Wednesday, September 8, 2010

No Acrobats Among Thieves

From the American Heritage Dictionary:

Acrobat (noun): 1. One skilled in feats of agility and balance. 2. One adept at quick changes of position.

Acrobatics (pl. noun): 1. The evolutions of an acrobat. 2. The art of an acrobat. 3. Any manifestation of spectacular agility.

Let’s start this discussion with an upfront statement of destination: the B/X Acrobat. No suspense, no mystery, that’s where we’re going with this post…we’re laying groundwork here. If you’re not interested in the destination, no need to read. If you just want the acrobat itself without the underlying reasoning, that’s cool…stay tuned for the follow-up post.

Okay, now to that foundation.

Let’s talk class (should I say, “Let’s muse about class?” A blog ain’t much of a dialogue after all). CLASS. What is a class?


In the case of D&D, it is a classification of adventurer. Not all adventurers are scurrilous rogues, I think we can agree (a paladin or knight errant certainly goes on “adventures,” but hopefully he or she is the epitome of chivalry, grace, and heroic courage)…but a lot of them are. And being “roguish” isn’t of itself a class…that’s simply a descriptive of “adventurer.” You can have courageous adventurers, cunning adventurers, opportunistic adventurers, and yes, stupid and bumbling adventurers. Sometimes combinations of all these things! That’s just personality, or what I’ll call “flavor.”

An adventurer is itself a classification in the D&D world. Humans in the RPG realm are divided into “adventurers” and “non-adventurers.” Adventurers are ambitious, Type A personalities that explore the dangers of the world and learn from their experience, gaining prowess and skill through those experiences…prowess that makes them more alert (better saves), more dangerous (better attack rolls), and harder to kill (more hit points). Non-adventurers do not have adventures by choice (unless it is by choosing to follow an adventuring employer into doom!) and when they do, they do not learn from them (i.e. only adventuring-types gain XP).

All player characters are adventurers. That’s not up for discussion/debate. That’s what D&D is about: adventurers going on adventures. Regardless of how “soft” you are in real life, your character is a seeker of danger, risk, and reward. That’s what the game is about, at every level. If your character has a dominion or kingdom that he (or she) rules, you are STILL getting embroiled in adventures…if you are still playing the game with that character. If not, you’re RETIRED and you’re either starting a new adventurer or going off to play a different game.

Even that seldom pursued time-suck of “magical research” is adventurous. It’s built right into the game rules (characters are supposed to search out rare and dangerous ingredients) and the chance of failure carries its own risk/reward.

All right, have we got that all down? A dude who does nothing but manage his church (or his clan or his hideout/guild) is not an adventurer. For that matter, neither is someone who just tours with a circus or troupe of performers.


So adventurers are classified in Old School D&D NOT by their flavor or style (that’s just “flavor” and “style”), but by what they do…by the skills and abilities they bring to use on an adventure.

Fighters fight. That’s what they do. They are better at it than anybody else.

Magic-users use magic. That’s what they do. They’re better at it than anybody else.

Clerics care for the party’s spiritual well beingjust kidding! No, no…they have an unfortunately less than descriptive class title, but they definitely are their own class: holy warriors, smiters of the undead, miracle-workers, blessed/touched by the gods (or God).

Thieves steal. That’s what they do. It’s why they’re called “thieves.” They are NOT lightly armored swashbucklers. They are not “expert spelunkers.” They pick pockets…because they’re thieves. They open locks…because they’re thieves. They climb walls (to burglarize places)…because they’re thieves. They have the “thief skills” they do BECAUSE they’re thieves.

And thieves are their own classification of adventurer. Their “skills” are what defines how they go about their adventuring profession. They are not great fighters. They are extremely poor at using magic. It’s doubtful they have any truck with the undead if they can help it (recall “Beni” in the 1999 film The Mummy? No matter which holy symbol he pulled out of his shirt, he wasn’t turning ANY walking corpse).

[which reminds me, The Mummy is actually a pretty good example of how D&D can be used in a modern setting, a la Chgowiz’s recent blog posts…Fraser’s character is, of course, a fighter, Beni and Jonathan are both thieves, Evie is a magic-user (1st or 2nd level with the spell Read Magic and perhaps Comprehend Languages), while the Mummy himself is of the Greater Undead variety with a whole suite of clerical powers. Nice!]

I don’t find anything “bad” about including the thieves in the game as a class, and I don’t think they prevent other characters from looking for traps (or attempting to circumvent them)...nor climbing walls, nor hearing noises…at least not in B/X play (Moldvay’s book provides all the rules one would want on this score). Thieves are just SKILLED at these activities. And why would a normal fighter be able to pick a lock anyway? I can’t pick a lock, and I’m a pretty resourceful guy myself!

Okay, everyone got my take on THAT? I don’t hate on thieves in D&D (well, only Halfling thieves)…I think more than a few folks may misunderstand just what the hell they are.

One thing thieves are NOT: they are not acrobats.

Thief-acrobats…man, is any class as maligned around the blog-o-sphere as the thief-acrobat? And why? Because they’re decidedly wimpy compared to the cavalier and barbarian beside whom they appeared in the 1985 Unearthed Arcana? Because they “broke the rules” like the bard (oh, and cavaliers didn’t?)? I will say this about the thief-acrobat…we must have seen nearly double digit thief-acrobats back in my mid-80s AD&D campaign, compared to exactly ONE cavalier (female Drow…barf!) and possibly TWO barbarians (both of which were played by my little brother).

