Friday, July 19, 2013

Has the OSR mostly embraced thieves?

In the earliest days of the OSR, a number of people didn't care for thieves. Read through this thread on Grognardia from 2008, and it becomes clear that a lot of people (including me) didn't really care for them. I think a good chunk of the reason was in Philotomy's musing about thieves and thief skills (you can find all of Philotomy here, it's a great read if you haven't gone through it yet), which posed it as a live question.

With more games being based closer to B/X D&D, and with Swords & Wizardry Complete taking on more prominence, the thief has snuck back into the game without much protest. Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea both remove percentiles as a way to not make thieves so bad at everything, but many games stick with the thief skills pretty much on the model of Supplement I: Greyhawk.

I have a thief in my Stonehell game, and he's pretty well played. Not to mention lucky - he may have failed a bunch of saving throws, but rolled a 20 when he took a jet of save-or-die poison gas to the face. I kind of like having a lightly armored character in the dungeon, but I don't think the thief class is the best way to get that. Thief skill percentages are awful until high level, and it's more fun to do trap detection by narration anyway.

It seems to me that, in a game without thieves, magic-users should have a bigger niche. Classically the M-U's main job is to cast sleep once (unless the player went and memorized something else; charm person is ok too, but magic missile seems like it was mostly meant to cause players to waste their spells) and then hide behind the fighters and clerics; in return she (gender choice in honor of Azraiel, an M-U who recently perished in my Stonehell game) will be blasting things with fireballs and lightning bolts once she reaches 5th level.

But the magic-user seems to me to be well suited to recon, particularly once she reaches 3rd level. Then she can cast invisibility on herself, and use sleep or charm as a failsafe if she gets in a spot of trouble. By contrast, a thief who gets caught loses his whole advantage since he can't backstab once he's been seen. Magic-users are lightly armored and so have their full movement rates in tact.

I think this doesn't play out as much as it should because M-U players value every scrap of experience they get towards being able to nuke enemies with fireballs. But that doesn't really call for a thief, and I want to discuss the possibility with the players next time I run OD&D.

Now, I think that if you're playing AD&D the magic-user/thief is actually pretty good. Extra HP and weapon use, backstab damage and only half a level behind, plus the thief levels keep going up after the elf hits the M-U level cap.

But in an OD&D or classic D&D game, or their simulacra and genetically modified clones, do we really need the embrace the thief has gotten?


  1. Generally, I've found that Thieves are chosen by smarter players. Now mind you when I'm running a game characters are less squishy and have a better chance of success at certain actions, but even by the book there's a certain flair. The thief player thinks outside the box, and comes up with innovative solutions that most game designers and DMs never anticipated. With a cleric as healer, fighter as tank, and magic-user as everything else, thieves have to work harder to justify their place. But they have one. In my current game our thief is awesome, and I wouldn't trade her for anything. Some of my most memorable characters were thieves. I think that maligning the class does a disservice to players who might wish for something a little different. Just my two coppers.

  2. I'm happy to include the Thief simply because he's different.

    A Fighter does attack rolls in the standard game, but depending on house rules he gets cool maneuvers or whatever. But he can do anything on any round.

    An M-U gets a small selection of powerful spells and needs to carefully plan which he will carry and when he will use them. After that he will either use other magic items, or at low levels attack, though he won't generally have the power and options of a Fighter so it's more of an "I don't want to just skip my turn so I'll throw a dagger."

    Clerics are in the same boat as M-Us except with slightly better fighting ability and worse spell choices.

    Thief is cool because, while he's like a Fighter in that his abilities are usable repeatedly and he doesn't need to choose anything, his abilities are used outside of combat; to prepare for combat or avoid it.

    In the same way you can look at the Cleric, with his Bless and healing magic, as an extra-combat spell caster; he buffs before the fight, heals after, but during the fight he's not as important.

    For this reason I would classify the Fighter as the freely-used ability combat class, M-U as the limited-use ability combat class, Thief is the freely-used ability non-combat class, and Cleric is the limited-use ability non-combat class.

    That doesn't mean Thief and Cleric can't be useful in combat, and it doesn't mean the M-U can't buff or do cool utility magic during the adventure, and it doesn't mean the Cleric can't bring the house down with a lucky Hold Person in combat. It just means their abilities are suited to excelling in certain situations. If you need a combat spell cast, look to the M-U. But if you need recon, the Thief is a good choice.

