Are Thief Player Characters Still Relevant?

Albrecht Dürer - Cupid the Honey Thief. 1514
Since adopting more elements from OD&D into my gaming, a style that is less skill based and more player driven, I've noticed that many of my fellow tinkerers have opted to remove the thief player class from the game. Now, long-time readers of this blog know that even though I am very critical of skill based systems, my favorite class to play is the Thief. Doesn't make much sense, does it?

It's not that I think that the entire skill system is bad for the game, I just feel that systems like Pathfinder and modern D&D have allowed it to take center stage. It controls too much! People have gotten too reliant on them, and use the skill system to bypass fun parts of the game. It alters the flow, speeding it up, and I feel that it interferes with immersion.

To make a long story short, specifics can correct the problem of mechanical interference, but that doesn't mean that we should completely scrap the NWP system; and then we have the thief class. A skill based class that relies upon them to function.

In a game where the traps are specific, we know how they function and the players can locate them with tools or equipment, and come up with a plan which may or may not result in disarming them, where does the thief fit into this?

  • Thieves are more expendable.
  • They can figure out the hidden workings of advanced traps.
  • They do more for the team than just disarm and locate traps.

Handling Checks

In my last post, I suggested that we try to stick to specifics as much as possible. The DM listens to the plan, and translates the odds of success to the d%; however, there are times when the players are going to have to make checks. In times like these, I prefer the d20. It is fast, fair, and usually in the player's favor.

d% Thief Checks

via: Pinterest
I never really thought about it before, why do thieves roll d% for thief ability checks? I suppose that it is just a hang-over from 1st Edition AD&D. It gives the illusion of player control, but it really isn't all that functional.

As a player, the thief skill system doesn't work at early levels of play and offers no challenge at higher levels. The best games are when you are gambling with your character's life. As a player, if something is dangerous, I'm not going to even attempt it unless I've got at least a 70%. If things get desperate, I may attempt it at 50%, but never below that. If something has no risk, I will just sit there and roll dice until we all get bored or it works . . . hours and hours later in game time. That sucks, and that isn't playing the game.

I know that there is a huge population of gamers who think that the NWP system is broken, but I don't feel that it is, of course, the way that I design my games I enforce no reliance upon the system to use it. It can allow a user to bypass an obstacle, or make a section easier if you are successful, but play doesn't stop because of a failed check; that is a symptom of bad design. It all boils down to percentages, the d20 just uses increments of 5%. If a character has a DEX of 15, with a -2 to his ability check, he's got a 65% of succeeding. That is actually lower standards than I would normally allow for a dangerous task that will kill me if the dice say no. 


It was this book that got folks prepared for 3e. It focused on a reliance on skills over the traditional game. It even stripped the class system that we all loved in favor of building some character class that made it even slower to roll up new characters, and caused players to stop play to look at the weird rules in this thing. I hated it. I'm still not a fan.

Regardless if you like the book or not, it did say something interesting . . . if you could find it. It suggested turning thief skills into NWP. How stupid is that? I mean, it goes against years and years of tradition! Besides, thief players aren't going to want to sacrifice NWP slots on skills that they used to have from the start of the game, right?

RAVENLOFT: Masque of the Red Death

This boxed Campaign setting actually predates the Skills & Powers book, but it had lots of mechanics which were unique to it. It isn't a medieval fantasy game, this one takes place in our world during the 1890's. It altered all of the classes, but the most affected were the Thieves.

All of the characters had been depowered, there are no super-heroes in this game, what makes them playable is the skill system, however, this still isn't a skill based game. You aren't going to find the Pathfinder like rules which are overly strict, you pick your skills which define your character, and you play. The skills are passive. You still use specifics over rolling the dice, but I digress.

Thieves are no longer a class. While the other classes still use skills, the class that is dependent upon them is called Tradesmen. If a character doesn't use magic, and can't be defined as a soldier, they automatically become Tradesmen, thus, this is the dominant class.

via Pinterest
It is still possible to play thieves, but since all traditional thief skills have to be purchased with NWP slots, you've got to build them. The skills function as NWP too, you don't have to build them up through gaining levels, if you chose to know how to pick locks, then you can pick locks.

