the binocular thief

The Thief, right?  Nobody digs this class.  Every blog and every forum has about 20 different variations on the Thief.  Most of the complaints fall into three categories:

  1. The Thief is weak.  You cannot suck this much without professional training.
  2. The Thief bolts a weird-ass percentage skill system onto D&D, which is as elegant as a brick upside the head.
  3. The Thief doesn’t model the Grey Mouser very well.  (I’d argue, though, that it’s a pretty good fit for the ridiculous number of thieves in Dunsany’s Book of Wonder, which may have been the primary inspiration.)

So check it out: my theory is that the Thief wasn’t really meant to work as a class in its own right.

  • Debuts in Supplement I: Greyhawk
  • Greyhawk introduces AD&D style multi-classing for demi-humans, finally making sense of the OD&D Elf
  • All demi-humans are eligible to take levels in Thief
  • All demi-humans have strict level caps . . . but unlimited advancement in the Thief class (even in 1e)
  • All demi-humans get sick Thief skill adjustments
  • The Thief is pretty much a joke at low levels, so the demi-human is getting half XP in the main class for little benefit.  Maybe this is a handicap to compensate for the demi-human’s racial bonuses over a Level 1 human character.
  • By Levels 7-9 or so, the Thief no longer stinks out loud, and this is approximately when the demi-human hits a level cap in a “real” class.  Thus the Thief class becomes viable around the time the demi-human has nothing better to do. (Halflings hit the level-cap earlier, but their insane Thief bonuses are like having an extra level or two of Thief so they’re viable earlier.)
  • In Greyhawk your XP will always be divided by your number of classes, even after you hit the level cap.  So a Halfling Fighter/Thief who’s hit level 4 as a Fighter is still only going to be getting half-XP to devote to the Thief class . . . which may explain why the Thief XP chart is so ridiculously easy to level.

I mean, I can’t help you if you think the Thief’s percentage score ability thing is a kludge implemented without any forethought (it obviously was), or if you think that the Thief absolutely must model the Grey Mouser (it mustn’t).

But looking at the Thief as a component of a multi-class character, rather than as an independent class in its own right, helps me understand why the class was designed in such a weird way.

No Joesky tax today because I am late for work.

19 Responses to “the binocular thief”

  1. June 30, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    This is a pretty interesting analysis. I never looked at it that way but it does make sense in that light. While I’m not sure that’s the Greyhawk conception but I can see the AD&D version being a result of evolution to the setup you describe.

    And intelligent analysis doesn’t trigger the Joesky tax as I understanding.

  2. 2 Lord Bodacious
    June 30, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    Agreed. this is a really cool insight. While I haven’t played much AD&D, this makes tons of sense.

  3. June 30, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    A wonderful argument.
    –I’m all for it. :)

  4. June 30, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    If I’m right, check out the cascade of bad design decisions there.

    Demi-Humans are too dang good at Level 1, so either Gary or Dave or both impose a (very harsh) level cap. The level-cap serves at least two functions:

    One, a balancing function: “Okay, you can be extra-good at low-levels, but by the end of the game you’re going to hit a Glass Ceiling and become totally marginalized.” That can be as early as Level 4 for a Fighting-Hobbit! But anyway, it’s a question about your preference for immediate versus delayed gratification.

    Two, a setting/genre emulation function: “Okay, your run-of-the-mill Dwarf ought to be genuinely better than a run-of-the-mill Human. But Humans are more ambitious, rise to greater heights of power, etc.”

    Now, the level cap accomplishes both functions, but in a pretty heavy-handed way that’s not very much fun, and for 35 years nobody’s been happy with this solution.

    It’s entirely possible that as early as 1975 even Gary and Dave were unhappy about the level-cap, but they didn’t want to lift the restriction entirely, so they created a lame-o Thief class to (a) slow down demi-human advancement at low levels and (b) offer them unlimited advancement later in the game but in a way not to provoke jealousy from “real” classes.

