Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Effectiveness of Thieves in Dungeon Fantasy

The Thief template in Dungeon Fantasy isn't very good. Since it is descended from a long line of thief implementations that aren't very good, at least it stays true to its roots.

Historically, creating a separate thief role was one of the more controversial decisions in the early development of D&D. Separating out a bunch of important functions, such as sneaking around and scouting ahead, into a separate class implied that the wizards, clerics, and fighting men of the day couldn't sneak and scout. The fact that beginning thieves were terrible at sneaking, scouting, and fighting didn't help matters either: what's the point of bringing along a dedicated scout who only has a 1 in 4 chance of avoiding detection and has no chance to survive being detected? Adding abilities to (unreliably) find traps and (infrequently) open locked doors didn't help much, and created a dilemma for adventure designers: add traps and locked doors so as to justify the thief, and thereby force the PCs to bring one along, or ditch all that stuff and let the thief PC be a weak second line fighter and waste of resources?

Dungeon Fantasy hasn't really resolved the question of whether or not to include traps and locked doors, though it leans towards always including them. But a delving band has other options than taking along a pure Thief: Artificers and racial Dwarfs and Gnomes can disable traps and locks; Wizards and Clerics can use Lockmaster and See Secrets to open doors and find traps; Dungeon Demolishers can blow up locked doors or trapped passages; or Barbarians can rip open locked, trapped chests and use their massive HT and HP to soak any bad effects. So while delving bands need to bring along someone to deal with traps, it doesn't have to be a Thief.

GURPS also resolves the question of whether fighting men can sneak and scout: does the fighting man in question have useful levels of Stealth and Observation? Given that Knights have low Perception, and that encumbrance penalizes Stealth, the answer is generally "no." But the Scout has a high Perception, good to great skill in Stealth, is generally lightly encumbered, and has a decent Trap skill. Almost indisputably, a Scout makes a better scout inside or outside of dungeon than a Thief: better Perception to notice things, Tracking skill to figure out what kind of monster is ahead before seeing it, a very useful combat skill (that can be used while running away) to fight off monsters after being discovered.

So that's the Thief in a nutshell: a template that has two main utility functions, both of which can be replicated better by other templates. In combat, the Thief has some of the melee skill of the Knight, but not the strength and armor, or acts as a weak, unskilled ranged combatant.

That's the effectiveness of thieves. The next bit is just some follow-up and background.

The Basic Chassis

The Thief needs lots of good attributes for his role: good DX, obviously, and a decent IQ and a high Perception. He also needs a good Basic Speed to get adequate defenses when Dodging, and a decent Basic Move. High ST isn't necessary, but it helps with encumbrance to keep that Basic Speed, Dodge, and Move high. As written, the Thief Basic Speed is a bit low at 6.00, but his other stats are mostly decent. Investing in improved HT increases survivability, both directly and by increasing Basic Speed and Dodge.

Advantage Selection

All Thieves have Perfect Balance, which eats up a lot of points with a cost of 15. My experience is that Perfect Balanced is overpriced for what you get, but Thieves should try to stage all their fights on narrow and slippery ledges to leverage the advantage and justify the cost. Flexibility and High Manual Dexterity are thieves' other mandatory advantages, and these two are generally worth the cost.

Thieves get another 30 points in advantage selection, which quickly get split a lot of different ways. Night Vision is almost mandatory, Luck is helpful, and Danger Sense is an obvious choice for someone who goes around sticking his hands into potential traps. For combat, Thieves also have access to Combat Reflexes and Surprise Striking ST. Getting bonus damage when stabbing people from behind is great, but it's also expensive with most Thief weapons use the thrust damage table.


GURPS has a lot of thiefly skills, and Thieves unsurprisingly get them all: Filch, Pickpocket, Traps, Lockpicking, Holout, Smuggling... The utility of some of these skills in play can be minimal, and its a bit painful to have to buy both Filch (to shoplift unattended items) and Pickpocket (to take things from people's pockets).

Combat wise, Thieves use light blades such as rapiers and shortswords, but not very well. They also have a wide variety of ranged weapons, but none of them are very good: crossbows are single shot impaling weapons, bows are hard to use with Heroic Archer and high levels of skill, and slings do low damage. A lot of Thief players go for the throwing knife, but that isn't really a viable strategy for fighting anything more dangerous than giant rats.

Thief skills or Thief!

Thief! is one of the great wildcard skills and any Thief who has the opportunity should take it. A straight thief spends can get Thief!+2 for 48 points, which gives them better skill at almost every thief skill than they got by buying the skills separately. The sting of having Filch goes away if you get every other thief skill at a higher level along with it.

In games using Wildcard Destiny points (from MH1: Champions or Powerups 5: Impulse Buys), Thief! is even better. Disarming the Fatal Apocalypse Deadfull (normally a roll at -10 with failure by 5 or more triggering it) just isn't that big a deal when you can auto-succeed on any thief related roll 4 times per session. This is one of the few places that a Thief is better than a Scout, because Scout! specifically doesn't cover disarming traps.

