The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Of the 4 iconic classes in Dungeons & Dragons, only 3 appeared in the game’s original rules.

Just a few months after D&D’s initial release, in the May 1974 issue of a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter, Gary Gygax presented the thief class. In his introduction, Gary tells how the class was suggested by Santa Monica gamer Gary Switzer. “He mentioned that his group was developing a new class of character—thieves. Gary [Switzer] gave me a few details of how they were considering this character type, and from these I have constructed tentative rules for the class.” See The Thief Addition (1974) for more. In 1975, Supplement I: Greyhawk made the class official.

Thieves brought abilities that could shine in exploration and treasure collection. Too bad low-level thieves suffered from miserable chances of success. The thief class featured the ability to “remove small trap devices (such as poisoned needles)” At level 1, the thief boasts a 10% chance! So when your new thief says, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this,” the party should dive for cover. Original thieves enjoy no special ability to detect traps. Keep your hirelings in front.

Near level 10, a thief’s abilities improved enough to finally work reliably. Too bad wizards and clerics could now cast spells like Detect Traps, Invisibility, Levitate, and Fly. Most anything the thief did, a spell did better.

Thieves could “strike silently from behind” for +4 to hit and extra damage, but the game lacked rules for maneuvering to strike, so the stunt relied on a dungeon master’s favor.

The original thief lacked a dexterity bonus to armor class. Thieves suffered from the same 1d4 hit dice as wizards. Sneaking in for a backstab proved riskier for thieves than for their targets. Gary explained, “This class is different from any of the others. Thieves are generally not meant to fight.”

D&D players like characters handy in combat, so the thief should have proven as popular as the Sage, but players found the class so compelling that Thief took a place with the Magic User, Fighter, and Cleric. Even in the 70s, many players shied from running clerics, but someone always brought a thief.

The thief class offered 4 advantages that let it thrive.

1. An early monopoly on skills

The thief boasted the only abilities resembling skills. When thieves gained the ability to climb walls or find traps, fighting men, clerics, and magic users implicitly—or sometimes by rule—lost the ability to try similar feats.

In the early D&D game, players spent most of their game time immersed in exploration: mapping, searching, and evading hazards. Good play meant avoiding combat and saving spells. Expert play meant getting treasure without a fight. Low-level thieves may have sucked, but during all the searching, scouting, and evading, only thieves brought any useful, reusabable abilities.

2. A compelling archetype

Adventure fiction features many heroes that thieves or rogues. Gary Switzer and Gary Gygax drew inspiration from fantasy icons such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Fritz Leiber’s The Gray Mouser, and Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever.

We all sometimes feel bound by the restrictions of everyday life. Roguish characters let us escape that feeling and savor some vicarious disdain for society’s rules.

Players loved the Thief class, but many complained that the concept fostered conflict between players because the class title encouraged theft. Players stole from other party members and dragged parties into fights with the town guard. So D&D’s designers backed away from the class’s emphasis on stealing. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins. Second edition made the thief a type of Rogue in name and spirit. The new Player’s Handbook touted the rogue’s heroic archetypes. “Many famous folk heroes have been more than a little larcenous—Reynard the Fox, Robin Goodfellow, and Ali Baba are but a few.”

3. A reason for a solo spotlight

Even in the 90s, D&D rule books told players to elect a caller to speak for the party. Outside of Lake Geneva, D&D parties rarely assigned callers, but most tables settle on a leader who dominates attention. Until a fight comes, other players get less time in the spotlight. But rogues could often sneak and scout and play solo while other classes waited for a turn. Players like going rogue.

4. Fast leveling with no demi-human caps

Unlike classes in modern D&D, the original classes advanced at different rates. Thieves required less experience than anyone else, so they often rose a couple of levels above their party.

Few players chose a class based on the experience needed to level, but everyone who considered an elf or dwarf weighed the demi-human level limits. The original D&D rules stopped non-human characters from rising beyond certain levels, making the most powerful characters human. However, non-human thieves suffered no level-limits.

Gary introduced these level limits to explain human domination of D&D’s fantasy world. “A demi-human is unlimited in thief level only,” Gary explained, “as this is a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.” Also, the limits created a game that featured as many human characters as the fantasy fiction that D&D emulated.

Transforming the rogue

Third-edition fully renamed the thief class to the rogue. This name change matched a broader concept that embraced sneaky backstabbers and dashing swashbucklers. Rogues gained the ability to choose their skills. They could favor charm or acrobatics over theft. The new skill system finally gave low-level rogues a decent chance of success.

The transformation also made rogues a battlefield threat. When Backstab became Sneak Attack, thieves could easily maneuver for their special attack, and they could repeat it.

The rebirth of the thief as a rogue fits the archetype better than a character not meant to fight. Leiber described the Gray Mouser as one of the best swordsmen in the world. Robin Hood ranks as an expert archer. Gary Gygax said Robin’s climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) influenced on D&D’s combat system.

In fourth edition, every class needed a way to contribute to the game’s two main activities: combat encounters and skill challenges. By design, every character, and so every class, needed to contribute to skill challenges. That ended the old order of rogues who brought useful skills to exploration but nothing to a fight. For challenges, every class needed skills. On the battlefield, rogues needed to kick as much ass as anyone else.

But rogues did more than hold their end. Strikers came to dominate fourth-edition combat. See Which two D&D roles are too effective. When the designers put rogues in the striker category, the characters came to kick more ass than fighters, wizards, and clerics.

Fourth edition completely inverted the thief’s original role. A class that could barely fight now dominated the battlefield. A class that monopolized the closest thing original D&D had to a skill system was now limited to equal turns in skill challenges.

Fifth edition dials back the class’s combat dominance, but the new game leaves the rogue in a good spot. A d8 hit die and a dexterity bonus to armor class makes rogues stouter than the original thief. New class features let rogues excel at skill checks. Sneak attack still deals ample damage. The latest rogue fits the archetype better than Gary’s original ever did. You can even choose a Thief archetype. For my next character, I think I will.

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3 Responses to The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

  1. Daniel Boggs says:

    Interesting as always David. Just as an FYI, Switzer didn’t invent the class. it was actually Daniel Wagner, who played in the same group as Switzer. Wagner is one of the authors of The Manual of Aurania. There’s a pretty in depth discussion on the topic with Mr. Wagner here: http://odd74.proboards.com/thread/9279/manual-aurania

  2. alphastream says:

    One of the things 3E did was firmly codify the language around backstab/sneak attack. It was now clear to everyone what triggered it. However, that also imposed many restrictions. Ranged rogues were at a severe disadvantage since they were not flanking. It wasn’t until high level that a 3E rogue could get a hold of rings or other magic to allow blinking, invisibility, or other ways to consistently gain combat advantage. And, then there were monsters immune to sneak attack, such as all undead and constructs.

    4E freed us from those exceptions, and 5E kept that. And both 4E an 5E used interesting ideas for stealth that confused most players and dungeon masters. 4E had enough built in capabilities, such as the At-Will “Deft Strike” to allow players to hide and attack within the rules, but 5E lacks those. We can see many players trying to gain advantage (not sneak attack) on every single attack even though they have emerged from hiding to attack. That confusion extends even to many of the game’s designers when you ask them about it!

  3. Ty says:

    I don’t think it’s fair to say 4E was the edition that made the rogue a combat monster; I seem to remember 3E/3.5 rogues as quite capable combatants.

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