Sunday, December 5, 2021

Thief Me Baby One More Time

Given how many times I've written about how to fix the B/X Thief you'd think it was my favorite class. Not true. If I'm sitting down to play B/X at a con or whatever, I'm probably picking Elf. POWER GAMER.

Anyway... thieves.

This is a shit or get off the pot kind of moment. I've noodled Thief fixes for years but since I'm cementing my B/X house rules in a printed book forever I need to pick a path, right?*

TL:DR: Thieves add double Dexterity to most of their skill ratings and they get 7 new skills.

The current draft includes these fairly simple tweaks:


Thieves add double their Dexterity score to all Skills except Climb Sheer Surfaces and Hear Noises. When trying to Find Traps, they add Intelligence x2 instead of Dexterity x2.

Let's talk about it.

First of all, the exclusions. I exclude Climb Sheer Surfaces because those skill ratings are already quite good. I suspect the designers didn't want to subject the lowly Thief to dying from a fall multiple times per session. Because while it's logical to say that failing to Move Silently does not mean you were heard it is harder to logically argue that failing to Climb means you didn't fall. I think I get it. Anyway, you don't add double Dex to that skill.

You don't add it to Hear Noises because that's the only Thief skill that isn't a god damn percentage.** 

Second of all, the skill ratings are famously and monumentally shitty. We all know it. Some of us like to make rational arguments to justify low scores but in the end we're just wrong and grasping at straws so we can idolize the most perfect TTRPG ever published. The Thief skill ratings are just too damn low. It would have been far better to start them around 50% and just slowly raise them by 2 or 3 each level or something like that. But nooooo. Fucking 10%.

Sorry, ranty moment.

Doubling your Dex and adding to the skill ratings brings your chances up towards 50% to start. For example, you have a 20% chance to Move Silently at level 1. Let's say you roll up a Dex of 14. Your Move Silently would be 20+14+14=48%. Not bad. It's on par with the chances of a first level PC hitting a target with AC 9 [10]. It makes some fucking sense, if you ask me.

"But James, this places a lot of weight on the Thief's Dexterity score. The original game didn't emphasize stats this much. Are you sure about this? What if the player rolls a really shitty Dex score?"

Yes, I'm sure. B/X gives us the well-loved roll-under-Ability mechanic, after all. Clearly the game was realizing that Ability scores aren't just window dressing and a bonus to XP isn't as super sexy as they thought it was. Also, I made 4d6-drop-lowest and place-score-where-you-want canon in my games. It's statistically unlikely that the Thief player will not have a good Dexterity score. As it should be.

"But James, then the 9th level Thief has a 103% chance to Move Silently! That seems very high to me."

Yes, 103% is very high. But consider these points. First of all, and let's be honest here, the lion's share of B/X play happens in the 1-7 level range. If you're running con games, you're doing level 1 or level 3 or something like that. If you do a campaign, it'll likely peter out by name level. But OK... let's say it doesn't. So second of all, who cares? The 9th level Thief is a Master Thief according to the level titles. Let them be mutherfuckin' masters. The DM can always make the situations harder and apply penalties. That's kinda how this game works. And it's especially ok when you're not playing with 36 levels.

"So, James, if these pathetically low Thief skills irritate you so much why not just house rule an entirely different skill system?"

Because when it all comes down, this is a B/X fan production. If I wanted to make a whole new dungeon game I'd do that instead. But I'm making a B/X inspired RPG supplement. I wanna preserve as much of the original spirit as I can. I want as few changes as possible. Simple as that, see?


When I went to Gary Con I met Frank Mentzer. This was like meeting a rock star for me since it was his red box that was the first RPG that I ever owned. I used it so much that eventually the box fell apart completely, long lost to time and the trash bin. So I asked Frank one question that always bugged me. In B/X's Expert book under the Thieves section for higher level play it says that in the fabled Companion rules the Thief would gain skills such as ventriloquism, distraction, and climbing upside down. I asked Mr. Mentzer why he didn't include those in the official Companion rules.

He said they were silly so he didn't want them in there.

Major points lost, Frank. Major points lost. My man... climbing upside down, scurrying across a ceiling like a fucking demon ninja? Hell yes.

So I added these skills to Thieves in the world of Yria, where Thieves are somewhat like assassins in that they have secret signs, secret guilds, and highly specialized training. I didn't add these to any Thief XP table because, again, I wanted to preserve the original spirit. So each of these skills simply uses the ratings of existing skills (in parenthesis).

-Evasion (Remove Traps)

-Climb Upside Down (Move Silently)

-Ventriloquism (Hear Noise)

-Mimic Voice (Hear Noise)

-Disguise (Pick Pockets, adding Intelligence x2 instead of Dex, and modified by the target's level in the same way as Pick Pockets)

-Forgery (Pick Pockets, adding Intelligence x2 instead of Dex, and modified by the target's level in the same way as Pick Pockets)

-Use Poison (Open Locks, adding Intelligence, not doubled, with serious risk)

Thieves are the original skill class, after all.

*Of course this is not true. The Doomslakers B/X Playbook is but one iteration of B/X campaign house rules and setting notes. Many more could follow! I can dream.

**WTF, designers? Did you not realize in 197x that in 202x people would be critiquing your work? Anyway, I'm kind of OK with the Hear Noises ratings. If anything I'd bump it up by 1 to start. So maybe that Wis modifier could play a role. But I'm thinking just leave it alone.


  1. Working on thief is the noblest and maybe toughest job in hacking B/X. I think if you asked a hundred B/X nerds which parts of the game they feel least satisfied with or maybe which they feel most uneasy with, it would probably be Thief for more than half.

    A lot of old school nerds also kind of take umbrage with the Thief in general, that it codifies and boxes off the basical roguish knave behavior of larceny and robbery that all dungeon-delving psychos should be (or are) doing, but I kind of wonder how much of that is actually being mad that Conan must have levels in Thief and how much of that is just a sense that Thief (as a class/rule set) in early D&D just doesn't feel all the way congruent with the rest of the game.

    I take the easy route and invent new classes instead, because it distracts my attention so I can avoid The Thief Problem, but I have always wished I had a really superior answer for the Thief.

    I look forward to trying this on for size at the table some day.

    1. Yep, I wanted to tackle this directly in the Doomslakers book. I love making new classes too, but this one was intended to be a direct supplement for the old game (or LL, or OSE).

      I also find the d4 HD to be sad. But instead of changing it (what I'm trying to avoid), I added the Evasion skill. So a Thief has a chance to avoid some damage... which is a way of improving their hit points without improving them.

  2. My house rules for Holmes had adding two different ability scores as a % bonus to Thief Skills. Climbing was an exception, it got Strength just once. Pick Pockets was Dex + Cha (distract the target); Hide in Shadows was Wis (make good choices) + Con (how long can you hold still in a possibly awkward position?); etc. Just makes sense to me and provides some (small!) incentive to NOT drop every stat to pump up Dex.

    1. That's an excellent rule! This has me rethinking double Dex and considering going this route. But for now, double Dex is the rule.