As a fan of thieves, this method works great! I always preferred to play against the grain. I never played The Greymouser type thieves, I could probably count the times that I've used Pick Pockets on one hand, and I never started building it up until I was satisfied with my other scores.  It just sat there, ignored. In this system, I don't have to pick it at all! I can replace it with some other skill that I want instead, something useful to me and how I want to play my character.

But wait . . . didn't I just say that Skills & Powers was stupid?

It is. It provides very little motivation to play-test the ideas held within it, however, this system has been play-tested at my table, and it works. It works amazingly well! Masque of the Red Death, to myself and the other members of the club, made D&D fun again. Its higher level of challenge changed not just how we game, but how we see the game itself.

  • Thieves are all different
  • Thief skills work from the start
  • The challenge is consistent, regardless of level
  • The thief skill system does not place limitations upon the system as a whole
As a DM I am sold, and the players are happy with the results that they get. This will be adapted into all future D&D games.

But Percentages gave more to the game than yes or no answers

As a player, I was always torn. I like rolling my own results, but sometimes I wanted the DM to keep the actual results a secret from me. I wanted to simulate thinking that I'm moving silently but not really being sure if I am or not. As a DM, these thoughts were amplified, but I was stuck because I couldn't figure out how to simulate the event without taking away player agency. This system actually allows that.

Either the DM can translate the d20s into percentages, or tell the player who succeeded their check that they believe that they have found a route which is possible to move silently and hide in shadows, then get confirmation that they still want to do the action or not. If they do, then the DM rolls the percentile check to see exactly how quiet they are.

The point is that no matter what we do, we've taken the traditional Thief Skills System, which was closed and set in its way, and changed it into a Skill System which allows the player and the DM to open it up when they want to.

  • Players can no longer get a 95% chance of success
  • A perceived penalty imposed on low ability scores
  • Player's who do want to play traditional thieves hate this
  • A psychological loss of control
  • Requires a talented DM to function
  • Cleaner Character Sheets
  • The Level Cap has been removed
  •  Custom Characters without breaking the system
  • Fast and Easy NPCs who are competent without cheating
  • Creating Hirelings that grow with the game and aren't static
  • Easier to level up (and level down)
  • Rewards Imaginative Play
  • Skills can be given to Races without weird limitations

Before closing, something needs to be addressed. Since the players are spending slots on abilities, should they get more slots to spend? The answer is no. They still get the same amount. This is balanced by the abilities themselves being useful as soon as they are chosen.

Unmodified skill checks do place caps on abilities. DEX of 18 = 90%, and on the low end, 9 = 45%.

The 3d6 method of STAT Generation prefers to give results in the 11-13 range, which gives you some good numbers that are fun to gamble with, 55%-65% but aren't fixed in my games, they go up and down. If you choose, the Thief Ability Table found in the 2e DMG can be used in conjunction with this system if you need to lean on it now and then. Since the system is open, we can change the difficulty level of a task as we see fit.

Most of the time, it really doesn't matter. The core Thief System is a nitpicker. Either the thief can pick a lock, or he can't. The players can decide to break the door, spend a spell opening the door, or ignore the door and walk away from it. Who cares if the Thief picks a lock? Why impose that restriction at all?



Unknown said...

Are you suggesting that the skills usually reserved to the theifclass, simply gets thrown into the pool of NWP, add a dex-check and you can spec out the other classes however they want with the theif-skills?

Do you have a firm system if, say, a warrior wants to hide, but depending on armor there are modifiers, or do you make these up in a case by case judgement?

Would you judge some abilities costlier than others? How would you work in backstab if at all?

Unknown said...

Just to clarify, I really like this idea, and I might roll with this in my next campaign to mix things up!

