Thieves’ Abilities – Easy, Hard, and Very Hard

To state that the thief class is “controversial” in oldschool circles is an understatement. But, despite some reservations, I remain in favor of its inclusion in the game. The B/X thief, however, has what I perceive to be some significant shortcomings, the greatest of which are the low chances of success for the standard thieves’ abilities.

Take the cleric’s ability to turn undead–a definite skill-like ability not unlike the thief skills. The Clerics vs. Undead table starts with decent chances of success, 58% for skeletons, 28% for zombies, and 8% for ghouls. Rates then ramp up very rapidly, with automatic successes arriving at 2nd level. The The Thieves’ Ability table, meanwhile, starts with success rates mostly in the 10% to 20% range and they increase very slowly.

What I’ve done for the past few years is treat the Thieves’ Abilities table numbers as the chances of success in “challenging conditions,” giving a bonus when the conditions aren’t quite so harsh. Basically, the table rates apply to good locks, sophisticated treasure traps, open areas with few hiding spots, etc., while giving better odds when the lock isn’t quite so well-made, the trap isn’t nearly so well-hidden, or the area provides better opportunities to hide.

While I’ve tried various methods over time, the way I’m currently implementing this is to rate each challenge as “easy,” “hard,” or “very hard.” Actually, I also rate them as “very easy,” but generally won’t even require a roll for a “very easy” challenge, since it’s literally very easy.

  • EASY CHALLENGE – Double normal chance success
  • HARD CHALLENGE – Normal chance of success
  • VERY HARD CHALLENGE – Half normal chance of success

This makes it simple to let the thief do some thiefing without trying to explain away thief abilities as some sort of near-magical extraordinary skill. Sure, thieves are really, really good a moving “silently,” and that’s a lot better than sneaking like non-thieves are stuck doing. But it’s not a supernatural ability. High-level thieves might be the Batman, but they aren’t a mystical phantom.

I use the “easy, hard, very hard” scale for a lot of other stuff, too. Like opening or listening at doors. Searching for secret doors. Almost anything. Easy things have double normal success rates. Hard things have normal success rates. Very hard things have half-normal success rates. Very easy things are usually automatically successful.

I remain convinced that thief abilities could and should use 1d12, but I’ve resisted the urge to implement that. So far.

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