Saturday, 28 December 2013

Making thieves more appealing

Having had a player walk mid game while playing a thief of late I began to question can I change the class to fix this? Normally If a player is unhappy I try to help them and I would be willing to fix the problem. A while back I found most players chose spell casters and preferred fighters and thieves for hired flunkies and followers. So I did some little changes to warrior types that seemed to help. Most players have come to be impressed by what a real fighter can do at higher levels and have become more popular.

Remember old BX thieves had d4 HP and cruddy skill percents at start and double a d4 or d6 backstab occasionally is not so great. Many standard thief skills were not being used much. Spells often supersede thief abilities at higher level. A low magic item would make them shine more or make class abilities redundant like stealth items or cloak of flying. One blog put it thus: thieves suck!

Closest I got to thief was a Assasin in ADnD which had more options than a standard thief with poison and instant kill and disguise. I got up to 14th level and did same with a ninja/wujen. Played fighter/thieves and MU/thieves too.

My current homebrewMy concept is they are the masters of skill and mine get a new whole interesting skill to pick every level. Not as reliable or powerful as spells but usable far more often.  I want my thieves to be roguish swashbucklers, able too fight and perform daredevil type feats of skill . Many abilities in the 2nd ed ultimate thieves book tempting.

My NWP system made most skills have higher odds of success with stat rolls, more choices for interesting skills. As I am also a RQ gamer the idea someone else can't climb or sneak at all is a bit lame to me or the thief versions of these abilities need to be far superior. I always liked giving bonus chances for equipment too.

I built my whole NWP skill system from original ADnD 1st Ed Oriental Adventures and Dungeoneers Survival Guide. I Replace thief skills with NWP and made them get the most NWP of any class. Having NWP, theif skills, ranger skills, assassin skills, background skills all with different mechanics seemed a bit silly in 1st ed. So I streamlined all into one NWP system and took some ideas from 3.5 feats for some new ones. I really hate later skill systems and prefer to save workable mechanics rather than make new ones. This was to make stats more used (I use them for saving throws too). I made system to make life easier for thieves but bait has only been nibbled. Some players have said they prefer my system and some other DMs borrowing from me which is positive.

I recently added additional pluses on NWP for higher levels which worked well and gave thieves slight improvements. I really liked castles and crusades thief with d8 HD and a ambush ability on top of backstab. The biggest deviation I tried was adding ability to kill one unconscious/sleeping/prone person per level per round (not necessarily monsters) . This wasn't too unbalanced and a few times a thief in enemy barracks has been devastating. I will mod this to be 1HD/lv for non humanoids.

After 30 years without pure thief players I had some renewed interest in the class. Two teen boys played chaotic evil classic thieves and did best job of playing alignment and class for new players I had seen in a long time. Had a 6th level Morlock change to thief to get more skills as he felt he was deadly enough in battle. Had a player take a thief as an assassin who was the one that ended up walking from a game mid way through. He was frustrated by needing to sneak off on solo missions to use abilities, inability to use magical items and even when he got to backstab it was not very effective compared to extra attacks and hit odds of fighters. Had a few others thieves of late too.

When I posed this dilemma online these are some responses I got:

don't bother with them and axe them
(I want to save this classic DnD trope, for the record I do like them but don't want to force them. I played most of the PC games without thieves. Another common thread suggested to use NPCs which I do and to have NPCs shared so everyone gets a go which was more novel)

use more traps
(I use plenty - they use followers, spells, tools or stooges, don't mind attracting monsters in fact some
would happily stand at entrance and ring a bell with an army)

use poison
(I need to explore this option with a post of its own - i fondly remember poison in MERP - possibly poison damage based on makers level, cost and ingredients, a basic poison with 1hp dam/lv might be viable or lethal/sleep poison that has FX vs creatures of certain HD based on makers level. Need to be careful whole party not poison mad as really just not that hard or dangerous to use in real life. I have never restricted poison use to any class, possibly alignment more a factor)

contrive more situations for them to shine
(Requires solo time separating group often, actually I cant do this if not many being played in first place. When I ran a game with 12 players of oriental adventures half party were ninjas and kept running off to do solos and working together and even earned more xp which had non ninjas pretty unhappy. Would have ended in bloodbath if kept going. Even last game with two thieves ended up stealing DM time from rest of party. Designing stuff to make them shine is a problem if thief not around or doesn't take the chance. My luck point idea should encourage to do this)

