Friday, May 4, 2018

Surprise and Surrender (Thief Incentives P. 2)

[continued from here]

I think it's rather telling that several of the thief skill percentages (open locks, find/remove traps, and pick pockets) were increased in AD&D to that of an OD&D/B/X thief of the 3rd level, even before adding racial bonuses or adjustments for ability scores and lack of armor (see the Unearthed Arcana).  That right there provides me with a justification for adding bonuses based on dexterity, as postulated in my prior post.

Still, though, let's talk about giving the 1st level thieves reasons for using those skills.

Open locks is rather straightforward, and doesn't really carry much risk. Assuming the thief can afford her tools, there's no reason NOT to try opening locks that are found. You'll be saving your wizard the use of a knock spell, and giving your party a chance to preserve treasure chests (for carting coins), and moving stealthily (rather than chopping down locked doors). Upping the percentage chance via a dexterity bonus just ensures an increased level of effectiveness (i.e. the locks will open more often than they would otherwise).

Climbing sheer surfaces, which I take to mean "free climbing" (without rope or equipment), carries a fairly sizable risk: death. It is explicit in the text that a failed roll results in a fall from the halfway point of the climb (checked once every 100'), and multiple D6s of damage is generally going to splatter a low-level thief all over the flagstone. That's pretty rough. On the other hand, the thief's chance of success is 87% even without a possible dexterity adjustment (and here I'd only add +1% per ability "pip," rather than +5%) meaning there's very little possibility of failure even at 1st level. Cautious thieves making extensive climbs (requiring multiple checks) might make use of spikes and ropes to prevent falls once the first successful roll has been made (tying off at the 100' mark).

Hearing noise and finding traps has the same success chance for the 1st level thief as most other player characters (they hear like a demihuman and should never have less than the 1 in 6 chance of discovering a trap that any non-dwarf PC has); as such, performing those skills aren't any more "risky" than any other character (the only risk is in potentially failing to spot a trap or hear an opponent). Removing traps is another issue, and should always receive the suggested dexterity bonus. However, it's important to note that NO WHERE in the (B/X) text does it state a failure at trap removal results in springing the trap. The example of Black Dougal dying from a poison needle comes not from missing a disarm check but, rather, from failing to detect the trap on the chest, and then proceeding to open the chest anyway. It is likewise important to notice that Dougal still receives a saving throw (just as any other PC would) and at low levels requires a 13+ to avoid the traps effects. That's a bit like saying the character had an additional 40% chance of "deactivating" the trap (assuming that the trap is only capable of delivering its damage once) and that, I think, is a reasonable risk to take to save the entire party a bit of heartache.

[the 20% chance to remove (assuming DEX16+) + 40% chance to save results in an overall success rate of 52%...better than the chance to hit armor class 8 at as a 1st level character]

Hiding in shadows and moving silently are those skills that allow thieves to stealth around like ninjas, and have a low chance of success even with a dexterity adjustment. However, both interact powerfully with the surprise rules in B/X. Hiding in shadows allows the thief to become invisible in even the slightest darkness, though it is clear from the AD&D text that creatures with infravision will still detect a thief unless there is a nearby torch or heat source (like the kind that might cast shadows...*ahem*). B/X plainly states that infravision is useless even with in "magical light" (page B21), meaning thieves can feel fairly confident of remaining hidden in any situation where they themselves can see their opponents (i.e. due to the presence of illumination). In a fantasy setting like D&D, such an effect can seem semi-magical (a sudden vanishing into darkness), similar to the supernatural portrayal of the assassin's disguise skill in the television series Game of Thrones. There is no stipulation that the thief need be unobserved to perform the skill; a simple skill check allows the character to fade from sight instantly...and as well should provide complete cover (as per page B26). In a normal combat situation (with party members relying on light sources), a successful hide in shadows should allow the discreet thief to completely avoid injury except of the collateral variety (errant fireballs and whatnot). A hidden thief should be able to attempt a surprise roll (possibly at a bonus) with no possibility of being surprised herself, save by invisible creatures.

[creatures with powerful olfactory senses might be a different story, however]

Moving silently allows thieves to sneak up on (or past) guards and creatures, facilitating a better than usual surprise chance. Bugbears "move very quietly" and achieve surprise on a 1-3 "due to their stealth" and the thief who succeeds at her skill roll should receive a similar (and probably better) bonus. After all, the thief is moving silently, not just quietly; for me, I'd probably allow a successful roll to indicate automatic surprise for the thief (an opponent fails to notice the thief until she is already lunging for the attack). However, even on a failed roll, the thief should still receive the normal surprise chance of any other character (2 in 6 chance); thus, similarly to the "remove traps" skill, the chance of the thief to achieve her aim (surprise) is actually greater than the skill percentage would indicate: about 53% for a 1st level thief (assuming the +10% bonus of a 16 dexterity).

