What makes a thief?

(In which, as a remedy for an unquiet mind, I begin designing a thief class for my Swords & Wizardry/Labyrinth Lord/Rules Cyclopedia game.)

The thief is my favorite fantasy character class. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are my favorite fantasy heroes. My definitive edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the Rules Cyclopedia, which prominently features the class, along with a really nice illustration. (Wearing all her clothes, too!)

I loved the thief in Hero’s Quest and Quest for Glory. I love Thief: The Dark Project and Assassin’s Creed, and I’ve been making sneaky bastards in The Elder Scrolls games the whole way through. I adore sneaking around ruins by night in real life.*

This is all by way of saying that I don’t care if the thief wasn’t in D&D until Greyhawk, there’s going to be one in my old-school D&D game. You know why the thief wasn’t there in 1974? Too busy looting shit, probably. Or selling ill-gotten booty to some slim, dark girl who wanted coffee afterwards. Or the thief was there the whole time, but so fucking stealthy even his saving throw matrix was invisible.

Mm. Unfortunately, that leaves me with a problem. I love the D&D thief, but I don’t actually like the D&D thief. The class’s skills are all calibrated to fail wildly if you roll them at low levels.**

This is fine if you’re running a long term game, where the thief will gradually grow into his role. (Particularly with some clever interpretations.) It will not do for the next D&D game I’m scheduled to run.

That game’s only going to be a couple of sessions long, and while I’m looking forward to low-level characters that can die easily in drunken*** accidents, they also need to be able to accomplish things right off the bat.

So let’s write a new thief, shall we?


First, we need inspirations, and that means first, the Gray Mouser.

(I’m skipping Quest for Glory, for the sake of brevity.)

The Gray Mouser

When asked to assemble a crew of junior heroes to save Rime Isle (Swords and Ice Magic), Fafhrd assembles a crew of “berserks” and the Mouser a crew of “fighter-thieves.” Fritz Leiber probably wasn’t talking in D&D terms, but he was certainly aware of the vocabulary.****

Our thief class, then, represents a “fighter-thief.” This is a guy who’s sneaky when he needs to be, and brash when there’s a hottie involved. The thief becomes a subclass or cousin class of the fighter, brother to the berserk.

Both Fafhrd and the Mouser were accomplished second-story men. In “Ill-Met in Lankhmar,” they do this badass Assassin’s Creed shit while trying to escape Thieves’ House with their precious hit points. In “Claws from the Night,” they again go climbing the roofs and shattered towers of Lankhmar.

So. Climbing, with a dash of parkour. Probably slightly more Daniel Craig than Altair, but that’s the general idea. Cool.

The Mouser’s a skilled swordsman, so this isn’t going to be the kind of thief who shies from a fight. He’s a swashbuckler, through and through.

The Mouser loves to collect magical paraphernalia, but this seems to be mostly a pose. (“Adept’s Gambit.”) He has some training in white magic, which he never uses. He performs some impressive black magic, but only once. (“The Unholy Grail.”) He casts a spell from a scroll Sheelba gives him, and the outcome is either that he’s a badass wizard and doesn’t know it, or that Sheelba’s safety instructions were accurate. (“The Lords of Quarmall.”)

As much as I adore this aspect of the Mouser, and as much as it’s an aspect of Greyhawk‘s thief, I think I’ll leave it aside.

Bilbo Baggins

The bravest little hobbit of them all posed as an “expert treasure hunter.” Bilbo’s main thing was being clever, and to a lesser extent, quick. His most thiefly actions were his various deceptions, against his party members and his enemies alike.

These, unfortunately, don’t translate well to a mechanic in a game without social mechanics. I might allow a Charisma check, but that’s for an individual character, not a class.

Bilbo did, however, have a knack for finding treasure. Sting, the arkenstone, the One Ring… pretty good, all told. So that’s what my thief inherits from him: a better chance of finding treasure.

