Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Lovely Lovely Thieves

There were four possible topics I had on my mind to write about...dragons, elves, initiative, and thieves...and rather than make up my mind, I did the silly blog-o-sphere thing of rolling percentile dice to determine which it would be. The result came up "dragons" so, contrarian that I am, of course I'll be writing about thieves (again)...and the post is looooong. Brew that coffee!

I've had lots of time to think (haven't we all?) since my last post on thieves back in early June, and think I have, especially with a couple recent ideas added to the ol' noggin:

Rules exist to provide boundaries of play that (a) promote a challenging, engaging experience; and (b) maintain order by giving the players knowledge of what to expect from other players.

AND (the following flaws of setting design):

Inadequate comprehension of why a game process matters, how it adds to the game and why its implementation is a feature and not a bug.

As well as:

Vague and imprecise understanding of a rule's boundary.

...all of which have come from Alexis Smolensk's blog on design, The Higher Path. I'd cite the particular entries (here and here) but you need to be a Patron to access them; however, there's nothing there that specifically applies to thieves application of these concepts to the thief class is coming out of my brain.

[take that for what it's worth]

As has become my usual M.O. I find it helpful to start at the earliest primordial ooze of a rule concept/system, in order to track its development and find exactly where, how, and (if possible) why it "went off the rails." In the case of the thief, we first see [Gygax's version] appear in The Great Plains Gamer Players Newsletter, a zine sold at GenCon VII in 1974.

The "original thief" has a number of small differences from how the character would eventually appear in Greyhawk (Supplement I). These include Chainmail style hit dice (as the basic classes received in Men & Magic), slightly lower XP requirements at the highest levels (85k instead of 90k for 9th level and 115k instead of 125k for every level thereafter), an alignment restriction of "neutral" (and no prohibition against lawful characters hiring them), and backstab damage that increases at a different rate (two dice for every four levels attained, minimum 2d6...this would mean 4d6 at 8th level, 6d6 at 12th level, 8d6 at 16th level, etc.). While the rules state that the class is open to humans, dwarves, elves, and hobbits (halflings), there is no mention of multi-class thieves, and no racial bonuses to skills are given for demihumans. The skills themselves (and their percentages) are entirely unchanged with the exception of hear noise which only ramps up to 100% (1-6) at 14th level, not 13th as given in Greyhawk.  Reading languages (at 3rd level) and magic (at 9th level) are given as "optional considerations" and do not list any chance of failure.

The Great Plains article also gives an admonition that "thieves are generally not meant to fight" and this is born out by their low hit dice (of all the classes given Chainmail hit dice, thieves have the worst progression...worse even than magic-users!). There are notes that, if using the "alternative combat method" thieves should progress as clerics on the combat tables (no mention is made of which saving throw type to use). Finally, there is an extensive example of how a thief might be used, describing all thief functions in action with the exception of wall climbing which, interestingly, is given NO CHANCE of failure in the article.

[the ability to "climb almost sheer surfaces rapidly, up or down" is still listed as one of the thief's unique abilities, but it includes no percentage. This makes the Greyhawk rule of 13% to slip and fall (decreasing 1% per level) to be an afterthought, explaining why it is given as a failure chance, rather than a success chance. This parallels Greyhawk's difference in handling the language/magic reading abilities of a thief]

Examining these ideas/rules thoroughly, what they are meant to do and their parameters (boundaries) of function, I find that I have a renewed interest in including the thief class, as it appears to answer all the issues raised in my earlier post:
  • A neutral alignment in my setting doesn't pose any problems to inclusion in an adventuring party, lawful or otherwise (this will relate to a not-yet posted essay on alignment in my setting).
  • The "point" of demihumans was (per Gygax in later writings) to give players who had rolled WEAK (i.e. non-optimal) characters an option to play something with extra (bonus) abilities. Someone wants to be a thief but rolls a poor dexterity? Be an elf thief and get infravision and better secret door detection (for example). I will not, however, be allowing multi-class thieves, with the possible exception of elves (and then only magic-user/thieves). I am also strongly considering level limits for demihuman thieves, as I want to maintain my setting's human-centric POV and do not relish the thought of "master thief" dwarves and elves running around the campaign.
  • Guilds and lock picks are not a requirement of the rules/setting. I'll assume thieves make their own tools from scratch (if necessary).
  • "Language reading" is the deciphering of codes and maps, not reading unknown languages. That's cool, though it seems appropriate to make success level dependent (as was done with climbing). Reading magic, however, is a different matter.
  • "Low survivability" compared to other classes is mitigated by A) presumed role of the thief (i.e. non-combatant skill monkey), B) hit point adjustment (d6 hit points per hit die as originally given, instead of the d4 found in Greyhawk), C) fast advancement (fewer x.p. needed to level up / obtain hit points), and D) the addition of an AC bonus (of +1) that I will be giving to thieves only, for those with a DEX score of 15+ (this is in keeping with my current house rule of providing a small bonus to a class with a high prime requisite; it ends up being the equivalent of carrying a shield (either with or without armor) and doesn't interfere with my weapon vs. armor table.
  • Issues with regard to skill use (backstabbing and pocket picking, "poor" percentages, and trap concerns, etc.) can all be addressed by being specific with skill explanations, definitions, and boundaries of play.
I'll talk about the thief's skills in a moment; first I want to talk about why the thief exists in the game...or, to be more precise, in my game.

