Red Box Workshop: The Thief-Dabbler PC


The fields of magic and roguery are not immiscible. Some inquisitive apprentice thieves investigate the mysteries of the arcane, while certain acquisitive apprentice magic-users turn their hands to larceny. Such thief-dabblers and their protégés practice legerdemain in both magical and mundane forms.

The prime requisites for a thief-dabbler are Intelligence and Dexterity. A thief-dabbler character whose Intelligence or Dexterity score is 13 or higher will receive a 5% bonus on earned experience. Thief-dabblers whose Intelligence and Dexterity scores are 13 or higher will receive a 10% bonus to earned experience.

RESTRICTIONS: Thief-dabblers use four-sided dice (d4) to determine their hit points. They may use any type of weapon, but they may not use shields, nor any armor more protective than leather. Thief-dabblers must have a minimum score of 9 in Intelligence and Dexterity.

SPECIAL ABILITIES: Thief-dabblers have access to all of an ordinary thief’s skills: bonuses to hit and damage for striking unnoticed from behind, along with the ability to pick pockets, climb steep surfaces, move silently, hide in shadows, open locks and remove traps (with appropriate tools) and hear noises. In addition, a thief-dabbler may prepare and cast spells as a magic-user of half the character’s level (rounded up). Thief-dabblers may read magic-user spells from scrolls. In addition, they may utilize wands and miscellaneous magical items normally usable only by magic-users, but there is always a 10% chance that any spell or power evoked from such an item will backfire, having an unexpected result. All thief-dabblers speak Common and the alignment language or dialect of the character.

SAVING THROWS: As thieves.


ADVANCEMENT: As per the magic-user advancement table.

38 Responses to “Red Box Workshop: The Thief-Dabbler PC”

  1. April 29, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    I already have a name for this PC: Cudgel the Clever. It’s both a name and a character goal!

  2. April 29, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    I believe you mean Cugel the Clever.

    Cudgel the Clever hits smart people over the head with a stick.


  3. April 29, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    More seriously, Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever was an inspiration for the class, along with Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser.

    As indicated by the name, the class is primarily a thief class. Unlike the elf, the thief-dabbler’s magic use do not keep pace with its other abilities. But it looks fun and shouldn’t be too inefficient.

  4. 4 Naked
    April 29, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Kegel the Clever should be reserved for the upcoming OB/GYN expansion.

    I’m emailing this kit to Ben. His version of his m-u drifts in this direction.

  5. 5 Tim Stypinski
    April 29, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Why have the character able to use any weapon when its parent classes, the thief and magic user, are both much more restricted?

  6. April 29, 2010 at 5:50 pm


    It fits with the Gray Mouser inspiration anyway.

  7. April 29, 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Why have the character able to use any weapon when its parent classes, the thief and magic user, are both much more restricted?

    The thief-dabbler is based on the Moldvay Basic thief, who is allowed to use any weapon. If using this custom class in a version of D&D that limits the thief’s choice of weapons, use that version’s set of allowed weapons for the thief-dabbler.

  8. April 29, 2010 at 7:39 pm

    The misspelling was intentional… I said it was a name *and* a character goal, didn’t I? ;-)

  9. 9 Scott LeMien
    April 30, 2010 at 1:05 am

    Koogle the Clover? Awesome name!

  10. 10 Naked
    April 30, 2010 at 5:31 am

    The first thief-dabbler didn’t last long. Jury’s out on the second.

  11. April 30, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    @Naked, did you run one? How did he work out?

    @Quendalon, was it always round up for spells? I thought it was better using the M-U advancement and rounding down for spells. At first level the T-D is a scroll/wand using thief, who needs an additional 1,000xp. That seemed like a good trade off for his better armor, weapons and thief “skills”.

    Considering that no M-Us have ever made second level in RBV, the T-D with a first level spell is going to make playing an M-U even less attractive.

    Alternately, you might consider giving the T-D spells per his level rounded up, and make scroll/wand use the exclusive purview of the less grubby, more erudite M-U.

  12. April 30, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    As a house rule at our table, the magic-user gets to start with three spells (one offensive, one defensive and one utility spell), while the elf and the thief-dabbler roll randomly for a single spell.

    More discussion later; I’m heading out of state for the weekend.

  13. April 30, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    If you want your M-U to be able to fight from the get-go, you’re better off with an elf. But if you’re concerned with getting better as a M-U, the thief-dabbler is much, much worse than even an elf.

    A magic-user gets access to 2nd-level spells at 5,000zp. An elf gets 2nd-level spells at 8,000xp. A thief-dabbler gets 2nd-level spells at 20,000xp. By the time the thief-dabbler gets 2nd-level spells, the M-U has 3rd-level spells.

    So, 3rd-level spells! The M-U gets them at 20,000xp. The elf gets them at 32,000xp. And the thief-dabbler gets them at a whopping 300,000xp, at which point your M-U has access to 5th-level spells. (And odds are good that any given campaign won’t get to this point, and if they do it may take years of play.)

    The thief-dabbler isn’t a hybrid like the elf. It’s a thief with some cool magic tricks. I’m not concerned that anyone who actually wants to play a M-U will get an unfair advantage by playing a T-D; the costs are too high.

  14. April 30, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    At first level the T-D is a scroll/wand using thief, who needs an additional 1,000xp.

    And to clarify this point, the T-D needs an additional 1,300xp to gain a thief level, just as the elf needs an additional 2,000zp to gain a fighter level. But that 2,000xp gets the elf a fighter level and a magic-user level. But the T-D’s additional 1,300 only nets a thief level; it does not also provide an additional magic-user level!