Altair and Ezio

The aforementioned parkour and pickpocketing… plus, sneak attacks. My favorite thing in Assassin’s Creed is the stealth kill. This is an argument for keeping¬†backstab. As if I needed one.


Alright. So we want our thief to sneak, climb, roof-run, find treasure, and sneak attack. All of these are abilities that we can implement without stealing the thunder from other classes, or from clever player description.

The cardinal rule of these abilities is that a thief can do them under conditions where no one else can. So, every character can climb some things, but the thief can climb sheer surfaces. Anybody can surprise an enemy, but the thief can surprise more often, and exploit the opening better. Anybody can find treasure, but the thief finds caches where no one else would think to look.

Climbing and Running

The thief can cross broken terrain, rooftops, or any kind of other obstacle course at full speed. With a saving throw, the thief can also pass an enemy or group of enemies who would otherwise block the character’s path.

(Inspiration in part from the obnoxiously capable Rules Cyclopedia mystic.)

Surprise Attack

Most characters surprise on a roll of 1 or 2 on a d6 (LL p. 50, RC p.92). If this fails, the thief may make a saving throw to surprise anyway. Further, any hit a thief scores in a surprise round is a critical.

(I thought about giving thieves the Advanced Edition Companion Assassinate ability, but it seems a little much.)

Find Treasure

The thief has very good instincts about where people and creatures keep their valuables. I’m keeping it simple, for now, and following Labyrinth Lord‘s version of the elf secret door mechanic:

On a roll of 1-2 on 1d6, the thief can find a hidden cache of treasure.


* This is a horrible idea, I know.

** It’s my argument that the Greyhawk thief’s skills, as well as many other percentages in OD&D, aren’t meant to be rolled, but I have to do more research to back that up.

*** Likely both players and characters. Company retreat.

**** Leiber and gaming! A perfect subject for a future post.

8 thoughts on “What makes a thief?”

  1. Fascinating watching this process unfold, Rose. Lots of great stuff in here. I’m tinkering with a simple thief-oriented stealth-action RPG idea right now, something very not D&D, so it’s wonderfully thought-provoking to see your analysis of what the class really needs for its identity and to shine. Keep us updated on how your new thief works out.

  2. Thanks, Will. I’ll certainly update.

    The main thing I’m not happy with in theory is the treasure mechanic. I’d actually like something that lets the thief cheat on random treasure rolls, but there isn’t a clear place in the generation of D&D I’m looking at to insert that mechanic.

    Even if I hack something in, it’d mean tying it to a specific version of classic D&D (TSR or clone) — something incompatible with the magpie approach I’m using for this particular mini-campaign.

  3. Question on the hidden cache ability: Is it purely observational check (i.e., sensing if something is there or not) or is it a worldbending check (i.e., if successful, there is now treasure there where there was none before)?

  4. What if you simply allowed the Thief the chance (say 1 in 6) to “lift” treasure from a cache their companions didn’t notic?. If the roll is successful they gain say an extra 10 to 20% in coins or jewels, with their companions noticing.

    To me the Thief should be more concerned about material wealth than material power (a magic item)

  5. @Eddy Webb
    Right now, it’s purely observational. I’d like to make it a bonus to treasure rolls or an extra treasure roll, though, making it slightly worldbending.

  6. @Mark
    That’s a good suggestion, and the way I want to go… I just want something treasure table agnostic, or at the very least easily adapted.

  7. I was going to do something similar in my own Labyrinth Lord game as I really don’t like traditional percentage thief skills. I know you “can” still rollplay it, but players almost never do, they just want to toss the d100 again and again as they walk down the hall.

    I used to have a house rule that the thief skills don’t actually get rolled by the thief, or even initiated by the thief, rather I roll these behind the screen and if he succeeds he just sorta notices what looks like a trap/treasure to him. This sort of play really necessitates him sitting closest to me so I can easily pass him notes.

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