Not too long ago I ran into a discussion online about how lame and nerfed the thief is.
'A terrible fighter with no real chance of doing anything at all. If you play him by the book he's dead. I am not sure why anyone would ever play a thief.'
As you can guess from the title in this most recent entry in my series of rants, I disagree.
I always like to start with my own admissions of not being a real purist. The thief is no different. I emulated all-around gaming legend and my mentor, Lew Pulsipher, in giving thieves a danger sense - a percentile chance (that is based on levels) to sense when things are going south that sometimes gets them an opportunity to avoid otherwise certain death. Part of that is to emulate the literature where many a rogue from the Gray Mouser to Nift the Lean picked up the tiny clues that others miss, part of it is because they are often in highly dangerous positions alone. So I obviously tinker with thieves myself.
Let's look at the thief and start with a 'vanilla' thief - human, single class, 11 Dex. His thief skills are:
Pick Pockets 30%
Open Locks: 25%
Find/Remove Traps: 20%
Move Silently: 15%
Hide in Shadows: 10%
Hear Noise: 10%
Climb Walls: 85%
So he isn't too bad and pinching small objects but is fairly weak at the rest.
Let's look at the rest;
Average hit points (I always round sup): 4
Average A.C.: 8
Roll needed to hit A.C. 6 (i.e, an orc): 15 (or 30%)
Average damage: 4 (assuming short sword)
Not so good. Or is it? Let's look at a 1st level fighter;
Average H.P.: 6
Average A.C: 4
Roll needed to hit an orc: 14 (or 35%)
Average Damage: 5 (assuming longsword rounded up or broadsword)
And a cleric;
Average H.P.: 5
Average A.C.: 4
Roll needed to hit an orc: 14
Average Damage: 5 (assuming footman's mace rounded up)
That is very similar to the fighter.
And a magic-user;
Average H.P.: 3
Average A.C.: 10
Roll needed to hit an orc: 15
Average damage: 3 (assuming dagger rounded up)
So the thief is right in there between cleric and magic-user in combat ability.
But hold it! A few things are on my mind but one that leaps out is - if we are focusing on combat, why would anyone play a fighter?! No, really - the cleric has the same shot at hitting, the same average damage, the same armor class, and only 1 less hit point on average. But for that one hit point difference the cleric gets spells! I mean, if we look at just 'combat effectiveness at 1st level' everyone should play a cleric, right?
[This is something I should have mentioned in my article about the cleric!]
I know, I know - you are all saying the same thing; 'but fighters soon outpace clerics in combat as they advance in levels'.
Yeah, I know. We'll to that with thieves in a minute.
First, let's look at the combat numbers again while counting backstab;
Roll needed to hit an orc: 11 (50%)
Average damage: 7
This is a huge improvement, of course! When the thief can get the drop on a foe the odds of the thief prevailing go way up. This doesn't happen too often, but it does and this means we can argue that a first level thief can, once or twice per adventure, be the most effective combatant in the party.
The first way we are going to tweak this a little is to 'de-vanilla' the thief a touch. We could make him a dwarven fighter/thief, or a gnome illusionist thief, but let's go for that old standby, the halfling straight thief. We will assume that this thief still has only an 11 Dex and a 10 Con, but! this changes a few other things! His thieving abilities are;
Pick Pockets 35%
Open Locks: 30%
Find/Remove Traps: 25%
Move Silently: 25%
Hide in Shadows: 25%
Hear Noise: 15%
Climb Walls: 70%
OK, that is a noticeable change, isn't it? But there are a few other things going on, too; this thief has a +2 on his saves versus poison and magic. He is also twice as likely to surprise foes when off on his own, meaning his opportunities to backstab go up, making him more combat effective.
Now that we've looked at the thief at first level and seen he isn't quite the wimp some might think he is, let's look at both the vanilla and non-vanilla thieves at higher level.
The first thing we must discuss is a core element of 1e: level advancement speeds. When the thieves (either) are juuuuust 5th level (10,001 x.p. in the 1e books) the fighter, cleric, and mage are all 4th level. Bluntly, the thief gets better at what he does faster than the rest.
Let's look at the vanilla thief's skills at 5th level;
Pick Pockets 50%
Open Locks: 42%
Find/Remove Traps: 40%
Move Silently: 40%
Hide in Shadows: 31%
Hear Noise: 20%
Climb Walls: 90%
Read Languages: 25%
And the halfling thief''s skills;
Pick Pockets 55%
Open Locks: 47%
Find/Remove Traps: 45%
Move Silently: 50%
Hide in Shadows: 46%
Hear Noise: 25%
Climb Walls: 75%
Read Languages: 20%
'But Rick,' I hear you say, 'those aren't great shakes!'.
Well, let's talk about these numbers again from a different perspective. Instead of thinking 'the thief will fail to find the trap 55%+ of the time' think 'the party will be aware of and have a chance to avoid the trap 40%+ of the time'.
No, seriously - this is a subtle difference. Don't think of find/remove as 'half the time the thief gets it' but rather as 'half the time the thief saves the whole party from damage, death, or worse'. And let's look at those combat numbers again, shall we?
