Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Roles Through the Editions - Thieves

Thieves were added during the expansion process of OD&D and are usually viewed by old-timers as the "4th" class."I am focusing on them now as they play a role in the Defender/Striker split we see in 4th edition and illustrate many of the conceptual changes between the early versions and the latest take.

In Basic D&D they had d4 hit points, limited weapon use, mediocre attack progression, and a set of skills no one else had. AD&D upped the hit die to a d6 but left the rest pretty much the same. Now the skills were of somewhat limited usefulness (more about those in a minute) so why play a thief? Well first off they levelled fast - faster than any other class, usually keeping them at least 1 level and sometimes 2 levels ahead of the rest of the party. Additionally, Thief was the only class where demi-humans had no level limits - it was a solid "U" all the way across the table. Now I never saw a ton of single-classed thieves but it was a popular choice for multiclassing given the low XP requirements and the unlimited advancement.

As for the Thief skills, the thing that really made them unique, well, they just weren't that great:

-Pick Pockets: Almost always used against fellow party members, this skill caused much intra-party strife in older editions. Typically used by bored Neutral or Chaotic Neutral Thieves whose last words were often "but I'm just playing my character...". It's rarely useful in a dungeon or wilderness, it's typically only useful in a city adventure for anything other than getting the thief beaten and bloodied.

-Open Locks: Useful sometimes, but most parties included multiple fighters and most of the games I ran or played in were pretty much a "Plan A" affair - bash it!. How often is picking the lock advantageous enough to choose that over bashing it? Not that often. Now on chests it's a handy thing, but that's also where you tend to find traps and other nastiness which leads to...

-Find/Remove Traps: Now this is a useful skill, leading to the Thief being perceived as a specialist along the lines of a Cleric. Going into a graveyard? Better bring a Cleric. Going into a trap-filled pyramid? Better bring a Thief. With racial and dexterity adjustments it was possible to get reasonably good at this. A class-defining ability.

-Move Silently: Useful, but not as much as one might think. Sneaking off by yourself is rarely a good idea in a dungeon and it's unlikely the rest of the party has this ability. Also, Boots of  Elvenkind can steal the Thief's thunder here, allowing anyone to be better than a low-level thief and almost as good as a high-level thief.

-Hide in Shadows: Another useful skill but anyone wanting to be good at remaining unseen will go after a Cloak of Elvenkind or a Ring of Invisibility so it's easily superseded or surpassed, even by non-thieves.

-Hear Noise: A stepchild in some ways. If the DM gives everyone who listens at a door a 1 in 6 chance to hear something, they are already as good as a 3rd level thief! We played it (when it mattered) as a second chance roll after the initial d6 roll - if you didn't hear anything or heard something vague then the thief could use this skill to try and determine more details.

-Climb Walls: useful at lower levels, fading at medium to high as levitation spells, fly spells, feather fall, ropes of climbing, slippers of spider climbing, rods of lordly might, and other magic surpass it's abilities. This skill more than any other caused debates among players as if a Thief has X% chance to climb a wall, what does a non-thief have? Does Dex matter? Does Armor? Encumbrance? What if I have a rope? Adding a limited skill system to the game for one class opens up some areas for debate and conflicting official answers never really settled it. We will be playing it as the chance for a Thief to climb a wall with no equipment at all - it may not be the best answer, but it's simple and it works for me.

--Read Languages: a somewhat useful ability that varied quite a bit with DM interpretation. I always took it to mean things like treasure maps and journal entires as mentioned in the description, but some took it as a straight-up $ to read anything, making it very useful in some adventures.

So none of these skills are really game-breaking but as a set they do point to a character who is handy in many non-combat situations and is also useful in a dungeon. Not bad. combat-wise though they are weak with only leather armor, no shields, and only clubs, daggers, darts, slings, and swords as weapon options. Their to-hit tables were not great either. The saving grace of the combat thief was the backstab. Now it took a little setitng up (well, unless you had a Cloak or a Ring) but it gave a +4 to hit and double to quintuple damage depending on level.  This was very achievable even at moderate levels - a 5th level thief with say a +1 longsword would backstab with a +5 to hit and do 6-27 points of damage. Against a 5HD creature that may be enough to kill it and will certainly take a big chunk of its hit points in one shot.

