D&D and The Art of the Steal

So, I’ve been thinking again (as one does) about Thieves’ skills and bonuses in OD&D and B/X lines. I wrote about this before, in It Takes A Thief back in 2008. Nowadays, Original Edition Delta has a nice simplification of calculating them to eliminate the weirdness of the percentiles (that are almost always increments of 5% anyway) by just using the Thief’s level as a modifier on a Target 20 roll, but by design it sticks very close to the RAW chances of success. The problem, for me and my players at least, is those numbers are so low for everything except climbing that the thief shouldn’t bother trying them unless there’s nothing really riding on it or they’re almost to “name” level: you don’t hit 55% in anything except climb until level 7 in OSE(B/X) . That’s pretty much the opposite of how you want a thief to play. There is a school of thought that you should just drop the Thief as a class, and “if you want to be a Thief, steal something” but I’ve encountered a lot of players over the years whose favorite class is Thief, so there’s something about the archetype that speaks to them and I want to accommodate that.

Using the interpretation that Thief skills are near-magical abilities (I think due to Philotomy: anyone can hide, but a Thief can hide in shadows) doesn’t really help. Even if you don’t mind the flavor of thieves with semi-mystical abilities, they’re still not going to do it with any degree of reliability until near the end of the campaign. Other adjustments such as allowing repeated tries or treating a miss as indicating success but after a delay, proportionate to how much you missed by kind of works for some things like picking a lock that it might be possible to attempt until you get it right… but for something like moving silently that’s no help at all, and still leaves it that you shouldn’t bother rolling unless it’s either desperate enough that you have nothing else useful you could try on your turn or you have no real pressure and the Referee should just give it to you and move on.

Taking a step back, how reliable should these skill be at first level? Well, how powerful are they? The answer is “not very.” A first level Fighter will hit an unarmored opponent about half the time (give or take about 5% depending on edition), and on the average that hit will kill a 1 HD foe. A first level Magic User can cast a spell (admittedly once a day) that can also on the average slay a 1 HD creature regardless of AC (Magic Missile) or put up to 2 dice worth of 1 HD creatures to sleep (or proportionately less up to a max of 4 HD creatures). And the first level Thief can… open a lock? Hide?

Looking at it this way, is there any reason in the game not to make the default success rate for Thieves’ abilities pretty much the same as for Fighters? About 50% of the time it works, at least in the typical situation you’d find on the first level of the dungeon or back in town? If you can actually open the chest, or find the trap, or move silently past the guard that doesn’t seem like it would break the adventure… unless your adventure assumes that the players would never be able to do that. And if you’re writing adventures like that, well I won’t tell you to stop, but maybe you should get rid of Thieves as a class.

So, where does that leave us? I think for OED, I’d just make it Target 10; for more or less by-the-book B/X or Old School Essentials you could keep the percentiles and just add 50%, but my inclination is to make it about half-way between OSE and OED. Use a d20 and resolve, but adjust the percentiles by dividing by 10% (rounding down) giving a bonus range from +0 to +10 and allowing the Thief’s Dexterity modifier to apply. The Target Number would 10 for 1st level challenges (the kind you’d find while fighting 1 HD creatures) but scale with the level of the dungeon (5th level dungeon has TN 15 locks) or the equivalent in overland/city adventures. A wealthy merchant can probably afford Target 15 locks, a 10th level Lord Target 20. That way the challenges for Thieves roughly keep pace with the challenges that the Fighters and Magic Users are facing in terms of AC and spells saves. I like that this makes it really easy to convey a sense of some tasks are harder than others even for master Thieves while still letting the players have a good guess of how hard it’s likely to be instead of springing modifiers on them lock-by-lock. Keep the usual 1 is automatic miss, 20 is automatic success from the combat system. For Pick Pockets instead of looking for rolls of more than twice the chance of success to see if the Thief is caught, I’d change it to getting caught if the Thief misses by more than the Thief’s own level.

There you have it, a pretty minimalist change that I think opens up the play possibilities for Thieves a great deal. Even a first level Thief has at least a coin-flip’s chance of accomplishing any of their core abilities, while retaining the flavor of the old school Thief with the slightly different advancement of the distinctive Thief skills.

