Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Paying Dues - Thieves

Going back over B/X stuff the last couple weeks has made me remember just how much I enjoy that particular edition of Dungeons & Dragons. That's nice. Re-reading my own old posts and (especially) my B/X books that I've published (my B/X Companion and The Complete B/X Adventurer) has also been good for Ye Olde Ego...I've been kind of a badass. Even now, I'm especially proud of how the B/X Companion turned out...there's a lot of very cool stuff crammed into its pages.

But there are things about the B/X game that I still dislike, things that have been brought (back) to my attention lately that irritate me. The lack of real production that comes out of the low level character, most especially the thief and the magic-user. Neither one is a very viable option as a 1st level character. They just aren't, no matter how you slice it. They are struck too easily, and they have too few hit points, and the production from their special abilities is so low as to be laughable, quite frankly.

Even considering that the thief's skills are more special than one might superficially presume, most of their skill percentages are at 20% or below. If we consider that on the same (D20) scale as combat, that's the equivalent of pitting characters against monsters armed with plate & shield (AC 2) or better...assuming, of course, that the character's have no bonuses to hit from a high STR or DEX. Which most players would find to be grossly unfair...usual fare for 1st level characters in B/X would include things like bandits, goblins, kobolds, orcs, and skeletons, with the occasional ogre or zombie encounter thrown in as a "challenge." All these creatures have an AC in the 6 to 8 range, save the ogre with its AC 5, meaning the attack roll falls mainly within the 11 to 13 range, even without the potential +1 or +2 bonuses most B/X fighters will have.

That's equates to a 40% to 50% rate of success for their actions. What 1st level thief wouldn't kill to have a 40-50% rate of success for moving silently, or finding traps, or opening locks? If I've only got a 1 in 5 chance of performing a skill (with failure indicating I've activated a trap, or given myself away to the person I'm trying to surprise), I'm probably going to opt out of even attempting such an action...but give me even (or close to even odds) and I'm much more likely to take the chance. After all, it's not like I can shine in combat or spell-casting. The way the game is set-up at the moment, I'm likely to spend the first few months of my existence acting as an archer rather than a thief (high DEX, bow, and stay the hell out of combat). Is that what thief players really want to sign up for?

I wrote earlier that one of the very cool things about D&D (at least, the older editions) is the way the game allows for different asymmetrical play-styles. While the fighter is solid (if simple), and the magic-user is the strategist, the thief is the gambler, and people like to gamble! I like to gamble (though I don't like to lose money...), but like all gamblers, I like to measure my odds. If the Seahawks are playing at home on Monday Night Football, you're going to be hard pressed to get me to bet against the home team. The Seahawks own a .733 win percentage (best in the NFL) on MNF. Combine that with a league best .844 win percentage at home the last four years (since Russell Wilson became their quarterback)...and why would anyone (let alone a homer like me) take a chance of losing their money?

Which is why Vegas gives odds, adds points, and provides bigger payouts as a reward for betting the underdog.

Worth it?
Unfortunately, in D&D the payout is pretty much the same whether you decide to fight the monster for the treasure OR sneak by it "for the steal." Sure, if you manage to make your stealth roll the thief can end up with some phat loot and no HPs lost, but if you fail (and oh what a good chance that is), your lone sneak is going to end up in serious trouble. Probably of the mortal variety. Best to let the fighters take on the bad guys while you plink it with arrows, yeah? Hope the magic-user still has that sleep spell up her sleeve?

This kind of skulking through the low levels (which I've observed time and again), was one of the main reasons I simply junked thief skill rolls from my B/X campaign back in 2011 (with good effect). The problem with doing this, though, is two-fold:

  • It precludes thief characters from seeing any increased effectiveness from earning levels (aside from a paltry increase to HPs and combat ability). Compared to other classes (spells for clerics and mages; much better combat increases for fighters), there's hardly much "carrot" to keep thieves excited.
  • It removes that "gambler" style of play from the game, making for (in my opinion) a less interesting contrast in styles.

