Thursday, June 4, 2020

A Hard Look At Thieves

I've written quite a bit about thieves over the years; this will be my 24th post with the "thief" tag.

While trying to put my thoughts on the character in order this morning, I asked my nine year old to give me his thoughts on the thief class. How do you feel about it?

"Overrated," was the reply. I asked him to elaborate.

"Even though thief can open locks and such, he's going to get killed." He said. "Especially in OD&D, he's just too weak in combat to survive; he doesn't get to use bows, he's forced to fight in leather armor, and even his chances of being sneaky aren't very good."

He went on: "In B/X the thief is a little better, because he can use bows and his dexterity gives him a bonus to his armor class. But you don't give DEX bonuses in OD&D and leather armor isn't good enough. They have useful abilities like climbing walls and stuff, but they're killed too easily."

What about his ability to backstab? "Well, there is THAT, but you need a couple beefy fighters in your party to distract the monsters so you can sneak around and get him from behind." You couldn't sneak up on someone? "Well, your percentage is really bad especially at low level. If I was going to take a thief to, say, the Tomb of Horrors, I'd want to be at least 6th level. At least! Then I could go armed with a sword and daggers."

So if you were to rank your class preferences, where would the thief land? " of the bottom." Out of four classes? "Oh, you're not talking about elves and dwarf classes? Well, if it's just the basic four [cleric, fighter, magic-user, thief] he comes in at #4 (last place) in OD&D, and maybe tied with cleric or slightly better than cleric in B/X." Clerics are worse? "Well, in B/X they don't get a spell at first level, and it's really tough that they can't use bows and arrows." That's the same in OD&D. "Yeah, but in B/X thieves get the DEX bonus and they can use bows." Oh, right, I see. And thieves need to use bows because they're kind of weak with bad armor? "Yeah, unless you're in one of Sofia's dungeons, because then you can talk your way out of fights with monsters and still get millions of gold pieces." Okay.

So is it worth having a thief in an adventuring party? "Yes, so long as they have fighters for protection. Then you can use them for other tactics." Tactics? "Like picking locks. But they need protection." Picking locks is useful? "Yeah, and fighters can't do it. Well, maybe they could, but they'd have a lot harder time. They don't have the right equipment or skills." Okay, thanks.

No mention was made of traps or hearing noise in this conversation.

As I mentioned (briefly, in passing) in my last post, I haven't actually implemented thieves in my OD&D game...if you were to read my compiled/cleaned up copy of Book 1, you would find no mention of a "thief" class. My son's inferences of the "weakness" of the OD&D thief come from (I believe) my OD&D rules (like the lack of ability score bonuses) and discussions of different weapon proficiencies in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons...the OD&D thief presented in Greyhawk appears to have the same proficiencies as the B/X thief (i.e. no restrictions on weapon use at all).

Anyway...I wanted my son's input before writing this because...well, because I appreciate his opinion on the subject. I understand that the D&D thief is/was an iconic character class for DECADES (only supplanted by the "rogue" archetype in modern versions of the game). But much as I've worked with it and used it over the years (24 posts!), I dislike the thief for a number of reasons:

- A skill set that dividing the party: picking pockets and "backstabbing" encourage PVP play. Moving silently requires the PC to be alone in her sneaking. Hiding in shadows requires the thief to be left behind (no movement) to be effective.
- An alignment restriction that might be at odds with other party members (if Paladins can't adventure with non-Lawfuls, and thieves cannot be Lawful, well...).
- Low survival rating (as pointed out by my son) without adjusting hit points and/or increasing attribute bonuses.
- As written (in OD&D and AD&D), providing demi-humans with a means of unlimited leveling, moving the game away from being humancentric by taking away one of the unique abilities of humans (the only species allowed unlimited leveling).
- Emphasizing mechanical "traps" in dungeon exploration, in order to give the thief a way to earn her keep. How many strongboxes really need poisoned needles?
- In OD&D: implies something strange with regard to the thief's (1d4) hit dice: that humans are weaker than originally modeled (1d6 hit points). I can take a magic-user's lowered survival ability being related to the pasty, sedentary lifestyle of an academic (or the corruption and body wracking toll of learning sorcery). Why d4s for thieves? Vice and (medieval) city living? Okay...but then that concerns ALL folks living in the squalor of King's Landing (or its equivalent).
- Thieves Guilds as required institutions.
- Lock picks on the normal equipment list.
- Combat considerations (backstabbing) that adds an element of tactical detail to what should be the abstract, chaotic swirl of melee. Extra justification required to explain just how backstabbing works with a number of monster types (slimes, golems, undead, beholders, dragons, giants, etc.) or else the inevitable restriction/nerfing of the class's beefiest attack form.
- Unique abilities (skills) that are so ineffective at low level as to discourage use.
- The ability to "read magic" without a spell or read and understand languages that the character doesn't know like some sort of super-linguist.

