Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thursday Thief Musings

Ugh…when I got up this morning after an incredibly restless evening (it’s lie Albuquerque here, except you can’t buy Tanqueray (gin) at the 7-11), determined to NOT spend time blogging, so as to catch up on some work. Problem is, the moment I step into the office, a couple-three-or-four ideas pop into my head and I feel the need to get ‘em down and out onto the blog-o-sphere prior to losing them.

Part of this is I enjoy writing at work. This is a BAD thing, because my work is not one that allows for a lot of writing, especially not the creative kind. But at work, I have all those tools I don’t have at home…a rattle-proof internet connection, a full desktop computer (and a desk!), double screens, a quiet cubicle, and a comfy (for me at least) chair…plus hours of time uninterrupted by the call of the beagles, my wife, or the day-to-day chores of maintaining a household. I sit down and the mind opens as in a waking meditation.

Ah, well…I’ll try to keep it short.

I said earlier that this week was Thief Week, here at Ye Olde Blackrazor, and while I’ve only got three or so posts going on here, I’ve been reading and commenting other folks’ thief posts around the ‘Net. Thieves, I suppose, are in the air.

So talking about thieves and what it is they do, I can see why they’re percentages to accomplish things are so low. I mean, I’d have to check my Moldvay, but I’m pretty sure that ANY PC has a 1 in 6 (17%) chance of finding a trap, and thieves don’t even get above THAT until 3rd level…10% at 1st, 15% at 2nd, 20% (finally) at 3rd.

I can already hear folks saying: What’s up with that? This is supposed to be the thief character’s forte, and yet a fumble fingered 1st level Veteran, fresh from the war, has a better chance of finding a trap?!

I used to think this was kind of silly. Those folks over at D20 apparently do to, as they just gave everyone the same skills (search, for example) but made thieves the experts at it. Of course, a lot of “good ideas” from D20 have turned out to be retarded, missing the point by a fairly wide mark, and this is yet another example.

Thieves ARE the designated trap finder of an adventuring party. If there’s a thief in the party, no one is going to, say, tap the fighter or (gods no!) the cleric to look for that poisoned needle. The thief was brought along to perform a job, and by gum, if they want their share of the treasure, they better get to it. Call it the Bilbo Baggins Clause (in fine print, bottom of the contract).

That’s an awful lot of pressure for a guy. Unlike myself, cheerfully plugging along in relative comfort and seclusion, the thief is in the dark, in a grimy hole of a dungeon, working by torchlight, knowing full well the danger he’s putting himself in (the blissfully unaware fighter just sticks his hand into the hole, “duh, should I be careful?”), plus he’s got a half dozen armed mercenary types staring at his back while he’s doing it, getting ready to dock his pay should he slip up. Assuming he doesn’t get killed by the trap himself.

Most people would have a difficult time working under these kinds of conditions. A person needs a lot of presence of mind (and coolness of hand) to ignore both their own fear and the stench of it being generated by others. At 1st level, a thief is still getting used to this whole adventuring idea in the first place. At 2nd level, he’s wondering if he’s just been lucky, and he’s still sweating. By 3rd level he is confident and competent (and perhaps starting to get cocky…20% just ain’t that great!).

Oh, before I forget: has everyone read the Thieves description in Moldvay (page B10) regarding how thieves “can disarm small traps (such as poison needles)?” The emphasis is mine. Some people miss this and believe a thief can disarm ANY trap. Such is not the case. A thief can FIND traps, and then he and the party can devise a method of avoiding or counteracting them, but only SMALL traps can be disarmed…NOT spiked pits, rock falls, scything blades, rolling boulders, etc. How is a thief going to disarm that lava slide trap in the Tomb of Horrors, I ask you!

Let’s talk about the thieves tools of the trade; I believe they’re 25 gold pieces to purchase no matter which version of D&D you’re playing (though I admit I may be completely mis-remembering). What exactly are thieves tools?

“A set of lockpicks!” says the eager beaver down in front. Ok…and a shop keeper is going to sell these, why? What merchant sells a thief tools that can be used to burgle his establishment? Ridiculous!

When I think of a 1st level thief’s “lock picks” I’m thinking iron spike + mallet. At 2nd level it includes a crowbar. Maybe by 3rd level he’s put together a set of thin metal tools to manipulate locks, but chances are the thief has had to manufacture these himself to his own specification. It’s not like there’s an Acme lock pick factory churning out nice little packages at 25 gps a pop, like those ratchet sets you buy at Home Depot. Even the village (what, machinist? Who makes lanterns?) is probably NOT crafting lock picks for local thieves…not if the constabulary has anything to say about it.

Now it’s quite possible in a fantasy world filled with “thieves guilds” that the master thief has bequeathed a set to the young apprentice, possibly as part of his training (perhaps the 25 gps is the cost of “tuition” in thief school). Of course, this can make things problematic for thieves that somehow lose their tools. First they need to find a guild (not an easy task outside a large town), then they need to convince the guild to sell them a new set of tools…probably after making sure their guild dues are paid up. Which is fine for the wealthy thief of Greyhawk or Specularum…what about the kid whose home base is the Keep on the Borderlands? No guild there!

I prefer to think the thief acquires his tools of the trade in the “old fashioned way:” he crafts them himself. The 25 gold pieces is the initial outlay for materials (clay for molds, soft metal for the forging, fuel for a small furnace or the “rental fee” of a local blacksmith). As a thief increases in level, not only does his skill increase, but the craftsmanship of his tools increase. In between adventures (during that time when the “leveling up” occurs) the thief is re-smelting and re-crafting his tools, or perhaps creating all new ones. The lock pick set of a 14th+ level thief are going to be marvelous works of craftsmanship, light and dexterous, while still strong and flexible as opposed to the clunky hammer and railroad spike of the 1st level thief. This DIY version of the thieves tools leaves out any question as to why a merchant sells lock pick sets, and makes the guild unnecessary for the plying of one’s trade.

Just some things to think about. Ok…now back to work!


  1. I completely agree with the thieves tools. I always picture them in my mind's-eye as a crowbar, a small bag of sand, pliers, wire cutters, small mallet and some small pieces of wire. All accumulated from various sources.

  2. i wonder if one could house-rule the diy first level tools [crowbar, mallet, spike, ropes n stuff] as stuff the fighter can carry if the thieves attempt with his specialized tools fails as a sort low-tech backup or second try. "the thief with his lockpicks and tweezers didnt pan out, aight fighter john see what you can do with the spike"

    1. @ Motley:

      In at least one old Dragon mag, there was an article that presented a whole suite of different tools for different tasks, each providing appropriate bonuses or penalties to various skills.

      I should mention that...since originally writing this thoughts on thief skill percentages (as found in B/X) have changed. Namely, that they're too low to start.

      My thoughts on tools stand, however.