The easiest fix, of course, is to up the skill percentages. This is what AD&D with the PHB and (later) the Unearthed Arcana, adding bonuses for race and high DEX scores...plus increasing thief hit dice so that they had a little more "staying power" in combat. But in B/X there ain't any halfling thieves and I dislike an increased emphasis on ability scores. The real issue (for me) is one of scale...thief skills start to low and are stretched too thin (especially in the BECMI/RC "reboot" that scales thief skills from 1 to 36 instead of 1 to 14).

Probably it would make sense to add DEX bonuses to thief skills in the same way that B/X adds bonuses to melee attack and damage rolls for STR, say:

13-15 +5%
16-17 +10%
18      +15%

[with equal penalties for low scores]

...but the base skill percentages probably still need to be scaled up. Not so much as combat perhaps (since the opportunity for thief skills probably should occur as often as combat...all characters have a chance to fight, only thieves have thief skills), but better than 1 in 5 and 1 in 10. 25%-35% sounds about right for 1st level (plus the DEX bonus) with a straight 5% bump per level thereafter. This will give thieves even odds of pulling off their skills by about 5th level and name (9th) level thieves will have around a circa 75% chance of success...which they already do in B/X, by the way, they just do it with larger "bumps" as they level up.

All right, my writing time's eaten up for the day. I'll write about magic-users tomorrow.


  1. I like your analysis of this.
    Have you considered making the thief skills as a bonus on top of ordinary non-thiefly chance of success? ... what is a fighters chance of moving quitely to get past a guard looking the other way, or the normal chance of climbing a wall....

    1. @ Kimbo:

      Not really, no. Thief skills are (with the exception of hearing noise) are abilities outside the norm of other adventurers. Anyone can climb a wall with rope and spikes with little (or zero) chance of failure...thieves can scale sheer surfaces with skill alone. Anyone can camouflage themselves or set an ambush (with a normal or better surprise chance)...only thieves can hide in shadows or move silently or backstab.

      I know some folks have taken this tact. For me, I like to consider my thieves separate and "special" (for lack of a better term).

  2. From my perspective (which is influenced by d20, I admit) is that there is no scaling difficulty. While I've seen stuff like a lock with a 10% penalty, in general, there's no scaling. Kobolds are just as easy to sneak past as Beholders, which is silly. Of course, statting out some sort of difficulty mods may be more work than you want and/or not the OD&D way, but it's the way a lot of later games have handled things. After all, AC exists; to hit in combat isn't simply an unmodified roll under. Why should everything else be?

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  4. If you haven't checked it out I recommend the trait/check system from Scarlet Heroes by Kevin Crawford.

    Fixes the crap Thief problem and provides D&D with an (in my opinion) awesome Barbarians of Lemuria "skill" system.

    1. "Scarlet Heroes." I presume that's somewhat different from Crimson Swords? I have the latter in PDF form...somewhere.

      I can't for the life of me recall the Barbarians of Lemuria system; it's been a while since I've read it, and I know I had an issue or two with the game as a whole. Maybe. Ah, heck, I really don't remember; all I know is the book is gathering dust on a shelf back in Seattle.

  5. By "Crimson Swords" did you mean "Crimson Blades" by Simon Washbourne, the author of BoL? I haven't read it.

    Scarlet Heroes is by the prolific Kevin Crawford of Sine Nomine Publishing; there is a quick start on RPGNow which includes the trait/check system though not how it advances with levels. The whole game is well worth checking out as a very clever way of running old D&D scenarios as-is with only one or two players and no meat shields. It may be familiar if you've read Kevin Crawford's "Black Streams: Solo Heroes"; also available as a free download from RPGNow.

    The basics of the trait/check system is that a character has a limited number of traits, e.g. " Tomb robber" or "Shanghaied by pirates" rated from 1-3 and then makes checks of (2d8 + stat bonus + relevant trait) vs. a target number (default 9). BoL uses 2d6 and this serves as its universal mechanic.

    I think it's neat and the flexibility of traits provides a great opportunity to add flavour, but your YMMV especially if you don't like systems where the GM has to pick a target number out of thin air.

    1. @ Thomas:

      I'm not a fan of systems based in whole or part on GM fiat. Picking target numbers "out of thin air" falls into that category.