All that being said...

I could work with most of this. I have worked with most of this throughout my decades of playing D&D. And for many years I haven't had to do much with it because thieves are so garbage no one wants to play them...

[there are a lot of exceptions to this last. AD&D players with demi-humans always worked thieves into their multi-class mix. A level or five of "rogue" was often taken in my 3E days (both by myself and others). I've played thieves on more than one occasion, including a Nehwon based B/X convention game that included ONLY thieves and fighters. And my old friends Kris and Jason were notorious for ONLY playing thieves in D&D games]

I dislike that all thieves have the same skill sets, all progressing at the same increments. And yet I dislike EVEN MORE the idea of implementing a "skill system" to the D&D game.

I dislike thieves. I dislike them a lot.

The OD&D game has a character type that finds traps: the dwarf. The OD&D game has a stealthy character type: the halfling. The OD&D game has a character type that reads old, dead languages on maps: the magic-user (with the proper spell). The OD&D game has a character type that "hears noise" well: demi-humans. Does the game need to combine all these abilities in a single package?

What happened to having a party of multiple individuals contributing their individual skills, being forced to rely upon one another?

I think...I think that instead of including a "thief" class, I'd prefer to include a list of "adventuring skills" that player characters could choose from. Maybe someone is adept at free-climbing. Maybe someone is good at setting (and disarming) small traps. Etc. Characters could take a number of these skills based on their intelligence score (learning one such skill in place of a language they might otherwise know).

Maybe I'll include other skills like tracking, woodcraft, and herb lore (for healing).

I wouldn't tie success chances to level...skills would be either you have it or not. Climb sheer walls with 90% ability (penalties if doing it in windy, rainy, or snow conditions)...or whatever. Some players could build their own thief, mixing and matching the skills they want. Perhaps a magic-user was a street conjurer and pickpocket prior to her apprenticeship. Perhaps a fighter is skilled at commando-like stealth, having been a scout for the army. Whatever.

We've been playing OD&D without thieves for a while now, and I really don't miss the class. As a DM, I like having a character type that can pickpocket and backstab, but I don't like seeing it in my players' adventuring party (not in a "dedicated-to-this-way-of-life" type of fashion). My players haven't missed the class or complained about its absence. But they might appreciate adding an extra distinction to their character.

Yeah, thieves. I'm kind of done with them.


  1. I wonder if the thief archetype, along with its skills, might be better transferred to the gallery of niche hirelings whom players can recruit for specific expeditions. If we know we're going into the Tomb of Horrors, we bring several highly-paid thieves along to spot and disarm traps. Keeping the thieves alive becomes a task for the PCs, and the old PVP annoyances that can divide a party become another management challenge for the thieves' employers.

    1. I don’t mind that idea at’s kind of what I’ve decided to do with the assassin class (keep it as an NPC hireling as in Book 3 and use the Blackmoor rules to determine success chances).

      Finding a famed locksmith to open a strongbox or hiring a language specialist to decipher a map sounds more interesting than having a “thief” on it’s a solid drain of party resources (treasure) providing additional motivation for adventure.
      ; )

  2. Yep. You have encapsulated why I don't like the class very eloquently. I'd even go so far as to say that 5e has made the Rogue class virtually irrelevant because you can duplicate most of the Thieving abilities with Backgrounds. Even so, I still run into players who want to give the class a I continue to struggle to make the class work...

  3. I had thought about classes before and didn't found a final answer to the Thief class but I've found something else.

    D&D is a game as such players have fronts of play like combat enemies, dungeon exploration, NPC interaction, etc. Before thinking how a class works in a front, you should define how players normally interacts with that front in the first place. We already know how combat works so the Fighters which focus on combat is easy to find out it all works. Magic-Users doesn't focus on any front but its thing is that it has its own rules to interacts with the world. Clerics is very like a magic-user but with different tricks and a touch of fighter. Thieves on the other hand doesn't have a clear front, it's said to be exploration but exploration is usually a player skill not a character skill. Before thinking on the Thief (or any other class), I would first think how other players would do the same thing just then I would think how the Thief can do the same thing but better and how it improve with levels.

