't know if Matt is reading this, but he can feel free to comment if he likes the "skill-less system" or not. Do you feel that I have taken the challenge out of the game for you by allowing your skills to all succeed?
; )


  1. I like this. So much that I might give it a go in my next game, or at least a variation of it. We'll see how it goes.

  2. JB,

    How do you handle the thief's ability to strike unnoticed from behind (i.e. backstabbing in later versions)?

  3. I would also ask Matt (Stanley the thief's puppet master) if it's disappointing that thief skills don't improve with level advancement, or that you don't get to spend points / choose feats to focus on certain of the abilities over other ones (as in later editions).

    Is it weird that under this house rule, the only thing that improves with experience is combat viability (HP and THAC0)?

    I have this concern with halflings and dwarves, too. You are a (less effective) fighter with a different background/tendencies and a couple of abilities that don't improve over time.

  4. @ Alan: Backstabbing is the sam in B/X as in most pre-D20 editions: thieves receive a +4 bonus to attack from behind and double damage. There isn't a % chance for that skill to work, so it works the same regardless.

    Since I use the B/X Companion, additional bonuses are received for thieves higher than 14th level...but Stanley hasn't reached those lofty heights as of yet.
    ; )

    @ Josh:

    Hit points, THAC0, and saving throws improve for all classes based on level. In addition, other "abilities" open up at higher levels (like attracting followers and such). If you play "straight B/X" there is no additional improvement for most classes (clerics, elves, and magic-users gain additional spell ability). Some would say improved combat ability IS a feature of the "fighter classes."

    Thieves DO gain some additional abilities. At 4th level they can read languages like the spell, at 10th level they can read magic, and at 9th level they can attract followers by building a hideout. If you use my B/X Companion, there are additional abilities that open up at level 15.

    However, for the most part adventuring experience represents an increase in character's adventuring ability...and this is seen in hit points, combat ability, and extra awareness (saving throws). The wisdom you gain as a veteran PLAYER will hopefully give you better insight in to how and when to use your abilities. Kind of like real life.
    ; )

  5. I dig that you played a dwarf thief in 3x. I did the same thing and it was pretty great. A dwarf's strength and melee abilities combined with Sneak Attack damage are a nice combo.

  6. I was totally opposed to this idea at first. I'm not sure I'm totally ready for auto thief skills, but my recent thief rework went a long way towards increasing the viability of the thief, especially at low levels. Now I think perhaps I didn't do enough.

    I would also argue that fighters risk bodily harm for failure to use class abilities, but no more so than anyone else in the party, I suppose. :)

    I will have to ponder this further. It is definitely something worth considering.

  7. I have been using this for a while now (ever since you first posted it) and there was no complaining. "oh, I don't need to roll? Great!" is all I heard. I also use the same rule for bards. If I can think of something cool they might know, I'll let them know. No need to roll.

  8. @JB: I understand that the thief's backstabbing ability does not have a % chance to succeed. However, I wanted to try and understand how a thief in your campaign would "activate" that ability.

    In 3.0+, a thief can trigger that ability by acting before a target in the "surprise" round (e.g. flat footed) or when flanking an opponent with an ally.

    However, in B/X and AD&D, I have always thought that when a thief can trigger his backstabbing ability is a bit nebulous. The most common interpretation I have seen folks use is that the thief needs to succeed at moving silently or hiding in shadows before it can be activated.

    If this is how *you* do it as well, and if the thief always can successfully hide in shadows and/or move silently, then all attacks could be considered a backstab.

    Hence, the question...

  9. @ Christian: I did it mostly to take advantage of things like Tumble mixed with fighting character's STR was only 10 or 12 (duelist remember?). I played tactically using feints and AOOs and sneak attacks. Unfortunately, I had a better handle of the game than the DM...the game got boring and dumb, especially with dumb-dumb dungeons (Forge of Fury?). I doubt I'd play the same way again.

    @ Ryan and Alex: Yeah, once you start drinking the Kool-Aid, it's hard to go back.
    : )

    @ Alan: Ah, I get it. Generally, I go by a strict interpretation of the B/X rules...which I don't have on me. Something about being stabbed in the back while unaware of the attack or some such.

    This is a DM judgment call based on circumstance. Sneaking up on someone isn't always necessary, and gaining surprise isn't an auto-backstab. I've allowed backstab when the monster was aware but distracted (being in melee with the thieves buddies for example) but certainly don't allow backstab for sniping from cover. The most sure-fire way to get a backstab would be to hide in shadows and lie in wait for the target to pass you by...this particular tact hasn't been seen yet in the game, however (at least, not by this thief). I should point out that we have NOT seen many backstabs at all.

  10. @JB - Thanks for the clarification. For such an important feature of the thief class, I have always felt that it was left up in the air in the original game. :>

  11. I might use part of this. Auto success if given time. Thief chart chance of success if under duress.

    Example - You wish to pick the lock into the vault? Take 10 minutes to do it. You wish to pick the lock into the vault while under fire from orc archers with three orc shamans casting fire walls on you? Roll the dice!

    You want to sneak into the room with 3 trolls? Easy! You want to sneak into the room with 3 trolls searching for you because you just stole the magical jug of never ending mead from him while he was drinking it? Roll the dice!

    I think I will use some of this. Climbing walls? Easy! Climbing the mountain wall while the dragon is breathing fire up and down the cliffs? Roll!

  12. I like the duress thing. Except I think Thief skills are just upgraded abilities that everyone already has.

    So a normal person gets the Thief chance when not under duress, but can't try when under duress. A Thief auto succeeds when not under duress, and uses his Thief chance when under duress.


    You want to climb a tree. Most people roll, Thief gets it auto.

    You want to climb a tree in a rainstorm at night. Most people: no. Thief: roll.

    You want to climb a sheer brick wall. Most people: no. Thief: roll.


    You want to sneak by the sleeping guard, wearing no armor. Most people: roll. Thief: auto success.

    Sneak by the sleeping guard carrying jangly loot. Most people: no. Thief: roll.

    Sneak behind an alert guard, in the shadows, wearing nothing. Most people: no. Thief: roll.

    Despite this, I think Read Languages should just be a roll for Thieves. Decoding treasure maps is one of the most valuable things a Thief can do for the party, and nobody except the Assassin can do it.