Thursday, July 30, 2009

Going Commando: Last Thief Post (I Hope!)

Bucky Barnes was a fighter you jackass.

Let’s back-the-heck-up a quick second. I am a strong proponent of playing different game systems for different types of games. If I want a military game set in WW2, I’m going to use something like Godlike (with or without the powers thrown in), NOT D20 Modern. If I want to play a wizard-focused story in a semi-historical Dark Age setting (think the film Dragonslayer), I’m going to play Ars Magica, not D&D. If I want to play street level vigilantes as opposed to Wild Cards with powers, I’m going to play Heroes Unlimited, not Aberrant.

So, the discussion of Bucky Barnes (the Marvel Comics character) in D&D terms is a bit disingenuous because I would never try to model him in such terms (no, I do not play Mutants and Masterminds).

Nevertheless, when I think “stealthy commando” I think of Bucky Barnes, due to the whole Marvel re-imagining of Bucky/Winter Soldier. And the reason I’m thinking stealthy commando is, of course, because it’s still Thief Week, and people have been moving more and more towards this idea of the thief as a “stealthy commando” even before AD&D2 (check out the Castle Greyhawk adventure module, in which Mordenkainen the film producer casts a heroic thief that uses his “stealthy backstabbing abilities to solve problems instead of his brain”).

And to proponents of the thief as “stealthy commando” character, I say:

Bucky Barnes was a fighter you jackass.

I realize this is like trying to shout down a brick wall (and my kiai just ain’t what it once was), but I’ll state my points just the same. Once upon a time there were only fighting men, magic users, and clerics. We already know the cleric was designed to fill a niche that wanted filling (the holy warrior that receives some divine blessings due to their faith and zeal in pursuing an anti-undead agenda). Then the thief was created to fill yet another niche.

Was it a stealthy commando niche? It was not.

Just because Bucky (or Rambo or Benicio Del Toro in The Hunted), use knives and stealth and don’t wear heavy armor does NOT make them thieves. These are the epitome of “fighting men,” trained in hand-to-hand combat. If they use hunting knives and aren’t wearing plate armor, it’s because they live in the 20th and 21st century, and era in which guns have rendered many old forms of armor less than useful (they also have the ability to use guns). If they are able to kill with a single blow, it’s not because they are “backstabbing” someone (do these heroes do a lot of “backstabbing?”) it’s because they’re taking out the equivalent of 1st level mooks or Normal Men. When engaged with real competition (say the fight between Tommy Lee Jones and Del Toro, or Winter Soldier versus Cap America), they have to struggle in melee just like any other fighting man, using up abstract “hit points” while wearing down their opponent’s same.

But again comparing modern commandos with fantasy characters is comparing apples to oranges. How about some archetypal characters:

Bilbo Baggins (the archetype for the “Halfling thief,” personally I find very little thief-like about him…but the discussion on Halflings is next week)…definitely not commando material.

Gray Mouser (archetype for the thief class)…when he fights, he does so with honor and relish, not from the shadows like some sort of assassin. No commando there.

Looking at fantasy film and literature that has been published AFTER the emergence of D&D I still find little “commando-esque” thieves (hell, look at that little gem-eating guy from Conan the Destroyer. How about Phillipe the Mouse from Ladyhawke?) with one strange exception. Gord the Rogue by Gary Gygax is one hell of a fighter considering he’s a thief-acrobat. Making frequent use of backstabbing and stealth attacks (at least in the first two books…the only ones I’ve read), he’s damn sight closer to a fighting man than Tasselhoff Burrfoot (Tas = commando? No), even operating in a “special forces” role in the siege of the Scarlet Brotherhood’s citadel.

But Gygaxian weirdness aside, I see little support for the idea of the thief as anything more than…well, a thief. That is, until 2nd edition AD&D and the renaming of the character class as the “Rogue.”

The term “rogue” carries some connotations that “thief” does not. The AH dictionary gives a sample of these: an unprincipled person…a scoundrel…a wild, solitary, and savage beast, apart from the herd (as in a “rogue elephant”). The last, I think, is an important part of the class’s new coloration.

A thief is a person that steals.
Period. Those “thief skills” that get folks so worked up are all crafts necessary for a thief to steal. Picking pockets (basic). Climbing walls (burglary). Opening locks, disarming traps (for those who break and enter). Hiding in shadows and moving silently (for sneaking in and out or avoiding the town watch). Hearing noise (are the guards coming?). Backstabbing (whoops, someone’s there…better sap ‘em). Reading languages (I can’t find the treasure on this map!).

But once you call someone a Rogue, they become more than just “a person that steals.” They are an outsider…outside of “polite society.” A rake. A rebel. A swashbuckler. A rogue, in other words.

Here’s my beef: all D&D characters are “rogues,” NOT just thieves. Just as Fafhrd and Mouser are BOTH described as “those loveable rogues” on their jacket covers. All adventurers are rogues, outside of polite society. If they weren’t rogues, they’d be settling down with regular jobs, as opposed to searching for lost cities and raiding ancient shrines and tombs. Check out the cover of the original PHB…every dude on there is a rogue of one stripe or another. They all have grit, they all have attitude. They all are doing something their mothers warned them not to do.

AD&D2E is a heaping pile of shit, I’ve said it before, but this shifting of the thief paradigm makes it especially steaming. Fighters are fighters, thieves are thieves, and adventurers are ALL rogues…though all have the potential to grow up and gain some “respectability” (as landholders and dominion rulers).

