Saturday, May 11, 2019

Two Thieves

Jeff Easley's BECMI Thief
I’ve recently decided to run an OD&D game. This, of course, brings with it the age-old question of which version of OD&D (3LBBs-only or plus-supplements) and its corollary: to thief, or not to thief? This is a topic that’s been covered over and over, but one I’ve personally never considered too much because, having started with Basic, I’ve always considered the Thief a core class. Running pre-Greyhawk OD&D is partly appealing to me because I’m not overly fond of the Thief class in the early versions of the game. Most of these problems are covered pretty well in the second issue of Matt Finch’s Knockspell magazine in an article by James Maliszewski and multiple contributors’ alternate versions of the class. None of these versions exactly do the trick for me, so I came up with two Thief options of my own.

Roguish Background

One way to handle this dilemma is not through a separate class at all, but through backgrounds. In this method you stick to the three core classes from the original rules and allow players to pick (or roll randomly) a background. Backgrounds like Burglar, Mountebank, Rogue, Spy, or Scout paired with one of the three core classes could create a viable thief-type character. Each of these backgrounds would give you a +1 to an “x in 6” chance roll based on relevant activities.

Using a variety of backgrounds like this would give players a way to differentiate one thievish character from another, in both tone and actual mechanics. Perhaps a Mountebank wouldn’t get a +1 to removing traps, but they might get a +1 to reaction rolls when attempting to deceive someone, something a Burglar might not get. A Spy might get a +1 to disguising themselves. Maybe a Burglar gets a +1 to climb sheer walls where a Scout wouldn’t. The Scout might be good at tracking in a way the other backgrounds are not.

Each background would color the character differently depending on which class they were. Fighting-men with a Burglar background could be Conan. Magic-users with a background as a Mountebank, might use a slight of hand to slip a sleeping or polymorph potion into someone’s drink, or blur the line between street-magic legerdemain and real illusions. Clerics with a Spy background might be part of an Inquisition-like secret society or Internal Affairs-type cabal within a church, keeping tabs of the corruption of the clergy. Mechanically, any +1 given as part of that background could increase by one at the different class level tiers (Fighting-man in groups of three, Clerics in groups of four, Magic-users in groups of five) at the referee’s discretion.

What I like about this kind of angle as a solution is that it’s very loose and up to the interpretation of the referee. The ref could award the PC with these kinds of backgrounds a bonus to experience for a high Dexterity score in addition to, or in lieu of an average prime-requisite. The ref could give a +1 for any thievish “x in 6” skill rolls. Better yet, the ref could call that certain rolls aren’t required in many cases if the player can describe how they search for traps, hide in the shadows, etc.

Revised Greyhawk Thief

One issue with handling the Thief through a background is that it still leaves out a certain character archetype. A Fighting-man with a burglar background might produce a Conan, but it still feels like a fighter first, and a thief second. It doesn’t quite get you a Gray Mouser or a Silk. Gray Mouser is pretty well-known to most fantasy fans, but David Eddings’ character, Silk, will always be the quintessential Thief for me. Silk may be good with his daggers, but he’s first and foremost a charming spy, acrobat, master of disguise, assassin, as well as a burglar/lockpick/pick-pocket. Calling Silk a Fighter seems just wrong. The Gray Mouser may have been a former wizard’s apprentice but calling him a Magic-user or a Fighter feels inaccurate.

Enter the Greyhawk Thief. The GH Thief entered the game in 1975 and (more or less) remained the same throughout the run of the Basic game into the 90s. A few of the main gripes with this class is that it introduced a new percentile sub-system of skills to the game, it started off being lousy at things it was supposed to be a specialist at, and its early lousiness meant that other classes were even worse at stealthy activities they previously were competent at. While they advanced quickly, the low hit points and poor skills made the first few levels a grind. Many of the skills start at a base chance of 10 – 15% chance. This is lower than the 1-in-6 (16.667%) or 2-in-6 (33.333%) chance most things in the LBBs were given. The 1e AD&D Thief got a little better skill increase, but not much. The Greyhawk Thief also gains some level-specific abilities like reading languages, treasure maps, and magic scrolls which are cool, but again, it’s too little, too late.

