Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins

I have only run an evil-themed D&D campaign once, and only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released the Drow Treachery cards and the Menzoberranzan campaign book and promoted the products with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. I’ve served as a dungeon master for every season of Encounters and never considered skipping Council of Spiders, but I questioned the wisdom of promoting an evil, backstabbing campaign, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If the player’s actions defied her alignment, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Still, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it. They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from  classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second-edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In third edition, “thieves” became “rogues” to discourage similar mischief. Steve Winter explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

Of course, you don’t have to play a thief or assassin to “just play your character,” and to instigate fights among the party. In the Legacy of the Crystal Shard Encounters season, one player embraced the corruption of the black ice and seemed tempted to disrupt the party. This time, I felt willing to forbid any action that would make the players war amongst themselves. But first, I set in-game events that challenged the character to choose between the black ice and his other loyalties, and to the player’s credit, he chose to cast aside the corruption.

Games of Paranoia aside, I no longer see “I’m just playing my character” as an excuse for disruptive play.

[February 15, 2014: Updated to indicate that “thief” became “rogue” in third edition.]

Next: A role-playing game player’s obligation

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10 Responses to Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins

  1. You know, until I had read this I had never considered why they changed the name (well, other than simply assuming that they did so to piss on Gary). Really well thought out and just an all around good piece.

    Thanks for publishing it.

  2. David Hitchcock says:

    I hate to break it to you but a character class in 2nd edition was called Thief…but they did get rid of the Assassin. Just thought I would let you know. From a guy whose played since the Red box D&D.

    • DM David says:

      Right. Thieves became rogues in third. Good catch. Thanks!

      • Marty says:

        You’re both actually right…

        P 25 of PHB 2e:
        “The character classes are divided into four groups according to general occupation: Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue”.

        Rogue was the archetype class with Thief and Bard as the sub-classes. It’s a fine line, but you are correct in that Rogue concept was introduced in 2e, even if the Thief was still one of its sub-classes. Assassins were definitely gone from the PHB.

  3. GWheaton says:

    There were theives in 2nd edition. There is also a splat book for the class. But I do agree with your reasoning why these classes were dropped over time.

    I personally as a DM wouldn’t allow one party member to kill a party member or steal from them.

  4. Subliminal Encryption says:

    Interesting post. I could definitely see the argument made by players to TSR (and even now, WotC) about problematic “assassin” characters.

    The issue however is not the game system itself in MOST cases, it is the player. In fact I would venture to say that the vast bulk of people I have met or read about would be unable of playing such a character do to the complexity involved. Assassins are frankly unable and would not just walk up behind some and attempt to off them. There is planning involved, who do they talk to, what is their routine (if they have one), what places do they frequent and when, what are the layouts of those establishments, at any point during the day/night are they left unattended for at least 5 minutes and if so where is that, etc etc. Thats just gather intelligence and is really where the work should lay. Then you have to consider prep work. What kind of tools, if any, will you require, how do ensure a safe exfil. route, if you are working with others, what type of signal are you using and when do you “fire” it? These are serious questions and will add depth to the game (depending on how you handle your “contracts” it may also eat up a hell of alot of table time. I run my contracts as a seperate mini-game with the player unless there are crucial points involved with the party). Too many gamers have the impression that assassin’s are like this garbage you see in assassin’s creed or the insane nutjub serial killer. While those characters could be interesting, the archetypes are used far too frequently. I myself play one who is a very respectful businessman, and takes his job of murder very seriously. To be thorough, quick, and most importantly, discrete. Also consider that a wise assassin does not reveal his true identity and what he/she does for a living, but instead lives by a different persona for the majority of his time with the party only “reverting” when the time is necessary to line their pockets. This assumes that the party is not part of that characters “inner circle” of friends/family, but is instead a tool to be used. Now if the party is privy to that knowledge then the dynamic changes somewhat, though you could still keep the persona on just in case of prying eyes.

