Tag Archives: thief

Find Traps as Saving Throw

I was reading about traps over at The Dragon’s Flagon, and that got me to thinking about find traps as a saving throw, which is an idea I first came across over at Courtney’s blog (see his set of answers to the 20 quick rules questions). To quote:

Finding traps is a saving throw, and works as such.

Thus, anyone can interact with the fictional world and discover or avoid traps purely by investigation and reason. Note that this doesn’t necessarily require any particular mechanical knowledge on the part of the referee or players (though you can go there if you want), it just requires determining trigger mechanism, effect, and clues. Remember, traps don’t need to be mechanical, or even explainable. Traps can be driven by magic, ancient technology, or incomprehensible clockwork.

I think this is really a special case of a more general principle. In some sense, all of combat is also a (complicated) saving throw. If, through smart play, a player can figure out a way to defeat or slay their enemies without a single attack roll, good for them. (Some examples: luring monsters into a trap, flooding a room, burning down a structure rather than engaging in an encounter, starting an avalanche to bury an enemy encampment, ad infinitum.)

Here is a brief history of trap finding and the evolution of the thief class function. As you will see, the scope of “find traps” has steadily increased, the major inflection points being the poor wording of the Moldvay Basic rulebook (this is still my favorite edition, but the description of the thief class is pretty unforgivable) and the generalization of the skill approach in Third Edition.
Supplement I Greyhawk; 1975 (page 4):

— open locks by picking or foiling magical closures
— remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)

Holmes Basic; 1977 (page 6):

Thieves — are humans with special abilities to strike a deadly blow from behind, climb sheer surfaces, hide in shadows, filch items and pick pockets, move with stealth, listen for noises behind closed doors, pick locks and remove small traps such as poisoned needles.

AD&D Players Handbook; 1978 (page 27):

Finding/removing traps pertains to relatively small mechanical devices such as poisoned needles, spring blades, and the like. Finding is accomplished by inspection, and they are nullified by mechanical removal or by being rendered harmless.

Moldvay Basic; 1980 (page B10):

They are the only characters who can open locks and find traps without using magic to do so. Due to these abilities, a thief is often found in a normal group of adventurers.

Second Edition Player’s Handbook; 1989 (page 39):

Find/Remove Traps: The thief is trained to find small traps and alarms. These include poisoned needles, spring blades, deadly gases, and warning bells. This skill is not effective for finding deadfall ceilings, crushing walls, or other large, mechanical traps.

3.5 Player’s Handbook; 2003 (page 81):

You can find secret doors, simple traps, hidden compartments, and other details not readily apparent.

The Search skill lets a character discern some small detail or irregularity through active effort. Search does not allow you to find complex traps unless you are a rogue (see Restriction, below).

Restriction: While anyone can use Search to find a trap whose DC is 20 or lower, only a rogue can use Search to locate traps with higher DCs.

So this idea of find traps as a saving throw is clearly a recent innovation, but it could be thought of as a refinement of the early OD&D approach where there was no find traps ability and remove traps could only be used for very small mechanical devices. The find traps ability does not show up until AD&D. In both OD&D and AD&D, susceptible traps are very specifically defined (small devices), and this is perpetuated in 2E. Moldvay doesn’t define traps at all (perhaps leading a generation of gamers to think that hazards like the the rolling boulder of the Indiana Jones movie could be discovered and disarmed with a simple throw of the dice). And then 3E decides to do away with qualitative differentiation all together and replace it with a continuous difficulty class rating.

Brewing Poison

One of the skills I gave to my version of the thief class is brew poison. If the thief is not rolling for skill selection, brew poison will be gained at eighth level. Here is the text from the class description:

Brew poison: given 1 day and 100 gp, a thief can brew one dose of save-or-die poison sufficient to threaten the life of a human-sized opponent. How larger or smaller creatures react to poison is by referee ruling. 5 in 6 chance to identify and know effects of examined poisons. Other recipes (such as for a paralytic poison) can be found, or can be synthesized based on reverse-engineering an identified poison.

Brewing poison is actually a thing that any class can attempt, assuming they have a recipe and can procure the ingredients. I would probably make the components cost double for a non-thief. What really makes the thief ability special though is that the thief can brew poisons with no chance of accidentally poisoning themselves. For non-thieves, I use the following rule:

Given a recipe, ingredients, and basic facilities, anyone can attempt to brew poison. There is a 1 in 6 chance of accidental poison exposure. In that case, a standard save versus poison is required to avoid the poison effect.

