Sunday, 20 March 2011

The 1st Level Thief's Survival Guide


The much-maligned thief is frequently treated with both scorn and disdain by old school gamers, who consider the class to be little more than a prop for parties with poor dungeon technique. Played right, it can be far, far more than that.

Weaponry:

Depending on the rules set you're using, a thief might have a very limited choice in terms of ranged weaponry and will probably have only two weapon proficiencies. This is very important. No matter how crap the missile weapons your particular rules-set allows (sometimes only a sling or dagger) take the damn proficiency. You absolutely must have a ranged weapon. High dex, crappy armour and six hit points can only get you so far in melee (far enough to the nearest graveyard).
By all means, put that second proficiency into a melee weapon. Short swords are good, and available to the thief in most rules-sets. They do just enough damage to be useful in a fight without doing so much that you'll be tempted to voluntarily enter melee unless you really have too.

As a thief, if you want to contribute in combat, do it from a distance. If you want to play an Errol Finn swashbuckler type, then the Old School thief class is not for you. Play a fighter instead. The Old School Thief is about skulking, trap-finding and wits. You are not a DPS monkey. This is not World of Warcraft or 4th ed D&D.

To Backstab or not to Backstab?

Backstabbing can be a battle winning class ability. But it's use (or attempted to use) often leaves the thief alone, exposed and faced with a very angry foe. In some systems, it's possible to back-stab (or sneak attack) with a ranged weapon, but this is fairly uncommon in Old School systems.
My advice then, is not to actively seek a back-stab opportunity mid-combat. The chance of detection (and thereafter facing the subsequent ire of the target) is far too great to justify the risk. The last place a thief wants to be, mid-combat, is behind the enemy, with the foe between them and the rest of the party.
If, on the other hand, the thief is trying to sneak up on a lone sentry and environmental conditions are in his favour (cloud cover, darkness, and a great deal of ambient noise) then by all means, feel free to give it a go,
But just remember, a first level thief who wants to back-stab a foe must generally (it varies with rules system) pass a move silently check AND a hide in shadows check and THEN make a successful attack roll.
Have you checked your thieving skill percentiles for move silently and hide in shadows recently? Mmmm. Backstabbing doesn't seem all that hot any-more does it? If you want to be a “silent kill” type, play an assassin instead.

Armour Choice:

It's perfectly natural for a thief character to want to maximise his AC early on by taking the best armour he can afford and wear. However, bear in mind that your armour choice will affect your thief skills. Remember; your main job is scouting and finding traps. In combat, you should primarily be shooting folk at range, not engaging in melee. If you are in a large enough party (with plenty of hirelings) of players with a fair degree of tactical skill, team work and awareness of each other's roles, you might feel confident enough in the ability of your allies to protect you that you forego armour altogether. Or perhaps wear it only when it seems likely that your thieving skills will not be required.
However, in smaller parties or in less organised (ie: most) parties, a little armour can go a long way to keeping you alive. Especially if your first rank fighters are the sort who like to charge into battle (leaving you exposed) rather than let the enemy come to them. If your party is small, or lacks hirelings, then chances are the fighters are going to be too busy looking after the magic user to protect you as well as you would like. In such instances, you might even find yourself frequently given the task of rear guard. Since combat tends to attract more monsters, if you find yourself in this position often, then wearing the best armour you can is a highly recommended course of action.

Scouting:
Unless you're blessed with dark vision, don't scout too far ahead of the party. Certainly not beyond the radius of torch-light when within a dungeon (and carrying a torch yourself while scouting is a really bad idea. Learn to rely on your ears and nose as much as your characters vision). If you are a dwarf, never get more than sixty feet ahead of the party and NEVER allow an unexplored corridor or door to get between you and the others.

In the Wilderness, stay within line of sight of the party at all times and never get further ahead than the distance you can travel running in a single round. Don't forget to take into account the encumberence and movement penalties of your armour.

Thinking Outside the Box:
Lamp oil isn't just for light or burning things. It's for oiling squeeky hinges, greasing ropes and poles and lubricating stiff locks.
Candles aren't just for reading light, they're for clogging up trap nozzles, sealing documents with hot wax and making an impression of keys for later copying when outright theft might be noticed.
Charcoal isn't just for cooking, it's for making a rubbing of strange runes and carvings.
Tar can be smeared on your feet and gloves to boost your climbing.
Flour can be thrown to detect invisible enemies.

Every single item you can carry can have dozens of uses. Even your humble blanket can double as bandages, a door hanging or even (when covered by stone dust for example) concealment. Think about these uses in advance, and you won't be kicking yourself about them later.

