Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Rules Cyclopedia Hacks and House Rules: Thief Special Abilities

Rules Cyclopedia: Chapter 2: The Character Classes, Page 22.

Oh, I was hoping I would have a few more of these under my belt before tackling this, but the random number generator has spoken. Page 22 consists mostly of tables relating to the Thief character class, specifically, the Experience Table, Saving Throws, and of course, the Thief Special Abilities Table.

Gentle reader, versed in the ways of Classic D&D, I’m sure you can sense the reasons for my trepidation here, for there are a few features of the Thief Special Abilities Table that seem somewhat out of place among an otherwise light rules set.

I’ve made several attempts over the years to find a solution for what I see as the key problems with this particular Table. Problems may be too strong a word, bugbear is better.

Ktrey's Key Bugbears:

  1. Percentile Based Resolution – Other than the Woodland Abilities of the Halfling, virtually none of the Special Abilities for other classes are tied to the success of a roll on a d%. I understand that the d% produces much more granulation than the other dice, but it still seems out of place for D&D PCs. After all, we’re not playing RuneQuest.

  2. Six of the Eight Thief abilities, when tested by player, can lead to awkward game-play situations.

    1st level Thief Player: “I check for Traps” (rolls 52%)
    DM: “You don’t find any.”
    (Player knows that he rolled above his Find Traps, so there could still be traps and perhaps proceeds a bit more cautiously. Quite a classic quandary.)

    1st level Thief Player: “I try to Move Silently” (rolls 45%) “Crap.”

    Before you cry “player problem,” please entertain the inconsistency here, although failure at a task should always be a possibility for players, only a few other classes have built in thresholds like this (the Cleric's Turning Chart comes to mind). Fighter can swing his sword against a foe and the outcome is unknown until it is compared to the AC of the defender (which the Fighter can guess, based on the foe's armor, etc, but this is not a sure-fire way to determine the difficulty). Magic-User's get their spells off, and the Saving Throw determines success or failure (what does an Owl Bear save as again?). Thieves are first hand witnesses to their failure, in real time.

    The previous page in the Rules Cyclopedia (p. 21) has some text that addresses this with the following:
    “at the DM's discretion, either the player or the DM will roll percentile dice (d%).”
    I tend to automatically dislike anything that takes the dice out of the player’s hand, doubly so when it is tied to their character’s success or failure at a task.

    The Rules Cyclopedia also continues by mentioning circumstantial bonuses and penalties that can be applied to the chances in order to further obfuscate potential success and failure. A rusty lock granting a 40% bonus to Open Locks, etc.

    With the addition of these two caveats, percentage based abilities work a little better, but still just don’t seem to fit in with the understated elegance of the rest of the rules.

  3. Poor 1st level Thieves begin play with the following percentages:
    Open Locks 15%
    Find Traps 10%
    Remove Traps 10%
    Climb Walls 87%
    Move Silently 20%
    Hide In Shadows 10%
    Pick Pockets 20%
    Hear Noise 30%
    These aren’t terrible odds on paper, with most of the abilities increasing by five each level for the first eight levels, but in actual play, lower level thieves simply can’t shine without hefty “circumstantial help” from the DM or incredibly consistent luck.
In the past, I’ve done some rather strange things to address these issues. Some proved more popular than others, and as with any of my Rules Cyclopedia House Rules, these can be taken, left, or adapted to fit. If anything I hope to promote more discussion about polishing an already shiny system that is perfectly playable as-is.

So without further ado, I present some Hacks and House Rules for Page 22 of the Rules Cyclopedia:

To address Key Bugbear 3 (Poor 1st Level Thieves) I’ve occassionally let players add ability score based amounts to their Thief Abilities:

Ability Option One: DEX x 5
This gives beginning thieves anywhere from 15 to 90 points to spread out among their Thief abilities. Allowing for a great deal of customization (to fit backstory, or character concept). To limit this somewhat, I recommend that players adhere to certain restrictions; no thief ability can be raised above what it would be for a 5th level thief, or no ability can receive more than 20 points this way. Like most Point-Buy additions, this option does result in more book-keeping, as players need to keep track of their bonus points and actual level percentage separately. In play, it also tends to make for some pretty darn competent thieves, which is generally only ideal for a short campaign.

This option is very hackable to boot. Consider trying DEX x 4, or 3, or 2, or even 1 depending on personal preference and the power-level you promote. It's just a little extra-oomph for the Thief who fancies themselves a master locksmith, but would never dream of picking a pocket.

Ability Option Two: Ability Based Bonuses.
This option ties different stats to the different thief abilities. Then, either the ability score, or more stingily, any ability score bonus is applied to the Thief Ability in question.
Open Locks - DEX
Find Traps - WIS
Remove Traps - INT
Climb Walls - STR
Move Silently - DEX
Hide In Shadows - DEX
Pick Pockets – DEX (Possibly CHR?)
Hear Noise – WIS
Dexterity is arguably one of the best of the six ability scores in Classic D&D, providing that much needed Armor Class boost at lower levels, as well as the bonus to hit with missile weapons. This option takes some of the bite and power out of the attribute, and may lead to more careful ability score selection.

