5% of All Sales go to Support The Tavern

Friday, October 27, 2017

How I Handle Other Classes Using "Thief Skills" in OSR Games

Art copyright William McAusland, used with permission

This topic came up yesterday in the Swords & Wizardry Facebook Group. It was interesting enough to me that I decided to answer it here.

This is how I see thief skills - they allow for certain tasks to resolved by a simple die roll. Other classes don't have access to these "skills" - its really quite that simple. Its not that they can't attempt to duplicate the results, but they must use other methods.

Locked door? Kick it open. Batter it down. Destroy the lock with an iron spike and hammer. Only thieves can "pick the lock" but others can try other methods.

Locked chest? Bust the lock with a hammer or axe. Use acid on the lock.

Picking a pocket? Really hard for a non thief to attempt, because quite simply, the untrained will nearly always be caught. Getting your subject drunk might be your best option.

Climb walls? Grappling hoop and a rope. Mountain climbing gear. Fly spell. Levitation.

Find Traps? Judicious use of a 10' pole. Searching. Much like secret doors, you probably need to explain where and how you are searching. Thieves just need to roll some dice.

Remove traps? Set them off from a safe distance. Block the mechanism. Of course, you need to find it first.

A thief simply gets a die roll. The rest actually have to puzzle it out and may need to roll some dice.

That's how I roll :)


  1. Also important, if not necessary: thieves can use these techniques too, especially when their skill rolls don't look so good.

  2. I give all characters a, usually, 1 in 6 chance of climbing rough surfaces, finding large traps, etc. This comes partly from Labyrinth Lord which has this rule. Thieves get this chance, but get their special skills on top. So if a Thief fails to spot a tripwire with the 1 in 6 that everybody gets when searching, they also get to roll their Find Traps skill.

    Where Thieves really shine is in doing their special skills in situations where other character classes simply can't. Climbing a smoothly mortared brick wall, spotting a poisoned needle in a lock, hiding in the flickering shadows cast by a torch in an otherwise empty room.

    Anyone can try to hide behind a large table with a tablecloth sweeping to the floor. A Thief can hide in the shadow of a footstool.

  3. My own take is that any character can attempt anything just some are better at certain things. I feel this more in keeping with the spirit of the original three core books which didn't have a thief class. To keep it simple, the base chance of success is a 15 or better on a d20. High and Low attributes can provide a bonus and one's character class could provide a bonus.

    1. but the original game made you puzzle out how to find traps and disarm them.

      and a 30% chance of success for the magic-user to pick a lock or disarm a trap seems huge, especially compared to the paltry chance of success the original thief, when introduced, had.

      only clerics can cast cleric spells, only magic-users can cast magic user spells - i see the thief's abilities along those lines.

      you can't duplicate the means, but you can use other means to get similar results.

    2. A couple of things to consider.

      In the original game a 1st level fighter was considered a veteran a seasoned warrior. Not exceptional but not a just made a squire or somebody just out of training camp either. See Chainmail for the particulars.

      What developed for me stems from my AD&D days in the 80s. I considered level 1-2 to be apprentice level. Level 3 a full fledged professional. Level 6 a professional with responsibilities. Level 9 a leader among peers, level 12 a renowned expert, Level 15 legendary.

      Level 1 meant that the character was trained and ready to do things on their own. Somebody just out of the academy so to speak.

      The other conception, which I don't use, is that anything beyond 1st level is special. I argue that allowing only a 15% chance being able to stealth (the AD&D thief) is inconsistent with that idea. Because the rest of the setting is living their ordinary Zero level lives and have military, city guard, and criminal types that are more than competent to handle their jobs.

      This and after reading the stuff released about the history of the game the conclusion I came too is that the original thief is an afterthought. Pretty much something that made Gygax go "Oh neat!" and threw it into Greyhawk. Or equally likely thrown in to stop the folks who were bombarding him about why there were no burglars (Bilbo) or thieves (Grey Mouser) in the game.

      As for the 30% chance of success, from various accounts and few documented instances (like Judges Guild). There was a variety of methods of rolling for success. Roll 1d100 underneath your attribute. Roll a 1d20 underneath your attribute. Multiply your attribute by 5 (or a factor) and roll underneath with a 1d100. These are the few of the mechanics I seen used to handle stuff outside of combat, and spells. In short it was all over the place back in the day. Some referee were generous some were not.

      I picked 15+ (30%) as being comparable to the 1st level fighter hitting a moderately armored guy. I just don't see why stealth or picking locks, climbing, and non-combat abilities should be made more difficult than that.

      Finally the main reason I even bothered to do this is that in my Majestic Wilderlands there are character types who are better at doing thing other than combat, healing, and casting spells. So I came up with this to handle this point when I designed classes to represent those character types. And as a bonus, I felt it kept within the spirit of the original core books.

      I hope illustrating my thoughts on the matter was useful.

    3. Here is an example of what I mean that resolving non-combat actions was all over the place.

      Page B60 Moldavy Basic
      "There's always a chance." The DM may want to base a character's chance of doing something on his or her ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, and so forth). To perform a difficult task (such as climbing up a rope or thinking of a forgotten clue), the player should roll the ability score or less on ld20. The DM may give a bonus or penalty to the roll, depending on the difficulty of the action (-4 for a simple task to +4 for a difficult one). A roll of 1 should always succeed, and a roll of 20 should always fail.