    This gets institutionalized in AD&D 1e and we’ve been stuck with it since, treating it as a class in its own right when maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it.

    So the decisions are:
    1. Make demi-humans so good at level 1 that nobody would play a human
    2. Impose a no-fun balancing mechanism to overcome the too-goodness
    3. Create doofy class to overcome the no-fun balancing mechanism
    4. Treat the doofy class as a fantasy archetype in its own right even though it’s kind of a joke on its own
    5. End up with non-weapon proficiencies etc. as logical extension of badly-designed Thief abilities
    6. NWP’s etc. kind of undermine “class based” design (I don’t care much about this but some do)

    It’s a mess!

    There are a couple of ways to solve the balancing issue, but you really sympathize with the whole “level adjustment / effective character level” thing in 3e. It’s an attempt to say, “A Troll as a level 1 Fighter is equal to a Level 6 human Fighter,” completely disposing of the fiction that 1st level characters ought to be equal. Of course, figuring out a way to quantize different species-abilities leads to a bunch of problems of its own…

  5. 5 Bargle
    June 30, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Level cap has nothing to do with Demi humans and everything to do with the multiplicative power of multi-classes, since only Demi-humans can multiclass it is an understandable mistake to conflate level limits with the race.

    The reason elves are maxed out at 7/11 f/m is because a “battle Mage” doesn’t need 2/1 attacks per round and 6th spells in addition to 18/xx strength, plate armor and access to magic swords and wands.

    3e gave tacet nod to this analysis with the limit on multiclass combinations not to exceed 20 levels combined.

    The early d&d thieves ability to use magic swords is an oft overlooked class ability (and unfortunate as it is listed as the fighting man’s most powerful innate power–remember all magic swords are intelligent in 0d&d and close to 50% are in ad&d)

    The lower % thief abilities are only impractically useless if you misunderstand their design. A hide in shadows of 20% means that 20% of the time you have a 3 in 6 chance to surprise your enemy instead of the standard 2 in 6–failing your hide in shadows doesn’t mean you are detected, otherwise a fighter in plate armor has a better chance of sneaking up on someone tha a thief–which is illogical.

    So too, find and remove traps. This ability % means you can circumvent player skill to find a trap–most players need to poke around with a 10′ pole or use their own intelligence to find a trap, whereas the thief’s player has a small but increasing chance to “not even be a good player” rather the character has a chance of finding the trap before player himself needs to search.

    I do agree that the multiclass thief also serves a way for demihumans to keep getting hit points after their level limit in other classes.

  6. June 30, 2011 at 6:28 pm


    The level-cap was imposed in OD&D in 1974. Multi-classing, as applied in 1e and 2e, debuts in 1975 with Supplement I: Greyhawk. (The OD&D Elf apparently progressed as either a Fighting-Elf or a Magic-User on any given adventure, but not simultaneously in both classes the way they would in 1e or 2e. The OD&D Dwarf and Halfling did not even have this rudimentary multi-classing–they were straight-up Fightin’ Men until Greyhawk.)

    So historically:
    1 Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits have crazy benefits in Chainmail
    2 They carry these benefits into OD&D which imposes a level-cap
    3 In Greyhawk everyone, including the goofy Elf split-class, gets multi-classing as we came to know it

  7. 7 Bargle
    June 30, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    “combination classes” are in Chainmail, with hero-wizard bring the example given by gygax for Elric of being two classes simultaneously.

    The elf could decide which class he put his XP in, the best example is the white box only group (Ryth chronicles–google it) from the 80 page play report from the 1970’s going around. Where an elf was a fm/Mu 4/1 or 3/5 so the idea that an elf was either a Mu or a fighter really wasn’t the case even in whitebox d&d.

    The only thing greyhawk changed was the player could no longer decide how to split XP, with greyhawk it had to be 50/50.

