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...)