The thief provides a particular type of play experience (that is to say, means of engaging with the game) to the player that falls outside the three defined roles in original system. It is not a fighter, though it must be at least somewhat combat-worthy (as combat participation is an intrinsic part of the game); it is not the thief's role to take hits for other party members, nor is it the thief's priority to deliver damage to opponents (sorry "rogue" fans). Likewise, the thief is not a cleric, whose role is one of defense and support; the cleric has heavy armor, magic that heals and boosts, and the ability to "turn" undead monsters with vicious, dangerous powers (paralysis, disease, level drain).

The thief is MOSTLY akin to the magic-user, sharing many traits in common: low combat ability, multiple means of interacting with the environment, not to mention some abilities that appear "magical" in nature (reading magic-user scrolls, foiling magical closures with open locks, etc. However, unlike the magic-user, the arrows in a thief's skill quiver are strictly defined; the magic-user makes choices as to which spells she brings to the party, while the thieves skills always remain the same. In this way, the thief (like the fighter) might be considered an appropriate class for the novice or beginning player: rather than knowledge of an entire textbook of spells, the player need only familiarize herself with a half-dozen skills. While the skills carry a chance of failure, they are also unlimited in usage (not that you can use them multiple times in a single instance, but multiple times in an adventure/session). Rather than increasing CHOICE with advancement in level, the character increases EFFECTIVENESS...they function better and/or more often.

This is why there's no need to make magic-users "roll dice" to see if their spells succeed (as in other RPGs...see DragonQuest as an example). Players who want to engage with the game in that "gambling style" of play can choose to play a thief gaining the abilities of invisibility, third dimensional movement, code-breaking, security defeating, and high damage delivery all in a single package. While you lose nuance and wider choice of application, as well as guaranteed success (a magic-user's invisibility, knock, and levitation spells ALWAYS functions), what you gain are a reusability factor and a streamlined simplicity not found in the wizard class. The thief is not a redundant class; it provides a different method for engaging with the game. 

Now, the skills: let's put hard boundaries to what they are and how they're used.

It's worth getting grungy to dig out the diamonds.

Though as recently as yesterday I was giving serious consideration to the idea of allowing player chosen specialization in skills (like, "add 35 percentile points to your choice of skills every time you level up"), upon reflection this flies in the face of both what the thief class represents (streamlined versatility) and what the thief models (a discreet package of skills that increase in effectiveness as the thief advances in her career). Yes, all 5th level cutpurses have a 40% chance to open locks and a 45% chance to move silently...they learned these skills as an apprentice, and by the time they've earned 10,000 x.p. this is amount of progress they've made towards mastering those abilities. By the time the master thief reaches 14th level, all her skills should have reached maximum potential.

Opening locks (by picking or even foiling magical closures): picking a lock on a chest or door requires the thief to use hand-crafted tools (no cost or encumbrance) that are upgraded automatically with any increase in level (taken out of any training costs). These are considered secreted upon the thief's person and only lost if somehow captured and stripped of all goods (including clothing); a highly unlikely situation. An attempt to open a lock can be made once and if failed then the lock "must be forced open -- a very time-consuming process." Magical closures do not include those under the spell of a hold portal or wizard lock, but refers instead to certain enchanted dungeon doors of the "puzzle" variety (without the need to work the puzzle...another time-consuming process)...such locks may include a penalty to the skill check.

Removal of small trap devices (including poison needles): these are small traps found on chests, coffers, alcoves, etc. with the specific purpose of guarding a treasure. Such traps are automatically detected by the thief (per the example given) and then the player must decide whether or not to attempt disarming the device. Failure to disarm a trap of this kind "activates it with regard to the thief and any others within range." Examination of the treasure object/resting place is enough to discover the trap (so bring a thief along with you); other methods might be tried to remove a treasure object rather than attempting to disarm the trap. Traps found in a dungeon (per Book III) "are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or 2 [on a d6] when any character passes over or by them [including pit traps]." This thief skill is unrelated to those type of exploration traps (which I explaining in a later post).

