Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Old School and New School: The Thief Class

I’ve mentioned this before— and people think I’m joking about this– but it really is the case that how you handle the thief archetype really does set the tone for a fantasy role-playing game. There’s something about it, too. People just can’t leave it alone. And it’s not just the d4 hit dice, either. People aren’t even comfortable with the name. People will sit down to play B/X and then change it to “rogue”. House rulers and customizers will offer up all manner of scouts and swashbucklers to replace them.

But a guy that was too unspiritual to be a cleric and too wimpy to be a fighter and that was so undisciplined he probably even failed out of magic-user school…? The idea of taking that sort of character concept is just anathema to the modern mind.

What do you get when you filter it all through current conventions and expectations…? Behold:

Every round: “I move”, “do I get my sneak?”, “if there are shadows, I hide in shadows; do I get advantage?”, “I attack”, “I use my bonus action to step away”, “I finish my movement”, “I go back to sneaking and if there are shadows, try to hide and shadows; if there is cover, I roll for cover.” Imagine that sequence repeated every time the thief’s initiative comes up over the course of a 7 hour game.

So basically, the thief has now evolved into being some kind of space llama combat tap dancer.

Right.

This of course a game design artifact that results from (a) reducing the bulk of role-playing down to some kind of miniatures skirmish game and (b) making sure that every class is more or less equal in that context. That maybe works in other genres, but this is not at all consistent with classic fantasy nor does this mentality have anything to do with old school tabletop role-playing games. If your game can’t handle a no account loser character consistently out-living the strong, the wise, and the cunning and even making it to level three when everyone else is rolling up their second or third character… then you know, maybe it isn’t old school. And it’s quite possible that no amount of finesse on the game master’s part can make it such.

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12 responses to “Old School and New School: The Thief Class

  1. sanfordbegley June 20, 2016 at 7:03 pm

    Well as someone who gravitated to thief for my very first character, and made the DM buy it even though he declared that fighters, clerics and magic users were the only available characters… I started playing D&D brown covers in 76. I have played thieves so consistently that when stopping by mu old gaming group a year or two They all hoped I was coming back. Nearly a quote from one of the players to his young teen son “You know all then really special things Arbolast can do? That is with John playing at his best with a high level. If Sanford comes back he can do more with a newly rolled up first level. John is barely an apprentice with thieves, Sanford is a Grandmaster”
    I will say that the best thief players don’t care what their stats and skills are. I don’t need to have a pick pocket skill of x if I can con the mark into letting me hold his purse while he goes to the bathroom. None of the thief skill from Basic D&D all the way to Pathfinder and beyond matter, they are ways to let the fighters pretend to be thieves. In fact I have known DMs who played all characters like that. You never rolled dice. You talked out your stories and the DM made a judgement call on how workable he though a plan was. The only characters whose skill sets are used worse than thieves are Assassins and Bards. Any of those characters in the hands of an expert is much more powerful than the mage or the fighter. Unless, of course, the mage or fighter is also being played by an expert.

  2. pcbushi June 20, 2016 at 10:03 pm

    Heh…was just musing about this over at Cirsova today. Probably the most fun character I’ve played was my charisma rogue. None of that backstabbing min-maxing.

  3. jddyalblog June 21, 2016 at 7:39 am

    That’s an interesting perspective. The thief ARCHETYPE is certainly old school, and hearkens back to foundational literature like Cugel the “Clever” or the Gray Mouser or even the picaresque stories that predated sword & sorcery, but it hadn’t really occurred to me how MUCH the mechanics for the archetype have really been all over the map, haven’t they?

    Whether I’m “old school” or not isn’t something that particularly concerns me (although the more I explore the concept, the more I think I’m a good deal more old school than I really thought I was) but I really can’t imagine a sword & sorcery inspired game that doesn’t have at least SOME kind of expression of the archetype. In spite of that, nobody seems (yet) to have really found the definitive way to express it.

    • jeffro June 21, 2016 at 7:50 am

      Fixing the thief class is sort of a rite of passage in the OD&D scene. Classic Tunnels & Trolls is my favorite solution– much more Cugel-like.

      • jddyalblog June 22, 2016 at 10:58 am

        It seems to me that the fundamental disconnect comes from trying to emulate characters—Cugel, Gray Mouser, Bilbo, etc. who didn’t really spend all THAT much time in the literature in which they appear doing anything at all related to the “story of D&D”—i.e., they actually very rarely spent time in dungeons doing things that are dungeoneering-like.

        The Thief class (and the various iterations that followed it) work perfectly fine in other settings, but almost all of the complaints I see about them in the OSR-sphere have to do with their interactions in the dungeon.

        It may, of course, be a harder sell to suggest that the problem isn’t the Thief class per se, it’s the dungeon, in the game of DUNGEONS & Dragons, though. Yeah, yeah… details.

        As the game evolved and some form of non-weapon proficiency or skill system or SOMETHING evolved to cover the perceived gap that led to nonsense conclusions, like only the Thief can climb a wall or listen at a door, by codifying a method by which anyone could do so and have a mechanics prescribed way to judge how likely they were to be able to do do successfully, the Thief largely evolved into something more like an assassin; rather than specializing in opening locks and sneaking around, that became only a portion of what he did (and he presumably did it a little better than anyone else) the backstab ability kind of became his signature ability, and he evolved into being more of an assassin, if you will. Although the name never caught up to the concept.

  4. Robert Eaglestone June 21, 2016 at 9:31 am

    In Traveller, I think the “Scout” career is the analogue of the thief character, rather than the “Other” career.

    • Library Bob June 21, 2016 at 11:43 am

      No, the Other is definitely the service for criminals – they can get Forgery and Bribery. Scouts can’t even get Gambling. In fact, Scouts don’t get any social skills to affect the Reaction table.

  5. Hooc Ott June 22, 2016 at 5:43 am

    hmmm….

    “(5). Should thief be a class?
    Yes, but it is often gimped by harsh rules and/or adjudicated poorly by the DM, myself included. Opening Locks should allow one to earn another roll by continuing to work on it (and maybe giving the DM an additional Wandering Monster check). Finding and Removing Traps rolls should be the last resort of a lazy thief; good descriptions of precautions should preempt the need for a roll. Picking Pockets and Moving Silently should be much easier if the thief can arrange a distraction. Climbing Walls should only be rolled when the obstacle is something no ordinary person can climb. Hiding in Shadows should only be rolled if there’s no actual intervening cover. Hear Noise is okay, I guess.”

    http://jrients.blogspot.com/2013/07/answers-for-random-wizard.html

    • Cirsova June 22, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      In my B/X game, the fighters and clerics do most of the searching for traps, since if they don’t find anything, they can usually survive what shoots out of the door they just tried to open. I’m really generous, though – if there is a pressure plate trap, and the fighter specifically says “I’m looking for pressure plates”, he’ll find the pressure plate. If the trap being sprung is incumbent upon some mechanism built into the doorframe that could not be seen until the door is open, no amount of searching is going to find it.

      Mechanically, the backstab is the only thing that the Thief has going for it in my game that other characters can’t do on their own – if a fighter is keeping an opponent engaged in melee and the thief can get behind the enemy, damn skippy I’ll give him a backstab. He won’t even have to roll for hide in shadows, move silently or for cover to do it, either.

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