Monday, February 13, 2012

The Thief Class in AD&D verses B/X D&D and Labyrinth Lord

We've been having an ongoing discussion about the B/X D&D Thief Class in our Averlorn campaign since we started playing Labyrinth Lord two years or so ago.  The general consensus is that B/X Thieves are pretty weak, particularly in melee combat compared to the other available classes.  This is particularly noticeable in Labyrinth Lord (a B/X D&D clone) when you add in the Advanced Edition Companion and all of the AD&D classes associated with that (Paladins, Rangers, Assassins, Illusionists etc.).  Another player and I (the one that's played most of the stealthy types in the game) have repeatedly pointed out to the GM that thieves (and to a lesser extent Assassins) need an edge of some sort in combat in order to survive and contribute to melee combat in the sort of melee heavy hack & slash type of D&D game that he runs.

His usual reply to these pleas is that Thieves have always been weak in B/X from a melee standpoint because they suffer from a low THAC0, a low AC, and may have a hard time pulling off the backstab at lower levels but can contribute to the group in other ways (stealthy scouting, information gathering/spying, trap detection and disarming, scroll casting at higher levels etc.) and he points out that the general consensus in the OSR is that the thief class is looked at as the unwanted stepchild of that particular flavor of D&D.  My usual reply to that is that I never played B/X D&D as a kid so I wouldn't know but AD&D Thieves can be pretty effective in combat if used correctly (mostly by backstabbing, throwing oil/holy water and using archery) and are not nearly as weak as their Basic D&D younger cousins.  He also points out correctly that there is no thief class in 0e D&D (we play White Box 0e D&D occasionally) and that all characters in that rule set are assumed to be rogues and thieves and should have a basic proficiency with some thieving abilities and that the game doesn't suffer from the lack of a Thief class.

This last point is punctuated by the fact that in our last Averlorn game (the one that ended up playing G2 and that most of the current recaps are about) got by fine without thieves for quite a while.  Clerics can cast the spell Detect Traps, Wizards can cast Unseen Servant and there are other ways to circumvent the need for a thief to find and remove traps and the class is not necessarily required to have a successful adventuring party.  We originally had some thieves but all three died and we went without one for quite some time until we added an assassin more recently to the group.  Of course, Assassins are a different matter entirely - a base percentage chance to just outright kill an opponent is incredibly powerful in melee, assuming you can set it up and pull it off without being detected first (no small feat in your typical dungeon environment but do-able).

When I first started playing D&D back in the 7th grade (sometime around 1978-1979) we used the Holmes Basic Rules in our initial games supplemented by various 0e small rule books.  Shortly thereafter, the AD&D books became available and our group and everyone that I knew that played D&D switched over to the 1st Edition Players Handbook, The Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual as our core rules of choice.  Later, a few of us even had Unearthed Arcana but I don't remember how much, if any, of the rules out of that book that we actually used.  For instance I don't recall using Weapon Specialization at all but I do remember little tidbits from it like field plate and small details like that.  So the Basic D&D I played never even had a thief class.

Fast Forward from Holmes Basic D&D to AD&D where thieves (a new class for us at the time) could be extremely deadly in melee combat if they could pull off a backstab since you start off with double damage and as you progress in levels it can be increased to triple damage and even quadruple and quintuple damage at 13th to 16th level.  Of course you still had to manage to pull off both a stalk and a hide maneuver in order to backstab your foes but once you did, you could literally murder opponents with that combination especially at higher levels.

The other thing is that we almost never used house rules - the way our DM ran the game is that if it was written in any of the three above mentioned rule books, then that rule was valid.  So this meant a thief could also attack with two weapons, with the penalties to hit as outlined in the DM's guide of course.  We also used the weapon damage by size rule so that when fighting large opponents, a longsword would do d12 damage and a two handed sword would do 3-18 (3d6) but we didn't use the "Weapon Type to Hit Adjustments" verses different armor types found in that table since it was clunky and just slowed the game down quite a bit.  So we were a little selective in the rules we used but for the most part, if it was in the book, it was adopted into our game (we gladly used Psionics as written in the DMG for instance).

So a 13th level thief wielding a dagger and a longsword verses a large opponent would get 5X the normal damage for both weapons and the longsword could do d12 base damage (plus any bonuses for strength or magical weapons) which can get quite deadly.  Of course, the thief would have to have some pretty serious cahonoes to really attempt to backstab say, a dragon or a giant, all by himself because the likely end result, of course, is that said creature would kill the thief on the next round if it was still alive and won initiative.