    I certainly don’t deny that the thief was designed in part to help demihumans continue to advance, but multi-classing as we understand it was with the game from the beginning.

  8. June 30, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    Tangential to your original post, and entirely unrelated to the following conversation, I’d point out that good design of a lightly-armored combatant class with improved skulduggery functions is really difficult thanks to some inherent logical problems.

    Have you been in games in which the thief insists on going ahead of the rest of the party, hiding and moving silently, so that the clanky party members aren’t spoiling their stealth? Embracing their theoretical archetype, this is a good way to do things, but it’s terrible for group play. I’ve been in games like this – it’s exactly as bad as any other situation where one player has a strong incentive to split the party.

    To the best of my understanding, OD&D thieves are only effective at killing people because hit points on enemies scale up so very little… one hit, without any kind of sneak-attack bonus, really might kill a non-heroic human target. 2e’s Backstab, on the other hand, was completely insufficient to make the thief impressive in combat; it wasn’t until 3e’s Sneak Attack that rogues were on a level with other characters in a stand-up fight (and then only if the opponent was, you know, vulnerable to sneak attacks).

    I am, in any case, following your posts on thief design with interest.

  9. June 30, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    I stand corrected! Good find, Bargle, and thank you!

    That said . . . Chainmail 3rd Edition doesn’t really say that this is an ability possessed only by demi-humans, though maybe you could infer that from name-dropping Elric. It’s also really unclear how this is supposed to work–just kind of, “Hey, make it up as you go along.”

    There’s a little bit more on this in OD&D, where the Elf advances in either class per adventure (arguably), and then it gets formalized a little more in Greyhawk though there are still a lot of gaps, like what attack matrix you use, saving throws, weapon restrictions, and so on.

    Here is the text from the 3rd Edition of Chainmail, the only text I have:

    There are certain natural, although rare, combinations. A good example of
    this is Moorcock’s anti-heroish “Elric of Melnibone,” who combines the attributes
    of the Hero-type with wizardry, and wields a magic sword in the balance I
    Whatever combinations you do decide to use, remember to be careful so as not to
    make any one too powerful so as to destroy play balance.

  10. 10 Greengoat
    June 30, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    Bargle, about the thief percentages –

    Where do you find these interpretations of removing traps and hiding in shadows. I know I have seen Swords & Wizardry skew this way (adding thief abilities atop assumed general PC abilities) but I haven’t found any particular examples in the various original rule-books that codify what you say.

    The continued thief bashing seems to irk me a bit since I am playing a pure redbox thief now in a campaign. But I concur that it takes some unclarified methods of play at the table to give the thief their due usefulness.

    For example, if the DM does not particularly allow the party to send the thief up sneaking then their effectiveness as dungeon scout and backstabber is gone. If the DM runs their remove traps purely as the given percentage (and more punishingly, rule that they trip a trap on a failure) they thief will most likely die at any trap at first level.

    My suggested fix for thieves tends to be less esoteric as my associate Charlatan. I would just up the HD to d6, and make a clear ruling that the DM will add bonuses or penalties to the thief abilities depending on circumstance (good locks versus bad, etc.) and add the percentages atop “joe-blow-dungeon-explorer” chances.

    RAW the thief is deficient. If there is anything I hate, it is the hidden mechanics that are implied at Gary and Dave’s tables that never saw print.

  11. 11 Bargle
    June 30, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    In 1e hiding in shadows and moving silently increase your chance to surprise an enemy from 2 in 6 to 3 in 6 and 4 in 6 when combined. This is explicitly stated in the elfs ability as well as implied elsewhere.

    By the book a 1st level fighter in plate armor has a 33% chance to surprise an orc (2 in 6) it doesn’t make much sense that the thief’s ability is worse than the fighters. This is why the thief’s hear noise ability starts at least as good as any other PC’s and then improves. For an ability that is “pass/fail” like climbing wall, one will notice that such an ability starts at 80%

    Regarding scouting, I agree it’s tough, traps do not automatically trigger when stepped on, I think the default is 1 in 6 chance for a trap to trigger.