    Thinking this way led me not to rewrite the Thief but to discart it and use the classic "wanna be a thief? just steal something!".

  4. I haven't understood this conversation for a decade now, coming from many sources.

    I never have any trouble with players not wanting to play thieves, even though I've reduced the power of the backstab. I've always had a thief in every campaign, and no one has ever complained the class is "too weak."
    Different, yes, but not weak.

    Perhaps this has something to do with the x.p. for gold rules? A thief hits 2nd as most of the party is still halfway there; they reach 3rd as the mage reaches 2nd. They get one more hit die overall than fighters. I definitely use the dex bonus to armor class, and the additional AD&D dex bonus to thrown weapons. These things are critical to making the thief a practical character. I have no idea why it was ever dumped.

    Of course, there was the whole rogue alternative, which destroyed the thief as a role-playing character with the status of being able to deal with the criminal element. That was a huge error, and anyone familiar with the old game had to know that wasn't going to work. Just a bad politically correct design choice; design should never be spoiled by politics.

    1. Ugh, Alexis! Just went I think I have something nailed down, you put forth a perfectly rational alternative viewpoint.

      OD&D *does* have a missile bonus for high DEX scores...that’s been there since the beginning, even before STR got some bonuses in the first supplement. And I *do* use it.

      You’re right about the x.p. / fast advancement...that IS a great equalizer, and my own thief (which I played in a recent B/X game) leveled extremely fast as I used good play / decision-making and took advantage of a novice DM.

      Also, I’ve written before that I like the “gambling” play style that goes with the thief class.

      *sigh* Dammit, Alexis. Jeez.

    2. My job is to wait like a spider until you write a post, JB. And then watch you finish building this nice, big barn before pointing out you forgot to include a door.

    3. All right, “Spider-Man;” my laptop ate the more detailed comment I wrote this morning so I’m going to pare it down to this:

      Your “thief” class..and your campaign world...has substantial changes from the usual OD&D and AD&D systems which addresses most of the issues/concerns I have with the thief (both directly and indirectly). Many of these changes I don’t intend to implement at this time for [reasons], and certainly not for the sole benefit of a thief class!

      But set all that to the side for the moment. One of the more substantial improvements you’ve made are the addition of your “sage abilities,” which add both versatility and distinction to ALL the class, and the thief especially. However, you’ve only been using sage abilities for...what? A decade now? As you clearly had thieves in your game since the beginning, what system did you use for the character’s class abilities prievious? Just the straight AD&D table (with adjustments for DEX, race, and armor)? Or did you have a prior modification to make the low level character’s skill use more palatable to the player?

      Thanks for the input, Alexis; helpful as usual.
      : )

    4. Jeez, what a moniker. I'd have picked a different metaphor if I'd anticipated that.

      For the first 15 years of my gaming, I ran the thief class pretty much as is in AD&D. Annoying percentage rolls, dex bonuses, fast advancement and backstabbing. That's pretty much all a thief was. But then, All the classes were simplistic and wanting of breadth and intensification, or so I believed; I didn't obey the current that asked for New classes; I began adding little abilities and bonus options to character classes as early as the late 80s, long prior to my conceiving of sage abilities. These were skills that were gained automatically; no point buys ... but they were of minimal value. For example, the thief could talk to the local criminal element. None of these "extras" were combat oriented.

      Experimenting with those extras convinced me that bonus abilities could be added to all the classes without spoiling the game's balance. So I began larger adjustments in the late 90s; these got bigger and more expansive, until they became the Sage Abilities. At first, I was going to add these knowledge-based abilities only to the spellcasters ... but online players in my campaign pushed me to rethink all the classes in sage abilities.

      That's when I realized that every class ability, including things like backstabbing, assassination and turning undead, could be included in the umbrella of sage abilities.

      That's a quick description of my progress in this facet.

    5. Despite that, in those early days, there were STILL no complaints about the thief. This might have been due to my severely restraining the spellcasting classes (no switching spells, no duplicate casting) and maintaining a combat system that promoted group dynamics rather than individual achievement. Three fighters can't defend a mage if the fighters are hit hard, stunned (so that they lose a round of combat) and then overrun, as they enemy rushes through them and at the mage or thief. Players protect each other better in my game because of the combat system; and maybe that satisfies your son's complaint about needing support. The fighters have to think about their backup and not just themselves, or they won't have a backup and they'll go down too.

      At the same time, the thief can't run off and do their own thing; if they do that and get stunned just once, they're dead. A thief with 18 hit points gets stunned on a hit causing 5 damage; if they're by themselves, they'll get dogpiled like a sword-wielding bastard in an American race riot.