Thieves and Race

Half-Elf is an excellent choice for Thieves, since racial Magery lets them detect magical traps with a Perception roll and lets them use Mage Light to have a light source that non-mages can't see. Gnomes have a very useful racial Talent in Widget Worker, and Halflings have a host of advantages that make them a traditional Thief race, but in both cases, combat ability drops off with low ST and size.

An unorthodox but highly successful race for Thieves is Leprechaun. Thieves start with high enough IQ that Leprechaun charms are affordable, and Winged Knife with Ridiculous Luck makes throwing knives into people's eyes into an almost viable strategy. Ridiculous Luck is also generally useful when trying to disarm Fatal Apocalypse Deadfalls. The downside to being a Leprechaun is that with only 4 HP, failing to disarm a trap is usually fatal.

Equipping Thieves

Thieves want a lot of stuff: spider silk cord and grapnels, high quality lock picks, and a trap-finding kit are almost basic necessities. They need some kind of blade, which is expensive, though which one to choose isn't obvious: edged rapiers are hideously expensive and hard to use in close combat but provide Reach; sabers are less expensive and better for close combat but still provide swing/cutting damage; short swords are the cheapest but can't be used to get a fencing parry. I often favor a main-gauche or long knife: accept that the Thief isn't a front-line fighter and get a blade that is cheap enough to get Balanced or Fine from starting points.

Poisons are an obvious purchase, but can become expensive and heavy rather quickly.

It's debatable how much armor Thieves want. Heavy Leather with Fortify +1 and Lighten +1 provides DR3 for 15 lbs, which is generally affordable and enough to ward off lesser foes. Anything more than that quickly becomes too expensive and heavy.

Thieves in Play

Thieves have a lot of utility: scouting, trap-finding, lockpicking. Most of that utility can be better done by a Scout or a Wizard. Still, a wizard's FP tends to get pulled a lot of different ways, while a Thief can try to open a lock at any time.

In combat, Thieves really have one good option: hide at the beginning of combat, get behind a foe with a vital or vulnerable spot of some kind, and make a Telegraphed attack to that spot. Against humanoid foes, this can be good for a kill. Against undead, constructs, elementals, demons without vital organs, Elder Things, and Floating Electric Jellies, Thieves don't really have any good options.


As written, any delving band that already has a Scout and a Wizard is not going to need a Thief, and should take a different utility guy: a Bard or Shaman for diplomatic skills, or a Holy Warrior or Swashbuckler for more combat utility.

Should there be a place for thieves? The early literature is full of thief type characters, but Conan and the Grey Mouser are not straight thieves by any means. Only Bilbo Baggins is well-modeled by the thief template. If your delving band already includes 11 other guys, then splitting out another share to get a thief probably isn't a bad deal. Otherwise, I'm not entirely sad that thieves aren't a good template.


  1. One reason I never got around to playing Dungeon Fantasy for GURPS 4e is that I was just not in the mood to figure out all of these things by trial and error.

    Not that mastering the rules/system/milieu is essential to having fun role playing... and not that I have to fix everything to play... but I would like to know where the rough patches are sometimes without finding out the hard way....

    Good stuff!

  2. Hmm. I subscribe to the idea that the purpose of the thief abilities in the early versions of D&D is to be preternaturally good at such things. Courtney of Hack & Slash has a good description of how this works.

    I'm in no way disputing anything you've said in your post, especially not the bit about the confusion of the purpose of those abilities. I'm frank about it being an interpretation among other possible ones, albeit I think it's the one that a) makes sense and b) makes fun.

    Nor am I disputing that in GURPS the thief's abilities aren't that, and don't work that way. But could they?

    One way to make Thieves useful along these lines might be to turn their Perfect Balance into a Power Talent that grants the ability to buy skills (maybe on the psionics model, rules-wise) that are like preternatural uses of stealth, e.g. invisibility, Body of Shadows, Visualization (for disarming traps and opening locks), etc.

    Sounds like I have another post to write. Eventually. (I hope it goes well; frankly, I haven't written much to do with Powers.)

    1. I'm not sure that preternaturally good at hiding matches the description of the ability from p19 of the DMG 1st edition.

      I don't have a problem with giving Thieves access to straight up Invisibility, Body of Shadows, or even Warp (between shadowed areas only). Giving Thieves some high powered power-ups would be great. I don't think it addresses the core problem, though, which is that the thief doesn't have a clearly defined, individual niche.

    2. The whole "everyone can do the easy stuff, but Thieves have a chance to do exceptional stuff" thing isn't very clear. AD&D makes it clear that this isn't the case at all. But Basic D&D makes the case that, yeah, everyone can climb/sneak/etc. but thieves do it better. And according to Mike Mornard, the way Gary Gygax ran thieves in his game was more like the latter, but he worded it poorly in the book. I can't find the forum post where he said that at the moment, though. It seems like the game would work better that way - you can all climb, but thieves can climb sheer walls; you can all try to move quietly, but thieves can move silently, etc.