Being in light armor and thus having high mobility plus being able to hide and then deliver a painful blow - this could be the genesis of the Striker going back to 1st edition AD&D. It could be, but I really don;t think it is as no one I knew thought of thieves as a primary combatant. The backstab was the only thing that made them useful in combat (note in 1E they don't even get bows, the best ranged attack they can do is daggers, darts, or slings) and it was nice when it came off but it was not an every-round kind of attack  - you could usually do it once per combat, maybe twice, but more than that was rare. Fighters were the kings of combat and Clerics were the secondary combatants. If the 16 Dex guy in leather skulking at the edge of the fight got in a good shot then that was great, but it was not something to be counted on. Thieves were not "DPS" characters the way some see them now (thank you MMORPG's), they were specialized characters mainly good at non-combat tasks with one nice combat ability.
Complaints: The main controversy around the thief had to do with the skills, namely "what can non-thieves do in these areas"? Otherwise some players liked them, some didn't. I can say that a Magic-User/Thief was a lot of fun to play though...

AD&D 2E: Stats and skills remain the same for the most part. Armor is a little more open but weapons are almost unchanged. The biggest innovation here is that Thieves were allowed to direct their skill points at each level into the skills they wanted to be good at. This made it much easier to specialize in being the "Traps Guy" or the "Sneaky Guy" and so in that way was better, and it helped differentiate PC Thieves from one another. As far as non-weapon proficiencies, the new skill-system for 2e, Thieves were not the skill-monkeys that Wizards and Clerics were - they were on par with fighters.

3rd Editin sees a radical change - more weapon and armor options, a unified experience table meaning thieves are no longer the levelling champions, and two major changes:
1- "Rogues" now have more skill points than anyone else and their specialized skills are now part of the general skill population. This ensures that Rogues will now be seen as the "skill class" and it wraps up the whole "non-thieves trying to climb a wall" issue.
2- Sneak Attack is a replacement for the old backstab ability and it is possible to pull it off repeatedly in a round with multiple attacks, making it much nastier than the backstab even at low-medium levels and allows them to rival fighters as the kings of combat.

This is the beginning of the "Rogues are Strikers" design and is a big change from prior editions. In general Rogues in 3E were mainly seen as the skilled class (in the games I saw at least) but the rogue as damage inflicter concept was set and would only grow as 3E progressed.

From here it is a short jump to 4E's "Rogues (Thieves) are Martial (read non-magical) Strikers where the damage output is the class-defining trait - not sneaking, not finding/removing traps, not climbing walls or deciphering scrolls, but DPS (damage per second, an MMO term). It's a massive change from the early editions and reflective of the emphasis of the new edition versus the old. Combat has been a focus in every edition of D&D but it was always one sub-system among several in the game. With 4E it has become the game and the determiner of "balance", with non-combat abilities barely described, let alone quantified.

In some ways I like this better - anyone can learn rituals, the skill system lets anyone be good at what they want to be good at, and combat roles are easily grasped. But a part of me still likes the more open-ended nature of the older editions. One of the goals of "Balance" and more rigid rules in some areas is to allow players to play at conventions and in tournaments and to enforce similar experiences with the game. I get that and I don't have a huge problem with it. But I don't typically play at cons, I don't play in tournaments, and I don't join a lot of new groups or play with a lot of strangers - I usually play with the same group of friends, occasionally adding or subtracting a member or two. So much of the supposed benefit of these changes doesn't really benefit me and my players. It's different, but is it better?

