Friday, October 27, 2017

Building a better thief (for me at least)

So over at Tenkar's Tavern, Erik wrote a thoughtful post on why he made the thief the way it is in Swords and Wizardry, Continual Light. I have a contrary view and figured the reasons why I hold it could be of use to others.

In the original game a 1st level fighter was considered a veteran a seasoned warrior. Not exceptional but not a just a newly made squire or somebody just out of training camp either. This stems from Chainmail man to man rules.

Judges Guild and Bob Bledsaw were a huge influence on how I conceived character levels. In the City-State of the Invincible Overlord and the Wilderlands of High Fantasy, leveled characters were a dime a dozen.

I evolved to consider level 1-2 to be apprentice level. Level 3 a full fledged professional. Level 6 a professional with responsibilities. Level 9 a leader among peers. Level 12 a renowned expert. And level 15 legendary. Level 1 meant that the character was trained and ready to do things on their own. Somebody just out of the academy so to speak. The other popular conception, and probably more common, is that anything beyond 1st level is special.

When I was using ADnD, the fact the thief only had 15% chance to Move Silently, 10% to Hide in Shadows, 30% to Pick Pocket seem very inconsistent with not only my view but view that leveled characters were special.

Think about it. In a setting where leveled characters are special that means the rest of the world is handled by zero level characters living out there lives. This means competent military and city guards doing their jobs, craftsmen working at their trade, and criminal types going about their business.

A good fix for this conundrum is consider the thief abilities to for special circumstances that allow a thief to go beyond what a ordinary person can do. But it is a fix as the none of the classic editions made this distinction. Starting with the Dungeoneer Survival Guide, the fix was to introduce proficiency as a skill system.

Then flashforward 30+ years and after reading the past decade worth of books about the DnD histories. I find that it that the original thief appears to be an afterthought. Something thrown into the Greyhawk supplement that made Gygax go "Neat!". Or equally likely thrown in to stop the folks who were bombarding him about why there were no burglars (Bilbo) or thieves (Grey Mouser) in the game.

So when it came to writing the Majestic Wilderlands supplement, I jettisoned the thief found in Swords and Wizardry as it was based on the original thief. But an important part of my setting that there were character types who where better at non-combat abilities than other characters types. So rather than come up with a unique set of mechanics for each class I opted to come up with a list of things that characters can do out of combat (abilities) and each of the Rogue classes would start off and process with different bonuses to these abilities.

When it came to the core books of the original roleplaying game it is apparent to me that outside of combat and spell any character to could attempt to do anything. So any character class could attempt to use these abilities. The various rogue classes were better.

I figured that at 1st level it was reasonable that the odds of success should be the same as a 1st level fighter hitting a moderately armored opponent, 30%.

There weren't really good example to draw from various classic editions. The various methods were either too stingy or too generous. Some of the one I read are:

  • Roll 1d100 under your attribute (too stingy)
  • Multiply your attribute by 5 and roll under with 1d100 (too generous)
  • Roll 1d20 under your attributes (too generous).
  • Roll 3d6 under your attributes (again too generous)

In Moldavy's Basic Dungeons and Dragons we have this. Which is too generous for me.

Page B60 Moldavy Basic
There's always a chance. The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on ld20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task to +4 for a difficult one). A roll of 1 should always succeed, and a roll of 20 should always fail. 
I opted to make it a 1d20 roll high with the base chance being 15+ or 30%. Attributes could give a bonus ranging from -3 to +3.  A starting burglar could easily get a +6 to his stealth ability check. However keep in mind, that stealth is generally an opposed roll to the guard perception (wisdom based). That the base 15+ applies to ordinary circumstances, otherwise it would be 20+ or more recently the roll being made at a disadvantage.

Hopefully you find this useful in deciding how you will be dealing with this in your campaign.

10 comments:

Mystic Scholar said...

I'm not disagreeing, or finding fault, just offering my take.

"Level 1 meant that the character was trained and ready to do things on their own. Somebody just out of the academy so to speak."

Reasonable, as an apprenticeship continues after a person leaves trade school. But . . .

"Level 3 a full fledged professional."

Might be a bit early.

Journeyman -- in construction -- are considered competent and are authorized to work in their trained field, but only as a fully qualified employee. A journeyman earns their license by education and supervised experience.

A person capable of working as a self-employed individual is considered a Master Craftsman and will usually have been working in the trade for at least seven years.

So I'm thinking 1st through 3rd level as an "Apprentice" thief, who works under the guidance of a higher level thief. The 4th to 6th level range as a "Journeyman" thief, able to work on their own, or run a small crew of apprentices. The 7th to 9th level range as a "Master Craftsman" thief, able to operate a Guild House and run several crews.

I'm thinking 10th to 12th level for a "Renowned Expert" that other "Master Craftsmen" would look to, exercising authority over more than one Guild House, perhaps a whole city. The 13th to 15th level range would be the "Legendary" and Head of region for the Thieves' Guild.

The 16th to 20th level range? The Grand Master of the Thieves' Guild.

But that's just me. I like a touch -- just a touch -- of Real World realism in my game, so as to anchor the players' belief in what's happening.

Scott Anderson said...

Making up your own thief is like the senior thesis of the OSR. Everyone who has thought about it at all has made his own. It's usually but not always a step towards making your own version of D&D.

I got rid of the thief class. Anyone can do thief stuff with a low-to-moderate chance of success. 1 or 2 on d6, some skills modified by metal armor (-1), some by dexterity (+1 or -1) and some by wisdom +1 to -1).

