The Complete Thief's Handbook: Book Review

Product number 2111, also known as PHBR2, or The Complete Thief’s Handbook, was the second player’s reference to be released, its goal was to expand the thief’s class, and this one had its work cut out for it. It was written by the trio of John Nephew, Carl Sargent, and Douglas Niles, and was released the first year of the 2nd Edition.

The thief class came with some baggage. The name itself suggests that one pick pockets and steals from his fellow players, instantly brings the status of a party down as they are protecting a criminal, and that the thief engages in behavior that is anti-productive to the cooperative gameplay which one needs to be a successful party. Indeed, one can play a thief this way, but it isn’t suggested. Playing this way tends to bring all of the attention to yourself, which isn’t fair to the other players. So, what the PHBR2 set out to do was change this, and suggest methods of play which proved productive to cooperative play. 

CHAPTER 1: Role-Playing Thieves

Today, just like in The Complete Fighter’s Handbook, a chapter dedicated to role-playing sounds silly, but (especially with this class), this chapter represents the first step on the journey to making a thief character playable in a modern sense. Back in the day, it wasn’t rare for players to play as evil PCs;  2e wanted to get away from that and transform the game into a more heroic theme in which the players represent the good guys. The most glaring issue with this “heroic adventure play” is the thief. He need not be re-written, but he did need to be rethought. This section said that we can break the mold, and have a richer experience with the character than just playing it one-dimensionally.

I really got a lot of out this chapter. One can learn the mechanics from the core books, but Role-Playing was kind of a foreign subject, and many tables thought that Role-playing was some kind of acting, which it isn’t. A quick chapter on Role-play was helpful; however, this chapter specifically, can still be felt at the gaming table today, whenever one decides to roll up a thief and still play a good guy.

CHAPTER 2: Proficiencies

This chapter marked a huge change for the game! In the PHB, proficiencies were listed as supplemental, in The Fighter’s Handbook they were considered to be Core rules and were better defined, but in the Complete Thief’s Handbook, we get brand new ones! Now, the PHB and DMG said that you could make your own NWP as the need arose, but this was the first time that it suggested new ones. Of course, they weren’t considered to be Core, so you had to ask your Dungeon Master is he would allow them. For the most part, they were all setting neutral, and all of them were functional and didn’t allow the player to replace role-playing with the dice . . . well, there was fast-talking, but that is still a very specific thing and can be used to enhance a roll that would be made anyway, unlike some of the 3e skills which replace role-playing entirely.

Some of the added NWP can be added to the general list, and can be taken by any class for no extra cost; and thief’s are now granted unrestricted access to some NWP that were formally restricted from them, however these are all logical additions to a thief’s skill set and made no sense that they couldn’t take them in the first place.

This chapter alone is worth the price of admission! Most players who own the book consider this Core and almost a form of Errata.

CHAPTER 3: Thief Kits

I’m not a big fan of the term: Kit. While I like unique characters, I think that Kits started the trend of changing the language of D&D, instead of being a thief; players insisted that they were other things, when they really are just thieves, but that is just a gripe of mine. It did teach us that we could play characters in different ways, and for this class, which is highly customable to begin with, it does provide a new player with some sort of structure that he can follow, and depend on to keep from becoming a character that you don’t really want to play.

Many of the kits aren’t really for PCs at all, but for DMs who want to write a descent thief NPC, specialists like fences, spies, and assassins are listed here, but their playability is rather limited. There are also a few kits that don’t really belong in the book, such as a recopy of the Swashbuckler from The Complete Fighter’s Handbook, which depended upon a high THAC0 to function properly, or the Thug, which would be more appropriately placed in the Fighter’s Handbook as well, but didn’t make it. Come to think of it, many of the kits in this book would be better suited to the Fighter Class, but instead, they are here.

The kit section isn’t totally worthless, when it comes to true thief kits, this book excels! This section shatters the mold of the “typical” thief completely, and details kits that help the character maximize their potential for improving a party in a completely productive way. The thief requires that min/maxing mentality, but it is the nature of this class. Why beef up your Pick Pocket skill if you’ll be focusing more on Move Silently instead? This book teaches you how to min/max without losing that element of role-playing.

It also reintroduces classes cut from the PHB; while many complain that they are under-powered compared to their 1e counter-parts, the DM can always allow the player to use the 1e version, and it translates well. You won’t level up as fast as normal 2e characters, but that actually, in my opinion, is what balances those classic character sub-classes out, but that really has nothing to do with this book.

CHAPTER 4: Thieves’ Guild

This is another one of those chapters that makes this book valuable to a DM. The PHB mentions guilds, but it gives no real details other than stating that a player can start one at higher levels. A few modules also feature thieves’ guilds, but the DM may not have one of them, and even if he did, he wouldn’t let the player see it, so a player is kind of left naive about how the power structure within the guild that he’s supposed to be a part of works. Well, this chapter fixes that, and it is, to this day, the comprehensive guide to 2e Thieves’ Guilds. While much of the Complete Handbook series was later reworked and reprinted into updated formats, this chapter never was, and it is 39 pages of gold! They did such a good job here, that I am really surprised that they didn’t cut it out and print a Complete Guild’s Handbook for DMs, which was a known TSR marketing tactic that irritated us players to no ends.