While the above ideas primarily seem to address the power level of thieves, some of the options outlined below also work wonders for this. This section outlines some ideas for dealing with Key Bugbear #1: Those Pesky Percentages!

Pesky Percentages Option 1 or D6 Forever!
Some other intrepid House Rulers have worked to convert the Thief Abilities into tasks that can be resolved with a d6. Their rather impressive work on this subject can be found on this page: Thieves and Rakes: A Variety Of Class Options. While I haven’t had the chance to playtest these rules, they do seem to strike me as sound. And I especially like that the rules dovetail nicely with the extant “find secret doors” and “listen” rules for demihumans.

Pesky Percentages Option 2 or Task Difficulty as Armor Class
Give Thieves the Fighter’s Attack Progression for attempting their Thief Abilities, and give their obstacles an Armor Class based on difficulty. Decide whether or not you would like to allow Dexterity bonus (or even other ability bonuses) to figure into this roll. The Thief then simply writes a THAC0 next to each of his abilities and task resolution is handled with the roll of a d20 against the DM determined AC of the obstacle. As a handy hint, this Obstacle AC can decrease as the character descends deeper into a dungeon.

This Option also helps bring back some of that “mystery” to thief abilities, as the player will likely never know the difficulty of the obstacle they are trying to overcome, and therefore won’t automatically be tempted to assume failure or meta-game (see: Ktrey's Key Bugbear 2). Unless a One is rolled and there are provisions for automatic-failure. I have in mind an upcoming article on one of the more venerable (second perhaps only to the Critical Hit?) house rules: The Fumble. The “Joys of Fumbling” will provide some advice on how to handle these 1s.

Pesky Percentages Option 3 or Convert Thief Abilities to General Skills
Since Stealth (choose terrain) is already a General Skill, some Dungeon Masters may be tempted to simply convert the other thief abilities into Rules Cyclopedia General Skills. These General Skills can use Dexterity, or for more variety, the optional ability scores above. While this does mean that Thieves will start off with 8 more General Skills than the rest of the character classes, and may be spending all of their skill slots improving these abilities rather than taking on new General Skills, they are Thieves after all, and this is only a method of representing their specialized training and niche. For this very reason, limiting or disallowing other classes to take these skills is highly recommended to keep the Thief special. One could even give Thieves another “Thievery Skill Slot” every few levels (I’ve had success with adapting the Weapon Mastery table for this) to encourage them to use their normal slots to take other skills.

Caveat: With high ability scores the chance of success for thief abilities converted in this manner increases dramatically, so liberal application of those “circumstantial modifiers” might be needed. On the flip side, a set of +1 Lock Picks, or Boots of Silent Step +2, become wonderful treasures that fall in line with the Fighter's ubiquitous +1 Longsword. (Lock Picks +10%? Please.)

Or, if you prefer to not deal with the headaches of “circumstantial modifiers”, give each of the Thief General skills a flat base. Say, 8-10 (or cruelly roll randomly! Yikes!) and allow them to be improved normally with slots via advancement. With this method it might be better to use the “growing d6” method for resolution (helm tip to Sham’s Grog n’ Blog for highlighting this niftiness). Simple tasks are resolved using 2d6, standard tasks are resolved using 3d6, for more difficult tasks, increase the number of d6s and ring in the bell curve.

Pesky Percentages Option 4
Slot Based Thief Abilities or When Things Just Get Weird.
This one is rather radical, but was fairly fun for the players. Thieves use the Magic-User’s spell progression for their “Thief Slots.”

Glancing over the Spell Lists for the respective Spell Casting Classes, let’s look at some Thief Abilities and their Magical counterparts.
Find Traps – 2nd level Cleric Spell – Find Traps)
Open Locks – 2nd level Magic-User Spell – Knock)
Remove Traps – 3rd level Magic-User Spell - Dispel Magic?)
Move Silently – 2nd level Cleric Spell – Silence 15’ Radius)
Hide In Shadows – 1st level Magic-User Spell - Darkness, or 2nd level Invisibility)
Climb Walls – 2nd level Magic-User Spell – Levitate?)
Pick Pockets – 1st level Magic-User Spell – Charm Person?)
Hear Noise – 1st level Cleric Spell – Detect Evil?)
Some are less than perfect fits I agree, but bear with me. For the most part, Thieves will use the standard method in your game for Thief Special Ability resolution, but giving the Thief a limited number of Daily “auto-success” for their abilities could considerably improve their chances to shine.

