Friday, July 10, 2009

No Such Thing as Normal: Magic-Users and Thieves

While any Normal Human in B/X can pick up a sword and be fitted with a helm and shield, and temple priests are nothing if not Normal Humans (any powers they receive coming from their deity), the Thief and Magic-User both have abilities not found in “Normal” Humans.

A first level fighter or cleric is little different from a Normal Human. Slightly better to hit and saving throws, and a couple more hit points are the main points. But magic-users have the ability to memorize and cast spells, and thieves have a cluster of special skills. Does this mean there’s no such thing as a Normal Man thief or magic-user? Yeah, I think that’s what it means.

Thieves and magic-users are adventurers by default. If an adventurer is someone that proactively seeks glory and riches, then the magic-user and thief fit the mold.

For the thief, this is fairly obvious: they are seekers of treasure, ill-gotten or not. They don’t work “day-jobs;” even one that lives modestly as a pickpocket in the local village risks something every time he plies his trade…imprisonment, maiming, branding, death…depending on the local law. There is nothing safe about the thief’s chosen occupation. He is adventuring every day of his life. And as such, the career thief gains experience every day of his successful thieving life.

Of course, the average town pickpocket is never going to rise very high in level: say 2d6 silver pieces per day = average 7 = 2555silver/year = less than 6500 XP over a 25 year career, which is a little more than 4th level. And that would be an extremely fortunate thief that was successful every day and spent little down time (say, in prison or the stocks). Robbers and burglars will average more per take (the former because of combat XP, the latter because of larger “lair” treasure), but have to spend more time planning heists with less chance of success. And solo adventurers…even in a rather safe, “town” setting will have more difficulty than a party of adventurers.

Of course, a group of thieves may have more success, but they will have to split XP and treasure between themselves…they still won’t be rising in level nearly as fast as PC thieves.

The life of the magic-user is the hardest to rationalize, except by saying there are few mortals with the gift that allows the practice of magic. Whether that “gift” is something in the blood or simple literacy in a medieval world is best left to the individual DM. Whatever it is, it sets magic-users apart from Normal Men, and requires them to adventure to grow in power. Is their “gift” only strengthened by gaining experience and confidence? Is spell research and study only possible through the defeat of monsters (for their vitals as components) and the acquisition of treasure (for purchase of tomes and lab supplies)? Perhaps all of these things in some combination.

The point is that magic-users unlock the mysteries of the cosmos…and they only do this by exploration of the world (i.e. “by adventuring”). No magic-user can become powerful by hanging out in town all day, reading books. Why not?

Because the rules say so.

But in justifying the rules (rather than re-writing them to look like Ars Magica) one has to define how and why magic works the way it does in the game world. In B/X, power comes from XP. XP is gained from defeating monsters and finding treasure. So, for whatever reason, the most powerful magic-users are those that defeat the most monsters and gather the most treasure. Why is that the case? That’s up to each individual campaign to decide.

A guard, knight, or noble may be a Normal Man with the arms and armor of a fighter. A priest may be a Normal Man granted the power to heal by his (or her) god. But “Normal Humans” never display the abilities of the magic-user or thief class…those abilities belong only to adventurers.


  1. wouldn't a normal man thief just be a thief but without the superhuman abilities? like how a normal man with a sword and shield is just a fighter without the better hit dice and saving throws.

    1. @ Motley:

      Hmm. After rereading my post (and trying to remember my train of thought), I guess I'd have to answer your question with "no."

      That's kind of the point of the post (well, half the point...the other half being about magic-users). In the D&D "basic setting," there's no such thing as a non-adventuring thief. Thieves in D&D are defined, for the most part, by their skills...and exercising those skills is an exercise in "adventuring," even though it might not be on the same scale as bold PCs that delve dungeons. As said, your average city-bound pickpocket will never amount to much in terms of level, even after years of ("street level") adventure...but they ARE risking life and limb for the acquisition of treasure.

      Perhaps dudes who steal that do NOT have skills are what the game calls "bandits."
      ; )

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Guess that makes sense, i just find it kind of silly that stealing puts you a cut above the average populace,not just more skilled in the stealing arts, but objectively better to a point you can be considered "heroic" in power like fighters, clerics and magic-users

    4. @ Motley:

      While I get the gripe, the setting of the game has long been (originally) about elevating looters and tomb robbers to the role of heroic protagonists. We've "dressed it up" over the years, but there's really nothing all that heroic about invading the homes of sentient creatures, murdering them, and taking their least when considering our 21st century sensibilities.

      But look at the thief through the lens of the game: here's a medieval-ish person choosing to break out of the rather rigid caste structure of the system. She's "fighting the power," yo! Even on a lesser level (i.e. the street urchins who aren't going into dungeons), the lowly thief is choosing a profession other than servant, or peasant, or conscript, or whore. She's being proactive in following her own destiny. She may have a code about her stealing ("rob the rich, not the poor"), or she may be a greedy, craven, opportunist who'll mug a beggar for his coin (i.e. Chaotic alignment). But regardless, the thief is a cut above the farmer whose content to toil in the field for his lord while raising his family on gruel. She's a little bolder than your average shopkeeper who inherited a cushy life from his father's father.

      See what I mean?
      ; )