Average H.P.: 10
Average A.C.: 8 (assuming +2 worth of items)
Roll needed to hit an orc: 15
Average Damage: 3
That is - pretty horrible. If the mage is lucky he is doing somewhere between, oh, 4 h.p. damage (Burning Hands), 7 h.p. damage (average for Magic Missile), and 9 h.p. damage (average for Shocking Grasp - which requires a roll to hit!) once or twice a day. A Web or a Stinking Cloud might prevent others from attacking or make them vulnerable, but the direct combat ability of a mage has dropped well below that of the rest of the party even with spells.
Average H.P.: 18
Average A.C.: 1 (assuming plate & shield with a +1 somewhere in there)
Roll needed to hit an orc: 12 (45%)
Average Damage: 6 (assuming a +1 footman's mace, averaged out)
Better than the mage, the cleric is doing pretty well. No real damaging spells, though, while Hold Person does allow capture, avoidance, etc.
Average H.P.: 22
Average A.C.: 0 (plate and shield with +2 in there somewhere)
Roll needed to hit an orc: 12 (45%) or 11 (50%) if you do level-by-level for fighters
Average Damage: 7 (+2 from weapons, etc.)
While the vanilla fighter is certainly the toughest in terms of hit points and armor class he still just isn't that far from the vanilla cleric in any area, is he?
Average H.P.: 18
Average A.C.: 6 (+2 from somewhere)
Roll needed to hit an orc: 13 (40%)
Average Damage: 5 (assuming a +1 short sword)
Notice how the thief has the same hit points as a cleric with the same number of experience points right now? While the fighter and cleric are marginally better at hitting and have a superior armor class the thief is very close in combat and is far better than the mage.
Let's look at backstab numbers for a 5th level thief;
Roll needed to hit an orc: 9 (60%)
Average Damage: 12 (assuming +1 short sword)
That is pretty good and still substantially better than the vanilla fighter of the same experience points. With increased thieving skills this combines to mean that thieves will be getting more backstabs for more damage, making them more combat effective.
To be blunt we should all already know that fighters don't really pull away in combat until 7th level+ when the get multiple attacks or if you use specialization rules at about 3rd-4th level. Until that happens the cleric has near-parity and the thief is close behind both of them with backstabs probably making him as effective as either in the big scheme of things.
Notice that I did add magical bonuses to armor class and average damage but I didn't add them for 'to hit' rolls? That was on purpose because we need to talk about magic items. During play thieves tend to be the ones getting Rings of Invisibility, Boots of Elvenkind, etc., to make them even more likely to do everything from find the trap to get that backstab.
'But Rick!,' I hear, 'that is part of the point of thief haters! You don't need thieves because you can get magic items like Chimes of Opening that do the very same things!'
A cleric with a +4 mace can easily replace a fighter of the same level; a fighter with a pouch of Potions of Extra-Healing and Elixirs of Health can replace a cleric; a party with a Helm of Brilliance and similar magic items doesn't need a magic-user.
A large part of what magic-items do is enhance or replace the functions of any and all of the classes. Yes, this includes the thief. But just because a cleric can wear a Ring of Invisibility doesn't mean the thief is useless anymore than a magic-user with a +5 dagger and a Terrible Transformation spell means the fighter obsolete.
That's why the fighter gets the +4 longsword, the magic-user gets the Wand of Fireballs, and the thief gets the Cloak and Boots - to make them even better at their specific role within the party.
Yeah, I am going to talk about that again.
Since we now know that thieves are, yes, fairly good in combat overall let's talk about their role.
I've talked about roles before; fighters are physical offense; magic-users are magical offense; clerics are physical and magical defense; the role of the thief is scouting and intelligence.
Scouting is about finding strategic locations, dangers, traps, tricks, choke points, and such features of terrain as well as locating the enemy. Intelligence is about gathering information about the types, number, strengths, and weaknesses of any potential foes or allies. Just like military reconnaissance and intelligence, the job of the thief is to make the party proactive rather than reactive; when done well the thief role makes it more likely that the party decides when, where, and who it fights. This is the primary goal of the thief.
The secondary goal is to identify and, if possible, eliminate obstacles to the party such as traps, locked doors, and even lone guards (thus, backstab).
Look again at the descriptions of scouting and intelligence; they don't include 'attacking' or 'destroying' the enemy. Yes, thieves can fight but it isn't their primary or secondary goal. Thieves typically only enter combat in support of their primary or secondary roles: eliminating a lone sentry; killing a straggler to search him and to spread confusion; eliminating opposing scouts.
Let's look at that last item again; eliminating opposing scouts. The other side of the scouting and intelligence coin is denying those same things to your foes. The converse of eliminating obstacles for your party is creating obstacles of the party's enemies. The primary target for thieves is almost always other thieves!
Think about it; the party thief is far enough in advance of the party to get the heightened surprise chance; the enemy thief is doing the same. Pretty soon you have two professionals, both highly skilled in stealth and ambush, stalking each other in a no man's land between parties. That can make for some thrilling adventuring!
I also mentioned 'spreading confusion'; thieves also can demoralize foes by appearing where no one could be, eliminating isolated targets, etc. This confusion and fear could very well impact monster morale checks and make life much easier for the entire party.
To sum up, the thief isn't a commando, he is a scout. His job is to get the party over that pit, through that gate, and past that ambush without taking much, if any, damage. So don't have the thief right behind the Cleric, have him out beyond the torchlight, roaming about. He should be finding potential dangers long before the fighter sees it over the rim of his shield.