When you turn thieves into rogues you give them permission to start re-defining why they have those thief skills. The backstabbing is used for the stealthy kill, same with the moving silently and hiding in shadows (the perfect assassin). Finding traps is for disarming those pesky tripwires, and opening locks is needed because “no man holds me!” Picking pockets, reading scrolls…these abilities generally get short shrift from the commando rogue, being interesting perks, but not much use in "special forces" tradecraft.

As I said, I realizing I am trying to shout down brick walls, here. It might be a different matter, if there was already some lightly armored, swashbuckling fighter class to play in D&D…to which I say, there IS. It’s called “the fighter.” But fighters need armor! No, they CAN wear it but they don’t have to. But then they’ll get hit more often in combat! Um, yeah.

Remember how I said I am a great believer in trying different game systems if you want to play different games? If you want to play lightly armored, swashbuckler fighters with good survivability, you should probably be playing something Chaosium-like with its parry and dodge skills (but withOUT the “naked dwarf” syndrome inherent in games like WFRP and TROS).

D&D is what it is. AC measures how often your character is going to take damage from an attack roll. Hit points are a measure of your heroic staying power. Neither a thief, nor a lightly-armored fighter, will avoid taking damage as well as a warrior in plate and shield, but the fighter has more heroic staying power (in the form of higher hit points) than the thief.

If you really want to play a stealthy commando, play a fighting man. Ask your DM to house-rule some sneaking rules…anyone can pin brush to their body and crawl on their belly, knife clenched in the teeth. Just reviewing the Halfling special abilities, how about this:

A character in the outdoors, unencumbered and not wearing metal armor, may attempt to sneak up on an unaware foe. The chance of surprising the foe increases to 4 in 6…Elves 5 in 6, Halflings 7 in 8.

This assumes of course that your fighter is aware of the foe he wants to creep up on. Remember that all attacks from behind give a +2 bonus and discount shields (even for non-thieves). He (or she) should have no problem gutting mooks and Normal Men they surprise, even without a “backstabbing” ability, and will have more prolonged combats against more worthy opponents…just like real commandos would.
; )


  1. A++ on this post. The whole Thief series here is good, actually.

    I agree 100% on the meaning and purpose of the Thief... it's the main reason why AD&D 1st Ed is where I draw the line.

    It seems to me though that another force thrusting Thieves into combat was the dissolution of the link between treasure and XP. IME an old-school party would get 10x the XP from loot as combat, allowing the Thief to keep pace simply by doing her job. No such luck now - thus the 'Rogue'.

  2. Thank you rainswept...I'm glad you've enjoyed "Thief Week" here at Ye Olde Blackrazor Blogge. If they provided some enjoyment (and maybe some thought or a thoughtful pause), then they've done all I could honestly hope them to do.

  3. i think the idea of the rogue was less to provide a stealthy commando, and more to provide a class that's more pragmatic and dirty, but doesn't steal for a living or has formal fight training, someone who
    follows the simple three step plan of;

    1.if need survive/live, walk past, ignore, avoid,run, climb, tumble, jump
    2.if need kill, be indirect, ambush, trap, poison, throw pointy things, throw poison things, throw fire things, throw explody things, cheat
    3.if fight have to, fight dirty, kick groin, gouge eyes, throw sand, put feces on weapon to cause infection, imply paternal unit is less than the idealized image in attackers eyes

  4. @ Motley:

    Huh. I suppose that's possible, but I'd still argue that "fighting dirty" is still a form of fighting and should thus fall under the purview of the fighter class.

    My guess is that the class got re-named from "thief" to "rogue" because they found PCs were doing more backstabbing than pocket picking.

    1. true, you could apply dirty tactics to the fighter class by using fluff to describe the attacks as being "low", but the way the class is set up mechanically implies formal training, and i doubt an adventurer who prefers to engage encounters with the above three steps would qualify to be a fighter, they're more of the frontline meatfortress type of class

    2. Hmm...kind of the point of my original post was that, no, the fighter classification of adventurer applies to any character who makes "fighting" their forte. Whether you're fighting dirty, stealthy, or in a knightly fashion makes no difference...if your contribution to an adventure is in combat, your character should be modeled as a fighter.

      All classes have a need to survive, and should take what tactics they can in doing so (whether that means mortal combat, fleeing, or negotiation); these options are available to ALL characters. Having a heightened capacity to survive combat is modeled by hit points, which fighters have the bulk of. This ABSTRACT concept can represent dodging, tumbling, and cinematic acrobatics...OR slabs of calloused muscle and scar tissue OR some incredible pain threshold and "will to live" OR ability to parry and keep distance (till fatigue wears down your sword arm) OR any combination of the above.

      The ability to set up ambuscades, dig pitfalls, poison weapons, or engage in underhanded tactics is NOT the purview of any one character class. ANY character class can engage in such tactics (at least they could back in the days before D20 skill systems imposed limitations and needless complexity).

      A thief's specialty is stealing; the thief's skills (as originally conceptualized) reflect this specialty. Over editions, this concept has drifted...perhaps because of players' lack of imagination or comprehension with regard to the fighter class and its differences compared to the thief class.

      Fortunately, B/X is still readily available (in PDF form anyway) for folks who enjoyed the days when ALL characters were "rogues."
      ; )

    3. that's actually very illuminating, thank you. i mostly deal with 3.5, pathfinder and a little bit of warhammer fantasy roleplay, so my perspective is corrupted by the idea that in order to play a certain character that's a little more vague or broad in their tactics requires certain skill points and class skills. and yeah the thiefs drift into "rogue" sadly has taken away many options from other classes, not just the fighter. ever since i started reading your blog i've been slowly shifting my interests into older editions of various tabletops