Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

D4 Thieves can Rock It

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?

Me: Yes.

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.

16 responses to “D4 Thieves can Rock It

  1. Chris Mata October 23, 2013 at 9:41 am

    You and the d4 Thieves. I think ya’ll should get married or at least go to prom. :)

    • jeffro October 23, 2013 at 1:26 pm

      Nothing makes me happier than when the thief characters die in droves. And yet they almost always end up being the last ones standing and the first to level up.

  2. Chris Mata October 23, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I think the sheer flexibility of the B/X system is my favorite part of it. I like being able to answer yes when a player says can I do this? Plus, since its rules lite, I can house rule the crap out of it. Which is my all time favorite activity.

    • jeffro October 23, 2013 at 9:45 am

      It is an insanely robust. You can’t break it. That’s the reason why kids could have so much fun with it even if they did everything completely wrong.

      • Chris Mata October 23, 2013 at 10:25 am

        This is gonna make me sound idiotic but B/X spells are insanely powerful. I didn’t even glance at the spells before my con game thinking I could just wing it and I was wrong on most every account. Letting monsters have saving throws where none existed and the durations were wrong too. I think my 1E and 2E days were clouding my memory. Sleep is really good. I read most of them last night and my god a 5th level MU would be a titan in a well prepared situation.

      • Alex October 23, 2013 at 12:57 pm

        Really, Sleep is the only spell that strikes me as overpowered in B/X. The problems really don’t start until the CMI levels, since the spells don’t have dice caps. Fireball ends up with an average damage in the 100s.

  3. Jason Packer October 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    I’m still just stunned by how much of the rules are about combat, when the point of the game is to avoid it…

    • Alex October 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm

      That’s what you get from the evolution from a tactical wargame. It still had all of those old rules from when “campaign” literally meant a string of related tactical engagements leading towards achieving a strategic goal. Fun fact! Fighters count as 1HD+1, therefore meaning that as long as they’re with a group of 1HD characters, enemy fighters can’t get their bonus attacks against 1HD opponents. Sticking a Level 1 fighter with a group of infantrymen was enough to keep an ogre from getting 3(?) bonus attacks against them :D

    • jeffro October 23, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      There is almost nothing to be done with B/X but to play it. In that sense, it is far from the general spirit of Traveller, Car Wars, and GURPS Vehicles.

      If you do actually play it… you’ll see that combat is not at all the focus. You talk, negotiate, run, explore, wait, cheat, plan. *That* is the focus of the game. When the fighting starts, you have spells that function as “I win” buttons or else the monsters will lose a morale check when their first guy dies and thus run away. Straight up B/X combat is dull and deadly– that’s why there’s so many escape hatches before and during the action. But it goes so fast that you can play scads of them in a single session– which in effect expands the focus out from the usual Champions style “one big fight per session” thing or the more 2e GURPS “grown up” style of having a plotted, six scene scripted adventure. This creates a lot of possiblilites– and opens up realms of player autonomy that aren’t quite as easy to implement when other assumptions are at work.

      Also… see this for more on combat as war.

      • Alex October 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm

        Also, I think it should be pointed out that the way XP is calculated in B/X reflects this: you get a lot more XP from finding a single decent sized treasure than from killing an entire battalion of Orcs.

      • Jason Packer October 23, 2013 at 5:40 pm

        I don’t have the book – and I may not ever have, having cut my teeth on the blue dragon book (Holmes? I dunno versions) – but I’m curious how much of the rules become irrelevant if you eliminate combat entirely from the system. It’s become a perverse little benchmark of mine – remove the combat entirely – get rid of hit points and AC and bonuses to hit and damage, and weapons and armor and their stats and any spells that serve only to kill, wound or otherwise make things easier to kill or wound – and what’s left of the game?

        So, for those that do have the rules handy, what proportion of the rules are left, roughly? I’m honestly curious, because my memory of basic D&D as a boy was that much of the system was very fixated on combat, but that may have just been us.

    • Brendan October 23, 2013 at 8:12 pm


      Quoting Odyssey, who has written the definitive treatment of this topic:

      D&D, in all editions, has a lot of rules for combat. That’s generally what the majority of the game’s rules are for, even when it’s got fairly detailed rules for non-combatty type things. That doesn’t mean that D&D is “about” combat, though, at least in all editions. Sometimes, in fact, it means that it’s very much not about combat.

      The main function of the combat rules, instead, is to make combat deadly, in a way that’s fairly adjudication agnostic. If the DM is doing her job right, she’s going to kill your character sometimes, and you’re going to know that you deserved it. It needs fairly detailed combat rules because it’s relatively difficult to adjudicate combat compared to most of what you do in D&D, and relatively important compared to most of what you do in D&D that it be adjudicated “correctly,” or at least in a fairly neutral way.

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