Another of the big changes, having played both old and new D&D recently and seeing it especially with thieves, is that now everyone is good at combat. In older editions there were big differences between the classes and how they reacted to combat - thieves and mages weren't always keen on it and often were the voice of "Plan B" = let's talk/avoid/sneak/bluff or do something besides charge in. This led to some interesting situations and a lot of times things ended up in combat anyway but those discussions or suggestions were an important part of the game. Now with 4E everyone is optimized for combat so no one is really trying to avoid it unless they are out of dailies or have metagame knowledge that the beastie is too high a level for them to fight.

Again, it's not necessarily a bad thing, different people will have different preferences and I like a good fight myself, but it does lead to some different playstyles between the two games,  sometimes very different, and the dislike of old-school players for the new-school game tends to anchor here - not just in how they read, not just in powers, not just in "it's an MMO" but in the very real differences in playstyle that the different editions steer players toward. I probably could play a 1E style game in 4E, but mechanically things are not driven that way in play. There are some interesting design similarities between 1E and 4E (most of the rules are directed at combat, non-combat is relatively unregulated, and it's not a unified system - PC's, NPC's, and Monsters share no universal design system) but in play they are quite different and not everyone is going to like them. I'm OK with that. However. if someone needs an example of the changes in not just mechanics but in philosophy and playing style, let them ask someone who plays or played a 1E thief about it, then compare to a 4E Rogue player's view. That should be all the illustration anyone needs.


UWS guy said...

The 1e thief with--with the corresponding assumption that he would have a high dexterity and access to both long swords and daggers meant that they were probably the best class at dual wielding (if going 3d6 or even 4d6 drop lowest the chances that a fighter--after putting his two highest stats in str/con would have a high dex as well is minimal, let alone the idea that a fighter, aiming for henchmen would put his 3rd stat in cha).

Doing the math, the dual wielding thief out DPS's a cleric by a fair bit, especially against large creatures (ogres+) as the long swords damage bumps up further and blunt weapons generally do badly).

3rdly, the propensity for intelligent swords is relatively high, which further bumbs the thief above the cleric.

4th: Since the thief is 1 level ahead, the d8 hit points of the cleric and the d6 hit points of the thief are moot.

5th: plate armor is AC 3, leather+18 dex is 4, again moot between thief and cleric.

so melee combat works like this:

Blacksteel said...

I agree that against Large Creatures anyone who has access to a longsword will have an advantage.

I've only ever seen one thief with an intelligent sword as they were behind the fighters, rangers, and paladins in the party when one of those turned up - I'd consider that a non-factor. Clerics blowing undead to powder with a turn/dispel comes up a lot more often than thieves with super-swords. Plus Clerics aren't competing with fighters for magic swords and mages for magic daggers.

I agree that the hit points do tend to even out in play.

When it comes to AC though, you're ignoring shields, which the cleric will likely use and the thief can't. A cleric will typically have as good of an armor class as the fighter, if not better as some fighters will be using two-handed weapons. Give them a few levels and the Thief will be 18 Dex and Leather +1 for an AC of 3 while the Cleric is in +1 Plate Mail and using a +1 Shield so will be at AC 0 - that's not "moot" that's just plain "better".

One other potential concern is that Thieves in play tend to be concerned with their backstab and will hide for the first round or two to set one up. During this time the cleric is fighting or casting spells - he doesn't need to set up his "thing" - he can do it alongside the fighter which meant they were usually the second line or the 3rd guy in the front line. I can't recall a thief ever being put in the front line of an adventuring party if there were enough fighters and clerics to fill it up. At 1st level, maybe, but after that it wasn't a common thing.

You do raise a good point about them being the best for two-weapon fighting though. I knew some elf fighters back then that would take Dex over strength just so they could do that. That 18 Dex, or at least a 17 Dex, is very important though - lower than that and the penalties make it a questionable decision.

I'd still rank them Fighter > Cleric > Thief > M-U because quite a bit of your argument starts with "If the Thief has an 18 Dex" which while not impossible the way most of us rolled was still not typical. Drop that to a 16 Dex, still very good, and all of a sudden the Cleric looks that much better, regardless of his ability scores.

Once my new 1E game starts later this month I'll keep an eye on this and see how my players make their choices in this area.