  15. April 30, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    When you break it down by xp like that, it certainly makes the M-U look more attractive. I also really like the house rule for three starting spells, too.

    Still, any argument that starts with “when you reach second level…” is bound to inspire bitter laughter at Red Box Vancouver.

  16. May 1, 2010 at 2:30 am

    I’m not sure this class should get any ranged weapon other than daggers. Did the Gray Mouser ever use a bow?

  17. May 1, 2010 at 3:31 am

    No, but he did use a sling.

  18. May 1, 2010 at 4:02 am

    Maybe slings and daggers then?

  19. 19 Scott LeMien
    May 2, 2010 at 8:56 pm

    Krueger the Cleaver?

  20. 20 Scott LeMien
    May 2, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Seriously though, what’s the trade off for this class vs. Normal thief?

  21. May 2, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Seriously though, what’s the trade off for this class vs. Normal thief?

    The thief-dabbler lags a level or two behind the normal thief. This results in fewer hit dice and lower thief skills. It’s similar to the trade-off between the elf and the fighter.

    Then again, it should be noted that the elf’s level cap provides a theoretical balancing factor that the thief-dabbler lacks. I’m not sure I want to assign level caps to human-only classes. Then again, there is precedent in such classes as druid and monk.

    By default, the thief-dabbler (who is neither thief nor magic-user) lacks the stronghold-acquiring abilities of either the magic-user or the thief. I don’t see that as an effective balancing factor, however.

    Other options under consideration include restricting the thief-dabbler’s weapon or armor choices to those of the magic-user, or limiting the thief-dabbler’s access to thief skills. I’m not sure either is necessary in practice.

  22. 22 Lord Bodacious
    May 3, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Seeing this class in action, it feels balanced.

    While the spell at level one is a very nice addition to the thief, the VERY slow spell progression flattens this out pretty quickly. It seems backstab and (unreliable) skills become the functional abilities.

    The d4 makes combat very dangerous, and the slow progression make skills and HP increase very slowly. Don’t underestimate the impact of this. The T-D is VERY squishy for a long time, and doesn’t get multiple sleeps and fireballs to compensate.

    It would seem the use of scrolls, wands, and so forth is a real X-factor here ( (big difference between a fireball going off in your hand vs. fizzling/missing/turning into spun sugar … on the other hand this is a great opportunity to write up awesome spell failure charts!). This might be compounded by the wide weapon selection (do elves get overpowered when they can use most any scroll, wand, sword or armor in the game?).

    We’ve seen two separate T-D’s in play (none past level one), and they’ve yet to feel overpowered. Granted, the player was not ‘power gaming’ the class, and liberal use of sleep spell and ranged backstab might tip the scales. This guy is one of the better classes at level one (probably second to the Elf), but loses steam over time.

  23. May 3, 2010 at 7:26 am

    On another Gray-Mouser-like unofficial class, http://trollsmyth.blogspot.com/2008/05/playing-with-dex.html , someone suggested that they could cast only ‘thief-like’ spells:

    detect magic
    hold portal
    read languages
    locate object
    wizard lock

    and maybe

    feather fall
    spider climb
    Leomund’s trap
    rope trick

  24. 24 Bargle
    May 3, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    The TB gets spell casting parity with the elf at around 18th level? I think calls for nerfing TB (be it missile weapons or spell lists) aren’t called for.

  25. May 5, 2010 at 3:57 am

    Can thieves backstab with a ranged weapon?!

  26. May 5, 2010 at 4:13 am

    The B/X rules don’t seem to specify either way. AD&D specifies melee weapons.

  27. May 6, 2010 at 10:12 pm

    I’m inclined to think that you don’t get to make a ranged backstab. If you can, I’d rule that it would have to be at point-blank range to get the necessary accuracy.

  28. 29 Nerkad
    September 20, 2010 at 4:48 am

    Seeing more of this class in action and mindful of the extremely slow progression in spell ability, I’d suggest reviewing using the d4 for hit points, instead switching to the thief’s d6. The class is more of a thief than a magic-user.

  29. September 20, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    The thief also uses a d4 for hit points.

  30. 31 Naked
    September 20, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Ah. Well, I cannot recommend anyone take a thief-dabbler. It’s not a good class.

  31. September 20, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Feedback is useful as long as it is directed toward improvement. How would you improve the class while keeping it balanced with extant classes?

    Also: does the player of our group’s thief-dabbler share your concerns?

  32. 33 Naked
    September 20, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    I’m thinking about it.

    I would either reduce the xp requirements (maybe 1,800xp at first level) while reducing the spells he is able to cast to thief-type utility spells, as James Hutchings mentions above… or present a more ‘muscular’ version with full range of spells as given above, but I don’t know if that solves the problem. You nailed it yourself upthread: if you expect to play 1st or 2nd level and that’s it, the class is okay, but is crippled after that. Especially in a low-magic campaign this guy seems to flatline at 3rd level.

    Charlatan hasn’t brought it up and he may well be happy, but I see little future application for his character at this point, especially as the mages are ramping up in power. To his credit he hasn’t a power-game bone in his body and is himself unconcerned. I’m more concerned with party balance and instrumentality.

  33. September 20, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    You seem to be saying that the class’s only value lies in its magic-user abilities. The implication is that thieves are useless. If this is the case, then the class is pointless from the get-go. But the thief is a useful class, then consider that the thief-dabbler lags exactly one level behind the pure thief in terms of thieving abilities. Sacrificing one level of thief abilities for a small suite of spells seems worthwhile to me.

  34. 35 Naked
    September 20, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    You have rooted out my prejudice against thieves.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2010

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