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.
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.
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
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’
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
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
CHAPTER 5: Tools of
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
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
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+.