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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8 Responses to Thieves’ Abilities – Easy, Hard, and Very Hard

  1. FrDave says:

    The way I have reconciled the low chances of Thief abilities is to see them as extra chances that only Thieves get. For example, everyone has a 2 in 6 chance of Move Silently, aka a Surprise Roll. The Thief gets an extra chance at surprise with their Thief Skill. Another example, everyone has a 2 in 6 chance of opening a door (adjusted by Strength); however, failure means automatically losing surprise if a monster is on the other side. Thieves get an extra chance to open the door without losing that precious surprise. I suppose one could argue that this is an Old School version of Advantage in 5e.

    • Kilgore says:

      I rule that characters who can’t open a door on the first try cannot surprise anything behind it, but they are not automatically surprised.

      Since I figure that the majority of door opening attempts are based mostly on force (considering it’s modified by Strength), I’m not really a fan of the idea of giving thieves an extra chance at it. Maybe I don’t understand the reasoning.

      • FrDave says:

        So, let me try to explain this better. There are three ways to open a door in BX: forcing a door (2 in 6 + Str modifier), a Knock spell, and Open Locks. Having a Thief in the party allows two opportunities to open a door and still have a chance to surprise what is on the other side rather than just one. Therefore, it falls under the concept that Thieves get an extra chance at doing those things that Thieves do. (BTW I never meant that the party would be automatically surprised).

        • Kilgore says:

          It’s the giving a second chance for a thief that I don’t follow. I’m not understanding what being a thief or having a thief in the party has to do with forcing open a stuck door.

          • El Suscriptor Justiciero says:

            I think the reasoning is about locked doors rather than stuck ones. The thief may attempt to unlock it silently, and if that fails, you can always let the fighter break it open instead through brute force.

  2. Have you attempted to convert the Turn Undead table to Thief Skills?

    I played with it a bit here:

    • Kilgore says:

      The B/X Clerics vs. Undead table might be the single most maddening thing about the entire B/X game, IMO. It’s either that, the cleric’s XP table, or the cleric’s spell progression. But it’s definitely the cleric.

  3. Jojodogboy says:

    Quick BX style thieves fix:

    Skills have a base chance of 15-level or higher rolled on a d20.

    So a 1st level thief opens a lock if they roll 14 or higher on a d20, giving them a 35% chance at 1st level. By 5th level its 10 or higher (55% chance).

    Climb walls starts at 7-level/2 .

    Everyone can move quietly but thieves can move almost SUPERnaturally quietly. Anyone can find traps, but thieves can do it better and remove them without setting them off.

    Now thieves no longer suck, are not NECESSARY, but certainly contribute to every party.

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