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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Re-designing Thieves

Yesterday, I wrote:
If you look at the original classes, Fighting Men and Magic-Users each have one general power and one scaled power:
Fighting-Man: use any weapon, multiple attacks against 1HD creatures.
Magic-User: use magic (scrolls, wands, staves,) prepare and cast spells.
[ ... ]

Clerics came later and kind of break that pattern [ ... ] Thieves break the pattern even more, partly by having a whole bunch of abilities that scale, partly by most of the abilities seeming trivial at 1st level compared to the other classes.
I've been thinking about ways to fix this, to get back to the two-class-abilities standard. One thing I feel is important is to ask "what is character class really about?" I've said before, I don't think it should be about professions: I would cover that with backgrounds. I prefer to think of character classes as answers to the question "how do you solve problems?"
Fighter: "I solve problems by fighting."
Magic-User: "I solve problems by magic."
One of my problems with Clerics and Thieves is that they seem more like professions and don't seem to clearly answer that question. Leaving aside clerics for now, I think the thief archetype, stripped of the assumptions based on thievery as a profession, answers the question with "I solve problems by subtlety and guile." This covers more ground than simply "I steal stuff," and could describe scouts, for example.

The problem of having many scaled abilities can be solved by bundling several of them together under the subtlety and guile focus: instead of having individual advancement in "thief skills", treat hiding in shadows, moving silently, picking pockets, and backstabbing as things just about anyone can try, but make their success dependent on surprise. The thief scaled power is now a +1 bonus per 3 levels (rounded up) in subtlety and guile situations. Phrasing it that way lets me use the bonus for avoiding surprise (hear noise, spot hidden) as well, or deciphering or creating a subtle trap, lock or trick. You could even stretch it to cover the subtleties of language or magic. Only climbing would get dropped as a special ability; the revamped thief class would climb as well as anyone else. Thieves' Cant would only apply to the thief background, not to the class.

I'd change the surprise mechanic to both sides rolling a d6, with the higher result surprising the other. Some creatures can't be surprised, and a creature that is unaware of the other's presence can't surprise, but both sides still roll a d6. Thieves add their bonus to the die roll; if their target can't be surprised or if they are unaware of their opponent, the bonus is only counted to resist surprise. If a thief makes a successful surprise attack, their total is counted as additional damage. When deciphering clues in languages they otherwise don't speak, figure that average languages have a +6 bonus to resist decipherment; magic is even harder, adding the spell level to the difficulty. Further, when casting spells from scrolls, I'd have the thief player roll 2 dice, risking a miscast on doubles.

Under this revamped system, anyone could try any of the thief abilities, but probably won't succeed on many of them without getting bonuses from some other source, like magic or special training. Thieves will still be the best.

There are still two problems. One is that the name "thief" certainly doesn't fit, and "rogue" doesn't necessarily fit, either; this is OK in and of itself, but I can't think of a better name for "the crafty and subtle class". The other problem is: what's the other class ability? What's the general, non-scaled subtlety-based class ability that only this class should be able to do?


  1. Cleric: I solve problems by divine intervention? ;)

  2. Worth noting, perhaps, is that the "general" ability of fighters (use any weapon) and magic-users (use magical items) are both item dependant. Apart from that, you might look towards some kind of evasion/defensive ability - "thieves", in fantasy literature as well as D&D, are often distinguished by their ability to avoid damage.

  3. I think evasion/defense can be covered by the subterfuge bonus. As for an item focus? One possibility that occurred to me was to allow them to figure out items and procedures they otherwise shouldn't be able to; it sort of fits with the language/magic decipherment ability and suggests cleverness, but on the other hand I'm not happy with that phrasing.

    I'm also thinking the class name could be Trickster, but I'm not entirely happy with it.

  4. As for a name, I'd stick with rogue. It's pretty generic.

  5. Interesting post... For a few sessions, I'll go with the Thief presented in Delving Deeper, and then we'll see.

    Also, it might be because I am not a native speaker, but I have no problem with the class name "thief" whatsoever - it is only a label, they could be "class D" as well. Its connotations might bother others, though; but everyone cannot be pleased, can they?

    1. The Delving Deeper Thief is actually pretty good. I've redone this Thief a couple times, but lately just say "they get a bonus on surprise equal to level".

  6. This is a great and helpful post even though I am reading it 4 years late. In my house rules with my kids I had to throw out "their" because, well, they are 6 and 7 and they are all "lawful." So I called it: scout. It works. It is neutral. A rogue scout is a thief. A "good" scout is Robin Hood, right? Anyway, I am so glad to see an OSR guru converging with a house rule of my own. Thanks!

    1. Thanks! Here's a more recent version of my thoughts on the thief -- and yes, I use Robin Hood (and Zorro) as examples.

      Nine and Thirty Thieves

    2. Hey, Talysman: The above link is dead. Did you delete this post? If not, could you give me a new link? Thanks!

    3. Looks like I deleted that one, sorry.

  7. I made them psychics. They can hide better than others by using their mental powers, do other jedi mind trick stuff, but are otherwise weak. This may not 'feel' right for your game though.