The other two aspects of the thief ability that are special are that the thief basically gets the recipe for save or die poison for free and also gains the identification/reverse-engineering ability.

Thief Draft

I think it may be an OSR rite of passage to redesign the thief class. Here is my entry.

First, the literature review. I have been heavily influenced by Robert Fisher’s On thief skills in classic D&D, Philotomy’s musings on Thieves & Thief Skills, Matthew James Stanham’s article Thieving Ability (also discussed here). The Jovial Priest has an interesting article, though I decided to go in a different direction (his 2d6 resolution table is too complicated for me, and his “favored skill” system introduces complexity during character creation). Also see Talysman’s recent thief. I’m also becoming quite fond of Talysman’s situation roll, as you can probably tell from my section on skills below. Grognardia’s thiefly thoughts post is also worth a read for a quick summary of why some people think the classic thief is problematic. The LotFP specialist (Grindhouse Edition free Rules & Magic page 10) must also be noted as an important replacement thief. I like how the d6 skills emphasize that all classes can attempt certain tasks (climb, hide, search, etc) even if the specialist is better at them, but I don’t like how those skills take up extra space on the character sheet and use a point-buy system, necessitating choice during character generation.

The Cook/Marsh Expert rules (page X8) suggest some ideas for extending thief skills for higher level play: climb overhangs, climb upside down, ventriloquism, powers of distraction, mimic voices. Some of my thief skills are based on these ideas, and I may work the ones I am not using into a later draft in some fashion (particularly the improved climbing abilities).


  • Thieves are masters of stealth. They are commandos, spies, assassins, infiltrators, and skulks. They solve problems by guile, cleverness, and trickery. They will never fight fairly if they can help it.

Most thief skills consume the resource of time (suggested by the B/X Blackrazor “automatic” thief). Absent distraction or complication, thieves will succeed if they are not rushed (time required is included with the skill description). Wearing any non-light armor (i.e., anything other than leather following the B/X rules) will result in penalties for the physical skills (likely a penalty of one or two on the situation roll, but specifics are by circumstance and referee ruling). I will probably formalize this through the encumbrance system. I use LotFP encumbrance rules, so it should be easy to base the penalty on the encumbrance level (see the free Rules & Magic book, pages 38 – 40).

Thieves use d6 for hit dice. They may use any weapon or armor. Since mobility, speed, and agility are important to thieves for many reasons, they rarely wear non-light armor. I use hit die based weapon damage (with 2DTH for dual wielding or two-handed weapons). So, thieves do d6 damage with weapons. They use the “medium” base attack bonus by level (shared with clerics). Though I’m not a fan of the “combat advantage” DPS super-strikers of 3E & 4E, I do like my thieves to be a bit more capable in combat than they are in the various early rule sets.

Regardless of level, all thieves have the following abilities:

  • Alertness: bonus to hearing noise (2 in 6 chance rather than the normal 1 in 6); this also makes the thief harder to surprise
  • Surprise attack: +4 to attack roll, double damage upon hit (in some ways this is the inverse of the alertness ability)

Skills are the essence of the thief class, and I have not neglected them. I am following my idea of giving the thief one awesome ability per level rather than many poor abilities all at once that develop slowly. This also fits my principle of introducing complexity slowly. I do think it is important to allow the thief to develop as levels are accumulated (this is why I am not following the B/X Blackrazor all-at-once automatic thief). The level advancement incentive is a big part of classic D&D play, and all the other core classes develop (cleric: turning & spells, fighter: attack bonus, magic-user: spells).

Thief skills by level (or roll d10 each level, re-rolling duplicates):

  1. Open locks (requires tools): Mundane locks take 1 turn to open. Complicated locks may require dice (5 in 6 succeeds, on failure dexterity save to avoid breaking the tools). Magical locks may not be opened.
  2. Move silently, 10’ per turn (20′ per turn is also possible but will likely require a dexterity save, or a 5 in 6 success probability, depending on circumstances)
  3. Hide in shadows, may not move
  4. Interpret languages, codes, and maps (5 in 6 success, on failure may only retry upon gaining a level)
  5. Climb walls, 10’ per turn, if distracted or attacked save or fall
  6. Voices: ventriloquism & mimicry
  7. Legerdemain: pilfer, distract, or amuse; can also be used to disable small mechanical traps (5 in 6 success, on failure dexterity save to avoid being caught)
  8. Brew poison: given 1 day and 100 gp, a thief can brew one dose of save-or-die poison sufficient to threaten the life of a human-sized opponent. How larger or smaller creatures react to poison is by referee ruling. 5 in 6 chance to identify and know effects of examined poisons. Other recipes (such as for a paralytic poison) can be found, or can be synthesized based on reverse-engineering an identified poison.
  9. Assassinate: successful surprise attack does damage in hit dice rather than hit points
  10. Use magic scrolls (5 in 6 success, on failure save vs. spells or backfire)

That’s right, if you roll for your skill, you could start with the assassinate or brew poison ability. I like that.