And a thief that obtains surprise should always be allowed her "backstab" bonus.

Finally, we have the somewhat problematic pick pockets skill. Problematic as the book's example shows the thief stealing from an NPC member of the thief's own party; even the basic class description contains the text:
As their name indicates, however, they do steal -- sometimes from members of their own party.
...which sets a fairly bad precedent, considering we want players to be working together, cooperatively. Fostering inter-party conflict is NOT conducive to long-term sustainability!

I know some folks use the skill as a catchall for any sleight-of-hand a thief might want to perform, but really, how many times do you need a stage magician in a dungeon setting? Not many.

No, let's look at the typical Oliver/Fagin-esque ability. Unlike AD&D with it's "dice for random item" method of determining what's been pilfered, no such stipulation is made in B/X; my assumption is that the thief can choose what she's going to lift on a successful check. And while I would NOT recommend stealing from one's fellow party members (NPC or not) there is, I think, an oft overlooked way the pickpocket skill is underutilized: as a means of escaping capture.

"Capture? I thought DMs were supposed to avoid imprisoning PCs because such de-protagonization sucks, JB." Be that as it may, PCs can still choose to voluntarily surrender...and why shouldn't they, especially when faced with overwhelming odds? Most intelligent opponents will accept surrender, rather than risk more bloodshed to their own people. Lawful species (dwarves, elves, etc.) can be expected to treat such prisoners humanely, and humans of any ilk will likewise prefer captives, either to prosecute under their society's laws, to attempt to secure ransom, or to impress their prisoners into labor (bandits and pirates might offer captives a chance to "join up"). Even cannibalistic humanoids are unlikely to butcher PCs that surrender, instead keeping captives alive for later consumption; killing them all at once would lead to "food spoilage," after all (and besides, by the time surrender comes, there might already be casualties fit for stew pots).

Here's the thing: being captured probably won't make PCs as vulnerable as one might suspect. It's not like they're going to be slapped in stainless steel handcuffs or leg shackles. They probably won't even be bound (being surrounded by armed warriors after divesting themselves of weapons being considered sufficient precaution). The characters will be marched off to whatever passes for a "holding cell" and thieves will have plenty of opportunity to pilfer the key to the cell, or a knife to cut cords, or some other useful item. Once secluded, the party will have ample opportunity to escape by whatever means the thief has managed to secure.

[or course, the thief may very well have her lock picks anyway. Unless the PC has some humongous reputation, she's unlikely to be recognized as a "thief" but rather a lower class (i.e. "poor") fighter...besides which medieval jailers are unlikely to do serious "pat-downs" for anything smaller than a hand weapon. Regardless, a successful pocket picking can allow the thief to purloin a key (removing the need for an open locks check) or a small knife (as a means of defense and backstabbing once escape has been obtained)]

The point being that the inclusion of a thief...even a first level apprentice...provides a party with additional options, not simply limited to fight and flight.

Thoughts? Are these ideas enough incentive?


  1. I think I'd first read on Philotomy's old site the idea that anyone can (try to) move quietly, but only thieves can move silently. I like it, especially since it can be either explained in magical or nonmagical terms.

    As for the possibility of using Pick Pockets to escape capture, that idea makes complete sense and would be a very smart thing to do... which makes me wonder why I've never thought of it. :D (The change of the skill's name to "Sleight of Hand" may have been intended to imply this exact type of thing - hiding a pick or a key on one's person - rather than to imply pulling handkerchiefs out of sleeves, but since I'm not as familiar with 3e I can't comment on how well that came across in the rules.)

    1. I've seen "sleight-o-hand" used to model everything from palming objects to shell games to juggling to coin tricks...none of which are particularly useful in a dungeon environment.

      I suppose one could allow the successful use of such a skill a chance to distract an opponent: say, force a foe to save versus petrification or lose a round or two wondering just what the hell a thief is doing with her "razzle dazzle." However, I suspect some might find that a little whimsical for their campaign style.
      ; )

    2. Robert Fisher covered these ideas many years ago, and he was influential in getting me out of the d20 system fanbase and into the OSR. This may be what Fuzzy was thinking of, but Philotomy probably covered it, too.

    3. D'oh! You're correct. I thought that site had vanished from the Web for a while, but thankfully it seems to be back. (Of course, we've just established that my memory isn't quite perfect...)