    I think the idea of find and remove traps wasn’t for scouting, but for when the party knew there was a trap, but player skill alone wasn’t finding it (I poke the floor with my 10′ pole…I examine the chest…I yank on the torch…I turn the gear clockwise…etc).

  12. 12 maldoor
    July 1, 2011 at 1:15 am

    James thanks for a thoughtful post. Also, for reminding me of how awesome the Thief PC game was… I still have it in the attic…

    Anyway. Design decisions: I suspect the demi-human level limits thing was the result of two conflicting impulses. The humanocentic setting with men taming a chaotic world vs. the awesome ability to play whatever you want as a character – not just an elf, dwarf, or hobbit, but anything up to and including a dragon.

    IMHO the game would have avoided many problems if they had simply said “the world is full of cool creatures, but PCs are human.”

  13. July 1, 2011 at 1:21 am

    My friends would make fun of me for playing that game!

    “How long are you going to wait on a pitch black screen?”

    “Well, you see that spot that isn’t completely black yet, just 99% black? I’m waiting until it’s 100% black, when the guard who’s 100 yards away decides to go for a stroll. I think it’ll happen sometime in the next 10 minutes or so. Seriously dudes, stick around, this game is awesome!”

    I don’t care what they say, they were idiots and that game RULED. It does not work on my laptop so I’m very sad about that.

  14. 14 Naked Samurai
    July 1, 2011 at 1:49 am

    “My suggested fix for thieves tends to be less esoteric as my associate Charlatan. I would just up the HD to d6, and make a clear ruling that the DM will add bonuses or penalties to the thief abilities depending on circumstance (good locks versus bad, etc.) and add the percentages atop “joe-blow-dungeon-explorer” chances.”

    I agree with this in essence, although increasing a Thief’s hit die would probably require Clerics and then others getting bumped up as well. Not necessarily a bad thing.

    But it is strange that all locks are regarded as essentially the same thing. No matter what lock you find, it requires the same roll from the PC. That’s a little bizarre. Ad hoc, or indeed, planned, modifiers would make things much more realistic and perhaps more enjoyable for the player. I don’t see why this wouldn’t change for any other thief ability, although it would require an actively engaged DM. Why wouldn’t he receive a bonus if the DM knows the room behind a door is an orc mess hall? Certainly the situation is owed a bonus over a room with, I dunno, a single giant centipede scurrying around. Yet they take the same roll.

    Same with a hide in shadows roll, or move silently. Surely the DM can judge and apply whether a room is sun-drenched, or the surface is scattered with dry bones. The baseline of (poor) thief stats can be easily enlivened with situational benefits (or penalties).

    But this requires an active, and perhaps exhausting, back-and-forth between the thief player and DM. Also, the mechanical problem of assessing advantages without tipping off the player.

  15. 15 maldoor
    July 1, 2011 at 4:18 am

    “that game RULED.”

    Agree! I would play in the dark to add atmosphere, and there were a few moments when I was actually scared by a guard finding me. I wish they would make more games like that.

    I remember that on hard mode you would lose if you killed anyone on a mission.

  16. July 1, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Playing it on “easy” was difficult enough for me! And yes, I played it in the dark too.

    The religious cults in the game were the basis for the Cult of the Builder and the Cult of the Trickster in the Black Peaks setting (a Red Box game I was running before you joined up).

    That game had one of the best uses of sound I’ve ever come across. And the sounds were so creepy!

    Did you ever play “System Shock 2”? It was by the same designers IIRC and was similarly creepy. Again long hours sitting in the darkness staring anxiously at an almost totally black screen….

  17. 17 maldoor
    July 1, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    “Thank you for running my errands, puppet.”

    Awesome. I still mourn the loss of Looking Glass Studios and wonder what video games would be like today if they had kept making ground-breaking games like those.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

June 2011

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