Why the thief-acrobat? I think because people were tired of being skuzzy thieves. I mean, you still get to progress in all the cool “ninja-like” thief abilities (move silently, climb walls, hide in shadows, and backstabbing!) but no longer were you the designated trap guy (oh, I gave that up), or scroll reader (what, don’t we have a magic-user?), or pocket picker (hey, I gave up picking pockets after my FIRST thief was gutted by his own party members).

Personally, I think the thief-acrobat is just as gross and abusive as the cavalier or Unearthed Arcana paladin. It simply allowed people to play TV-style ninja and give up the entire thief shtick. And at no real loss to the party! After all a 6th level (AD&D) magic-user probably has Knock in the old spell repertoire and all (AD&D) clerics get Find Traps as a 2nd level spell…hey, take it with one of your bonus spells for having a higher than average wisdom.

In a way, I have to thank God for Dragon Lance and that f’ing Kender race…if not for styling our Halflings after the kender (much as WotC/D20/Paizo has), we wouldn’t have had ANY normal thieves in our gaming group, ONLY thief-acrobats (as it was we had at least a couple Halfling thief-acrobats…barf! As a DM I’m not ashamed to say that I did my best to kill off these little losers…and while I can’t say for sure, I believe my co-DM did the same!).

So, okay…let’s rein in the ranting a bit. I’m not a huge fan of “hybrid” classes, really. For example, you won’t see a “spell-sword” or “spell-thief” in any upcoming publication of mine (the Elf is the only B/X hybrid I’m prepared to tolerate). Yes, the Witch-Hunter has shades of both clerics and fighters, but their armor is lesser than any fighter, cleric, or AD&D fighter-cleric…and I hardly think their 8 total spells is even close to that of a “half-cleric.” Several of my new class write-ups have “thief skills” but none have more than four of the nine thief skills, and only one (the Mountebank) has the thief’s “backstabbing” ability.

Why am I doing this? To not step on the thief’s toes? To keep things as (B/X) simple as possible? Well, a little perhaps. But MAINLY, I want each class to be ITS OWN CLASS.

There are classifications…real adventuring professions…that are not represented by the OD&D/BX/LL archetypes. I know I’ve said this before. There is no “beastmaster” (a la Tarzan or Sheena). There is no Solomon Kane witch-hunter. There is no swashbuckling musketeer-type whose cunning sword-play is his best defense (no, the thief does NOT count as a “lightly armed fighter;” see above: the thief is a thief!). There is no archer/scout character.

You can say that existing classes can be adapted to the fill some of these roles…for example, a Halfling class seems to have all the special abilities needed for a Subotai-esque (that’s Conan the film, folks) character. But Subotai is no Halfling. And it’s a disservice to Hobbits to cut them just because one is too lazy to make an adequate human class, IMO.

So we come at last within spitting distance of our destination: the acrobat. Specifically, the B/X Acrobat. NOT the “thief-acrobat.” Not some back-stabbing ninja. But a freaking acrobat…"one skilled in feats of agility and balance.” An adventurer who engages in “manifestations of spectacular agility” and “the art of the acrobat.” Not a performer with a permanent circus engagement (any more than an adventuring fighter hires out as a body guard or a magic-user as a court magus), but someone with real skills, skills useful for an adventuring party…and with the ambition and Type A personality required to develop from experience, learning from their risk, reward, and dangerous encounters. An adventurer who is as much a thief as a cleric or magic-user or dwarf (that is to say, a liberator of loot as any adventurer might be, but certainly not a specialist in burglary and robbery).

The acrobat…welcome back!


  1. They've got that Chinese acrobat in the remake of Ocean's Eleven; that's good enough for me as a justification for them being different from thieves.

    Also, the acrobat from the D&D cartoon was pretty cool.

  2. Yeah Sobotai!!! "I need food...must have strength for when the wolves come."

    You just CAN'T put too much stuff about thieves in a blog!

  3. @ Kelvin: We DO think alike don't we? Yeah, it's all I could do to keep myself from posting a picture of Diana (the cartoon) to the post. And I was thinking of the dude from Ocean's Eleven when I was writing this. I think an acrobat treasure hunter (i.e. "adventurer") is a pretty cool concept.

    @ Doc: Oh, NOW do I finally seem less boring?
    ; )

    Hopefully, you've checked out all my posts with the "thief" label (there's a dozen more and they're generally good reads).

  4. When I explain character classes to new players, I tell them it's an archetype. Everybody's going after gold, hot npc chicks and monster killin', but some do it sneakily, some rely on combat, some on magic, etc. Then I tell them, think of a character and choose the archetype he fits into (eg the guy who wanted to play an Indiana Jonesy character chose "fighter"). I don't want them thinking they have to conform their characters to some specific mold, except in regards to game mechanics--whether you're Dr. Jones or Aragorn (please don't be Aragorn), you have d8 HD, fighter saves and attack matrix, etc. When characters can think up a legitimate archetype that is unrepresented, I help them make one up (archer, etc.).

  5. Regarding swashbuckler types, I've come to the conclusion everyone tends to make them more complicated than necessary. Start with a Fighter. Limit to light armor only. Double the AC bonus from high Dex, and allow Dex to replace Str for melee attack and damage bonuses. Done. Basically, it's just a fighter that relies on finesse rather than power.