Update: Just to make it clear, I do let non-Thieves try any of the Thief skills (except read scrolls). They roll as 0-level Thieves: 1d20 versus whatever the target is with no bonus, not even attribute modifiers. High attributes only help if you have the slightest idea how to apply them properly; I don’t want high Dex, say, to automatically be as good as a Thief who had to work for those levels.

Smoothing Attack Bonus Progression

One of the things that I really like about Original Edition Delta (Dan Collins’ restatement/mild reworking of Original White-box D&D) is how he adjusted the attack bonus charts for men attacking monsters to make a smoother progression as characters level up. The original chart divided Fighting Men into groups of three levels, e.g. 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, and then had the number you had to roll to hit each armor class improve by 2, 3, or 4 each successive category. I have literally no idea why Gygax & Arneson did it that way, unless it was desperation to save space in the tiny booklets. To make it worse, the instructions told you to rework the columns into groups of 4 or 5 for Clerics and Magic Users. Apparently they couldn’t even spare the space for two extra header rows! Though I’m not sure I’d have the patience to do much better with nothing more than a typewriter to do the layout.

I’ve been playing a bunch of Old School Essentials lately, which reworks this so that instead of a clunky chart, each character class lists its bonus to hit/THAC0 (for ascending/descending Armor Class), in a beautifully laid-out, easy to read fashion thanks to modern tools, more space, and a better graphic design sense than Gary had.

OSE Fighter Progression Chart

Unfortunately, it keeps the odd, bumpy progression so characters can go level after level with nothing improving except their hit dice or maybe spells for spell-casting classes. I found I really missed Dan’s approach to it, which ended up nearly the same place give or take a pip on a d20 at each level break, so I implemented a similar progression as a house rule in my game. If you’d like to do the same, here you go. Just replace the Thac0/Attack Bonus listed in the OSE Class tables with the bonus from the appropriate column in the following. Dwarves, Halflings, and Elves advance as fighters (in OSE every three levels). I tried to stick as closely as I could to matching the OSE tables, particularly when it came to the earliest level that the character got the improvement for their “band”, e.g. if a Thief got the +5 bonus at Level 9 I tried to preserve that.

Smoother Attack Progression for OSE

Unfortunately, WordPress’ stupid custom html doesn’t show the table correctly except in preview mode, so I used an image. The actual sheet as a web page is available here, if you need it.

Rationalizing D&D SpellS and SPELL BOOKs

Random thought that occurred to me about spell memorization and spell-books in D&D. As we all know, the traditional way of doing it requires that Wizards “memorize” their spells each day and they require access to their spell book to do it. The whole thing, while probably motivated by game-play aspects of limiting wizards and making them make strategic choices, is clearly influenced by the way magic works in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books where the spells are some kind of alien math that are “so cogent that Turjan’s1 brain could know but four at a time.” So when GMs are looking for a rationalization for the weirdness of it, that’s usually what they reach for. GMs and players too bothered by the weirdness generally remove the spell books entirely, so that spells learned are permanently known, and limits on how many times they can be cast are approached another way, such as by spell points or “slots.”

But what if it wasn’t that the spell, forcibly impressed on the wizard’s puny human brain, is magically erased when cast, but rather the formula such as the words, gestures and intonation that need to be used are so complex to figure out they require a concordance of astrological and mystical tables and a whole bunch of long-hand calculations such that you have to have your reference book and a fair bit of time to do the calculations before you can next cast the spell? What if you needed to know the exact date you are going to cast the spell to have any hope of solving the formulas and doing the look-ups to succeed. What you’re memorizing is that day’s solution once you’ve calculated it, and you don’t literally forget it, but it’s no longer of any use once you’ve cast the spell (because the formulas also depend on whether you’ve already cast it that day or not). Maybe you can’t just sit down and re-memorize the spell even if you’re carrying the book because doing so at any other time than the specific time in the morning the tables were compiled for is just too complex for mere mortals.