Climb almost sheer surfaces rapidly, up and down: boundaries that need to be defined include speed of ascent/descent, distance traveled, weight carried, and definition of "failure." Speed climbers can ascend 15m (about 50') in under eight seconds; this is, of course, a product of optimal conditions, specific training, and modern equipment...but it's still close enough to what I imagine a "sheer surface climb." Considering caution (on the part of the thief) and unfamiliarity with the surface being climbed, I'd allow movement at one-half normal exploration speed: for OD&D this means one move (at 10' per 1" speed) over ten minutes; add one additional foot of climb speed per level over 1st. For example, an unencumbered 5th level cutpurse can ascend/descend 124' in ten minutes (12.4' per one minute melee round). A thief can climb faster (dividing the time spent climbing in half), but then the DM must roll a "failure check" as indicated in Greyhawk. Failure chance is doubled if moderately encumbered (9"), tripled if heavily encumbered (6"), and quadrupled if over-burdened (3"). One check is made per move. Let's say our same cutpurse is loaded with treasure (heavy encumbrance) and needs to climb 30' to reach a ledge to escape a charging pack of ghouls. While she could cautiously climb 6.4 feet per minute, she doesn't have that kind of time and opts to double her speed (the ghouls have about a 9' reach when jumping, so 12.8 feet should put her out of their reach). Her chance of failure is 27% (13 -4 = 9 x3 = 27). The point at which the character falls will be be 20% to 80% of the total distance of the move (2d4 x10%). Our cutpurse only intended to climb 30'; if she fails her roll and the die roll is a 6, she falls from 60% of the 30' (at the 18' mark), not 60% of the 60' she could have climbed. Adverse weather conditions (rain, snow, high wind) will probably increase the failure rate, and might force a check even when caution is exercised by the climber. A thief should be able to estimate the distance to her destination (i.e. the DM tells the player) in order to make a decision based on risk.

Steal item by stealth or sleight-of-hand: in Greyhawk, this bullet point becomes "filch items and pick pockets." The original is more openly defined. It still uses the same percentage chance as move silently, but it applies to the removal of any object desired "from the person of the owner or from his immediate vicinity." This is theft in plain sight...removing some item from a desk or table, adding something an individual's drink, slicing a purse, or removing a ring from the finger. Level should probably be some indication of the proximity of the thief to the victim and/or the number of prying eyes that may be observing the thief when she makes her move. Greyhawk reduces success by 5% for each level a victim is above 5th, but should this apply to hit dice as well? Would a 5th level magic-user really be more susceptible to a shell game than a 9HD hill giant? I don't think so. In this case, I'd actually use levels of experience only as most monsters are fairly stupid; an exception would be creatures with spell-casting ability: a djinni, for example, would be fooled at -15% and an efreet at -25% using hit dice in place of level.

Strike silently from behind: no, it isn't called "backstab." Gygax's original text on the subject seems to imply that a successful move silent roll would be needed to gain this advantage, though I would waive the necessity in the case of a surprised opponent assuming the thief was close enough to make a melee attack. The example target is a "man," but rather than assuming the need for a humanoid with a stab-worthy back, I'm going to make this a sneaky or underhanded critical strike against ANY living opponent (not a construct, plant, or undead type). Use the reduced damage found in Greyhawk, as I would guess the original got curbed in actual playtesting of the class. Note: this assumes a non-hostile or "on guard" opponent; a failed move silent check (remember this is the same chance as the misdirection/theft check) indicates the thief has shown her hand and is unable to catch the target unawares; roll for initiative immediately and proceed to combat.

Listen for noise behind a closed door: this is self-explanatory, though it will be discussed more in a future post that deals with exploration rules. Being a 1st level thief gives the character the same chance to hear noise as a pointy-eared demihuman; higher level increases this ability for all racial types.

Move with stealth: As far as simply "moving silently," a thief should always be assumed to be quiet but, when traveling with other types of adventurers, chance of surprising and being surprised is no different from normal. Otherwise (i.e. when solo) a move silent check need only be made when the thief comes in possible earshot of a potential antagonist; failure indicates the character has done something to give herself away (again, reverting to normal surprise chance). Movement is normal exploration speed based on the thief's encumbrance; a thief in a flight/pursuit situation (double movement) isn't concerned with being stealthy.

