It Takes a Thief

This is something I posted to Dragonsfoot a little while back that I wanted to have a record of, mostly because I could have sworn I had posted it here and just wasted a bunch of time searching for it in vain. It’s also relevant to JM’s (not me, some other JM) post To Catch A Thief, where he talks about Thieves in D&D mostly in answer to the really, really old school (pre-Greyhawk) objection that the problem with adding Thief as a character class in the first place is that it takes skills that everybody was assumed to have pre-Thief and makes it that character’s sole job.  My basic suggestion is that you can assume that everybody can still do all those things, but the Thief is the only one who gets a “saving throw” against screwing up so it makes sense to have the Thief try it if there’s one available.

It’s not that relevant to what we’re doing now, because I’ve replaced the D&D as filler campaign with the Haunted Realms, using Savage Worlds.

My players mostly feel that playing a low-level thief is not very fun, because almost all the special abilities (except climbing) are hopeless, if not suicidal, to even try.  E.g. Out of every 100 traps the party encounters, a 1st level thief will successfully disarm one.  It’ll go off on the thief 9 times, and the other 90 times, the party will have stood around while the thief accomplished nothing.

I could address that sort of thing by fudging die-rolls, but I prefer not to do that very often, since if I do it often enough to matter the players no longer really know what the rule is and if I don’t do it often enough to matter, then…well it doesn’t really matter.  And I could amend or replace it with house-rules, but again I’d prefer not to; if I go very far in that direction I might as well be playing one of my home-brews.

Ideally, then, what I’m looking for is way of letting the thief do cool, class-appropriate stuff, that doesn’t contradict the rules as written.  This ties in with some advice I saw (I forget whether it was here or in the ODD Guild) that by the time that dice are being rolled, the characters are in trouble…all the save or die stuff is fine, as long as you give the players enough leeway so that clever play can let them avoid being put in a save or die situation; the save becomes an escape from mistakes they made (or at least risks they knowingly took), not something that’s continually thrust upon them until they inevitably fail.

So here’s an approach I’m thinking of taking with Thief special abilities:

Find Traps: the player describes exactly what the thief is looking for, and automatically detects the trap if the player is looking for the right things.  It’s only if the player isn’t looking for the right things that you roll, in which case the chance is as listed that the thief notices the trap anyway.
The DM must be scrupulous in noting what will set the trap off or what the clues might be.  e.g. if the thief is looking for tripwires in the hallway, or tapping ahead with a 10′ pole, and there is a tripwire, the thief finds it.  If the trigger is a pressure plate and the thief only says he’s looking for tripwires, then roll to see if he notices the pressure plate anyway.

Disarm Traps: the player says what the thief is doing to disarm the trap, if it would work, it works automatically; if it wouldn’t, or would require great skill or dexterity to pull off, roll.  E.g. the thief has noticed a tiny hole in the door handle, such as a needle might come out of, and announces he’s blocking it with sliver of wood before he turns the handle.  If it was a needle trap, that just works. If it squirts gas or some other effect (e.g. a blade trap triggered by covering the hole), then roll vs. Disarm Traps to see if it worked.

Hide in Shadows: thieves can automatically hide if there’s actually something to hide behind; only roll against Hide in Shadows if there’s nothing but shadows to hide in.  If the thief is trying to move from place to place this requires a Hide in Shadows roll if there are gaps between the hiding places, otherwise it’s still automatic (though it may require a Move Silently check).

Move Silently: the check is only necessary against alert opponents. Surprised opponents or those that the DM rules aren’t paying much attention or are making noise themselves won’t automatically notice the thief, even if he fails the roll. The DM should still roll, so the thief remains uncertain about whether there are any alert opponents within hearing range.

Hear Noise: as written, but emphasis is on needing to roll only to hear relatively faint noises; ordinary conversation behind a door, for instance, would automatically be heard by any thief or demi-human listening at the door. A successful Hear Noise roll could reveal the substance of the conversation if the listener knows the language.

Pick Pockets: for picking a selected target’s pockets, the rules apply as written, however any thief can attempt the following:

Working the Crowd: the thief attempts to pick the pockets of targets of opportunity–people who are too distracted to notice the attempt and who appear to be carrying money in an accessible location. May only be attempted in a relatively crowded area, such as at a market. Roll against Pick Pockets once per hour. Success means you managed to gather some coin: roll 1d4 for a treasure from tables P-S (Treasure Carried). A Failure is only detected on a roll of 00.

The Bump: two thieves working together can work the crowd, deliberately trying to distract richer-looking targets, e.g. by one bumping into him while the other picks his pocket. Same as Working the Crowd, but roll 1d8 for a treasure from tables P-V. On an 8 at the DM’s discretion it’s a treasure from any of P-V, but it includes something that the owner is bound to come looking for (or will send someone to look for). The Bump, however, is more noticeable; if there are any guards or other busy-bodies who might be observing the area, for each hour after the first that the pair attempts The Bump, the chance of discovery goes up by 1%. i.e. 2nd hour discovery is on a 99-00, 3rd hour on a 98-00, etc. It’s still pretty safe, but as a way to make a living, it’ll eventually end up in trouble with the law.

Open Locks and Climb Walls (and Backstab!) are all interpreted pretty much as written. I’m tempted to try to come up with a more generous interpretation of Open Locks, or perhaps just label a fair number of locks “easy” (meaning no roll required as long as the thief has tools), but the consequences of failing to open a lock aren’t that dire, and the party can usually try to just break through the door or bash open the chest, which have their own drawbacks, making it worthwhile for the thief to at least attempt it.

Note that this whole way of looking at things owes a lot to Robert Fisher’s thoughts on thieves.

3 thoughts on “It Takes a Thief

  1. Joshua says:

    Aha! You’re right! And the actual post is complete, unlike the snippet I found in my google notebook. Thanks!

  2. JM says:

    I like your train of thought … and thanks for posting Robert Fisher’s link, as his site, musings, and observations ought to be required reading material for designers, players, and referees of ANY rpg.

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