      So, these things together probably made thieves feel safer overall; and thieves had skills that I kept absolutely out of the hands of other classes, so that probably made thieves feel important and needed.

      There are likely other factors at play in the way I run as a DM.

    6. No, that all makes sense. My boy’s main character recently has been a magic-user who’s not afraid to mix it up in melee, even before his spells are exhausted. I think HE expects more from a thief...but that might be a misconception (he also wishes all classes could use bows).

      Sorry about the moniker. ; )

  5. Very thought-provoking discussion. I, too, have had little problems in the past with thieves (heck, I find it is harder to convince someone to play a straight vanilla fighter than to play a thief!), but the older I get, the more I want to tinker/discard the class. As it stands right now, I tend to rename the thief class in my games as "mercenary" or "scout", as they are more of a utility jack-of-all-trades than truly a "thief" (although, by the same token, when I play a thief, I usually tell the party he is a fighter, and don't do anything overt to let them know what I really am.. I know, role playing... go figure). The only problem I have ever had with thieves is the idea of picking locks (why can't everyone do it?)... I have thought of allowing other classes the ability if their DEX score was 17 or 18 as a skill, but never really pulled the trigger on it. As for backstab, I never had a problem with it, because I always think of thieves as being the class that wants to take the easy way out (picking locks, hiding in shadows, never wanting to be seen), so why fight fair?

    1. Badger King, if you remove the "chance to succeed" and make it automatic, but dependent on how long it takes, you solve your "why can't everyone do it" problem. The thief takes 5-20 seconds; the other classes (if taught) take 2-5 minutes. Voila!

    2. Nice! I like that. I favor utility characters with options and for the longest time Thieves did that for me. I like switching competency to be time-based and not percentiles.

  6. I prefer to look at thieves as adventurers who skipped advanced combat training in order to take electives in "alternative skills," but the d4 hit dice and the low skill success rates in B/X don't really support this. I have taken to interpret the low skills as the rates vs. "challenging" conditions, increasing success rates vs. "typical" conditions. In my perfect D&D, thieves would have d6 hit dice and be able to wear chain, but I'm sticking to BTB on that.

    1. I'm using OD&D+Greyhawk with some minor tweaks, one of them being I kept everyone at 1d6 for hit points and damage. It is not the end of the world if you give Thieves d6 hit points.

  7. So, keeping in mind that most of my experience both playing and running games with thieves is 2E AD&D or later and other variants.

    Thieves were always the second most popular class at my table (next to MU). Part of that I think comes down to the D6 HP and the ability to customize which skills you put points in when creating your thief. That allowed for a lot of variability with the class that my players always embraced.

    When we tried B/X the first thing people asked was if we could use the 2E AD&D thief instead.

    At my tables, the least played classes were Paladin (not surprising), Cleric, and single classed Fighters. The only fighters that appeared at the table were multi-classed. In 25 years of gaming I can remember 1 Paladin (who was more fighter than paladin), 2 Clerics, and 3 single classed fighters. Loads of MUs, thieves, rangers, bards, and multi-classed.

    All of that aside, the use of % for thief skills instead of something more in line with the rest of the rules always seemed strange to me.

    Depending on the campaign thief is definitely a class you can drop without losing too much thematically or experience wise at the table.

  8. I found this encapsulated my current issues with the Thief perfectly:
    "The OD&D game has a character type that finds traps: the dwarf. The OD&D game has a stealthy character type: the halfling. The OD&D game has a character type that reads old, dead languages on maps: the magic-user (with the proper spell). The OD&D game has a character type that "hears noise" well: demi-humans. Does the game need to combine all these abilities in a single package?"

    The class feels redundant in OD&D and steps on the toes of other classes/races. This is bad design. Later versions make them the skill monkey of the group, which I think is good as it lets them shine, but you have to be using a skill system for that to work.

    TL;DR: I'm dissatisfied with thieves as-is but don't want them to disappear.

  9. I give them crossbow in my ad&d 1e campaign. The crossbow require less practice and training than bows.
    In AD&D 1e the thief must be
    moving silently to be able to backstab.

  10. The role of thief, scout, rouge whatever always looked like a fun way to play, sneaking around, t getting bonus damage for flanking, backstabbing and otherwise being creative, relaying on wit and trickery, on the other hand giving those powers to the whole party makes some sense, gestalt game where everyone was gestalt with a rouge/thief/scout could be quite fun.