I also read a blog-post where someone removed the priest-class. It made gods, blessings and miracles a lot more special and divine and it added emphasis on alternative way of surviving and staying alive without a steady supply of healing-spells. That was the argument at least. Would you prefer a completely classless system?

Psiker said...

Low Fantasy Gaming rpg uses this approach for static things like locks and traps, and opposed rolls vs active things like stealth vs detection

RipperX said...

Fighters, Magic Users, and Thieves all interact with the world in different ways. I do my best to preserve this balance. Not all closed systems are bad, we need them to support the game.

We can redefine what a magic user is in our world, and change it. We can make the use of magic illegal, or harder to use, but it is still there.

I maintain this system. If a fighter wants to be proficient in Hiding In Shadows, he'll have to pay double for the slot, or, if we make it a benefit of a sub-class, a different XP chart is used.

Gnomes and Halflings are supposed to have the ability to slip away, or go unnoticed, however the mechanics don't reflect that. Depending on how we define a race, this can be given to them for free.

One can always attempt to simulate a NWP if the conditions are right, and/or a decent plan is hatched. If a fighter runs into a dark room and hides behind a stack of barrels, he is hiding. On the other end of the spectrum, if a master thief runs into a well-lit room that is empty and offers no places to hide, they can't just roll Hide in Shadows and disappear, that isn't how it works. The physics of this skill has to be defined on a case by case basis.

Can a fighter attempt to hide? Always! Can he sit there in some uncomfortable stance for long periods of time? Maybe. Can he do this as well or as easily as a trained thief? No.

If you don't think that this skill fits your world, ditch it. The Hide in Shadow skill may be irrelevant now. Or we can use it to just judge if the skill allows one to spot the best place to hide. If the player spent a slot on it, it should do something.

In regards to Backstab, the thief was totally stripped in Masque of the Red Death, but you are right, and caught a hole in the system. A fighter who paid for backstab would be way too powerful. I think that this should be a class ability. It's not a very good one, as it exposes him to an attack, and conditions have to be perfect for it to work, but it is what it is. That is still a very powerful attack.

RipperX said...

Welcome Steve Grod, thanks for chiming in :) That is a beautifully stated mechanic. Much better than the wall of text that it takes me to describe my thoughts.

Unknown said...

Yes, everyone, regardless of skill, class and situation can always ATTEMPT anything. I feel your point (in a lot of your posts) is that you criticize the notion that only if you have the skill on your sheet, you can do it - or rather, that is how its often played.
In actuality, everyone can try and do anything, but some are better trained and skilled in some things and have better odds. The trick comes from figuring out what that training allows you to accomplish compared to one that is untrained. Some things are simply impossible (like casting magic as a fighter), but handycraft and physical movement should be possible for everyone, only at different levels of success.

By changing thief-skills into NWP, it seems the skills are changed into something more static, and not something you can nessaserily get better at as such (like distributing new thief-points) but they function more innately and have a higher chance of success from the get-go. Am I understand the implications correctly?

DM Theseus said...

I've been trying not to poke you all week waiting for this post, haha. I've got to check out the Masque of the Red Death campaign setting now. I went through Skills & Powers but didn't see the section you mention--do you happen to have a page number handy?

As I've been thinking on this, I keep coming back to the idea of replacing the Thief with the Expert, so this Tradesman class sounds intriguing. I think I may disagree with you on the NWP slots staying the same thing, but I'll have to look more closely at the numbers. I wouldn't want to overdo it, but my thinking is that this is a good opportunity to broaden the Thief (or Thief analogue)'s role in the party. Since I'll be doing Method I character creation and hexcrawl exploration, the ability to make a thief that can pick up some slack from the rarity of rangers might be a good idea.

The only problem I see with this system is that getting those 30 points at level up is so dang fun. Just the feel of it really stands out compared to leveling up in the other classes.

RipperX said...

Yeah, Martin. It sounds really weird, and I resisted it, but it has worked well at the table.

RipperX said...

It may not be in that book, I write from memory, and mine isn't all that accurate.

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