Hide in Shadows: the best saved for last (well, almost last). Per the original text, the percentage given is "the chance to remain undetected while hiding or moving through shadows." The stipulation for skill use is that the thief be unobserved when attempting to hide (and that there be shadows to hide within). While old, musty castles lit by candles or torches would probably have plenty of shadows, I would use this skill check for any attempt at the thief concealing herself while unobserved...standing behind a curtain, jumping in a wardrobe, hiding behind a piece of furniture, etc. Success (only checked when a potential observer enters the room...and only checked once!) indicates the thief has hidden herself so well as to remain undetected and (depending on the situation) can even move while remaining concealed. Failure would indicate the character is noticed, or gives herself away somehow, though that shouldn't negate the chance of the thief surprising the observer (checked normally). How long should the thief remain unobserved? Until she reveals herself, generally by attacking; the hiding ability in this way is very similar to invisibility. How fast can the hiding thief move? Assuming appropriate cover or distraction is available, as fast (and as far) as her cover and encumbrance allow.

This (finally) explains the combat example found on page 105 of the AD&D Players Handbook. A party of five adventurers surprise an illusionist with his band of 20 orcs; the thief uses the surprise segment to "dart to the rear of the party and attempt to hide in shadows." In the first round following, the thief uses the cover of the cleric's silence spell to move into melee range (the encounter occurred at a distance of 30') while "slinking and sliding around in the shadows." In the next round, the illusionist "does not hear the thief behind him," is stabbed in the back and dies; the final round has the thief entering normal melee with the orcs. This example ONLY makes sense in light of Gygax using his own earlier interpretations of the thief skills, as recorded in The Great Plains Gamer. Gygax makes it quite clear in the DMG that any movement on the part of the thief gives away a "hide," not to mention that the thief is unable to hide under either direct or indirect using a group of party members as cover to disappear! Furthermore, even the thief's "silent movement" is terribly slow, dropping to "exploration speed,"which is only one-tenth of normal melee speed; there is no way for a thief to sneak 30' in a single round using such rules (he'd have to have a movement rate of 30" to do so).

Bollux. I'll be using the OD&D rules (and the GPG 'zine examples) for my determination of how thief skills function. Hiding in shadows...a more difficult ability to execute than simple "stealthy movement"...functions as a minor form of invisibility, which (in my estimation) is how the skill was originally supposed to function. It cannot be used unobserved (though a suitable distraction might provide the moment to disappear), it requires some sort of cover for hiding (if only shadows cast by medieval illumination), it allows normal movement (so long as cover persists), and is lost upon attack. It's not necessarily effective in full darkness (seeing as how most monsters have some form of infravision which is only "spoiled" by the existence of a light source), but it could given suitable terrain for concealing the character (rock formations, etc.). Even the olfactory and audial senses of super-predators might be ineffective of discovering the thief: a monster might know someone was present, but not necessarily where. Springing from cover could still be a surprising circumstance (I'll write about that when I get to surprise in that later post I keep mentioning).

Okay, is that enough? I realize this post is incredibly long (I've been writing it since Tuesday morning). But is that enough definition to establish boundaries for the thief character's skills? I think so, but let me run over them really quick:

How fast a character can move while performing skills? Yes. When skills can be used and when they can't? Yes, I believe so. At what point a percentage check is made (and the consequences of failure)? Yes, with most consequences being "a return to normal rules."

The thief class allows a player to break (or modify) certain, specific game systems, much the same as magic spells. They can bypass locks without the need to force them or find keys. They can achieve surprise or evade pursuit or purloin items under observation. They can move vertically in an environment without the need for special equipment. They can acquire treasure items without setting off guardian traps. They can puzzle out coded treasure maps (mmm...still need to set up a percentile table) that might otherwise require a spell to decipher.

They do not read magic. Not unless magical writing is something that can be read with simple mundane training. Wizards require a spell to do the same, regardless of experience level or intelligence! I am discarding this "possible consideration."

Do thieves provide a method of challenging the player and giving the player an engaging experience? Yes: the class provides multiple small ways to interact with the game environment with the potential risk of failure. At higher levels, this risk is diminished, but the consequences of failure (presumably) increase. And the class occupies a niche that the other classes do not.

Okay, yeah...I am on board with adding thieves to my game. Now I just need to write them up in my ever-changing rule book.


  1. This isn't how I like to run my thieves, and I have points of contention with some decisions (and I am sorry for a compliment starting in the hole like this, but I have a reputation to maintain). Nevertheless, the rules seem tight and credible, and more importantly defensible to players who will try to bend the principles you offer. It will need game play to determine exactly how tight they are, but I think such would only help you add a line here and there to better define the limitations.

    Well done.

    1. Appreciate it, Alexis. I started writing this before your Higher Path post yesterday, but I think they still manage to define the skills enough to cut down on player-DM interaction/discussion. I hope!