Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thieves - The Backstabbing Little Bastards That Hardly Ever Backstab! (Swords & Wizardry Houserules)

The one thing I've generally disliked about playing thieves is that their backstabbing ability rarely comes into play when playing without a grid. It's a shame, too, as it is a cool ability and the whole idea of putting a thief in the thick of combat is just plain fun. Well, dangerous too, but danger is fun. :)

With the grid you can show placement and facing and the thief can move into a backstabbing position right in the middle of combat. When playing gridles, or Theatre of the Mind, those opportunities are pretty much lost. Let's try to work them back in.

Surprise. When the thief gets the drop on an opponent you probably should allow the thief to make a backstab attack. He's going for vitals, the opponent has his guard down, it should have the potential to be very painful.

Initiative on the first round of combat. This depends on how combat heavy a campaign is that you are running. If you want to make the thieves more than trap monkeys in your campaign, give them the opportunity for a reduced backstab if the thief beats their opponent's initiative in the first round of combat in an encounter: + 2 hit instead of + 4, and one multiple less on the damage bonus (so the damage bonus wouldn't kick into level 5, where it would be at x2 and move up from there). Of course, this also puts the lightly armored thief in the party's front lines.

Pick Pockets Skill - if you treat picking pockets as more of a distraction type skill, one thief could set up a target for another thief in the midst of combat. Would work very well in a dark alley ;)

Remember, what's good for the goose is also good for the gander. If you put any of these houserules in play for the PC thieves you've also made the NPC thieves more dangerous. That can only be a good thing, right?


  1. i made a thief for s&w ad that gave them a bonus to hit/damage when they attacked opponents already engaged with other characters...

  2. In DCC RPG, I have a simple rule to encourage back-stabs. Within reason, make a successful sneak check, and you can perform a back-stab.

  3. I've used both of your first two suggestions, as well as xwardukex and Dak's suggestions-- I figure being in melee combat with someone else is enough of a distraction that it's possible for a skilled thief to get the element of surprise at least the one time. Then if they can manage to get hidden or sneak up on someone, another. My thieves get plenty of opportunities. Keeps them tempting to play.

  4. I agree with your observation. Now, I urge you to have a look at the upcoming Monsters & Magic frp game by Sarah Newton. By relying on narration rather than grid- or hex-paper, its Effect Engine allows (amongst other improvements) to backstab more often etc.
    Here's an example of play: http://sarahnewtonwriter.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/mm-preview-3-with-notice.pdf

  5. Surprise and 1st. Round are what I use currenlty.
    When Acrobatics was introduced as an NWP in the old days it became the go to skill to get behind a foe and stab them in the back, silly indeed but it did introduce a manuver roll that exposed the tunbling backstabbber to danger.

  6. I find the theme of this post so strange. In my games, thieves backstab all the time with or without a grid. If the thief says that they are sneaking around to flank an otherwise occupied combatant and they take a turn to do it, I give it to them. If we are playing a game that has specific rules for stealth/sneak/move quietly/etc. like C&C or 3.X, I'll have them make a roll, otherwise, if they take the time to sneak, I'll just give it to them, no grid required. It's not like backstabbing is all that devastating an attack that it needs a lot of regulation to keep it in check. If the character is a thief, they get to backstab, a small price to pay for not being able to wear a real set of armor.

    1. I agree. I would say that if you take a turn, sneak successfully, and there are no unengaged opponents, you can backstab one of them, grid or no grid.

    2. You yourself houseruled a manner to make it easier for thieves to backstab - you saw a problem and you addressed it.

      So, i'd say not so strange at all. We just approached the issue from different sides...

  7. castles and crusades has a second backstab ability to ambush for a bonus can be used in sniping etc...abilities need to work with or without grids

  8. When I run a game it doesn't need to be a surprise attack. It helps. But say and opponent is engaged with the fighter and the thief moves to the rear of the enemy I allow them the backstab bonuses. And like you say, if the players can do it, so can the NPC thieves they may encounter.


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