Friday, 31 August 2012

Travelling Fourth Class

Real World Thieves
making D&D thieves
look too highly skilled.
The thief was the fourth of the "core" classes to be introduced in supplement I of OD&D, "Greyhawk", along with the paladin sub-class and as such wasn't actually core at all in OD&D.

There's a lot of complaining about thieves from various corners of the D&D world - too weak in combat, too reliant on non-human characteristics to make them viable (eg, infravision, slope detection), poor AC, high chance of skills failing, the fact that they have skills at all instead of some more roleplayey system.

Some of these complaints are derived from the style of play. A thief does struggle in a dungeon compared to a city, in the same way that a druid will be more at home in the wilderness than in the thief's city.

It's also undeniable that a thief that can see in the dark has a substantial advantage over one that can't.

However, combat ability isn't such an obvious criticism in the same way that it's not really an issue if magic users are not great at combat; it's not their "thing". Even so, a thief is not that much worse at fighting than a cleric.

A thief that could see in the dark
might have noticed the dragon
watching him trying to steal its
favourite car
Because a thief levels slightly more quickly than a cleric, a party with both will tend to find that a thief's combat level rarely lags behind the cleric by more than one or two points, assuming that xp is evenly divided. In fact, when the thief reaches 9th level (110,001 xp), they will be fighting at the same base level (5) as the cleric for the whole of the cleric's current level as s/he requires an extra 115,000 xp to gain their next step up in combat skill.

Poor AC is also a real factor. Although magic can help here at low levels it really pays for the single-classed thief to have a high Dex. However, any character wishing to use stealth even in the minimal sense of not looking immediately out of place in a street scene, will have to forego substantial armour anyway so if the thief was not in the game someone else would have to fulfil the unarmoured scout role instead.

That leaves the skills issues. Some people have objected to the thief not "feeling" like the other three classes, because of the percentage skill ratings. Whereas the fighter's skill uses a d20 and the magic-user uses various dice for their "skills" (mostly in the form of damage) and their opponents use a d20 for defense (and clerics are a combination of fighter and magic-users) the thief has this big list of d% scores to roll under.

But there's no real difference here. The fighter's chance to hit armour class 5 increases with each new level, and the thief's chance to climb a wall increases with each new level. This is not the same as later games under the D&D name that introduced skills that were completely orthogonal to the class system. The thief's level (and some ability/race bonuses) determine their chance, just as with the fighter. I don't really see that the fact that a number is rolled against makes it essentially different from the fighter's chart.

The most substantial criticism in this vein is, I think, the one that can be levelled at all systems wherein the character has a list of skills. The question naturally arises in the players' and DM's minds of what happens when a character does not have a skill listed. This question links into the complaint that the thief's skills are too low.

Underlying this combined problem is the fact that AD&D doesn't have any other skills expressed in the way that the thief skills are (just as it doesn't have any that are much like the fighter's primary skill either, although the all the classes share the basic combat mechanic). This has led a lot of DMs to run the game as if no one else other than thieves can climb walls, pick pockets, hide in shadows etc. etc. and that, as a logical extension, all a thief player needs or can do is roll the dice and see if the character succeeds.

Here's an example of what I mean:
Player: I enter the room and search for traps.
DM: <rolls dice> You find nothing.
Pretty dull stuff and, since neither the player nor the DM are expecting anything else then the whole chance of success comes down to that roll which, except at very high level, is unlikely to succeed.

Here's a better version, based on a game I ran some time ago:

Fighter: I check the door frame for anything odd; especially the lintel area.
DM: <rolls> There's something odd about it indeed. There's some sort of thin line running across the width of the lintel.
Thief: I'll have a look too.
DM: <no roll> It's a thin slot.
Thief: Probably for a blade. We'll hammer a couple of wooden wedges into the slot.
DM: OK. It looks like it's disarmed.
Fighter: Can I see how it's set off?
DM: <rolls as above> Nope.
Thief: Can I?
DM: <rolls as above, fails, so re-rolls thief's find traps skill and succeeds> The door saddle and the flagstone in front of it are in fact one piece and there are some on the uprights of the door frame. Looks like a pressure pad release.
Fighter: There must be some way to turn it off and on so that the room can be used. I'd be happier finding that than trusting these wedges.
Thief: I can't think of how to disarm that; can my guy? 
DM:<rolls remove traps skill> You find that part of the door-jam pulls out with a click. That's almost certainly the trick.
Thief: OK, I'll try it with a jump onto the flagstone and a roll forward into the room.
DM: Fine. You do your action-movie roll and spring to your feet. Nothing else happens.
Thief: I look under the bed.
DM: You see a mechanism to spring a bed of spikes up through the mattress.
Thief: Kinky.
The point here is that the players should still be interacting with the environment and those interactions should not simply be ruled by the dice but by the question of whether they are actions which would elicit the information. If there is doubt, then sometimes a character - any character - will have a chance to roll for it, and sometimes they won't. I'll talk about what is being rolled in these cases in a later post but many DM's just go with rolling d20 under Int or some other ability score.

A thief gets the same chances as everyone else. Only if that fails does the DM need to look at their special skills and roll them when they are applicable. If that fails too, then that's just the way it is.

To go back to the spiked mattress in the example, if the DM had noted that the underside of the trap was covered by cloth so as to not be visible, then any normal character looking under the bed simply would not see it unless they said they were actually touching the sheet (which might be dangerous in other ways). A thief character who simply says that they are looking should get a roll even if the player did not suggest something as specific as checking the undersheet and the DM should assume that it is done carefully too.

Bloody Amateurs
Likewise, any character can try to move silently enough that an inattentive guard does not hear them, but a thief can do it so well that a dragon can not hear them. Anyone can try to climb a cliff, a thief gets a second roll if that fails. Anyone can try to pick a key out of a distracted merchant's pocket; a thief can do it while standing talking to the merchant.

When handling thief skill rolls, always start with what chance you would give any other character to perform the action based on what the player has told you they are doing and add the specialist thief skills on top of that. Otherwise you can end up hamstringing not only the thief but all the characters.

Hopefully by my next post I'll have a proper computer again instead of this decrepit laptop that can't even run Firefox.

1 comment:

  1. That is a cool way to do it Nagora. I like it. I'm totally stealing the idea. Thanks!