A Game of Thieves

I recently listened again to an old podcast where James Raggi explained his reasoning behind divorcing negative stereotypes from Thieves in designing his game LotFP (starting around min 42). James Maliszewski, with a different argument than Raggi, has also often said things about Thieves in gaming that has made me cringe a little. I have a lot of respect for each of these guys, they understand a great deal about the fundamentals of the game, and I certainly mean no disrespect to either of them. However, I completely disagree with this kind of thinking.

I've heard this argument from many grognards and, until recently, I understood it. The argument goes something like, "Why would you want to bring along a 'Thief' on your adventure? Isn't he as likely to slit your throat during the night or steal your gold as he is likely to actually be an asset to the team?". Another argument I've heard used often is that, unlike Fighters, MUs, and Clerics, the Thief is the only class who has had no real professional training of some sort other than perhaps working in the shadows of a large city. A Thief, they say, isn't really a profession at all and has no place in the adventure.

But here's my problem with these arguments:


This is something I think we often forget, as we've been coddled in modern games to think of our characters in D&D as heroic white knights saving the world from evil monsters. They are perceived as noble, honorable, etc. None of the literary characters D&D was actually modeled after were very good people when you really think about it. Conan was a nasty, murderous, thieving, skulking, womanizing sob. He'd sooner raid and pillage an orphanage rather than help one. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser? Yep, about the same thing could be said of those guys too. Works of Burroughs, Moorcock? Check, check.

Don't get me wrong, I know many of you already realize this. But it is amazing to me how many people understand this yet, at the same time, seem to throw so much hate on the thief class for his "dishonorable" connotations. Why hate on something that fits perfectly into the style of the game as it was designed to begin with?

It's not just the literature of D&D either. If there is a winning condition of D&D, what would it be? Stealing stuff. Hell, that's how you gain experience in D&D, by hoarding as much treasure as possible. It doesn't matter if it comes from a dungeon full of goblins, or St Cuthbert's church. It's all means to the same end. So we're actually instructed by the game's rules to steal as much stuff as possible. We're supposed to be thieves.


Our modern definition of Thief has changed a bit. Today it pretty much always means something bad. That's why we get "rogues" and other family friendly names plastered on the class these days so nobody has their feelings hurt. Nobody wants to play something that starts with a giant black chip on his shoulder, everyone these days wants to be a hero not a villain. But, were thieves always perceived like this? I don't think so.

In non-contemporary literature, a thief was as much a law-breaker, as he was a poor man, peasant, or underclassman. This definition or perception was especially stark when judged by higher nobility of the lower class. The 1862 novel, Les Miserab, a story of a wrongly convicted "thief", means The Miserable, The Wretched, The Poor Ones, The Wretched Poor, orThe Victims. The story of Robin Hood is a story of tax rebelling peasants, labeled as "thieves" by the sherrif.

Even today, the wealth gap between rich and poor often precipitates feelings of class warfare. The social-program participating people are often labelled as "thieves" of the state by opposing parties or groups. How about the "illegal" immigrants crossing borders for need of food, shelter and a job? They're defined thieves by some, and desperate honest people by others. Please note that I'm not trying to make any political statements here. I'm just pointing out some realities that have existed from the beginning of time.



What in the world are Clerics doing, supposed "men of [a] god", robbing people in D&D? Well perhaps the modern Cleric stereotype we're so used to in fantasy is not what Classic D&D's Cleric is. I don't think of D&D Clerics as monestary-dwelling "holy" men, a stereotype we often associate with Christian Priests and Clerics. I believe the D&D Cleric is more of a charlatan, a person who may be "lawful" to his own beliefs, but is not necessarily a "good" or moral person.

Thulsa Doom is a Classic D&D Cleric (and no, they don't have to look like James Earl Jones):

I think Old School D&D Clerics have more in common with religious radicals and idealists. It's not that you can't have a "holy" cleric in your game, but if the goal of the game is to loot treasure, that kind of character is going to be really tough to play unless he has some holy reason to go after it. Think of Nacho Libre, a movie based on a true story about a man of "Priestly duties" by day, and a money/fame grabbing wrestler by night.

Magic Users

Magic Users in Classic D&D are more like crazy hermits than wizened sages. Because magic is so unpredictable, they use it as often as they use parlor tricks and other cheap sleight of hand gimmicks to impress people. They are likely reclusive and shunned by the general population as dangerous freaks. They and their powers are to be feared not revered. Again, it's not that you can't play a Gandalf type of Magic User, and even he helped the Dwarves steal their treasure from Smaug, but I feel that Classic D&D MUs are a little more rough around the edges.

I don't have much to say about this class, as I think it's fairly obvious to most of us how these guys fit into being thieves. But I have to ask, was Conan really a fighter or was he a thief? I think a fair argument could be made for both. A "barbarian" really is just a fighter who takes what he thinks is his, and has little use for laws as a civilization-created concept. His combat prowess is obvious, but his goals were surely to feed his own appetites. He also had some fair ability at many of the skills we have in the Thief table including climbing and moving silently.

So the problem I have from many who try to remove or change thieves in D&D is that the game was setup from the very beginning to be all about thievery. If you're going to remove or rename thieves because of the negative implications, then you must also remove the concept of experience gain from gold and you might as well dump Appendix N. But if you're going to go that far, I wouldn't even call it D&D anymore.


So if they're all thieves anyway, why do we need a specific "Thief" class? Seems kind of redundant doesn't it? There are several reasons, but my biggest (and this may sound really weird), is so that we all remember what Classic D&D is REALLY about. As soon as you change the name to "rogue" or "treasure hunter", then the game's integrity becomes damaged. Cracks begin to form in the principle of the game that make it what it is. I think it would be near blasphemy to not include a class called a "Thief", it would be a slap in the face to all the thieving fantasy literature the game is based off of. If you're not ashamed of the Thieves from Appendix N reading, why be ashamed of them in your game?

If that answer is not good enough. Here's another: There should be some difference between a combat focused character and a non-combat focused character. My rule of thumb when building new non-magical classes revolves around two focuses: Combat vs Cunning. Fighters do more combat than cunning in battle. Thieves do more cunning than combat in battle. Does that make sense? It's really that simple.

Think about heroes from fantasy literature and film. Was Jack Sparrow more likely to decapitate his enemies OR was he more likely to talk them out of it, trick them, and hide from them? The answer is obvious. Conan, on the other hand would more likely take their head off and ask questions later. Some characters are less discernible and harder to distinguish. Take Aragorn; his early career (Strider) was more about cunning, but by the Return of the King, he was a full-bore combat character.

This is how I approach each character when building them. I need to decide what their focus is going to be and make sure to STICK to it during game play. A swashbuckler or pirate can really go either way. Some are fencing/dueling maniacs, others are acrobats. Combat vs Cunning. Fighters vs Thieves.

The final answer to why we need thieves is an answer to another argument I've seen used against them. Some say that their skills are useless since other classes can do it too. My answer to this is simple: In Classic D&D there really is nothing stopping ANY class from doing ANYTHING, but some just do it better. I see the Thief tables as merely a short-cut OPTION for Thieves. I don't want to get into this in too much detail because I already did that during my last mega post (and I really don't want to beat that horse anymore), but I believe that nothing should stop a Fighter from detecting traps, or secret/concealed doors, he's just not nearly as good as the Elf, Dwarf or Thief. In essence, use common sense: Rulings, not rules.

In summary, I hope this may clear things up for someone with negative feelings about thieves in D&D. I believe that D&D simply cannot be D&D without them.

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