Tuesday, July 28, 2009

B/X Thieves: Epitome of Heroic Adventurer

AKA “The Farm Boy Made Good.”

I’ve seen some disgruntlement over the Thief class’s D4 hit dice (we’re talking B/X and Mentzer here), and frankly I don’t get it. Well, I guess I’m not too surprised, actually…people want the Thief to have a higher survivability than the magic-user class. In AD&D, after all, thieves get D6 for hit points and magic-users get D4…and aren’t they more of a fighting class than the MU?

[Actually, I think the real question is how can one justify giving an AD&D magic-user D4 hit dice when a normal human gets D6!]

Okay, let’s forget all that and just talk B/X: A normal human (in B/X) has 1-4 hit points. That’s it. The village leper or a frail child might have 1 hit point, while the burly town blacksmith or candidate for the new season of The Bachelor might have 4 hit points. Regardless of what weapon system you’re using, a lucky shot from the weakest weapon (or opponent) has the potential to slay a Normal Man. These are the average chumps on the street with little awareness of danger beyond the mundane, and no real fighting experience or training. People of military and law enforcement careers call these folk “civilians” or “sheep.”

Now a first level human adventurer, of ANY class, is him or herself only recently elevated from the ranks of the sheep. As per the B/X monster section, once a normal human starts gaining experience points, the person needs to pick an adventuring class. [Maybe all PCs should start out with 1+ XP, huh?]

Magic-users, like normal sheep, have 0 combat training…they’ve been spending their time learning to pronounce un-pronounceable words, and studying the theory behind the secrets of the cosmos. It makes perfect sense for them to start with 1D4 hit points. Likewise, the fighter whose training is a bit more physically rigorous (to say the least) should have 1D8 hit points; a trained fighter is twice as able in combat, but until he (or she) gets a bit more experience, two peasants with pitch forks can probably take him down if they get the drop on him when he’s out of armor.

Clerics, depending on how you view them, may have some fighting training, or may be bolstered by the Holy Spirit (or the Chaotic power of Cthulhu), or perhaps simply benefit from cleaner living than the average normal man (they are Wise after all…they’re probably getting good sleep, abstaining from poor food and toxic chemicals, and get that daily, moderate exercise one’s doctor is always harping about). Thus they get D6s for hit points.

The thief, however, is about the closest thing to a "normal man adventurer" there is. If he fights better than a Normal Man (or un-trained magic-user), it’s more likely due to cleverness of tactics and willingness to cheat than any formal sword training. In fact, when using abstract, narrative combat here’s what you might hear:

Thief: “I kick the hobgoblin in the groin and club him with the pommel of my sword when he doubles over.” DM: “Roll to hit.” Rolls. “Got him!” DM: “Blood is flowing from the back of his skull; roll damage.”


Thief: “I reach down and flip some sand up into the ogre’s eyes and then try to hamstring him with my blade.” DM: “Roll to hit.” Rolls. “Missed!” DM: “The ogre sneezes at the dust, but is still able to block your blow with one meaty paw.”

Notice that there are no bonuses given in these narratives. These kinds of actions should be assumed to be part and parcel to the combat action…they are considered in the thief’s chances to hit. Higher level thieves get better attack rolls because A) their tactics are more clever, and/or B) they are better at executing the tactics they use. The thief is NOT necessarily Errol Flynn with a sword. Captain Blood was a military man…as was Robin Hood depending on the version of the legend you’re reading.

But back to hit points. Shouldn’t thieves, by dint of their “wiliness” get more hit points than a Normal Man?

Well, they already do…after they reach 2nd level. At first level, the thief is still an APPRENTICE (as their level title makes clear); they are still learning the ropes, those skills that make them an asset (or a detriment) to the adventuring party. Like the studious magic-user, they have their own studies to pursue, and combat is NOT the priority. Yes, they fight better than a Normal Man (ALL adventurers do, including MUs). Yes, they are more aware of danger than the sheep (all adventurers have better saving throws than a Normal Man). But unlike the crusading cleric or the war-trained fighter, the thief has no mandate to take the fight to the enemy. Theirs is the way of stealthy pilfering, NOT sword-play.

And so, they get D4 hit points per level (up to 9th). Remember that hit points for PCs (as opposed to monsters, including Normal Men) are NOT simply stamina or damage that can be absorbed before death. PC hit points are luck, skill at dodging and parrying, endurance/fatigue, and craftiness, as well as fitness and body strength.

