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? "Hmm...top 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.