    This assumes several things: (1) it doesn't hold for 3E and later where Clerics blast stuff etc., (2) if the Thief fails his check he still performs as well as any normal person (so if he fails a Move Silently he doesn't knock over a shelf of pans - he just isn't dead-silent), and (3) other classes can do stuff like a Thief (sneak, climb, hide) but the Thief has exceptional abilities nobody else can do (move SILENTLY, climb SHEER SURFACES, hide IN A SHADOW).

    1. I agree that thieves are different. I just don't think they're good enough at the things they're supposed to do without significant hacking, and I think I'd rather let other classes pick that up instead.

    2. My fix for this has been to consider failure to mean "no progress" unless the percentile dice come up 96+ (which is the top 5% of the range, and equivalent to rolling a 1 on a d20). That top range is treated as a fumble (discovered, falls, broken lock pick, whatever). I've been quite satisfied with this clarification, and it seems to solve all the problems with thief skills in my campaign.

      This allows me to use the numbers exactly as presented in the book, and means that low level thieves are not much worse than high level thieves at their skills but instead are slower at accomplishing them (thus exposing the party to more danger because of random encounter checks), but if the thief tries long enough, and does not fumble, she will succeed at some point.

      A corollary of this approach is that if there is no time pressure, it is often reasonable to just allow the skill to succeed, with perhaps one roll to check for a fumble.

    3. I like this solution (have heard it before, maybe on your blog actually), and in general it's what you do for proficiencies in 2E. Fail to light a fire? Well I guess you spent X turns fruitlessly. Wanna try again? Fail to grow your crops this season? Tighten your belt and try again I guess.

      Because it's a percentage roll, it seems like a good time to bring up the "critical on doubles" rule from a bunch of different games. In this case, a double that succeeds doesn't need to do anything special - but a double that fails would be your "critical failure" involving a fall or jammed lock or crashing pans. This way, as you improve in skill, you not only work faster but you slowly reduce your chance of critical failure.

      The only opposed Thief skills I can think of involve perception, and in those cases you can just default to whatever rules you use for perceiving Invisible objects / creatures: I consider a Thief successfully picking pockets or hiding in shadows to be as difficult to detect as an Invisible thing. In 1E DMG there's a table for high-HD and/or INT creatures to detect Invisible. If a 1st level Thief picking pockets could keep trying but every failed attempt elicited a chance for the victim to roll to detect Invisible, AND there was the risk of hitting a critical failure which the victim always detects, I think that would admirably incorporate the difficulty of pickpocketing Darth Vader or something. Note that some orc or a town guard has no chance to detect invisible because his HD and INT are both unexceptional.

      I like the critical failure chance for Read Languages too ("hey guys this thing says there's a crypt here full of 2,000 rich men!" when in reality it's a crypt for plague victims).

      And for Find/Remove Traps, I look at the chance to notice a trap as an exceptional search chance, which means a Dwarf Thief will probably default to his Dwarf skill when he comes upon a stonework trap. But that Remove Trap is only for tiny traps like poison needles and stuff which are difficult to describe. Big environmental interaction traps should just be role-played once found using racial or Thief skill ("anybody got some iron spikes to jam into these javelin-holes?").

    4. @1d30

      Because it's a percentage roll, it seems like a good time to bring up the "critical on doubles" rule from a bunch of different games. In this case, a double that succeeds doesn't need to do anything special - but a double that fails would be your "critical failure" involving a fall or jammed lock or crashing pans. This way, as you improve in skill, you not only work faster but you slowly reduce your chance of critical failure.

      That's a great idea. I would probably interpret double on success as some sort of critical success as well (probably very quick success or something).

  3. the thing is that some allow the die roll for the skills to take place in place of the role playing, it should be the other way around, thru visual inspection of the trap or description, then if it seems safe the weak low level roll should happen, that gets rid of the "thieves stink- i only get 20% chance to do anything", yes, 20% over and above what a non thief can do is a huge thing.

  4. I'm one of those that would rather dump the cleric (or at least merge it into the magic-user class) and keep the thief. It makes more sense to me, but that's another story.

    I agree that the rules seem to make low-level thieves suck, but it depends on how the system is handled. For instance, move silently is very different from move quietly. Just because a thief fails a move silently roll doesn't mean he wasn't quiet. In games I've been involved in there's a tendency by DMs of treating any failed roll as a critical miss, to the detriment of the thief and the party. This is like treating every failed open locks roll as an indication that the thief snapped off his thieves tools, broke the lock, or whatever.

    Having said that, in my games I tend to replace the thief percentage system with a d6 system, which feels more natural given the use of the d6 in other elements of the game.