      On the main topic - Overall, the thief in DF needs a little work. I think getting rid of Filch and merging it with Pickpocket or getting rid of Pickpocketing and merging it with Sleight of Hand. More of an emphasis on Stealth and scouting would help, too.

      The thief we had in my DF game was useful, but lasted only until his player moved him too close to a serious opponent and then he got killed out of hand. Since then the group has relied solely on Lockmaster and forcing doors and smashing them down to get by locks, and DR and HP and careful play to deal with traps (also Scouts, but neither of ours wants to touch trapped chests unless they have to). This reliance on magic + force has meant that obstacles that utterly resist magic + force (locks with meteoric iron elements on very heavy doors) have frustrated them in some cases, and traps have nailed them despite the scouts and caution. A thief would really help them. But the thief really doesn't seem to be as necessary as he is helpful to have, so we haven't seen another one come up. I have some thoughts on how to address this - if I get some time I'll type something up today or early next week.

  3. "Thieves want a lot of stuff [...]" - that makes me wonder (I haven't read "Dungeon Fantasy" yet) how much money Thieves earn if they stay in town for a while? Assasin from "GURPS Fantasy" gets a nice bunch to spend, but can't really show it. A dungeon dweller has a good excuse for having this extra gold. Perfect Balance and Flexibility could give a bonus to such a "job" roll, because exceptional dexterity is what defines many of the best thieves and assassins in fiction.
    And, as far as I understand, some extra weekly money can really help by granting extra poisons or Battle elixirs.

    1. Thieves have one of the better skills for earning money in town (Pickpocket earns MoS x5) but it's still pocket change.

      I should note that thieves can use Filch and Smuggling to steal better gear from merchants, which helps with the high cost of equipment. It's risky, though, so I'd recommend that only Thieves with Luck or Thief! even try it.

  4. So yeah, the DF thief is a good model of the old school thief, and the old school thief sucked.

    One thing you didn't mention that has bugged me is that the required disad list for DF Thieves strongly encourages them to be total pains in the ass for the rest of the party. Yeah, sure, with care you can be a curious, skinny, one-eyed trickster with a SoD Adventuring Companions, and for experienced players who aren't trying to be jerks something like that usually emerges. For less experienced folks, there's a lot of stuff in there that makes for old school "never trust the thief" behavior. (Worse, it's pretty easy to make a kender. Shudder.) So one thing that I want is a version of the template that makes it a deliberate choice to be a dangerous untrustworthy asshole rather than the default.

    I like the idea that others have thrown around of going "multi-class" with a thief lens on another template. Traditional, emulates most fiction, solves the issue.

    Outright nullification of supernatural powers has been mentioned, but perhaps deserves more emphasis. The template is deliberately completely mundane, so no-mana no-sanctity no-chi areas are an option to make the thief shine, providing you are willing to screw the rest of the PCs.

    In DnD, there were a lot of feats to make sneak attacks apply to various normally sneak-attack resistant things. In GURPS, it might go something like this:

    1. Add "Hidden lore, vital anatomy of " to the thief skill list. Hidden lore specialization in finding the wibbly bits.

    2. Having the appropriate skill at int+1 allows a leveled perk - "Squid Innards"/"Undead Giblets," etc. The first level allows a ~vitals attack, the second a ~skull attack, the third an ~eye attack. (Exact effects can be modified to suit the creature, but no fair make non-vital vitals.)

    3. In addition, the GM is free to require a special weapon for non-mook types, but making it *too* hard is being a big meanie - save it for the boss. Your HL If it has a high CF that encourages knives or oth weapons with a cheap base cost.

    Worked example: Backstabbity McRatbastard specializes in robbing Squiddies, and has Squid Innards 2. She can do skull attacks from behind on normal Squiddies, and has a special Meteoric Iron Knife with Druidic Puissance that allows her to stab big Squiddies in the Giblets just fine. Ragon (the boss of the dungeon) Isn't Fair and requires that the blade be covered in the blood of a virginal wild rabbit at least five years in age to be added to the blade. Backstabbity or her mage HL friends can figure that out with HL-5, provided they know who the boss is.

  5. Was it a Blogger hiccup that changed the date of this post? because I remember it as an old post, but the date is of today.

    Personally, I find that thieves have the same issues as you have. One way to make them more decent combatants (and that buffs the Assassin too) is to make the surprise striking ST work on any attacks that don't allow defenses. This means that if the thief maneuvers to be behind someone and thus deny them their defenses, even if the target is in combat, he still gets backstabbed extra hard. This also makes critical hits extra-painful!

    1. I was editing the formatting and Blogger decided to push it to the front of the page. I don't know why.

      Surprise ST on criticals is a bit much, but on any attack that doesn't allow defenses would give Thieves a bit of a combat boost and a role as "the guy who is always trying to get behind people." It's not a particularly effective role, but it does give the Thief a distinct flavor.