Finally, a definitive guide to guilds, how a DM can flesh them out, how he can DM a Guildmaster PC, how a guild can interact with each other as well as the cities they exist in, and even how the standard non-thief guilds function.

CHAPTER 5: Tools of the Trade

This chapter answers a lot of questions, as its primary goal is to define what each skill is and what it is not. Just because it is titled Hide in Shadows doesn’t mean that the user can just disappear in the dark, but he can conceal himself from detection almost anywhere as well. Picking Pockets isn’t just picking pockets, but is sleight of hand.

Besides properly defining Thief Skills, it includes equipment for modifying the skills, making them easier to perform at lower levels, or ways to modify ones existing equipment to improve it for the class itself, such as weapon black for shiny swords. Also included here are new magical items designed especially for the thief class.

Each new item of equipment is fully detailed, and has a new table for everything on the list, which is helpful. Most of this stuff isn’t something that a normal character really needs,  and some will have the reader scratching their heads as many of these items provides a really, really advanced level of play that one may not ever really incorporate, but it still makes one think.

CHAPTER 6: The Arts of Deception: Classic Cons

This really short chapter, if it can be called that, suggests some classic ways that a guild makes money from illegal activity, though some adult themed ways are clearly missing, but those are easy for the DM to add to their games all by themselves, and it keeps mom happy, because with a name like The Complete Thief’s Handbook, you know mom is going to go through that thing with a fine-toothed comb! This also helps keep the book setting neutral, as it has no idea what time-period or setting that you are using actually is, which, to me, works in its favor.

CHAPTER 7: New Rules for Thieves

Neither the PHB nor the DMG were very helpful in regards to judging thief skills, so this chapter fixes that! It shows the player and the DM how to modify checks by granting bonuses or handicaps depending upon the quality of a lock or the nature of a trap. It also adds some cool extras to help us modify our actions further; say, you want to train a ferret or a monkey to be a thief, well, now you can!

There is also a rule that players are not allowed access to the DMG during play, if they want to argue a call, they must use the PHB to find their evidence, as well as these Complete Handbooks, and this is where it was decided to put some more information about poisons and their uses into the players hands, it isn’t much information! But it is enough to give the players the ability to know a little bit about them.

It also details how armor can interact with skills, as well as introducing a non-lethal backstab option called Mugging.

CHAPTER 8: The Thief Campaign

This section is for DMs and provides info on how to better run a campaign if a thief is present, or even have a completely thief party! Some of this book is written in a way that turns the thief into a focal character, and is, in itself, counterproductive to cooperative play. A thief may want to leave the party and go burglarize an enemies house, this can be done really quickly, or that player may come in and you can run a 1-on-1 mini adventure, but who wants to do that? (Well, I always did).

This chapter is full of ideas, not all of them useful to your campaign, but it is still nice to have them.

At the back of the book, all tables are reprinted; other than a Kit Creation Sheet, it doesn’t have any photo copy stuff, such as character sheets or a guild creation template, which goes against it. In my opinion, the one thing that TSR never gave us was a decent Thief Class Player Sheet, which would have been handy!


The book itself is of the same quality as the rest of the Complete Handbooks; it can put up with normal wear and tear without falling apart, but it is paperbound. I still own and use my original copy which I had bought used back in the mid-90’s, the back label has shown signs of wear from sliding it in and out of the bookshelf, but the binding has held and it can sit flat on the table and hold your page, which I believe had to be worn into it; If I remember correctly, when I first got it, the thing wanted to close up on me all the time.

The value that this book offers is really good! Like I said, the new NWP are awesome to incorporate into the game, and the section on Thieves’ Guilds is stuff that you are going to want to have. It wasn’t really an idiot’s guide to playing the thief class; it offered a true reference book that players & DMs alike will be using time and time again. Some of this stuff has been updated into the Player’s Option series, but, in cases where it was, the original out does it by leaps and bounds, making this the very first Player’s Reference Book that was actually worth having as it is functional on all levels of play, from beginner all the way up to the truly advanced.

My original rating for this book, when I picked it up and first started using it, is an A. My favorite class to play has always been the thief, and it was this book which taught me how to really embrace the class and use it to its fullest potential. It changed my perception of what a thief was, and as a DM I still use this book once in a while. It didn’t introduce us to role-playing; The Complete Fighter’s Handbook did that; but it did show us how to modify a PC class into something that is special and unique no matter how many times you play it.

Today, for modern users, since much of this material wasn’t reprinted, and is still extremely functional, I keep my original rating for it as an A. If it came with more photo copy sheets, it would have gotten an A+.


KenHR said...