  5. One of my favorite AD&D 1E classes ever is the Elf MUT - the magic user / thief dual class. Pitiful hit points, not a front line fighter except in emergencies, but amazingly durable with the ability to use magic user mirror image, invisibility, silence etc spells. A few unlock cantrips or a knock spell to make up for when the rolls go bad, a creative player can do a lot with a MUT.

  6. First, in answer to your question: No, we don't "need" the thief. We don't need any particular class; you could just as easily work up a mock-historical campaign where all the classes are variants on fighting-man, or go all-in on fantastical route and have nothing but spellcasting classes. It all depends on what works for your table.

    Personally, I like the "thief" or "rogue" class well enough; I also appreciate the Lamentations of the Flame Princess interpretation -- someone who does a bunch of utility stuff that anyone can try, but better. If you want a "specialist" class but want everyone to participate in trap-finding and so on through narration, just give them a different range of utilities: hiding and listening to act as party point-men or scouts; various kinds of lore; bonuses to foraging or map-making or navigation.

    (To be honest, my ideal system is nothing like D&D. It would have no classes and no levels, and be entirely skill-based. Less involved than GURPS, though. 8^| So essentially something where everyone's a "specialist," and everyone can choose what areas they focus in (toe-to-toe combat, archery, magic use, utility skills, etc.) and what they dabble in. For what it's worth.)

  7. I have much less trouble with the Thief class than the Cleric class. Having a member of a religious fighting order seems like a class that comes way down the implementation list. I personally think a more traditional priest would be more likely -- you know, performing miracles or casting spells or healing the sick.

    1. The magic-user can do all that with a somewhat modified spell list. If you read the D&D source material, such as Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, etc., priests also tended to be magicians as well.

      Cleric itself seems drawn from works like La Chanson de Roland. Turpin, Archbishop of Riems, uses a hammer (if I recall) in that poem. They also sound a lot like the combat-chaplains that attended the Knights Templar on crusade. Thus, they represent a very different sort of aspect.

      A couple of years ago, Blood of Prokopius ( did an essay or two on the cleric vs magic-user, arguing that the former is a reflection of the Christian era while the latter is a reflection of paganism. If that is the case, the cleric was likely to originally have been a solidly medieval Christian character with the pagan practices performed by classless NPCs or magic-users.

      If you look at it from that prospective, yeah, the cleric seems really darn weird and really only fitting in a setting where there is a stark religious distinction between the old ways and the "true" faith.

    2. Definitely.

      Another option is the book "The Charwoman's Shadow" by Lord Dunsany, wherein the Cleric has the ability to dispel any fairy-creatures and enchanted nonsense and the M-U is an occult figure who is, if not aligned with, at least alongside the fairy world in enmity to the church. It's been a while.

      It also contains a reasoning for the Wisdom of Clerics: through hearing confession, he vicariously experienced all the breadth and depth of his parishioners' secret lives. This broad knowledge translates into the ability to predict motivations and intentions in specific people.

      Also: in Tekumel I recall Clerics were expected to be as wimpy as M-Us, to the extent that you could fit more in a rank across a hallway than a rank of Fighting-Men. Even though I suspect it would never come up, I just really like that image. Makes me think of a brace of pale programmers stalking down a cubicle corridor four abreast.

  8. "the thief has snuck back into the game without much protest."

    Not in my corner of the OSR. You won't find a thief anywhere in any of my three books (Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown, and Dungeon of the Unknown).

    I like what M. A. R. Barker said about the absence of the thief character class on Tekumel: Such individuals wouldn't last long since they would all be put on the short list for impalement.


  9. My first D&D character was a Moldvay Basic thief. Ever since then it's been my favourite class. I like the idea of the "Canny Man" using skill and stealth to overcome adversity, survive, and hopefully prosper - for a while. (My models for the archetype include Vila out of Blake's 7 and, of course, Cugel the Clever.)

    In the Stonehell on the Borderlands campaign I'm running, the longest-lived PC is a thief who's survived since session 2 (we're now on session 29) by the simple expedient of staying out of harm's way, hiring as many heavily-armoured retainer/bodyguards as he can afford (at one point they were all female, earning him comparisons with Colonel Gaddafi), and investing in war dogs. It might not be the classic "sneak and hide" approach, but it's worked so far and he's reached the dizzy heights of 4th level while the others are still scrabbling and dying at 1st and 2nd.

    Oh, and leather armour is the key. Not because it lets you use your thief skills, but because you can run faster than the fighters and clerics and let them get caught by the white apes and what have you.


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