Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Old-School Thief: Take...Oh, Who Can Keep Count?

I was rereading Knockspell #2 and the rather intensive article on Thieves, which commences with James M.'s (of Grognardia) definition of the problem; some of which can be found here so I won't rehearse the whole argument. To be brief, the usual argument is that Thieves introduce some kind of “skill system” and/or have special abilities which imply that other Classes do not have those abilities. Something like that, at any rate. In KS#2, this argument is then followed by numerous attempts to rectify the Thief, so to speak, because, despite all the hullabaloo, a lot of people like having Thieves in their games.

My problem with Thieves is rather different: they are boring. Incredibly boring. I have never found Thief abilities to overwhelm other classes; rather I have consistently found over many years that Thieves are overwhelmed by everyone else. I’ll hasten to add that this is my experience and may not reflect yours. In my games, anyone can look for traps and try and describe disarming them. Anyone can try and sneak. So what the hell is the Thief for?

And yet....

And yet the archetype of The Cunning Rogue is a strong one and Ye Auld Game (YEG) is built upon strong archetypes. Here’s where I found my problem: when I try and come up with archetypal characters who match the D&D Thief, I don’t get anyone. The only one I have ever come up with is the Grey Mouser, but he really doesn’t fit the class as written. Then, while walking, it dawned upon me that I was an idiot for forgetting about Cugel the Clever.

That’s when the wheel started turning. What is common to the Mouser and Cugel in terms of abilities described in the texts? It certainly isn’t Hiding in Shadows or Picking Pockets. The one really common thing that jumps out at me is that they are both jacks-of-all-trades who know a little bit about about a lot of things, including a familiarity with magic. The Mouser was, of course, a magician’s apprentice and “counters” a lighting spell at one point with that knowledge. In the Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel finds himself in possession of Incounnu’s spellbook and learns some powerful spells, albeit poorly.

Now Ye Auld Game sort of kind of addresses this by letting higher level Thieves read magic and use Scrolls, but that really doesn’t work for me. So, here’s the idea: Thieves gain limited spell-casting and can use all magical items, however they will always face the possibility of misfiring, as Cugel finding himself upon Cutz Strand a second time learns to his dismay. My system of choice right now is Spellcraft & Swordplay which uses the Chainmail idea of a Casting Roll, unlike D&D proper. In S&S, I think I would give Thieves a blanket penalty to their Casting Rolls (minus 2 or 3). This wouldn’t work for D&D proper obviously; maybe import one of the miscasting rules from AD&D or just drag in a Saving Throw.

After coming up with this idea, I was both horrified and pleased to discover that someone else had already done the heavy-lifting for me: the QuinTerra Campaign.

Related to that, I'm thinking about a Thief ability something like Legend Lore. Thieves pick up a lot of weird knowledge as they go along, and might therefore have chance of recognizing certain magical items based on stories and rumours.

Returning to KS#2 for moment, one of the arguments against Thieves is the way in which they introduce and codify mechanics for doing thiefy things like sneaking and climbing. This creates a number of perceived problems. First and foremost being that, since other classes do not have mechanics for doing the same things, this tends to imply that they cannot. That is, since only a Thief has an ability called "Hide in Shadows", therefore a Fighter cannot hide in shadows. This was a real issue historically, but I think most of us have been able to see beyond this perceptual blind-spot.

Still, it opens onto another, namely: how does the Fighter then hide in shadows? The good old stand-by Ability Check might seem relevant here, but logically, a Fighter shouldn't be better at this than a Thief (who's chances start pretty bad at 1st level).

Another issue here is that the old-school aesthetic wants to have those activities be open to Referee decisions on probability and what not and not bound into the rules. Some Refs might like to have your hiding chance be determined purely on the basis of role-playing, while another might squint at the situation and think you probably have a 2-in-6 chance (I'll be damned if I can find a link to Jeff Rient's blog where he talks about using a d6 for everything. So pretend this is the link).