      For me that is too generous.

  4. Totally agree. The thief gets the ability to short-circuit certain challenges using his skills and do things others simply can't. Even climbing in B/X is specifically "Climb Sheer Surfaces"-- anybody can climb, but thieves get a chance to climb ridiculous stuff.

    1. That is a great solution however if you read the original books (OD&D or B/X) that distinction is not mentioned.

      Although I will say that in Moldavy Basic, the table is labeled Climb Sheer Surface. But in the text in a half dozen location it labeled as Climb Steep Surfaces.

  5. There seems to be a disconnect between having a 15% chance (or whatever it is) to pick a pocket (even though you're supposedly a trained thief) and having a 90% chance to climb a "smoothly mortered" brick wall (which I would argue is impossible). That's one of the things that's always bothered me about conventional D&D (and some OSR) thieves.

  6. As I aside, while I was figuring out my White Box/White Star mash up, I was REALLY WORRIED about the function of White Star skills compared to White Box class abilities as both use a 1-x chance on d6. Eventually I came to terms with the idea that the preindustrial kingdoms of White Box don't benefit from the standardized education systems that the futuristic era of White Star does. Don't even even call me elitist for saying for saying that, you're reading this on a computer, you come from the futuristic era of White Star.

    Erik, let me ask you, do the +1 racial benefits to thieves abilities in SWCL grant demi-humans a 1 in 6 chance of success at your table? I've actually run SWCL only once, so it hasn't come up yet, but I'm thinking I'll count the racial bonus as being trained in the skill.

    1. Never even considered in truth. Didn't work that way in 1e which is my native tongue ;)

  7. Anyone can do thief guy stuff. The percentile roll is for doing the impossible, like opening a lock, silently, with a metal file in the middle of combat or stealing the crown off the King's head in plain sight.

    Usually I do a 2 in 6 with a +1 or -1 modifier when appropriate.

  8. My preferred solution is by Will Mistretta's in FIGHT ON! 6 (in the section Git ‘R Done!). That's the solution I use for B/X and Labyrinth Lord and it works very well in practice.

  9. Detect Traps . . throw the gnome (or halfling) at the suspected trap :D

  10. Similar to Anthony Hunter's suggestion, hire some locals as advance scouts :).

  11. Without those skills, is there any reason to have a thief along? I always keep in mind consequences, too - a thief may fail to disarm a trap, period. Attempts by the other bumbling, butterfingered classes would set if off.

  12. "A thief simply gets a die roll. The rest actually have to puzzle it out and may need to roll some dice."

    Personally, I don't enjoy this kind of approach where some mechanics basically bypass an aspect of the game. I mean, either the aspect of the game is fun, and you don't want to bypass it, or it's not fun, and so it should probably be removed from the game (or at least have very little time devoted to it). Contrast this with hypothetical "fighting skills" : everyone has to describe how they move around the battle, how they try to beat the bad guys, round by round. The fighter simply gets a die roll : on a success, they beat the bad guy. If you enjoy combat, why would you want to play a fighter?

    In some cases, it's perfectly fine. Pick locks and pick pockets are good examples. But it's fine because it does not bypass gameplay : it's a better way to accomplish your goals, one that only the Thief can try. Unless a big part of your gameplay is devoted to unlocking many locks and planning elaborate heists to get your hands on someone's personal property, those mechanics won't bypass the fun. (The problem, here, is the low chance of success; I'll come back to it in a second.)

    In other cases, though, it really does. Finding hidden stuff (traps or doors or whatever) and remove traps are prime examples, but also climb walls. In old-school games, it's probably a big part of the gameplay : you delve into ancient tombs with hidden stuff and traps. The Thief is basically going to be a killjoy : here, let's not do that, I roll a single die instead.

    I'm under the impression that the creators knew that : that's why they gave such low chances to succeed to thief skills. But then, the Thief PC is kind of robbed (pun intended) : why would they use their skill in the first place when the chance to mess up is so high? I mean, if I have a 90% chance to disarm a trap, I'll roll the die. But 15%, even 30% or 50%? Man, let's just roleplay this stuff, I'll probably succeed more often than not. It's especially egregious if a failure means very bad outcome, like springing a trap or falling from great heights. Those low odds make the "unique skills" very unsatisfying : sure, you're the only one who can pickpocket the guard, but you'll fail (or worse, be caught) say 70% of the time. Let's try something else more likely to succeed, shall we?

    I must say that I'm not a fan of spending lots of time roleplaying the minutiae of looking for hidden stuff. That's why I prefer a more modern use of skills (like in D&D 3.x or 5E, but also Stars Without Number) : you describe what you are doing, you roll a dice, and we determine what happens. Having skill just makes your odds better. Good roleplaying is necessary to "activate" the skill, and good roleplaying can help (say by reducing the DC), and may even make skills useless (having big bonus to search checks don't matter when you look at the right place : you automatically see it). In this sense, having a skill does not bypass gameplay, but encourage it : if you roleplay doing what your PC is good at, you'll have a better chance of succeeding.