Thursday, May 17, 2018

The B/X Thief is Good

Volumes have been wasted on attacking or defending the early iterations of the Thief class in D&D. Here’s some more.

I like the Thief as presented in the Moldvay basic set. I think their utility is underrated, though like everything else, much depends on how the DM interprets the rules.

For those who like the general idea of a thief class, the main criticism is that their skills suck. They’re bad at everything a thief should be good at (or so it seems).

Moldvay Basic Set, page B8

I’m going to go through each of these skills and try to persuade you that things are not quite as bad as they seem. Reading closely, there's more to it than the low percentages on the table above.

Open Locks
Notice that all locks in D&D land are equally difficult to pick. Whether it’s the lock on your sister’s diary, or the padlock the dwarves put on Loki’s magic chains, you’ve got a 15% chance to open it.

That seems silly, but for me, it’s a reasonable abstraction within the scope of the game. It’s even got a sense of mad gonzo fun about it—a level one thief unleashing Loki and kicking off Ragnorok seems like it would fit a certain style of campaign.

To work around this, one might rule that any thief can pick a common lock automatically. After all, we only want to roll dice when the result is in doubt, and interesting.

If you fail, no retries until you gain another level. No “taking 20”.

Find or Remove Traps
10% at first level. Ouch.

“either attempt may only be tried once per trap”.

However, nothing in the descriptive text suggests that a failed roll springs the trap. So that makes the low percentage sting a bit less. My reading of the rules suggest the check takes negligible time. So it’s always worth a shot.

I GM with the idea in mind that, while anybody can try to disarm a trap, thieves are pros. They don’t need to improvise or spend much time investigating—when a thief successfully removes a trap, they go “ah yes, I’ve seen this before” and disarm the mechanism with a paperclip.

Pick Pockets
20% isn’t so bad. Probably worth trying, as long as you have an exit plan. And if you snag the keys off a guard’s belt without a fight, you can loot the place at your leisure. Big risks for big rewards.

For my own part, I’d usually say failure here provokes a reaction roll (at penalty). Another reason why CHA isn’t a dump stat.

Move Silently
20% again—this gets right at the core of what should be typical thief stuff. Why so low? Especially if you need to Hide in Shadows to stay concealed at the same time?

Well, it’s better than 1-in-6 on a d6 anyways. And I only call for this roll when the thief wants to move at something like normal speed, right under the nose of something that would otherwise hear a person walking by. Any character can wait quietly in ambush just by sitting still, and get the usual chance to surprise an enemy.

Climb Sheer Surfaces
87% (!) You could say the level one thief is a professional climber, and an amateur burglar.

For short climbs, I’d have no problem with a player describing this as parkour type wall jumps that take about the same amount of time as an attack roll.

Perhaps Gygax et al. chose to make this one so good because it’s likely to result in instant character death. If you fail the roll, you fall while halfway to your goal. So if you were trying to climb 100 feet, you’re gonna fall and take 5d6 damage. Ouch.

So this skill makes the thief extremely mobile, and able to bring the whole party along by fixing a rope at the top of a hard climb.

Hide in Shadows
Only 10% at level one. Was it set so low to keep thief players from constantly fading into the shadows and spamming sneak attacks?

Given how low a chance this has of working, I let players use this as a limited form of invisibility. If the roll succeeds, and you’re in a dark room, you can hide in plain sight, or even fade from sight like Batman if it’s even sort of plausible. You can lose yourself in a crowd in broad daylight.

To me, “hide in shadows” clearly implies hiding directly in the observer’s line of sight. Otherwise, you need cover—If you’re standing still behind a door, around a corner, or on your belly at the peak of a ridge, you’re hidden automatically.

Hear Noise
1 or 2 on a D6
That’s a 33% chance at level one. We’re rolling on a d6 for some reason. Is it because the player was meant to roll this, while all the others are rolled by the DM? I’m always fascinated by these funny little turns of the rules. Gary Gygax must have had some reason for it (not necessarily a good one).

