Monday, March 31, 2014

On the OSR Thief and Hate

“I’m a musician you see. I call myself a repercussionist.”

Excerpt From: Brust, Steven. “Tiassa.” Tom Doherty Associates.

It seems everyone tries to "fix" the OSR thief via Houserules at least once. Why? It's because in a skill light system the OSR thief clings desperately to the deplorable skill system. All the things wrong with skill systems are evident right here at the beginnings of the game. The "new" editions expand and perpetuate the problems found here. Scaling, balance and the "all" you can be good at symptoms originate right here in Greyhawk Supplement I. The thief is that fine line example of mechanics that defines a class. It's existence is a self fulfilling prophecy leading to greater and greater specialization and limitation.

Everyone can attack, anyone can kick in a door or listen. Other classes stand out. MUs have spells. Clerics support via healing and buffs not to mention the Turn undead feature. Fighters are tougher but the thief stands apart. The thief has a handful of specialities that only they excel at. After several months playing OSR, I hate calling for or making in secret a hide in shadows roll. Why, because the Thief excels at this. As a former 4E DM this a wierd statement to make I know. Why do we have this mechanic? Defenders of OSR point to the Grey Mouser as the reason. I get it, I really do. We all have a hard time facing up to our sacred cows. As you can see below there are several proposed ways to nix this trend.

None of these really fix the issue though do they. They just move the problem around. I have a similar issue with Turn Undead but that's an article for another day. So what do we do about this? We can eliminate the thief. We can Houserule the thief as above or similar. Is there another solution?

Thief Skills

  • Climb Walls
  • Pick Pockets
  • Pick Locks
  • Disable Traps
  • Hear Sounds
  • Hide in Shadows
  • Move Silently

Thief Special Abilities

  • Backstab
  • Read Magical Writings
  • Read Normal Languages

The above skills are all things that another class can do, but the Thief "does them better". Why? It's part of their background and training. While his fighter was playing with pointy bits, her MU was nose deep in books, and my cleric was on his knees the Thief was slogging it out in alleys, running for their life and being subjected to Oliver Twist style training. So is it really as simple as a matter of background? Can we sum everything a Thief is as a sneaky underhanded fighter? Is that not just the ideal of a modern day rogue? I don't think so. At the core of the Thief is the idea of an expert. Someone who isn't the best fighter. They are the epitamy of the jack of all trades. The person that picks up these little tid bits of real world, practical hands on knowledge and combine them into surprising results. Now how do we demonstrate this with out creating the skill system above? I think this comes down to luck.

Solo: I call it luck.

Kenobi: In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.

- Star Wars, George Lucas

Make Your Own Luck

Thieves make their own luck via their knowledge. Typically, when a PC kicks in a door, listens, or hides etc. the DM or Player rolls for success. This is done in one of two ways, roll a d6 and compare to a table or roll 3d6, 4d6 or more under a given stat. In the case of the Thief, why not roll an extra die and remove the highest result. Thus when rolling 3d6, instead roll 4d6 and remove the highest die. For example a roll of 1,3,4,5 would remove the 5 and yield an 8. This represents their improved ability. This coupled with any DEX abilities gives them a huge advantage, reflecting their ability. The only "skill" off their list they aren't better at is then Listening. Gone is the need to track individual % for each skill. The harder the task or less likely to succeed the more dice are rolled. Want to pick pocket the Liche of Unholy Doom roll 7D6 and drop the highest result, if less than DEX success!

Leave the special abilities as they stand and roll on.

Wait A Minute

Isn't this method switching one set of skills for another? In a way yes it is. It's balanced against what other players can do, but still gives Thieves a leg up. It doesn't reflect increased power as a Thief levels. Neither does a fighters ability to open doors, a dwarf's ability to detect stone work, or an elves ability to detect secret doors. Rolling that extra die could level just as back stab or turn undead does, but it doesn't need to.

The only other method to keep the Thief not already mentioned is to add mini games, like lock picking and trap disarming. How you indicate a thief is better at these tasks is up to you, though the suggestion of unjamming is workable.

I close having added my take on the senseless enterprise of trying to fix what can not be fixed, and may not even be broken.


1 comment :

  1. I know, I know. Very old post. You said, "The above skills are all things that another class can do, but the Thief "does them better". Why? It's part of their background and training."

    Isn't that equally true of fighting and the fighter (or fighting man?) Why is the Thief singled out for this problem? (This question is somewhat rhetorical, as I know that combat is too big a part of most people's game to not have special treatment.)

    You also say, "Why do we have this mechanic? Defenders of OSR point to the Grey Mouser as the reason. I get it, I really do. We all have a hard time facing up to our sacred cows." This strikes me as a bit funny, though—why do only MUs (and clerics) cast spells? Because of the sacred cow of Vancian magic, which was hardly the only model that could have been adopted, even relying on Appendix N style sources (I use what I call "Lovecraftian" magic, for instance, and anyone can cast a spell.)

    The real sacred elephant in the room is the Dungeoneering paradigm. The reason that the thief is so bemoaned by the OSR is because the thief is a character from literary sources that has abilities that mimic, to some degree, their literary prototypes, but which are expected in D&D or D&D-like games to operate in an environment that is completely and totally dissimilar to their literary sources. If the choice is slaughter the sacred cow of the thief character because we have to maintain the sacred cow of dungeoneering... frankly, I'd rather slaughter dungeoneering and keep the thief.