Thursday, May 3, 2018

Incentivizing Thief Skills (Part 1)

Yesterday, I wrote about my re-kindled romance with the B/X system of Dungeons & Dragons and my need to address a couple of its (few) inadequacies. The first of these is a certain minimal level of survivability, to take some of the crapshoot out of the early adventure sessions (where a character can get themselves killed with a single unlucky roll). That probably deserves another post, offering additional reasons to use the proposed fortune mechanic, but first I wanted to address the other (glaring) barrier to sustainability: the lack of effectiveness found in certain classes.

This post will be about thieves; the next one will address magic-users.

I've written a lot about the thief class over the years...this will be my 20th post that includes the "thief" label. What can I say: it brings up a lot of topics for discussion. However, most of the thoughts I blogged in my last post on the subject still stand. I'll try to summarize them:

  • The thief character offers a unique play style focused on gambling that, thematically, fits the class rather well.
  • Removing thief skill checks (as I've done in the past) remove both this thematic play style, and removes the joy of development that comes from increased character effectiveness with advancement.
  • The skill percentages, as listed make the success chance so low as to provide no incentive (risk/reward) for attempting skill use at low levels.
  • The thief's lack of overall survivability (low hit points, low armor class) coupled with a lack of production makes for a character that few would want to least not if forced to begin at level one.

One idea I floated in the post was the idea of adding a bonus to a thief's skill chances based on their Dexterity score: basically a +5% bonus multiplied by the standard B/X ability adjustment (+1 for 13-15, +2 for 16-17, +3 for 18). As DEX is the prime requisite of thieves, it is easy enough for beginning players to adjust the score upwards at chargen, ensuring a bonus of +5-15% to the beginning thief skills. But is that adequate? Let's examine how that looks:

Open Locks

Remove Traps/ Hide in Shadows
Pick Pockets/ Move Silently
Climb Sheer Surfaces

Do put this in perspective with actual thief skill progression in B/X, with the exception of climb sheer surfaces, a thief with a dexterity of 13-15 adds one level of effectiveness, 16-17 adds two levels of effectiveness, and a dexterity of 18 adds three levels of effectiveness. As a longtime B/X Dungeon Master, I've come to assume that most players will increase their prime requisite to 16 (in order to maximize their experience bonus), meaning most such PCs will be playing with the talents of a 3rd level thief.

[with the exception of the climbing, which is equivalent to an 11th level master thief]

Leaving aside the climbing skill, we see there are three basic percentages: removing traps/hiding (the worst percentage, i.e. most difficult), picking pockets/moving silently (the best, i.e. easiest), and opening locks (the middle difficulty, though requiring "thieves tools" for use...see page X10).

Comparing these to the attack tables, we see that the starting percentages are the same as a thief attempting to attack AC 0, AC 1, and AC 2...all armor classes rarely encountered by 1st level characters in B/X. Adding the proposed +10% bonus for a dexterity of 16 betters this to AC 3, AC 4, and AC 5...still difficult considering standard armor class for most creatures on the L1 wandering monster table top at AC 7. Is this enough of an improvement to encourage actual skill use by the 1st level thief?

The question is really one of incentive: does the possible reward outweigh the high degree of risk that comes with using one's skills?

Clearly there are potential benefits for using thief skills. Most allow the PC to reach treasure that might not be readily accessible, being guarded by traps and locks, located in hard to reach (high) locations, in the pockets of opponents, or in areas where stealth could enable the saving of resources (HPs, spells, etc.). But in many cases a frontal assault can prove far more effective: attacking guards allows the entire party to bring their might to bear, as well as providing a better chance of success (assuming the usual low level opponent types), and dividing risk among multiple participants. And who needs to pick locks when you can break a latch with an axe or crowbar? Is there any other possible incentive besides "looking cool?"

2nd edition AD&D was the first D&D edition to provide XP to thieves (*ahem* -- "rogues") for the use of their special abilities, at a rate of 100 per pop. That's 100 experience points for the successful use of an ability. Considering that the rate of advancement is nearly unchanged from B/X (1250 for 2nd level and 2500 for 3rd) AND that starting rogues can have skill percentages as high as 70% to 75% for non-climbing skills(!!), it's hard not to see this as another example of 2E's misguided design parameters. But the concept of awarding XP for skill use is not a terrible one.

How many legitimate opportunities does a thief get to try their skills in an average game session? Six to eight? Less? With an average success rate of some 28% (35% with a 16 dexterity and receiving a 10% bonus) we're talking some 200-300 extra XP per session. Quite a nice little bonus for a low level character, though one whose importance fades as the character gains levels and requires more XP to advance.

That being said, is it right to give the thief class such a bonus? Is it fair? Unlike XP for treasure and monster defeats, such individual incentive for the the player to attempt a risky maneuver...are going solely to one character. And it just happens to be the character whose class already has the fastest rate of advancement (well, until 11th level; that's when the cleric passes the thief in speed). Would such an incentive breed incentive in the non-thief players at the table? I can see the argument that the player is risking their own skin in a way that other classes aren't (magic-user's spells have no chance of failure and are generally performed at a distance, while front-line fighters have heavy armor and extra hit points to increase their survivability)...but still, there's a bit of inequity there.

What if the XP bonus was reduced to 50 points per successful skill use? Would this curb the possible resentment? Would such a reduction negate the thief's incentive of trying skills except in the most exceptional circumstances?

Here's the thing: the issue is one of base competence for the thief character. A 1-in-10 or 1-in-5 chance of success is not good enough for most folks to risk their lives...especially when any reward (i.e. treasure recovered) is going to be shared out equally amongst individuals who did not take part in the risk. And while a 1-in-3 or 1-in-4 chance (adding DEX bonuses) is a LOT better, there's still a lack of incentive to perform as required when alternative options (hacking and slashing) are available. Survivability is still a consideration here...dead thieves can't spend gold.

[and I would not allow thieves to spend fortune points when using thief skills...that removes the gambling aspect of the class]

So...what to do? Lacking the standard XP carrot (because going down that rabbit hole would probably lead to a bunch of house ruled individual XP awards for different classes, leading to the gradual drifting away of the the whole D&D reward system predicated on PCs working together for the common goal of getting rich)...*ahem* Lacking the standard XP carrot, I feel the incentive must come in the form of increased effectiveness of the thief skills themselves. More "bang for one's buck" is needed, to make the risk of failure worth the possible reward.

But as this post is getting a bit long, I'll write about that in a follow-up.


  1. On the climbing skill inflation - perhaps just add the DEX bonus alone to the percentage (i.e. DEX 13 = 88%)

    1. @ V.A.:

      Yes...was definitely thinking the same thing.
      ; )

  2. I had many of the same problems you do with the class. Here are the solutions I've applied to my game for middle schoolers...