Some interesting questions crop up: Do they meditate on any of these techniques every night and pick a new one from their “Thief Slot List” each day (like Clerics)? Do they begin with access to only one to study nightly, and then “learn” them from other, more experienced thieves or musty manuals of thievery (Magic-User)? Are there new and exciting Thief techniques that can be learned? Are the game mechanics of these “Thief Slots” identical to the spell effect (modified to have Magic read as Traps in the case of Dispel Magic)? These are some thought-provoking questions for the DM brave enough to attempt or adapt this hack, and are tragically beyond the scope of this installment.

At roughly the equivalent level for Clerics, and exactly for Magic-Users, the spell casting classes already have the ability to perform these tasks, edging in on the territory of the Thief while simultaneously tying up a precious spell slot. I find it helps to keep in mind that Thieves tend to advance much quicker than the other classes, but this advancement doesn’t really seem as rewarding as the others (and only produces a lot of erasures beneath their “Thief Abilities” section on their sheet).

What about the 7th level Thief and their first 4th level “Thief Slot” you ask? Well a quick glance at the spell lists reveals some potential candidates:
4th level: (Cleric Spell - Neutralize Poison (“I've spent years building up an immunity to Black Dougal’s Bane”)
For dastardly thieves, its reverse Poison could also be neat.
4th level: (Magic-User – Polymorph Self) Disguise anyone?
By turning creativity up, it becomes pretty difficult to place a limit on which spell effects Thieves could potentially replicate as one of their “Thief Slots.”

Be warned however, this option is straying very far out of the stalwart Keep of house-rule territory and closer to woolly woods and chaotic caves of “System Revision.” In fact, it seems that something very similar was tried previously with the old Warlock RPG as one of the first attempts to “fix” D&D:

Warlock RPG - Thief Special Ability Charts

Some good ideas here for “Thief Slots,” but again, this is dangerously close to rewriting the game. Using these, I’d be tempted to start writing up some “Fighter Slots” and then I might as well be fiddling with another Edition.

Which of these Hacks/House Rules do I use in my games? Well, currently I don’t have a Classic D&D game running (although I’m looking to rectify this soon), but one of my last games with Thieves used the Task Difficulty as Armor Class option with a surprising degree of success. Almost to the point of me adopting the progression across the board, with each class using the Fighter progression for various Class related tasks, but that, I’m afraid, will need to wait for another post...

Bah. Who am I kidding? For my next game, I'm just as likely to play completely by the book with my Thieves. The Rules Cyclopedia just plain rules, and the above could just be considered a lengthy thought exercise. But do let me know if you find anything interesting, useful, or unclear.

Dedicated to the memory of Luven Lightfinger, Apprentice extraordinaire (Str 13, Int 14, Wis 9, Con 12, Dex 16, Cha 13) who lost his life “In Search of the Unknown” along with his party’s Elf due to rolling poorly versus a portcullis trap:

If all attempts to escape fail, the persons trapped will be doomed to their fate.

Thank you Mr. Carr and B1.


  1. Task Difficulty as Armor Class is really cool, Ktrey!

    The other peeve many folks have with the thief's skills is that they remove agency from the player-character and give it to the dice -- particularly Trap Finding and Removal. Instead of describing the character's efforts to discover and bypass a trap it's left up to a die roll.

    (I'm not too bothered by this personally -- it seems reasonable to me that defeating some traps is simply a matter of testing a rote skill vs. a mechanical device. And a DM could always include traps and puzzles not susceptible to the thief's abilities.)

  2. Hi Max!

    Glad you liked the Task Difficulty as AC rules, I've also had some success using it for Clerics (replacing the turning chart) and Magic-Users (eliminating Saving Throws vs. Spells). I find it easier to use a single mechanic than having to constantly reference other tables to dig up information. It really speeds up game play.

    I think the player agency for trap detection and removal usually tends to fold into the "circumstantial modifiers" in my games. If the Thief specifies that he's looking at the floor, then that's a hefty +40% to detect the pit trap. The large marble block overhead however get's a -20% (I rarely penalize players that much, after all, we all want to reinforce good roleplaying!) to detect. This would translate into a lower Target AC for the other method. When player's learn that the likelihood of their success can hinge on describing their actions thoroughly, they start playing accordingly.

    The Fighter's player describing his character's sword swing in startling detail, the Magic-User uttering a rhyming couplet for his cantrip, all of these things tend to glean those "circumstantial modifiers" from me, because they add to the game.

  3. Cool breakup analysis!
    I like the combat mechanics for opening locks or disarming traps. Different tools, different progress chance ("damage" die). To hit vs lock/trap AC.
    Improvised (bone, stick, hairpin): 1 + DEX (as STR for combat damage)
    General tools: 1d4 + DEX
    Locksmith's tools: 1d6 + DEX
    Hightech gnome's tools: 1d8 + DEX

    No need for that if in exploration mode, just spend one turn or two.

    Obs.: The URLs above are broken.




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