my DMing must be bad if I don't contrive them chances to shine
(Possible but how do players know i will be a jerk to thieves if nobody has played one? I am looking for mechanical fixes not stylistic ones)

my players must be bad for not wanting to play them
(Possible but mean. Many commentators seemed to find this incredible. In my 80s AdnD games was common to multiclass to make wizards who could still act without spells and sneaky fighters which worked with low xP cost and with infravision made far superior characters than a single class thief. Low XP needs of thief would make them highest level in party which would have some advantages. I prefer to balance classes to use same XP table in play or not use XP as it slows play)

players need to just roleplay harder
(Mechanical fix will let dumb players play too, any class better with clever player. I remembered some 2nd ed kits had roleplaying based properties versus mechanical ones which is noble but problematic as a paladin. No two players will play same way)

use outdoor traps more
(Actually I like this lots - will include near lairs or camps and put on encounter tables more as I use traps when my characters camping in most games)

make backstabbing easier(This is possible as I am mean with definition of backstab in play. Castles and crusades ambush that works with missiles and even face to face is good too. Newer eds have blindside options and usable in combat. Next draft of rules will look into this. Possibly will merge backstab and ambush just increase situations it can be used in to include side, ambush and missiles which keeps role as non front line fighter alive. Streamlining into one rule might be a good answer. Players using jump, wall running, acrobatics tactically now)

play 3.5, pathfinder or 4th edition or castles and crusades
(Or I could quit DnD and play RQ too where everyone can do everything or anything - i will look at some of these versions for ideas though - C&C was a big influence)

add various martial feats(I don't think they should be as good as monks or fighters i have lots of martial arts weapon proficiencies - possibly as overwhelming choices hard for some players some example kits including progressions at higher level would be good - this would benefit all classes and help make quick NPCs and new characters. Actually examples I give now including classic DnD thief skills set are helpful)

give them critical hits or better odds(I currently have warriors get a critical on a natural 20 and let others buy this with one weapon proficiency slot and let players up this with more slots. Id prefer this to be a choice than a standard feature. Some martial arts skills require -4 to hit or can choose result with any critical hit. Combined with backstab my thieves can KO, trip and other things better than most. Example builds better than changing)

players fault for not thinking
(Just seems mean spirited - thinkers make any class better)

my players must all be idiots
(Seems unlikely as i probably had about 50 players in last 6 months as i managed a club and was running 5-7 sessions a week. I'm sure none of them has IQ below 100 even the dumber ones)

i must be an idiot
(Wow. Apparently my desire to customize my dnd games and earnest players choices makes me an idiot while following rules that are not working is answer)

give them magical or more amazing versions of abilities
(This is a feature of original class with deciphering languages and using scrolls so will have these in my example kits or make one more magical kit or even a dungeon specialist. Let them learn cantrips at higher level? New assassins have turned into magic ninjas which I find intriguing. Others suggested making high level thief skills even more fabulous and superhuman which is interesting idea. One person suggested could apply skills to others - climb roll to save others falling, disarm a trap even after activated to save another adventurer, leading party in a group sneak)

use even more traps
(Ok I get the hint but players of my kobold hellhole redbrick dungeons think a trap every 30 feet is plenty and they often don't have a thief)

I must be a bad DM
(possible but the personal attack is the worst form of debate - i actually find it pretty shameful so many people responded to my request for mechanical variants with such scorn so readily. Some kind players tell me I'm best Dm or best sandbox gamer. I'm prepared to change and adapt even if all players want to be magic users or thieves. Some players don't like me because I play DnD not serious games like  rifts/vampires/steampunk/shadowrun/whatever postmodern magic is. I had one player quit at end of my 20 year marvel game and to be fair he had probably played every cliche, trope and story I had in me plus some non game personal reasons.)

