Another Class Read Out of the Meeting

Monday , 13, February 2017 7 Comments

You know, I never really liked it but I kind of understood where people were coming from when they eliminated the cleric from their old school D&D games. Not everyone wants to have a flagrantly Catholic Van Helsing style archetype folded into their bizarre post-apocalyptic science fantasy weird future Mediaeval setting. People just can’t handle that sort of freaky mashup these days. They want something that fits with their conceptions of what fantasy is, not something that would have been normal back when Electric Light Orchestra and Earth Wind and Fire were the new hotness.

But at some point this “fixing” of classic D&D just goes way too far, as it does when Olde School Wizardry says Adios to the Thief:

One of my first two characters (in about 1981) was a thief, so I’m cool with the concept, but after recently cutting the cleric class loose in my B/X house rules, I’m thinking about whether to drop the thief class too.

Are thieves just fighters in light armor?

Now… this is the meanest thing that you can possibly say on the internet today, but I have to say… you just don’t understand classic D&D if you come out and say stuff like this. And the sort of “fixing” that is done in this spirit is not something that is done from some kind of creative decision. It’s more to do with a complete lack of imagination.

It’s true, though. People that play thieves today by and large have no idea what they are. They do play them like fighters in light armor. And then they wonder why they die in droves while contributing nothing to the overall success of the party. Everybody thinks they’re owed an equal share of the glory on the battle mat by divine right. They play on that sort of assumption and when it doesn’t work out, they blame the rules. The thief is tossed out and replaced with a swashbuckling rogue/scout Inigo Montoya type that has nothing much to do with the original archetype.

What did the thief do in the old school games when his class skills were so embarrassingly bad…? Well they climbed a lot more, for one thing. They lived a lot more, too. People that played this garbage class had no social pressure on them whatsoever to be anywhere near the front lines of combat. Duty? Honor? Fie! With license to hang back, thief characters would end up time and again making off with the loot while the rest of the party went down in flames. Their ineffectuality was balanced by their speed in leveling up– and in the vast majority of old school campaigns, these guys would be hitting level three when everyone else was looking at rolling up their second or third character.

And when you’re in a dungeon with a huge number of things you can do…? You just don’t have to be able to unlock all the doors like it’s nothing. And when margins of success are so thin that one botched initiative roll can decimate the party you are glad to have even a 20% chance of a heads-up that something is about to go down when you’re about to have the fighter make another open doors check.

But the elimination of the thief class is weird for reasons besides just actual gameplay. Everybody knows about Bilbo Baggins going down that tunnel to get intel on the dragon hoard, sure. But he was far from the only icon of thiefly-ness in the source literature. You’ve got the washed up magic-user that is the Grey Mouser. You’ve got Cugel the Clever who– just like high level thieves– could cast spells in a pinch. You’ve got Jack of Shadows, the reason for why thieves hide in shadows and for why they are so good at climbing sheer walls. When D&D was coming together, thief characters actually rivaled Conan and John Carter for supremacy. It was actually harder to imagine sorcererous protagonists at the time…!

So please. When you come to classic D&D and it’s just not working like you think it should… don’t blame the rules. Don’t assume Gary Gygax was stupid. And for goodness sakes, don’t take out your frustrations on the poor d4 thief class. Because maybe it’s not the thief that’s the problem. Maybe it’s you.

7 Comments
  • Man of the Atom says:

    How much of this is fallout from ADD 3 (stat leveling for barracks lawyers) & 4 (MMORPG for pencil-and-paper)?

    The thief, the cleric, and the 1st Ed illusionist were staples in my mid- and late-70s games. Players chose them because they weren’t the typical hack-and-slash fighter or spell-memorizing magic-user, and the players typically gravitated to role playing, puzzle solving, and non-typical combat engagements.

    These classes had relatively rapid rise in levels and great balance of skills, as you stated. The *really* good players were the ones who agitated to play thieves and illusionists. They were the ones who’d always be breaking my clever traps and insidious ambushes.

    If your characters are degenerating into raw power application (Fighters & Wizards), then you probably are losing the thread of role playing at the same time in your game.

  • Brian says:

    I’d actually blame the thief-hate on 2nd edition, where clerics and magic-users could out-thief on all its abilities by level 5.

    • Man of the Atom says:

      “Brian says: I’d actually blame the thief-hate on 2nd edition, where clerics and magic-users could out-thief on all its abilities by level 5.”

      Yeah, concur. ADD 2 and its “Manual of Nose Blowing”-style overload on reference books did *not* help.

  • Kenny Cross says:

    Thief-hate and Cleric-hate…what the heck? First I’ve heard of it. Is this a Millennial thing? Ha! I loved the AD&D Thief! I don’t understand the hate. The thief’s versatility in AD&D was awesome. One of my favorite classes. Never leave home without one. Who else is saving the party’s behind crawling through the muck and grime of those nasty dungeons. And getting rid of the cleric?!? That’s just crazy talk.

    Great post.

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