One of the better "Complete XX" books, probably my favorite. Nothing too gonzo, nothing too trivial, and I really enjoyed rolling up thieves' guilds. I wish all the books in this series evidenced as much thought and restraint.

RipperX said...

As far as getting a bang for your buck, PBHR2 nailed it, and it was one of those books that you didn't even know that you needed until you started reading it, and it was a great read! Even by today's standards, it has a good mix of Crunch and Fluff, which is rare to find in a 2e product. Sure, some of it went above and beyond what the average player uses, but it is nice to see that. It makes you want to ask the DM for a 1-on-1 session so that you can break into the castle of the richest flake in the city, just to see if you can get in, and get out again without being detected.

Brooser Bear said...

I agree that the Complete Book of Thieves is one of the better books in the series. I think that this book embodies one of the major flaws of the AD&D 2nd Edition in that it dresses our own modern day society masquerading as medieval fantasy. Security system testers for the thieves' kits? Medieval security alarm systems? How about medieval forensics experts for analyzing tool and die marks? You know - those scratches around the lock that will allow modern detectives identify individual set of lock picks? Old art, as forensics goes, scratches on metal were first analyzed forensically in 1830's, though a forensic examination of a pistol was used to get a murder conviction in the US in 1700's. Old but, still not the middle ages of D&D.

As to creating your own thieves' guilds, better idea than the system in the Complete Book of Thieves is to get a hold of one of those street gang history worksheets used by cops and social workers. It gets typically reduced to a single page form with meaningful questions and check-boxes. I tried filling one out for each of the thieves guilds in my campaign, and OMG, the ideas and inspiration, and the more colorful process in general!

RipperX said...

I don't find it as a flaw, Brooser. The key word is Fantasy. To impose historical setting into the book would serve only to create an necessarily limitation on the user. As it is currently written, if you want to set your world to a medieval England, you can. If you want to set it in some magical world of your own concoction, you can do that too. It doesn't say, This is how you HAVE to do it, it says "What if we tried doing this?"

In regards to the street gang worksheets, are they available for free online somewhere?

Brooser Bear said...

Re: Worksheet, I will post a link here if I find one on-line, if not, I will scan the copy I have and post in on Midlands Blog.

I agree with your notion of Fantasy, however, at the level the Fantasy gets presented for D&D, a historical setting will add vividness and complexity, and that is the root of the problem. I will address this in greater detail when I review the Grand Duchy of Karameikos supplement, that came out in 1987. Stay tuned.

Unknown said...

I recently found a huge collection of 2nd Edition at a small local store. Now, I have most/all books on PDF, but I still bought a Player's Handbook (2nd print), because it's really nice to have around the table and look things up.

A thing I'd appreciate (and maybe more will) if you gave some words about how nice each book is to have in physical copy for quick reference or other reasons. We live in a digital age, etc. I love the physical books, but I honestly don't have the money or the space for the whole collection.

I got DMG, Player's Handbook and Monster's Manual as physical copies. Any others you'd recommend getting in real life rather than PDF? Or Rather, is there any there are significantly easier to work with?

RipperX said...

I don't like PDFs, Martin. I own them, well, as much as one CAN own them. They aren't permanent, not like a book is. I don't buy into all of this digital age stuff. I want the book, and one can usually find what they want on-line now for a very reasonable price. Last year I picked up the Forgotten Realms box set for around $25, yes I had to shop around, but I wanted a physical copy. It didn't come with the MM sheets, but I bought it to be functional, I'm not a collector, so the MM sheets aren't something that I'm really going to use anyway. I wanted the booklets, the maps, and that is all.

Not to say that this is always an option, I hate the collectable stuff. I'd love to get a decent Dark Sun boxset, but with prices for that product, that probably isn't going to happen.

As far as computers at the table go, I avoid it. I either write in a notebook, or on the PC, sometimes both, but if it is on the PC I print off what I need. THAT is cool! A nice polished look for home-brewed adventure is amazing, my handwriting, especially when I'm writing fast, can be difficult to read, even for me, but I can glance at a printed copy and get everything quick.

The only time the PC comes out is if somebody asks a question that I need to check my master notes for an answer, which happens. Other than that, it is turned off and in the corner. I can't fathom how folks play the game using only digital materials, it would drive me nuts! I want everything that I need right near me, and I want it now. I like looking at multiple things at once, and having to dodge through windows and tabs is not something that I willing to do.

Always go physical! If you don't have a book, then don't use it on gameday, or print off just what you need. We sometimes have to resort to miniature play to resolve a situation; we've only got one book that details the rules, so I printed off a couple of pamphlets which we all can share to keep these rare rules consistent.

Unknown said...

I tend to agree with everything you said - the sole reason I bought the books and was so happy I found actual physical copies, was so I could get away from the PC at the table.

Like I said, I wish I could afford and have the space for all the books!

Right now I think I've found a nice compromise, where I read all the obscure stuff on the PC and use analogues on game-day itself. Down the line, the goal is to go all analogue.

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