Old School and New School: The Thief Class
June 20, 2016
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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.
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.