Don't |You Open that Trap Door (Cos there's somethin' down there):
Many characters (especially most fighters) will insist that, since you're the one who certified that door/chest/hatch safe, you should be the one to open it. Try to avoid doing so where you can. For one thing, mistakes happen, and you have neither the hit points or the armour class to “suck it up” should you set something off. Not to mention the risk of monsters behind, under, inside or above whatever the heck it is you are opening.
So, unless the party fighting is in a seriously bad way, try to make sure he (or better still, a hireling) does the opening.
And when it comes to opening a chest, make sure only the person opening it is within twenty feet or so. Better still, make sure he's the only the person in the room. Gas trapped chests are fairly common and difficult to detect. If gas is there, better only one person gets it than the whole party.
In fact, that goes for just about any trap. If you haven't found it, or disarmed it, but you're absolutely positively certain that some sort of trap should be there, either don't open it at all or stand well back when someone else does.

Listen:
Never open a door without listening at it first. Never. And remember, everyone has a the same chance at first level to hear something behind a door, so don't be afraid to have more than one person check at a time. Just remember to remove your helmet first.

Don't Trust the Dice:
Sure, when it comes to trap-finding and disarming a lazy thief can just roll the dice and take their chances but where's the fun (or the sense) in that. Increase your odds of success by trying to roleplay through your trap-finding. Most DM's will allow you to spot a trap automatically if you describe your character looking, prodding or poking the right thing in the right place. Say your looking for a trip wire or a needle-sized hole above the lock and the DM will probably tell you if there's one there. When you've run out of ideas, THEN roll the dice. Not all DM's follow this practice however, but at the very least, he'll probably give you bonus to your percentage chance for good role-playing.
Personally, I still allow the Thief to roll his percentile chance even after his player has finished roleplaying the trap-finding. After all, the thief character might think of something the player missed. But not all DM's work it this way. Some insist on one or the other (description or dice-rolling) rather than both. If your DM is one of these, then remember one critical issue: Anyone can find a trap through role-playing and the description of their characters actions. If the DM won't let your thief role-play and roll for trap-finding, let a non-thief handle the role-playing part of trap-detection. Think of it as yor thief supervising the othe party members with a critical eye.
This applies equally to removing traps as well as detecting them. If you describe covering the needle trap with a piece of steel plate, then you can be pretty damn sure of disarming it. Leave the dice rolling for disarm attempts for those rare few occasions when you really are stumped.

Shape the Battlefield:
You can do more with the Remove traps skill that simply remove traps. For one thing, you can use it to set them as well. Think you're being followed? Reset a few traps behind you after you disarm them. Expecting a flank attack? Slow em down by setting a trap. Making camp for the night? A few tripwires around the perimeter will help ensure that nothing sneaks up on your sentries unawares.
Just remember though – you're only first level. For a thief, the only thing more embaressing than being killed by a trap you didn't see is being killed by a trap you set. So, stick to setting non-lethal traps at low levels. A simple snare, trip wire or dead-fall attached to something noisy will be enough to give you plenty of warning and serve to delay a potential foe. And if you fail to set the trap properly,the worst you can expect is a red face and a lot of noise. Chances are,the worst that will happen is that you will fail to set it correctly and not notice or else pick a poor spot. So set multiple traps covering each possible approach to build in a little redundancy.
Don't overlook the simplicity of the humble punji stick or caltrop trap either. Yes, these are noise makers as well as damage dealing traps. You try stepping on a six inch wooden stake or sharp nail and see how loud you scream. On second thoughts, better not. Just take my word for it okay. Just be sure not to put these particular items in an area you might have to run through later.
Be sure to keep some useful materials with you – scrap metal, string (preferably dyed black), caltrops even flour. That way you'll never be caught short when it comes to having the means to set a trap.

Things to Remember
  • Don't make your class obvious. Don't wear black and if anyone asks: You're not a thief. You're a locksmith.
  • Don't steal from the party. The party will kill you.
  • Don't steal in town. Your party will be run out of town. The party will kill you.
  • Don't steal from your allies. They'll become your enemies. The party will, indeed, kill you.
  • Do steal from corpses, bad-guys and the master villain. |Under such circumstances, the party will not kill you.

4 comments:

scottsz said...

Nice work. I love the 'things to remember' section.

Dangerous Brian said...

Cheers Scott. I doubt there's much in the way of content included in these guides that most of us don't already know, but they've been fun to write.

deathanddrek said...

"Who are you and how did you get in here?"
"I'm a locksmith, and, I'm a locksmith."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRva7z8pvwc

Dangerous Brian said...

Lol. Yup. That's the one.