The d4 hit dice of the thief class is probably my favorite thing about B/X D&D. No seriously, it is just priceless. The best part is when I’m running a game at a con and some random gamer sits down at my table to roll up a character: the look on their face when they find out thieves only get 1d4 hit points… with a constitution penalty! This one moment tells them more about my game than any monologue, announcement, or quick-start sheet can. And how they respond also gives me an indication of how well they’re going to get along with me as well:
Players: [In shock] Do we really only get d4 for hit dice for the thief class?
Awesome Player: [Reality sinks in, then… he narrows his eyes.] Okay, let’s do this!
In a lot of ways, this usually ends up being my first ruling of the session. It sets the tone for the game and establishes my authority as a Dungeon Master in the exact areas that are liable to cause the most friction later on. This is not, after all, a game where the players succeed by depending on their hit points holding up in a big fight. Sure, they might get lucky that way… but the margin for error is really thin. With the deck stacked against them this badly, the party’s best bet is to play an entirely different game: to think outside of the box, come up with crazy plans, and to steer clear of play that is governed by the rules proper. Somehow, if the thieves are forced to be just that much more craven and sneaky, then that spills over into the party’s overall attitude toward the game.
It’s a beautiful thing.
And what if the thief class really is completely useless? That’s even better. This one move has extended the middle finger to current/typical notions of “balance” in signs that all can read from Rivendell to the mouths of Anduin. No, the classes are not precisely balanced each other. No, you are not guaranteed any “spotlight time” if you choose to play a thief. And no, I’m not going to alter the game just to accommodate a random player’s over-inflated sense of entitlement.
But no, really…. What if the thief class really is broken? What if Moldvay made a mistep here? Tough. The game includes a system for ameliorating the issue, but the players have to choose to do something about it. They’ve got eight… maybe nine people rolling 3d6 in order for attributes. One of those characters could conceivably have ended up with a bonus in both strength and constitution. If they think that a beefier thief is what they need to be successful, then that’s the character they need to have choose to be a thief.
They won’t do it, though. Class choice is largely a matter of mood, much to Guerny Halleck’s chagrin. The fact that players can be any of the four core classes regardless of their attribute rolls opens things up in that direction even more. Even so, most players, most of the time will opt for the character class that will give them a decent prime requisite bonus. But the guy who got those good attributes is just as likely to be some random person that ignores “what the group needs” and instead does something completely off the wall.
And so it is… as the players sit there debating and crunching numbers and heckling each other, they are taking their first steps towards learning how to deal with each other, how to cooperate, and how to work around each other. The fact that the strangeness of the thief class actually encourages this sort of dilemma is just all around fantastic. It gives the players a problem to work through together and forces them to think about how to use their relatively meager resources. I know most people think of character generation as a form of “not playing” and that most convention games are going to use pregenerated characters with good reason… but I really can’t think of a better way to introduce a game and get one started than this. This really is the stuff that D&D sessions are made of.