Among the various Thief idea in KS#2 (you knew we'd get back there eventually didn't you, clever hypothetical reader?), the estimable Akrasia took a unique path. He laid out a scheme for using the Saving Throw in Swords & Wizardy (there's only one in that game, unlike all other flavours of YEG) as a universal resolution mechanic. From there, he could then sidestep a lot of the above-issues and simply say that Thieves get a +3 bonus on Saves when appropriate.

There are a lot of things to like in that idea. It's elegant as all get-out. My only real problem is that I can't accept the lone S&W Saving Throw as a universal mechanic. That single Save was actually one of the things that prompted me to make Spellcraft & Swordplay my base system. And I don't believe that it's pure Old Man Grumpiness behind my dislike for it, as Ye Old Game's weird panoply of Saves, while exotic and intriguing, isn't that beloved by me. I like S&S recasting of them as Ability Checks, an idea derived from Castles & Crusades. In both C&C and S&S (geez, this Alphabet Soup gets annoying after a while), the Saving Throw-cum-Ability Check really is a universal mechanic. But the Save is totally unrelated to anything else in S&W. The former two games (I'm not typing the letters again) use the Saving Throw to determine who hits and who resists the Polymorph spell and everything else, while the latter just uses it for avoiding damage.

But, and here's the important part for me, that objection doesn't really stand if I'm using (ah nuts) S&S. It would be very easy to say that Thieves just get a numeral bonus to whatever Check you are using when doing theify things. In fact, that's exactly what Jason Vey did in the Revised version of the game and I salute him again for doing so.

However, that doesn't necessarily work as a generic "old school" solution. But the idea does. Why not say that Thieves get a bonus of +1/3 levels. End stop.

So, monsters get surprised on a 1-2 on a d6? A Thief operating alone surprises on a 1-3.

So, the Referee thinks that you might have a 3-in-8 chance to climb up that embankment? Thieves have a 4-in-8.

And so on.

Haven't decided what you would do if one of your players wants to pick a pocket or two? Decide when and if it comes up and remember that Thieves will do it at +1 whatever die you are rolling.

I have received one alternate idea that I find intriguing: allow Thieves to make two rolls and take the higher. I do quite like that. It's much like the hallowed Philotomy's rule for using two-handed weapons. It keeps the addition down and gives a feel somewhat like outrageous luck. However, my concern is that this doesn't really increase as a Thief levels up.

What's the point of all this? I don't know really. I feel like I have almost found my ideal Thief, or, at least, as close as I am going to come.


  1. Great post, as always, and thanks again (as always) for the shout-out to S&S!

  2. "My only real problem is that I can't accept the lone S&W Saving Throw as a universal mechanic."

    Fair enough. In that case, though, just use a general 'target number' system for all tasks. It starts at 15 at level one, and improves by one per level until level 11 (when it 'maxes out' at 5). PCs roll 1d20, and add/subtract relevant modifiers to attempted tasks (bonuses/penalties based on relevant ability scores, difficulty modifiers, etc.). Any character of any class can still try any task, but thieves receive a +3 (or whatever) bonus to rolls involving 'thief-like' tasks.

  3. I'm quite content with using Ability Checks as a universal mechanic. Since S&S uses 2d6 instead od 1d20, +3 is a bit much.

  4. "I'm quite content with using Ability Checks as a universal mechanic"

    Okay, but I thought that one of your concerns was having thieves' abilities improve with experience, no? If so, then simple ability checks would be inadequate -- unless, of course, you modified them depending on the level of the character rolling.

    If using 2d6, I would use a +2 bonus.

  5. All PC's get a +1/3 levels on all checks in S&S.

  6. Cool. I need to read the S&S rules more closely. :)

  7. Indeed. Jason made the Basic Game free, so no excuses. :)

  8. Actually, I have a copy of the 'pocketbook' S&S rulebook, as well as the PDF for the revised 'deluxe' edition. I've just been too busy with my S&W game to look closely at it.