This seems like a good explanation for why the spell-book of a 1st level Magic User with only one spell (if you’re using Basic D&D/OSE by-the-book) is still a hefty tome but a higher level wizard with dozens of spells doesn’t require a library in his backpack. The bulk of the volume is the charts and concordances necessary for all spells, while the specific constants and formulas for any given spell are comparatively slight. That would also explain why a scroll is just a single sheet of paper but that can be enough to add a spell to your book (assuming you’re using that common convention). If you allow Magic Users to keep a spell memorized until they cast it, you could easily tweak the assumption to be that it’s the day that you sit down to memorize the spell that needs to be worked into the calculation, not the day it’s going to be cast.

I kind of like this for a more down-to-Earth explanation of most of the odder features of the traditional D&D spells system. It’s not that I particularly object to spells as alien mental constructs as much as that definitely flavors the world in a particular Dying Earth way, and I don’t always want that flavor in my setting. Now, if you really follow the logic of the rationalization, it does have some implications that are slightly different from the by-the-book traditional method…like you might be able to memorize a spell and keep it around if you did the calculations to be able to cast it on a specific future date. You could, of course, patch that by saying the calculations get too complex more than at most a day in advance, or you could roll with it. Maybe you don’t dare take your spell-book along, but you believe you won’t have to use certain of your spells until you reach your destination three days hence. I think that might be an interesting consideration for a wizard.

1- Turjan being one of Earth’s mightiest magicians in those latter times.

The Most D&D Book Ever?

I’ve been rereading the Hobbit, for the first time in maybe thirty years, and I can’t help but be struck by it being possibly the most D&D thing I’ve ever read… including some books that were directly set in D&D worlds. It’s not just the moments where something in the early D&D rules was clearly taken from bits in the book, like “Oh, werebears can summon normal bears because Beorn the skin-changer could” or that the whole bit about intelligence and ego in magic swords probably spun out of the one line about Glamdring being “bright as blue flame for delight in the killing [of the Great Goblin]”, it’s much more fundamental: this is D&D at its core.

This is what a party looks like, even if early accounts are to be believed in the numbers of adventurers: 13 dwarves, a hobbit, and a wizard; this is what motivates them: gold and to a lesser extent adventure, maybe a little bit of back-story; these are the places they go: across dangerous countryside where there is no king or law, through giant spider-infested forests, into subterranean lairs that stretch beneath entire mountain ranges where live goblins and worse, into lost mines inhabited by dragons. But most of all, these are the shenanigans that PC’s get up to: uncovering secret routes on a treasure map; discovering magic swords in a monster’s pile of loot; hiding while giants fight; killing goblins with sword and magic; nearly getting burned alive by clever, ruthless goblins; using rope, grappling hook, and convenient boat to try to solve the puzzle of crossing the creepy magical river; escaping via a hare-brained plan to hide in barrels to float downriver; discovering a secret door that is revealed once a year; running away from a dragon; aid in defeating a dragon through something they discovered while adventuring. Honestly, I could probably pull something from nearly every chapter. And throughout it all, what’s at stake is primarily their survival and whether they’ll actually emerge wealthy at the other end. Despite the presence of a prophecy, they aren’t the destined ones, the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, and while arguably the party’s greed and foolishness after their success semi-accidentally led to a better outcome than if they’d stayed home they are not really the heroes of the Southlands.

Much more than The Lord of The Rings, but also more than the stories of Conan or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, The Hobbit is what it’s all about.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

– The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Eclectic ART IN RPGS

I think when it comes to RPG books, it’s good to have an eclectic mix of art styles in the illustrations. The early D&D books were aces at this, ranging from the actual cartoons of Tom Wham, to the grounded illustrations of Dave Trampier, to the trippy works of Errol Otus. I think this kind of diversity is important because you never know what will strike a chord and provide inspiration for a game. Books that have a very clear “house style”, like some of the later editions of D&D, have a harder time of this, imo. If it hits, it hits, but if it doesn’t there may not be anything in the whole book that really sparks your imagination.

Now some of the time, like maybe a setting guide or something based on some specific IP like StarWars, setting tight boundaries on the tone and imagery might be exactly what you want. But I think in the general case, you want to have the art run the gamut.

The Adventuring Party – Tom Wham

Players Handbook – Trampier

The Discovery of Treasure -Trampier
Sutherland – Versus the Orcs

Basic D&D – Errol Otus