Am I missing any traits or abilities that are associated with the archetypal thief?

27 December 2011 edit: more good suggestions from Jeffro here.
11 February 2012 edit: added poison identification to the brew poison ability.
13 February 2012 edit: added reverse engineering to the poison ability.

Two Thoughts on Thieves

Talysman posted about his most recent version of the thief class and we have been discussing it in the comments on his blog (see here and here). This means I’ve been thinking about thieves (even) more than normal. Here are a couple of ideas that I want to get down in text.

  1. Contra thieves: does the solo nature of many thief skills make them a bad fit for an adventuring party? For example, if you have a diverse mix of classes, the thief is probably going to have to go off alone to make use of stealth. This increases the chance of splitting the party. This is true of virtually all of the thief’s abilities (even “hear noise” requires everyone else to be quiet). The one player mini-games that follow both potentially waste the time of other players and expose the thief to unnecessary danger, since the other party members will often not be around to assist. Now, the last thing that I want is to excise the thief. I like the thief. The archetype is fun to play. In fact, it has been said that in my 3E incarnation I am actually a rogue myself. But I do think this issue needs to be addressed in a well-designed thief class.
  2. Powerful spells can only be prepared by high level magic-users. Is it possible to distribute the thief’s abilities among the levels in a similar way? The traditional thief gets 7 poor abilities all at once and then has to wait for them to gradually improve. 2E, 3E, and some other systems tried to address this problem by using a point-buy system for thief skills, but that does not satisfy me because it adds complexity, calculation, and the opportunity overly optimize (i.e., min-max). Why not give the thief one awesome ability per level rather than 7 crappy ones? Are there some abilities that more naturally fit low level play? The pair of stealth abilities (hide in shadows & move silently) are basically invisibility, so they are clear candidates for at least the lower mid-levels. Maybe connect this to thief magic, in mechanics if not flavor?

These points don’t make much sense together. But there you have them.

    Thief Magic

    Despite the fact that I am very partial to the LotFP specialist interpretation of the thief archetype, I just had another idea for how to do thieves after reading Matthew James Stanham’s excellent article on thieving abilities. He writes:

    Moreover, and as Robert Fisher pointed out to me several years ago by ways of his writings on the subject, thief abilities are not just colourfully named skills, but frequently duplicate spell effects, such as silence, invisibility, knock, find traps, and spider climb. [Link to Robert Fisher’s page updated so that it works.]

    Why not just give thieves the ability to cast those spells? They could get one every other level, or perhaps every level, either in a fixed order, or based on player choice. It would probably be better to create a fixed order, both to decrease character creation load and because invisibility at first level might be too powerful (on the other hand, is invisibility really more powerful than charm person or sleep?). Each spell could be used once per day, or maybe the total number of spells per day equal to level or level divided by 2. If you wanted to expand the list of thief spells, other candidates might include some of the illusionist spells and animal friendship (I’m thinking here of Alec from the Nightrunner series, and how he was able to pacify guard dogs by saying “peace, friend hound” in Elvish or something like that).

    These abilities could either be conceptualized as an inherent ability to tap into magical power (this would result in a more supernatural thief class) or something closer to the spells of a hedge wizard, which would require the thief to keep a spell book and memorize spells in the same manner as the standard magic-user class. Idea: thief that tattoos his spell book all over his forearms. Further idea: magic-users consider thieves’ guilds to have stolen their secrets, and seek to punish magic-using thieves whenever they get the chance.

    There is significant precedence for this approach, both in terms of rules for other classes and in terms of the inspirational literature. The paladin, for example, has the ability to cure disease, as the spell. Thieves gain the ability to cast spells from scrolls. And The Gray Mouser was a wizard’s apprentice before he was an adventuring rogue. Edge from Final Fantasy IV (great picture here), who was able to use ninja magic, also comes to mind.