Here’s an interesting bit from William Dear’s account of his 1979 game of Dungeons & Dragons as related in his 1984 book The Dungeon Master. While investigating the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III from Michigan State University, Dear played a session in order to better understand Egbert, who was a player.
Dear hired a student to DM to run the session. The DM brought another player whose PC was a fighter/thief named “Dan.” Dear himself played a magic-user named “Tor.” Early in the game, the two PCs were beset with beggars and Dan threw a gold piece down the street to draw some of them away.
What happened next was probably not noteworthy at the time but is interesting today.
“Some of the beggars run away and fight over the gold piece,” said the dungeon master. “The rest are still in your way. While this is happening, you hear a commotion coming from down the street. A man carrying a box is being chased by several guards. What do you do now?”
“We duck into the tavern,” said Dan.
“It’s several blocks away,” said the dungeon master.
“I’m interested in the box,” Tor/I said. “I’d like to take it.”
“You’re not a thief, are you?” asked Dan.
“I’m an adventurer. I want to know what’s in the box.”
This simple exchange highlights one of the problems that many have with a dedicated thief class in D&D. A player with a non-thief PC mentions wanting to get hold of an item in someone else’s possession, and another player, who happens to be playing a thief PC, immediately seems to think this is a bit out of line. Obviously, had this game taken place before the introduction of the thief class in Supplement I: Greyhawk, no one would have thought twice about a PC magic-user stepping over the line into “thief territory” because there was no “thief territory.”
I believe that later versions of the game, with more clearly-defined roles for characters (up to and including the controller/defender/leader/striker craziness in 4e) makes this an even easier trap to fall into. Earlier versions and clones of those versions, being much more open because so much less is codified, suffer less because it’s more up to play style than rules.
But remember that this book was published in 1984 and relates a game session that took place in 1979. Obviously, this is well before the contemporary discussions about the thief class began and even before most of the rules bloat took hold. As such, I think it’s a pretty good example that the thinking pointed out by many critics of the thief did, in fact, exist back in the day.
It also shows the proper response to such narrow-mindedness: “I’m an adventurer.”
Say it a dozen times every time you wonder if your character is the right class to try something. If, after reminding yourself that your PC exists to adventure, your idea seems like it just might work? Go for it.
Personally, I’m not really opposed to the thief itself and think there’s a place for thief-type skills in the game. My own solution for original edition gaming is to give all characters ratings for nearly all the actions we’ve come to associate with thieves, and to allow PCs to advance their skill in such activity by adopting thievery as an “add-on” to their class. Check Sneaking & Skulduggery: White Box Thievery out if interested. It’s currently in “2nd draft” status, but I will have a final version out soon.