  2. What are you opinions about giving thieves increased backstab multiplier similar to OD&D, AD&D, and 2nd edition? In these editions as you know thieves get x3 from levels 5-8 and x4 from
    9-12 etc...I never understood why BX or BECMI thieves didn't receive the same benefit. Was it intentional or simply an oversight? Is this something you allow in your own games? I know you give them an increased multiplier in your companion book by level 16. That seems like a long time to wait. Would love to hear your thoughts as I have a player asking about it and I'm not sure what to do. Thanks JB.

    1. @ Charles:

      I'll be's been a loooong time since the issue has come up. A long, long time.

      [cue wistful Ben Kenobi meme]

      Really. In the last...oh, say...ten years or so, I've only had a couple high level thieves in B/X and the issue never bothered them...but those were one-off adventures, not played using characters carefully developed over time. And in my OD&D games I just haven't had any thieves yet: I wasn't allowing them till recently.

      There are a lot of things that, with hindsight, I probably would change or (at least) made "optional" in my B/X Companion. Level 16 is too high to finally start getting multi-damage backstabs. It's also too high for fighters to start getting multiple melee attacks.

      Here's my thought on it, right now, at this moment, in 2020:

      I've read the character as originally presented by Gygax (in the Great Plains Gamer newsletter). This version included multi-damage but a slightly different version. The Greyhawk supplement's update (where the thief first "officially" appears) was after play-testing and included the variable weapon damage rules. With regard to backstabbing, AD&D retains the EXACT SAME method of handling multi-damage (along with variable weapon damage) following additional years of play-testing. And that stayed the version of choice for a decade (maybe longer? I wasn't a big 2E player and can't remember how that edition handles backstabbing).

      SO: I think it's okay to use the AD&D1/OD&D rules for backstabbing. Extensively play-tested, satisfactory for Gygax (he didn't change it in the Unearthed Arcana)...that's good enough for me.

      Why isn't it in basic? Well, Moldvay didn't add a lot of things that pertained to levels'd have to ask Dave Cook or Steve Marsh why it wasn't in the Expert rules. BECMI's B and E simply aped the rules in B/X so it was left out again. I believe it was an oversight coupled with this: there are many of the oldest grognards (i.e. the original players of the earliest games) that did not like the thief and felt it was a mistake to add it to the game. For a variety of reasons. That as much as anything MIGHT have led to a certain disregard for the class, especially in a Basic game aimed at a younger group of players.


    2. Thanks for a very thorough reply. I've been going back and forth on this and you've settled the issue for me. Mentioning the "original" thief from the Great Plains newsletter was interesting. So I looked it up and yea apparently Gygax had the thief gaining 2 damage dice every 4 levels. So something like this:
      1-4 x2
      5-8 x4
      9-12 x6
      I can see why these multipliers were changed. I guess my hesitancy was I thought that maybe higher multipliers were overpowered and unbalanced and that is why they were left out of BECMI. So again thanks for solving this dilemma for me as my player either wanted to roll a thief or an assassin. We're using the Old School Essentials rules. So I'm trying to be as accommodating as I can. Though granting an increased backstab multiplier might make the assassin somewhat pointless. It's always My last question: What is your stance on calculating backstab damage? Are strength bonuses and magic bonuses, if any, multiplied? I think the RC says to only multiply the weapon damage. I'll have to check. Anyways, thanks again.

    3. I have always added all adjustments to the damage roll prior to doing the multiplication. A thief with gauntlets of ogre power and a +2 hand axe is going to do a crap-ton of damage if he gets the drop on someone.

      I have always liked the *idea* of an assassin class, though it has a number of problematic issues. These days, I'm "pro" including the subclass: I'm inclined to either run it as straight By The Book (AD&D) or else as a proto-prestige class similar to the way BECMI handles Paladins and Druids (i.e. allowing a thief to BECOME an assassin at 3rd level). The disguise ability I'd run like the ridiculous, mostly magic way it's handled by the "faceless men" of Martin's Game of Thrones television show; but mainly I'd really play up the despicable nature of these low charisma poisoners...please no romanticized "good guy" assassins a la video games such as Assasins Creed or Hitman or whatever. Ew.

  3. Very cool. Don't know if you've checked out OSE but there's an advanced rules supplement that adds in AD&D classes and BX-ifies them. So the Assassin doesn't have backstab but can attempt to Assassinate any human or demi human as well as humanoid monsters up to 4+1HD. The target must save vs. death with a penalty that increases by the Assassins level. If I allowed the thief an increased backstab multiplier that might make null and void the Assassin. The trade off here is Assassinate only works without restriction on humans and demi humans while backstab works on basically everything give or take some monsters.