I must be here to just troll everyone
(No I just want ways to make appealing so players have a chance to see how unfairly I treat thieves in game - yes this is sarcasm. I thought were forums of discussion and i really wanted mechanical variants, has become more lowbrow and more about product collecting and fanservice of late)

I must be a heretic to not accept sacred word of Gygax/wizards of the coast(possibly true but my definition of oldschool is customizing rules is fine. DnD to me is about customizing game for your taste, that's part of creativity of game. To be fair group mellowed out when I clarified question and qualified i was not a troll and did not consider abuse to be useful advice. Amazing anyone use bad DM abuse with so little information and no evidence other than disagreeing with you)

What I am most likely to do:
More poison rules
Setting traps rules not just disarming them
Make backstabbing opportunities easier
More example kits to demonstrate builds including higher level choices
Include some magical skills on thief list like cantrips and using magic items
Allow some skills to be used to help others even after they have failed their own rolls
Try to be better DM

Second Chance Points
Currently using this system in play. Has saved many players from death but players feel they were almost killed so thrill of risk still there. Also makes WIS stat more useful for all players - they feel sorry for player with no points. If I want to be a bastard I can get them to waste on saving throws.

Get one point plus WIS bonus (a minus WIS bonus equals no points)
Rogues/Thieves get one extra per level
Can spend this many points per session

A point allows a re-rolled dice roll on damage, skills, saves, stats or anything
A point can stop bleeding in negative HP to stabilize further losses
A point allows you to remember an item you forgot to bring on your equipment list
A point allows you to change a memorised spell

These can be applied to aid your immediate followers also
If the second chance fails you may try another point

All this isn't too unbalancing. A thief hopefully will use this to do more risk taking daredevil feats, ensure those essential hits and sneak attempts and soften their failures. I think this fits in well with my concept of masters of skill who take unbelievable risks.

Any ideas welcome in my comment box


  1. this was a good exercise - current thief player reaped the benefits. the luck thing well received and I was kinder about backstab and flank attacks than ever before and made life a bit easier than previously. I will admit I was probably unfair and had over estimated their abilities. Was reminded that most thieves I had played were in con games I was DM.

  2. Dungeon Crawl Classics thieves are cool. Two things that you can do that would emulate DCC thieves in your game:

    1) Backstab is treated as a critical. Increase damage caused by backstab.

    2) Luck. In DCC, thieves gain a die based on level, and can spend Luck to modify their rolls. By using something similar (a pool of points that can each allow a die roll modifier to rolls, and which refreshes at 1 die/level/day), you can make thieves much more fun to play.

    Best of luck.

  3. my new poison rules were a big asset as well... party of a bard and thief and flunkies

  4. I've never really had any shortage of thieves in my campaigns I've always found the disdain and need to "beef them up" a bit curious. Everyone can poke about and find traps, anyone can jam a mechanism, a thief gets to do it when others would screw it up. Think of the thief detect traps etc as an extra saving throw and all of a sudden the suck diminishes. Allowing differentiation among thiefly types is cool but it doesn't have to be a powerup.

  5. “Sitting down and reading boxed dialog, going through seven or eight volumes of rules, is a long way from the scribbled notes I started off with...It just got very, very complicated and, in the efforts to simplify things, they just lost whatever creativity was left.
    “I think what you lost there was the spontaneity of the whole operation...Too many of them try to do everything, or they follow the official line of "You can't change anything or you'll destroy the rules."...
    “That's not the way things started, that's not the way things should be. If something doesn't work, get rid of it. If something works in another set of rules and you want to put it in your game, go for it. The [rules'] job is to make the referee's life easier, so he can referee, not harder."

    Dave Arneson
    (as old school as it gets)

  6. you've got some good ideas here. Personally though, I love that B/X thieves are lousy and level up so fast.

    1. my problem is i ditched XP so i need to make classes more equal otherwise i would agree

  7. Let them shoot bows, well. That opens them up considerably.

  8. I favor an expansion of the 3E thought line that anyone can disarm a trap, but only Rogues can disarm high level / magical traps. So I let Thieves disarm magical traps and curses, Spot/Hear magically concealed items, climb unclimbable cliffs and walls, etc

  9. I like to extend the 3E idea that only Rogues can spot and disarm magical traps by making the rest of their abilities semi-magical as well. I let Thieves "disarm" curses, Spot magically concealed items, climb unclimbable cliffs and walls, etc

  10. thanks all - has been a good projects

  11. Yep.

    I generally give rogues extra actions, the ability to disarm and find magical traps, better skill advancement and 'mulligans', one re-roll a session per level, being that they are generally the class that is designed to take risks.