Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Thieves! Dirty Rotten Thieves!

Of late I've been thinking about classic D&D. When I think of D&D I always think of B/X D&D, the classic basic rules from 1981 compiled and edited by Tom Moldvay, Dave Cook, and Steve Marsh. That's my jam and probably always will be. It is a clean presentation of the original D&D rules with some tidying up, some clarifications, some stripping down, and some additions.

It is imminently hackable. It melts over new settings like butter on hot bread. When I think about writing fantasy settings for RPGs I always favor using this rule set as a basis, usually via the use of the game's most effective modern clones: Labyrinth Lord and Old School Essentials.

Thinking about B/X lately lead me to recall some of the posts I made about the topic in the past. I wanted to revisit some of them with fresh eyes and see if my thinking has changed.

Thieves' Skills is one of my favorites. I can't remember if this idea started as a G+ post and then I cleaned it up for a blog post or if it was the other way around. But I do remember when the idea hit me and suddenly thieves and their terrible skill ratings clicked into place and made sense.

Thieves' Skills


You're playing a Thief. You want to pick a lock. You take a peek at your sheet and see that your chance is 15%. That sucks! Surely you can do better than that?

I think you can. I think the Thief's skills are not meant to replace existing stealth rules (such as they are), but to augment them. This is what I mean:

You try to sneak through a room where some orcs are playing bones in the corner. The dice are thrown and the result is 55%. That's well above the 20% you needed to move silently. What does that mean? It means you didn't move silently. It does NOT mean the orcs heard you. It simply means you made some kind of noise that might be heard. So the DM should then make the normal roll to determine if the orcs heard a noise or not.

If you were a Fighter sneaking through the room you'd only get the second roll, not the first one too. So the Thief has an added layer of rules to cover stealth.

Same for hiding in shadows. A failed skill roll means you could be seen. It does not mean you actually were seen. When the Thieves' skill rolls fail you simply fall back to normal rules such as a surprise check or hear noises.

I don't know if this was how the rules were meant to be used or not but this is how I've been thinking of them for a long time. It makes a thousand times more sense to me now than before and it means I don't necessarily have to house rule the Thief (though in all honesty I still do...).

After making this post I revisited the topic several times. In the post THIEVES! I re-state the idea outlined in the previous paragraphs and I introduce my Thief class bennies system, which I later modified into the Black Pudding Playbook's Thief.

In the post Once Again With The Thieves I talked about a new public game I was running and how I modified these ideas once more to suit that table. In that post I outlined this method:

-Thieves roll their skill on percentile dice + an ability check at the same time. If the percentile roll is good, ignore everything else because they have perfectly executed their subtle craft and cannot fail. Otherwise, go with a simple ability check.

-Non-thieves do sneaky stuff on an ability check, usually with Disadvantage. They cannot do super-secret stuff like climbing sheer surfaces or disarming complex traps (unless the player has a terrific plan).

Looking at it now, I still think this method is very good for a public game in which you have no idea who will show up to play. It eliminates the d6 rolls for hearing noises and such, which would be harder to explain to a complete noob. Rolling d100 and d20 at once is fast and smooth. Using Advantage and Disadvantage is both elegant and well known.

Still, as a B/X fan, I want the pure experience so I want as few house rules as possible. I need a good damn reason to house rule.*

In that same post I re-stated the original idea again in a way that I kinda like:

The idea here is to say that thief skills are special. The thief isn't merely trying to be very quiet or trying to find footholds on a wall. They have been trained or have discovered lost secrets or have tapped into natural talents that normal people cannot access. The thief doesn't simply "hide" in shadows, they fucking disappear. If that percentile roll is a good one, the thief cannot be detected. They are as good as invisible, though not in a magical way.

In the post Thief! Stop Thief! I had an idea for using the default saving throws as skill categories. Check it out. I haven't used this and it isn't what I'm leaning toward today but it's a neat idea, right?


My thinking in 2021 is similar to 2015 with regards to Thief skills. Use the skills as they exist, without altering the tables or numbers. But treat those skills as *almost magical*, where the Thief is perfectly successful on a good roll and falls back to the default stealth rules when they fail. For my money, this actually solves the problem with Thieves.

Beyond that, I'm also in favor of giving Thieves another benefit in the form of special tricks. It could be a standard list such as forgery and reading scrolls and what not. Or it could be left wide open so the player can decide what their tricks are. I dunno. I'll ponder that one a little more.

I have some thoughts about wizards too...

* And oh yes, I do house rule. I have many house rules. I don't use them always, but there are a few that are almost always in use (critical hits, luck points, wizards getting more spells).


  1. Yeah man, this is a great way to do the Thief skills! Totally going with this for now on!

  2. This is the house rule I use:

    Thieving Abilities: Add a thief's Dexterity score to their chance of succeeding with a thief ability(e.g. a thief with a Dex of 14 would add 14%). In addition, if a thief spends 10 minutes 'casing the joint' before they use a thief ability, they can re-roll the dice if their first attempt fails.

    1. I used that rule in a campaign back in 2015. I think that was the only house rule I had for thieves at that time. Just add Dex to skill. It seemed to work out. It wasn't a silver bullet but it made low level thieves feel a little more competent.