    1. Huh. I haven't checked out the advanced supplement...that's an interesting design decision.

  4. Once you do I would love to hear your thoughts. But because of the Assassin I'm thinking of leaving the thief's backstab as is. So if you want that huge alpha strike then the Assassin is the way to go even though it has its limitations which I think are good so you're not one-shotting anything and everything in sight. The Assassin also has access to poisons that will work on just about anything else you can't Assassinate anyways. On top of that the only thief skills they get is Climb Sheer Surfaces, Hear Noise, Hide in Shadows, and Move Silently. This really differentiates the Thief from the Assassin so that they both have unique play styles.

    1. Huh. Maybe.

      The thief and fighter in OD&D (and by extension AD&D) both have some monstrous bonuses at later levels. A 9th level fighter can cut through up to 9 (1HD) monsters in a single round, while the 9th level thief can deliver a single attack of up 24 damage with a normal short sword. I think subclasses like the ranger (+level damage) and the assassin (auto-kill) simply add additional bonuses based on limitations (alignment restriction, slower advancement, gear restrictions, level restriction).

      More than anything, I think the emphasis for playing a THIEF character should be on its unique skills. And the thief's skills should increase as the character levels up. Backstabbing is a skill; having it increase over time is consistent with the character class.

      The assassin will always be a lesser thief...but that's because it has a different emphasis. Right now, I'm happy with the way the class (as presented in AD&D) is balanced against the thief. What's less satisfactory is how those lesser thief skills are designed to function...but I wrote a post about THAT more recently that helps out:

  5. Thanks for the link. I've only recently been digging through all the wonderful stuff you have here. You mention OD&D quite a bit. Is it safe to assume that is your preferred rule set to play by? And when you say OD&D do you mean like Whitebox (Original 3 books) or something like Swords & Wizardry Core or complete? Getting back to my thief player. His character has a 16 strength, a +2 sword, and is level 6 with a x3 backstab (if granted). Assuming we multiply everything as you suggest, a single backstab could do 36 points of At level 9, with x4, he could do 48 points of damage. Quite Brutal.
    In the article you linked you went into great detail about the thief skills. Great read. What's interesting is in S&W Core and Complete it spells out in detail how a thief/assassin can backstab in combat and it requires a Hide in Shadows roll. That may seem odd to some but in S&W you are allowed to 'Hide' and move at the same time. Anyways when I reading your post it made me think of that.

    1. Mmm. Yeah, that's an issue with B/X: very high ability adjustments coupled with plenty of magical weapons (especially in old TSR adventure modules). But it's not much different in AD&D (a 16 strength is still a +2 damage bonus).

      The part where it "falls down" a bit is the lack of multiple attacks for fighters in B/X: a fighter of 6th level in OD&D gets six attacks against a mob of orcs; that's the potential to inflict SIX TIMES their normal damage. Different character class, different utility. That doesn't happen in B/X (or the standard OSE); that inclines me to leave backstab damage as X2 for B/X.

      For most of 2020 I've been gaming with OD&D (original 3 LBBs with some supplemental rules from Greyhawk, and Gygax's own house rules). Prior to that I played (mainly) B/X for about ten years. Before that it was almost entirely 1st edition AD&D (if I played D&D at all). Despite my most recent history, I am strongly considering a return to AD&D (or B/X with AD&D rules)...but I haven't pulled the trigger on the idea. Been a little too busy lately for running D&D in any form.

  6. Thanks again for the reply. And I think I'm going to leave backstab at x2 as well for the reason you mentioned and so as not to overshadow the Assassin. Here's the Assassinate ability from Advanced OSE:

    When attacking an unaware person from behind, an
    assassin gains a +4 bonus to hit. If the attack succeeds, the victim must save versus death with a penalty dependent on the assassin’s level (noted in the table opposite). If the save fails, the victim is instantly killed, otherwise the assassin’s attack inflicts normal damage.

    It goes on to clarify what can be Assassinated as I mentioned already:

    Any person. This includes all humans and demihumans (of any level) and humanoid monsters of up to 4+1 HD.

    The only other thief skills the OSE Assassin gets is Disguise, Poison Use, Climb Sheer Surfaces, Hear Noises, Move Silently, and Hide in Shadows. I think it's nice BX version of the AD&D Assassin.

  7. Here's another great supplement for BX...
    It's called BX Options Class Builder. Great BX resource. Anyways there's a version of the Assassin in there that is really cool. But the way it handles Assassinate is quite different and I wanted to get your thoughts on it. So it works just like a backstab as far as requirements go. Here's where its different. The damage you do is multiplied by the targets Descending AC plus your Assassins own level. For example lets say you have a level 7 Assassin and your attempting to Assassinate a target with an AC of 2. Assuming you hit, your damage rolled is multiplied by 9. (7+2) The ability works on human-sized or smaller. Targets larger than human size can only be Assassinated if they're HD or level is equal to or less than the Assassins AND they have have a vulnerable spot on their body. Pretty cool and quite deadly.