So one might think that thieves, with their overall craftiness, their roguish luck, their physical fitness (have you ever seen a person that could climb sheer walls and contort into crawl spaces?) would qualify for MORE hit points than some of these other adventurers. I mean, if anyone should have “heroic survivability” it should be the thief, right? Well, guess what. The designers of B/X thought so, too.

Even though the thief only rolls D4 for hit points, they have MORE hit points on average THAN ANY OTHER CHARACTER CLASS EXCEPT THE FIGHTER.

No matter how your DM does 1st level hit points (straight roll, max HPs at level 1, or re-roll 1’s and 2’s as per the Moldvay rules), the thief will eventually “out-hit-point” all classes except the dedicated fighting man. They pass magic-users at level 10, Halflings at 12, elves at 15, clerics around 18-19, and dwarves around 23. By 24th level, all other things (Constitution, average dice rolls) being equal, the Master Thief will have better combat survivability than any class except the fighter, whom they’ll trail by an average of 18 hit points only.

Of course, this makes perfect sense. After all, the B/X thief has mastered all tradecraft by level 14…what more is there after that then to practice one’s sword play?

Those lucky bastards! ...er, Heroes!

The thief IS a heroic adventurer, but just like all the PCs, he has to start small and prove himself. If the thief has any mandate at all, it is to play smart...don't try to dazzle in combat with a frontal assault, don't get suckered into a disarming a trap when avoiding it works just as well...and definitely don't steal and backstab your team mates (unless they really, REALLY deserve it). Eventually, smart play will be rewarded by increased survivability...and even without flashy magic armor the thief will be able to hold his (or her) own.


  1. You make some good arguments for the d4 hit dice for thieves, and I waffled on it for a while before going with d6.

    A bandit has 1d8, though.

  2. 'A bandit has 1d8, though'

    I see bandits as fighters rather than pickpockets and burglars so this fits as far as I'm concerned.

    Great post, well thought out.

  3. I agree with your reasoning on the d4 thiefly HD in B/X.
    They simply don't have the same survivability in combat as Fighters and clerics.
    Far too many people over the years have been trying to turn the thief into a commado or swashbuckler.

  4. @ Kilgore & Sean: And the Elf has 1+1 (1D8+1) Hit Dice. I just figured this was to reflect Constitution bonuses. Clean living elves…
    : )

    Really I think the bandit thing is a non-issue. Even a 2nd or 3rd level thief (which might have 8 hit points) has the same attack and saving throws of a 1st level thief, so when it says a bandit is a low level thief, I treat it as such.

    Generally, they’re mugging folks, not picking pockets or climbing walls anyway…at least in MY B/X games.

    @JDJ: Well, I guess it’s time we gave the thief back its due, right? Right!

  5. "They simply don't have the same survivability in combat as Fighters"

    Agreed 100%.

    "and clerics."

    Probably agreed.

    However, I DO NOT think they have the same survivability in combat as magic-users.

    1e had theives (1d6) between clerics and magic-users, because fighters and clerics were bumped up a die. I don't really care for that solution.

    Maybe thieves should be 1d5.

  6. How about roll d4 twice take the higher? Tie add one to the score. e.g. roll two 3s score is 4.

    Averages to 3.37 Hit points.

    Another possibility would be to let all PCs receive the d4 of 'regular people' in addition to their 1st level hit dice. It's what I'm planning for MY OSR/Nostalgia/homage game that I may or may not actually put down on paper.

  7. @ Stuart: I was actually going to suggest something similar in an upcoming post ("praising the Normal Man"). Well, actually, not similar, but THE EXACT SAME. RE adding the NM's D4 to a starting character's HPs. One way to make the Vet seem more like a Vet you know?

  8. what does "the farm boy made good" refer to? is it a reference to a book? and after all the various thief posts that followed this one, do you still think that the class is the closest thing to a normal man adventurer? sorry if this is coming out of nowhere since this post is from 2009, i'm gearing up for a new campaign and was reminded of this.

    1. @ Motley:

      The "farm boy made good" refers to the classic fantasy trope of kid from the farm (or any rural setting) that gets dragged off on a amazing adventure, eventually becoming a hero/king/etc. Examples include everything from Theseus to Lloyd Alexander's Taran Pig-Farmer to Luke Skywalker.

      Having said that, my perception of the thief character HAS changed, and I don't consider it any closer to the "normal human" than any of the other B/X classes.