If a player rolls this successfully, I try to make sure it always grants some new bit of information about the area, even if there's not a clear threat nearby.

Sneak Attack
+4 to hit and double damage when your enemy is caught from behind, unaware. This alone can make level one a little less shitty for the thief. I see nothing in the Basic rules that suggests you can’t sneak attack with a ranged weapon, which makes the thief a decisive force in an ambush.

And if you can kill that 1HD chump, shouldn’t his buddies roll morale? Even if it doesn’t work every time, it seems the thief could scatter herds of mooks at least as often as the fighter does.

So what is the thief actually good for?

If you fall into a hole (like say, a pit trap), you can get out quickly without help.

You can get the whole party into difficult places by climbing up and dropping a rope. You’re pretty good at this right away—much better at it than the LotFP specialist can be at level one. You can bound up short walls and fences, climb up the face of a building to run along the roof, and so on. So thieves seem to have the mobility niche on lockdown.

You can reliably take out weak enemies in one hit, even at level one, as long as you can set up a sneak attack—which should hardly ever require a successful hide or move silently check, if you can set up an ambush.

If the thief is charming (has a high CHA) then even a failed attempt to pick pockets doesn’t mean certain disaster. If the GM allows a reaction roll, you might be allowed to skulk off with your hide intact.

They level up more than twice as fast as the wizard, and 60% faster than the fighter. That means they get a little more padding than their 1d4 hit die would suggest. They might be the highest level character in the group about half the time.

So if you play to the character’s strengths, and make contingencies for failures, the thief can do several cool things that go beyond “normal adventurer stuff”. As the thief advances (quickly!) his other skills catch up. Your first level thief is a very competent “second story man”, but not yet a master safecracker. You shouldn’t be afraid to use your skills—you should use them all the time, and have a backup plan for the inevitable misfires.

By level 7, a thief has got a better than 50% chance of success in all his skills (except hide in shadows, which is at 45).

At that point, he’s got a good chance of pickpocketing anything off of anybody, (though his chances diminish against creatures with more than 5HD). If a place has a door or a window, he can probably get in. His ears are so good that the party should rarely be caught by surprise. So while it’s possible for him to do all this at level one, these abilities are really only “unlocked” as he gains levels.

I’m not a Gygaxian purist, but I think it’s worth examining the original rules in context before setting them aside.


There’s a longstanding argument in OSR circles against including the thief at all. Roughly summarized, it says that the thief’s niche is artificial—his “specialty” comes at the expense of making everyone else unable to do what should be typical adventurer stuff.

If you use B/X as written, that may indeed be a problem:

“They (thieves) are the only characters who can open locks and find traps without using magic to do so.”
(Moldvay Basic, page B10)

I treat it this way instead—given time and a bit of clever play, any character can attempt to do what the thief does. The attempt usually takes about one exploration turn (ten minutes). Any character can climb a rope, and most can manage a short climb up a rock face. In the meantime, light sources are depleted, wandering monsters may attack, and so on.

The thief’s skills represent extraordinary feats, done with speed and grace. Disarming a trap in seconds with just the right tool; climbing a tower with nearly seamless masonry; melting into shadows like Batman; picking the amulet off the duchess’s neck while surrounded by her guards.

While the specialist class in Lamentations of the Flame Princess is a popular house rule alternative with good reason, the B/X thief has more (though less reliable) skills.

In the context of a dungeon crawl, his abilities primarily aid the party by saving time and resources. If the thief gets a good roll at the right time, they might route around encounters that would otherwise bleed the party and send them fleeing the dungeon. If the thief’s abilities were more almost always successful, then many of the dungeon’s challenges would be made irrelevant (and there’d be less to gain from leveling up).

1 comment:

  1. A real nice interpretation and goes a long way to end the age old debate.
    Someone needs to throw this at Jonathan Becker (BX Blackrazor).