I did it this way because I love the thief and I want everyone who would go into a dungeon professionally to have a little thief in them.

Scott Anderson said...

Also, some kinds of people do better at some activities. Hobbits sneak around the best. Dwarfs are best at dungeon traps. Elfs are best at outdoor traps. Clerics are good at searching. Demi-men have the best hearing. Of course Elfs and dwarfs see in the dark.

Scott Anderson said...

In terms of levels... a level one guy is a competent adventurer who might still get killed by a bad decision or bad luck. Luke Skywalker was level one by the time he escaped from the Death Star.

The best adventurers are level 4-6. Level 6 is like, top of your game Indiana Jones territory.

After that it's a matter of solving a few logistical problems on your way to ruling the barony and eventually the Realm. Like, a warlord king or wizard king or the head of a crusader order is like level 9. Conan the King at the height of his power was level 9.

I do it so levels theoretically go up to 14, less for demi-men, but you can feel really powerful at level 4.

Rich Trickey said...

Batty cites the Moldvay "rule 0" caveat about "there's always a chance". That is true, as written, FOR PLAYER CHARACTERS, and by extension, leveled and classed NPCs.

As discussed in the article, regarding the idea that a 1st level fighte is a "veteran" (Moldvay Basic even gives these characters that level title), the game assumed that level 1 PCs were still pretty green and inexperienced, but they had a slight edge over farmer john and his torch and pitchfork carrying angry peasant mob peers.

If we do NOT grant the ability to attempt, and succeed, albeit rarely, at thief skill tasks to just about anyone and everyone, even the meager chances to perform those skills a 1st level Moldvay thief gets become special. He's not real good yet, he actually sucks at some of the abilities, but the average dude from his town can't even attempt those things.

Same goes for non-thief PCs. You would not allow a thief or fighter PC to attempt to cast a Magic User spell or turn undead like a cleric, so why are you allowing the thief classes abilities be encroached upon by the other classes?

Logic and "well, ANYONE can try and pick a lock!" reasoning be damned! This is the skill-set that defines the thief class! Either abandon the class completely, as some OD&D purists would advocate, or follow the assigned class roles and limit things to the class they belong to.

Besides, give me 100 random average everyday 21st century "0 level npcs" and one $5 masterlock padlock like we all had on our high school gym locker. I'll wager that 90% or more of them have NO idea how to begin picking the lock. Grab a hammer and smash it, maybe, actually try and defeat the physical security of the lock, no way. The idea that any commoner can attempt this with anything but the most remote chance of success is a fallacy.

frijoles junior said...

Timely! I was just thinking about how I'd do 0-level B/X Alices last night.

Starting from the point that a 1st level fighter is just a veteran and there are lots of those about, and taking inspiration from the equivalence of a normal man to a 0th level fighter on the to-hit and save charts and the observation that a fighter is not the only class that can fight, just the best at it in the long run, I figure that an adventurer is a 0th level thief.

That's a 10% chance to pick locks, 5% trap save and chance to hide in shadows, 15% chance to pick pockets and tippy-toe, and the same 1 in 6 chance to hear noise that other humans get.

Granted Rich's point that picking a lock successfully presupposes a bit of knowledge of how a lock works, but with maybe a half hour of explanation and no more than five minutes of prior practice I did pick a 2-pin fire-safe lock with a bent bobby-pin in about ten minutes. I'd guess most dungeon locks are not more sophisticated, since our locksmiths don't have access to modern tools.

Off topic, but by extension I'd also let anyone with faith and a holy symbol turn skeletons on a 9 or zombies on an 11, provided they haven't shed blood with an edged weapon.

Sean Robert Meaney said...

So a stealth check is like roll to hit his perception armour class.

Scott Anderson said...

I do it as a surprise check for the target (usually 1-2 on d6), then modified by the sneaker's dex modifier (+1 or -1) and -1 for metal armor

porphyre77 said...

To make the Thief "better" at anything "thievery" , I opted for the following solution :
-most classes have 1 out of 6 chances of accomplishing most actions described; that is close to the 15% chances of the level 1 thief, and also consistent with the other actions resolution mechanices (you can interprete the 1 out of 6 chances to be surprised for a monster as the same thing than being able to hide and ambush it)
- the thief can progress
- I make the sucecs automatic if the dungeon level is lower than the thief's level. Otherwise he must pass a check.

Edgewise said...

Late to this discussion, but...

I'm surprised nobody mentioned Lamentations of the Flame Princess, since several suggestions approximate those mechanics. porphyre77 comes closest with the 1-in-6 check.

Anyway, in LotFP, all PCs have a default of level one in all adventuring skills. This includes thief skills, ranger skills, etc. A specialist increases total skill levels by two each experience level. Maximum skill level is six.

The skill check is a simple d6 roll-under; at sixth level, the character fails only on rolling 12 on 2d6.

I find this system allows you to have a pretty decent thief at low level if you specialize (hence the class name, I suppose). You can always increase the skill improvement rate to 3 or 4, which is useful if you add more skills. Since most old-school skill checks were on a d6, it's pretty easy to see some ways you could extend these skill mechanics to allow PCs to improve at that.

It also gives non-thieves a chance. If a non-thief tries something thiefy but easy, like climbing a crumbling wall or sneaking with a lot of background noise, I have simple mechanic: combine the skill check with an ability check (1d20 roll under ability), and the attempt succeeds if either check passes. For a very challenging situation, combine with an ability check and succeed only if BOTH rolls pass.

It's simple, and it yields the kinds of results I like.