Friday, April 14, 2023

Apologism For The Thief Class

Among the OSR, there are those who do not appreciate the thief class and...

To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand the thief class. The humor is extremely subtle, and without a solid grasp of theoretical lock-picking most of the jokes will go over a typical viewer's head. There's also the Santa Monica outlook, which is deftly woven into the classes' characterisation - the personal philosophy draws heavily from Wisconsin Great Lakes literature, for instance. The fans understand this stuff; they have the intellectual capacity to truly appreciate the depths of their abilities, to realize that they're not just useful in exploring a dungeon they say something deep about LIFE. As a consequence people who dislike the thief class truly ARE idiots- of course they wouldn't appreciate, for instance, the game inspiration in the ascending abilities to climb walls as "87,88,89,90,91,92," which itself is a cryptic reference to the fact that is a supernatural ability. I'm smirking right now just imagining one of those addlepated simpletons scratching their heads in confusion as Aero Hobbies  genius unfolds itself on their pdf reader What fools... how I pity them. 😂 And yes by the way, I DO have a thief class tattoo. And no, you cannot see it. It's for the harlots' eyes only- And even they have to demonstrate that they're were not rolled as a 26-35 on the d100.

Most people are familiar with the thief as a party member who opens locks and sneaks. Some believe that by ascribing the abilities of stealth and subterfuge ontu the thief that the other classes are unable to perform them. They then advocate for the removal of the thief from their games such that players are not forced to play a thief in order to be able to stealth and break open locks. 

"the thief, by creating mechanics for certain activities, implies that it only can do them - this reducing the opportunities for others to engage with those aspects of play. Even if this is interpreted as a supernatural ability in those domains, the fact that there is a correct person to take on these tasks still means others shouldn't attempt them." - Luke Gearing 4/14/23

I will reveal that instead that the thief class in its inception was composed of supernatural abilities and specialized skills from a lifetime of practice. I will also pre-chew the mechanics of the thief for the other classes for other referees. 


Now, the first TSR thief class comes from the Great Plains newsletter #7 which arises from Gary Gygaxes conversation with Gary Switzer. Gygax was informed of the class by a telephone conversation and wrote it up for use for players of his content. 

Ignore the poor scan quality

The class appears rather similar to the B/X one, and has 3 skills: Bypassing dungeon mechanisms, hearing noise, and being beyond notice. The first, Open Locks/Remove Traps is a specialized skill while the Hear Noise and Move Silently/Hide in Shadows are super natural skills. In this iteration, climbing sheer surfaces, pick-pocketing, and "sneak-attacking" are described as generally successful and in ODnD fashion, assume that the referee could rule when they could be successful. Now hearing noise had existing rules in ODnD as described below.

The thief skill of hearing noise starts as superhuman and then becomes superdemihuman at higher levels. If this is not evidence of thieves as supernatural characters, then please read the ORIGINAL THIEF RULES! (It has been brought to my attention that these are NOT the original thief rules from Gary Switzer and instead are from Warlock!, which is the CalTech rules circa 1978. Thank You, Tom Van Winkle)

These are the thief rules by Gary Switzer! Readers will not that many of these are clearly supernatural abilities which start at level 1. This was the original intent of the thief class. So assume that you believe that the thief is a supernatural character we then return to the following claim:

"the thief, by creating mechanics for certain activities, implies that it only can do them"

My rebuttal for this is that the thief's skills should be thought of as saving throws. Consider, moving silently and how it interacts with surprise.

Implicit in the surprise roll, is that characters who are surprised by a wandering monster are not aware of the monsters until they appear and possibly attack. This means that certain conditions remove the chance of surprise . Consider a chamber which contains ghouls feasting on a corpse past a door. A character who listens at a door and hears the sound of chewing and breaking bone would eliminate the party’s chance of being surprised by the ghouls as they would be aware of the entity past the door. 

The knowledge of an entity existing is an important consideration when making a ruling on stealthy movement. Consider a sneak and a guard, if the sneak is aware of the guard, there is no need to determine surprise and the sneak may act. If the sneak is unaware of guard, surprise is rolled for both.

If the sneak surprises the guard, the sneak may act.

If there is mutual surprise, the sneak might be asked by the referee to roll initiative to act prior to the guard.

If the guard surprises the sneak, the sneak's move silently would then be rolled as a saving throw. If the sneak succeeds on the move silently save, the guard is "resurprised" and the encounter is resolved if there is mutual surprise. If the sneak fails the move silently save, the guard may act. 

If neither surprise the other, the sneak's move silently is rolled as a saving throw.  If the sneak succeeds on the move silently save, the guard is "resurprised" and the sneak may act. If the sneak fails the move silently save, the encounter is resolved by the combat procedure.

Now that we have thought about moving silently lets return to the B/X thief. 

The thief has a chance of hiding in shadows, I argue that this is far different from a character hiding from another behind an obfuscation of their figure. A magic-user or fighting man who is faster than a troll could, through player skill, run away, extinguish their torch, and then squat down behind a statue. It would then be the referee's responsibility to determine if the troll would consider searching behind the statue. The thief instead would have a saving throw of hiding so well in shadows that even if the troll looked behind the statue, it would not see the thief. 

Continuing through the thief skills, consider climbing sheer surfaces. I assume that most referees have little experience bouldering, but they should engage with such activities to understand the material realities just as they should attempt wilderness treks and exploring a building with a single light source. I will remind people what "sheer" means "perpendicular/vertical" and further it is not only climbing up but further climbing down. Further, the thief's encumbrance does not hamper their ability to climb. 

