Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Thief As Aquaman

Poor Aquaman. Butt of a thousand comic-book meta-jokes because his powers depend on an aquatic setting. If he wants to join in the fun with the Justice League the writer had better provide a port, beach or boat.

You know who's like that in D&D? Yeah, the druid. But less obviously - the thief.

As written in the Basic and Advanced games, the thief is saddled with inferior combat everything, and gets in return some very unreliable skills (more on that next post). However, while combat is a feature of almost every environment, things like traps, locks, climbs, and sneaking opportunities have to be written into an adventure. Putting a trapped, locked chest on a high ledge is like putting a villain's lair in a undersea volcano for the Superfriends. If these opportunities don't make sense in the adventure, tough. Maybe this is one reason for the knee-jerk secret doors, traps, locks impulse I've noted in so much module writing.

In my 52 Pages system, and to some extent in 3rd edition, rogues work better because they have a clearer combat role as missile troops and sometimes scouts. The skills are useful, but secondary. I think any designer has to come to grips with this. "Can't do much but gains levels quickly" is not really a recipe for a viable character class.

There's a strange parallel here with the cleric. In Old School circles, as I've noted before, both these classes are marginal and often questioned. The cleric also presents a skill that is very useful in circumscribed situations - turning undead. This is the most direct tie to the class' origin as a vampire hunter, Van Helsing with the crucifix. Faith healing is less in line with the fiction, but in function, it's become the most important reason for the cleric to exist, to the point where 3rd Edition just laid down and admitted it, with free substitution of cure spells. The Aquaman power here, turning undead, is supplanted by a more generally useful combat power, healing.

By the way, that task I mentioned where the thief has to climb a ledge, pick a lock find a trap, and disarm it? In AD&D a 5th level human thief with 17 DEX has a roughly 7.5% chance of completing that skill sequence successfully. More on this next time.


  1. three missed 2d6 traps
    and the poor thief is dead

  2. By the way, that task I mentioned where the thief has to climb a ledge, pick a lock find a trap, and disarm it? In AD&D a 5th level human thief with 17 DEX has a roughly 7.5% chance of completing that skill sequence successfully.

    Yes, but what would the chances be for other classes?

    I have read very persuasive arguments recently that thief abilities should be considered saving throws, not powers. I have no idea if that is how people played originally, but I've been getting a lot of mileage out of it recently. It's like, first the thief gets the standard chance (maybe a 1 in 6, or an ability check), then if they fail they get a second chance which is their thief ability. Just like with a saving throw, smart play will let you avoid leaving your fate to the dice.

    More on this here:

    Major credit to Courtney of Hack & Slash for the fundamental insight.

    1. I've been playing thief abilities that way, too. Although I also offer players the chance to use them to bypass the narrative working - if they don't want to go through the hassle of asking the right questions and doing the 'legwork' they can always just roll the dice. In either case, they only get one roll, though. You takes your chances and you takes your lumps.

    2. Oh, I should also point out that doing this forces players to make some tough choices. For example, when moving down a corridor they have to decide what they expect to encounter first. If they expect beasts or ambush, they put the tanks up front. If they expect traps, pits, and such they put the thief up front. In play that makes things more tense for the players as they don't wonder what I'm going to throw at them, they wonder if they made the right choice.

  3. I look at Thieves and Clerical Turning as aspects of Black Ops Team play.

    You got a bunch of soldiers who can all fight better than the average commoner farmer. Now you give them special abilities. One guy is good at locks and demolitions. Another is good at hacking, electronics, surveillance. One is an expert martial artist and sneak. Another is a great sharpshooter scout. Maybe a couple have social skills like knowledge of the local dialect or religion, or the street layout. One might be a medic. It's ridiculous to think that every soldier can be an expert at all of those things: you specialize or generalize and to the extent that you do one you fail at the other.

    In D&D we have a Fighter who has the basic combat training and just continued working on that. Our M-U stopped at basic combat training and specializes wholly in magic. The Cleric is good in a fight, has a special spell set, and has special abilities against two classes of monsters (undead and demons). The Thief is there if the group happens to come across a sheer cliff they need to climb or a locked door.

    Now we get to role protection. It's okay if your Fighter can just bash down the door. It's okay if the party M-U can Knock the door. It's okay if the Cleric has a Find Traps spell. But bashing the door is loud and could easily fail. The M-U has a limited number of spells and he could have taken Stinking Cloud or Web instead of Knock (and the Thief can open a hundred locks today to the M-Us one lock). The Cleric likewise could have taken Hold Person or Slow Poison instead of Find Traps (and same opportunity cost as the M-U). In any case if you don't take a Thief you'll eventually wish you had one.

    If the PCs don't come across any Undead or Demons, that's fine. The Turning ability is there just in case. If you don't take the Cleric specialist along and you DO fight some Undead or need magical healing, you're up shit creek and you'll wish you had one.

    The adventure designer doesn't need to include Undead to make the adventure meaningful for the Cleric. You don't need to include locks just for the Thief. I'd say those elements are part of D&D as much as monsters and treasure and leaving them out makes the experience weak and watery. You don't have to struggle to put in these challenges; the challenges fall into place automatically and you have to struggle to keep them out.

    The classes exist to counter those potential challenges in the same way a rope exists because sometimes you need everyone to climb a cliff or you need to tie up a prisoner. Sure you could get rid of ropes simply by never including sheer walls or prisoners. Sounds a lot like a computer RPG.

    My personal experience is that playing a Thief is more fun if I get the chance to do Thiefy things. But a lot of that rests on me. I need to be the one to say I'm climbing to get a good archery spot for the fight, or sneaking around the side for a backstab. If I play the whole session without coming across any locks or traps, I'll say "hey guys, guess that's another 0% failure rate for your hardworking party Thief" and laugh about it.