In recent years I’ve seen some good alternatives to the classic Thief that are much closer to what I think is reasonable. Charlie Mason’s White Box FMAG has a very good version that uses the “x-in-6” mechanic under a broad, generic skill of “Thievery.” I like this because it allows for referee interpretation of whether an activity falls under that heading. Charlie’s Thief advances in ability in groups of 3 starting with 2-in-6, then 3-in-6, and so on. This means that the Thief starts with a base chance of 33.333% which is in line with demi-human abilities from the LBBs. It also hews to that “x-in-6” system for some skilled activity. It also leaves room for the other classes to at least have a 1-in-6 chance to sneak or remove a trap which – although difficult – is a better chance than the level-1 Greyhawk Thief.

A few other versions I think are pretty good are Delving Deeper’s V.5 version and LotFP’s Specialist class both of which use an “x-in-6” mechanic as well. The LotFP version allows for some customization, including some undefined skills the player and GM may agree upon outside of what’s listed. Delving Deeper keeps the Greyhawk Thief’s level-abilities (like reading languages and magic) but gives it the weakest of hit dice progression of the game (though because they level faster are perhaps on par with Magic-users). Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is also decent, however, like Delving Deeper, the thieving abilities are maybe a little too good right out of the gate for me.

None of these versions are quite what I’m looking for, partially due to how all those versions deal with the Thief’s combat advancement. White Box FMAG has Thieves increasing their to-hit roll along with the Cleric in not-quite groups of 3 (as opposed to groups of 4 from Greyhawk). Delving Deeper lumps Thieves combat in with Magic-users in “smoothed” groups of 4 (as opposed to groups of 5 from Greyhawk). LotFP’s Specialist never increases their combat ability, which makes for a greater distinction between the classes but doesn’t have the feel I’m looking for. In order to find the Thief I want I return to Greyhawk.

My revised Greyhawk Thief would use the combat charts of the cleric (in groups of 4, per Greyhawk), saves and hit die of magic-users (in groups of 5, per Greyhawk), and mix in FMAG’s Thievery skill advancement mirroring the Fighting-man’s combat advancement (in groups of 3). I think I would use the XP advancement in Greyhawk and the hit dice advancement of Magic-users from Men & Magic. This way the Thief’s hit dice would advance faster than the Magic-user, but not quite as fast as the Cleric. The Thief’s attack ability would actually increase a little faster than the Cleric, but lacking their defensive advantage of heavier armor and shields, the Thief’s attacks would still most likely come as ranged attacks or backstabs (which I would run as-is from Greyhawk). I would give Thieves the Fighter’s use of high Dexterity to lower their Armor Class that was ushered in with Greyhawk as well as the reading languages and magic ability at higher levels.

Depending on how this works in actual play, I could tweak this setup by adjusting the XP amounts to be the same as Cleric perhaps, or by going with the Greyhawk d4 hit die, but otherwise, I think this is pretty close to what I’m looking for. I’ve kept things in the non-smoothed out advancement below, but I may find I prefer something a little more gradual. We’ll have to see. There are still other things to work out in terms of how much of the other supplements I’d like to bring in, but this is a good start. I also have a whole host of house rules I want to use particularly related to 1st level character creation, but that’s maybe for another day.

Advancement in Experience, Hit Dice, and Thief Abilities

Level
XP
Title
Hit Dice
Thievery
1
1,200
Apprentice
1d6
2 in 6
2
2,400
Footpad
1d6 + 1
2 in 6
3
4,800
Robber
2d6
2 in 6
4
9,600
Burglar
2d6 + 1
3 in 6
5
20,000
Cutpurse
3d6
3 in 6
6
40,000
Sharper
3d6 + 1
3 in 6
7
60,000
Pilferer
4d6
4 in 6
8
90,000
Master Pilferer
5d6
4 in 6
9
125,000
Thief
6d6 + 1
4 in 6
10
250,000
Master Thief
7d6
5 in 6
11
375,000
Master Thief, 11th Level
8d6 + 1
5 in 6
12
400,000
Master Thief, 12th Level
8d6 + 2
5 in 6
13
525,000
Master Thief, 13th Level
8d6 + 3
6 in 6
14
650,000
Master Thief, 14th Level
8d6 + 4
6 in 6

Combat Table (Cleric/Thief):

Level
AC 9
AC 8
AC 7
AC 6
AC 5
AC 4
AC 3
AC 2
1-4
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
5-8
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
9-12
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13-16
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
17-20
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

Saving Throws (Magic-user/Thief):


Level
Death/Poison
Wands
Turn to Stone
Dragon Breath
Spells
1-5
13
14
13
16
15
6-10
11
12
11
14
12
11-15
8
9
8
11
8
16-20
5
6
5
8
3


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