So our usual maneuver was for the thief to hang in the back of the group and when the party entered a room, he would stay out in the hallway until the group engaged whatever opponent might be dwelling there.  Once the enemy was engaged, he would then attempt his stalk and hide maneuver in the available shadows outside of the radius of the group's torch light (assuming the room was large enough and dark) to attempt to surprise the enemy from the rear and get in a good backstab with his longsword which would at minimum do 2-16 points of damage at lower levels assuming there are no other damage bonuses involved.  This proved to be quite the effective way for thieves to contribute regularly to melee combat often with deadly results for our opponents and wasn't terribly risky since the rest of the group was there in the room with him.  In other words he had backup because he wasn't scouting ahead of the group and alone - attempting a backstab solo is incredibly risky for the thief on the other hand and would often result in his demise.

Another thing that I remember from back then (and I don't know if this is written into the DMG or PHB or not) is that we took the term double damage to mean that you also doubled the bonuses to damage as well from strength or a magical weapon since it doesn't really specify whether to do that or not in the description for thieves in the character class section.  It does say "twice normal for the weapon used" so that might imply that you only double the dice but if so it isn't explicitly spelled out as meaning that unless its buried in the DMG somehwere.

The other thing that made thieves a bit punchier in our games is that we were playing through lots of TSR modules back then (I know we played through the Village of Homlett and T1-4 ToEE but can't remember the others) and those modules were typically handing out magic items like candy on Halloween, more often than not to offset the inherent difficulty of the module or to help overcome a particular aspect of it.  The result was that our characters were festooned with magic items and were usually more powerful as a result (it was not uncommon to have several magical swords or weapons stashed away in a bag of holding for instance not unlike a bag of golf clubs LOL).

Despite the abundance of magic items for all of our characters back then and the increased power level as a result after playing through several modules, we still had characters die all the time owing to the deadly nature of TSR modules (particularly the ones written by Gygax but others as well).  But the nice thing about that is that we could get by with fewer characters in our group because they were more powerful (usually only 4-5 at the most with few if any henchmen).

So while a thieves’ AC might be too high to survive in melee in other lower magic settings without so many magic items, in an AD&D high magic environment like the one we played in a high AC could be overcome and lowered with bracers of defense, magical leather armor, rings of protection etc. and in combat, if he had a really nice sword it meant he was more effective in melee as a result even without a backstab.  There were also other magical ways to raise one's DEX as well (tomes, magical fountains etc).  So in light of the amount of killing power that thieves had in AD&D and later editions of the game, in B/X they are literally the weakest class in the game from a killing power standpoint in my opinion unless they regularly use poison or have some powerful magic item or something (mages are weaker in melee but more powerful in other ways because of area of affect spells that kill or disable multiple foes for instance).

I have been wanting to run a thief in our Averlorn campaign for quite some time but every time I consider it, I just imagine how horribly he is going to die in our combat heavy game and how little he will contribute to the eventual outcome of battle where he will really be a soft target that just needs to be protected all of the time by the fighters and do his best to avoid melee in most situations.  You just can't play B/X thieves the way you could play the AD&D thief class.  You could play them fairly aggressively in AD&D without being killed frequently if you were smart about how you did it particularly by using their back stab ability.

We have been using the B/X Companion's weapon damage by class rules for some time, which at the time seemed like a no brainer since it is a very cool rule and means you can pick a weapon to use because its cool or "fluffy" for your character rather than because of the amount of damage it does.  It was only after some time went by that we realized that the Thief class in Labyrinth Lord gets hosed by that rule if you were using the weapon damage by type optional rule before that (which we were).  So now, instead of being able to backstab with a longsword and do 2d8 damage, all weapons that a thief employs (even two handed weapons) only do 2d6 damage which is a far cry from the amount of damage that thieves could do in AD&D.

So effectively, weapon damage by class as written in the B/X Companion when combined with Labyrinth Lord or straight up B/X D&D makes what in my opinion is the weakest class in the game in terms of killing ability or power, even weaker.  So in summary, thieves have a much harder time killing stuff and not being killed when engaging in melee in a combat heavy hack and slash type of B/X game like the one we are running.  Where they excel of course, is in situations where stealth and information gathering is critical such as in a city based campaign or even in a scouting role in a dungeon or elsewhere as long as they adhere to the "see and don't be seen" doctrine of reconnaissance used by military recon types of forces or special forces throughout history.

I'd be interested to hear any comments from the many members of the OSR on this topic as we've been discussing it for quite some time and often reference the opinions of the many members of the Old School Renaissance in our discussions.  I never played B/X D&D as a kid and my recollections of playing a Thief from back then were that they were both fun to play and deadly with a long sword.  In our current Labyrinth Lord B/X game using the Advanced Edition Companion, they are a far cry from the murderous rogues that we used to play back when I was a kid.