I would assert that opening locks, removing "small traps" aka trapped chests, and pick-pocketing are specialized skills that come form a life-time of practice in the same way that horse-archery is a specialized skill.

Now we return to 

"the fact that there is a correct person to take on these tasks still means others shouldn't attempt them."

You wouldn't say this about a fighting-man! You're just coping! 

But seriously, something to consider is that the thief empowers non-violent play. Rather than being incentivized to fight by heavy armor and a high chance to hit, you are incentivized to engage with subterfuge by saving throws. Further the low XP requirement of a thief allows them to accumulate levels faster. I would even argue that to instill the foundation of good OSR play, that players be forced to run an all thief party. 


Open Locks:
The referee needs to know the material conditions of the lock itself and consider what tools the player has. Most locks in antiquity, and thus in dungeons, would be either a pin-tumbler lock or a warded-lock. Assuming that a character has a torsion wrench for a pin-tumbler or a skeleton key for a warded-lock, in addition to a number of picks it would then be a question of if the lock is left locked, damaged, or intact. Off the top of my head I would rule that each turn spent attempting to open a lock has a cumulative 1 in 6 chance of opening the lock with rolls of 6 indicating that the lock is damaged and cannot be opened. Thus with a great deal of time a non-thief could open the lock.

Find/Remove Traps:
This is already handled via player skill in terms of detecting room traps. 

Pick Pockets:
I don't think this meaningfully occurs in games. Like a player could use it to gain some quick wealth, but generally it would not occur during the dungeon or wilderness. I would further argue that something like taking the magic sword form a sleeping orc would be adjudicated by surprise chance rather than pick-pocketing. If the party surprises a sleeping orc, then they may act as they choose, and unless there is a reason for them to create noise, I would quickly rule that they are successful. In the real world, pick-pocketing is successful due to selecting marks of poor attentiveness rather than by expert dexterity on the part of the thieves. I think the question of pick-pocketing then becomes significant in play when it is understood as "Can I bump into the vizier and steal his key", which I would rule by use of the reaction roll of the vizier to being bumped. If the reaction roll is positive and the vizier thinks that they were bumped by a drunkard then it's likely they would not notice their key being stolen, a neutral reaction would be that the vizier would notice the drunkard and the thief could chose to abort or succeed in stealing the key but would be caught, and a negative reaction would be that the vizier notes the theft by the drunkard. 

Move Silently:
See previous discussion on surprise.

Hide in Shadows:
Characters could hide, but not Hide in shadows. Once characters are out of sight, they may hide themselves to lose those who chase them. This chance is adjusted favorable by precipitation or foliage and unfavorably by terrain which retains tracks or hunters with keen senses. Those who would drop food once chased be animals would improve their chances of fleeing, distracting them with a meal. Likewise dropped treasure could distract men or monsters who pursuit. The referee would consider the perceptive nature of the chaser and then adjudicate if they could note those hiding. 

If the hider instead has surprise over another and hides to not be detected, I think that the referee should consider that how they would rule an ambush. If the party has surprise over a band of orcs, then they are already hidden from them, the party would then determine how they would be revealed to the orcs. If the party chooses to simply hide and not attack, I think that no dice should be ruled as the orcs failed to notice them already.


  1. Howdy! The stuff you present as "original thief rules" are from Warlock!, which is the CalTech rules, and your snip is from '78. Gary Switzer didn't write that. Some of the CalTech players knew the guys at Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica, yes, but there is no evidence that Aero Hobbies' original Thief was that complex. The Manual of Aurania was Aero Hobbies' own house rules from '77, but it seems that they left the Thief out, probably because it was already present in the Greyhawk supplement of '76. The closest look we have on the "original thief" of Aero Hobbies is that bit at the top you got from PatW, presented by Gygax in ~June '74 after talking with Switzer on the phone.

    I think there's little evidence of supernatural abilities here. I think the hearing at doors bit just indicates expertise and keenness, not anything magical. Gygax's acceptance of the thief rules suggests that he did not consider fighting men, magic-users, or clerics as capable of picking locks or of sneaking around or hiding effectively, aside from the obvious kind of situation you describe (a fighter dousing his torch and ducking behind a statue). Otherwise they would not have been new rules.

    As for the high starting chance to climb walls, I assume it was because a new thief who fails to climb faces almost certain death falling, given the low HP of a starting character, even at 10 feet up. Nobody player would ever attempt to send a thief up a wall if the thief was more likely to die than not. (I doubt Gygax ever went bouldering, but it is damn hard, as you say.)

    You're right about non-violent play in that the Thief was conceived as a non-combatant. Your snip of Gygax from '74 has him indicate "thieves are generally not meant to fight."

    To me, the most important thing Gygax says about the new thief class in '74 is that the rules haven't been tested. The game had been published only in January of that year. This stuff was made up on the fly, like a lot of D&D rules, and then became sacred when published in an Official Supplement with minimal testing--or, I guess, their testing just confirmed that it worked well enough as Switzer had it.

    By the way, Gygax wrote a novel about a thief named Gord, _Saga of the Old City_, published in 1985. The hero learns thief skills in a beggar's guild. (I did read it when it came out, and it's not very good.)

  2. Daniel Wagner mentions that he invented the Thief Class over at Jon Peterson's site ( Wagner was the author of the Manual of Aurania, and regular customer at Aero Hobbies, and I did a podcast with him a while back discussing a rerelease of the Manual of Aurania and the origins of the Thief class.