    As for the issues of party killing…I would venture a guess that the problem stems, in part, from the player AND the DM. In our games you had better come packing with a iron-clad background/story, and this is even more crucial to the assassin types than any other to AVOID the senseless pc killings. Using the above example, the party does not know the character in question is an assassin and are being “used” by the assassin. Why would he start offing his party members? First of all, you are wasting a potentially valuable resource over something petty (usually), secondly any action after that would then give away your cover and then you are dealing with the rest of them. Just because they did not see it happen does not mean they can not reasonably deduce that after he smacked you upside the head, you ghosted him the following night in retaliation. If the part IS aware of your job, then you will always be under scrutiny and should be striving to prove not only your worth, but friendship.

    Assassin’s get a bad rep because of terrible (or young) gamers not understanding or putting forth the effort to understand how a person in that trade might act and that in some regards are no different than anyone else.

    While I am highly critical of gamers (and more pointedly, metagamers/powergamers), I do understand that some of my points are subjective. The characters personality, background, fears, weaknesses will help the player flesh out the character. But assassins tend to need a little more love in creation that others (paladins as well). Also, I am not as familiar with 3.0 and have never played 3.5 and beyond. Having taken a look (I do this with every edition and class) at how the gaming system is laid out, class advancement is worked….I made the determination LOOOOONG ago that anthing beyond 2e is just not for me and is massively inferior. It seems to me that these games are developed more by video gamers and as such try to make D&D into the same and I loathe them for it. There are some out there who disagree, and I of course welcome that, but the newer editions do nothing for getting rid of the idea that the assassin has to be some mass murdering, psychotic party killer.
    Though I will reiterate that in most cases, its the player (and dm) who are at fault, not the system itself.

    • Ian says:

      Hear hear. I too stopped at 2nd ED. My reasoning is similar, and I also run my campaigns with rule 0 to the forefront. There is nothing in 3e and beyond that adds to the game. I have created my own classes and gaming rules to suit needs as they arise. I allow assassins in my game play; however they are a profession not a class. Any class can be an assassin, except Pallies(they are diametrically apposed to them). Since 2nd ED, I haven’t had a PC want to play a simple Thief. The PC that wants to delve into the Rouge class is limited only in their own imagination. Where in the “rules” can you find a Buccaneer/swashbuckler/bard? It’s all in the role-play, hence the RPG moniker of the game itself. I have DMed many games with assassins that were and were not known to the party. Assassination is a contract killing and not killing for sport or retaliation. I have had the assassin character actually lead an adventure to help cover up their contract. What a great way to get a party into an adventure they wouldn’t normally get into. As for thieving within the party, well it happens and not only by the “Thief”.
      Barbarians don’t get along with Mages? Yes that’s true, nor do Dwarves. Also Dwarves and Elves hate one and other. Pallies don’t trust anyone that isn’t LG. Hobbits/Halflings are overly fond of the soft life. This game is full of conflict, it is the PC and DMs job to interact within that conflict. Fafard hated magic, but his mentor was one of the preeminent Mages of Lahnkmar. Gimli and Legolas never seen eye to eye(so to speak). How many rules does this game need before it is nothing more than an unruly quagmire?
      We need to bring imagination and game play back to D&D, this is not a video game. It’s time to bring back play.

  5. Timothy Park says:

    Assassins were always trouble with the notable exception where one DM required them to be *Lawful*. Killing outside the directions of their Guild was not tolerated. That was brief but it did work.

    Thieves? We played lots of thieves and they worked out, but we tended to play that there was honor among thieves and they didn’t “piss in their own bed”. Many Bilbos, Grey Mousers and Shadowspawns back then. My second character was a thief: great fun.

    Who’s played since the tan books in the white box.

    • David Hartlage says:

      Hi Timothy,
      Clearly the players at your games brought more maturity to the thief than some of my early players. Thanks for commenting!

      Nowadays, the portfolio of thief abilities has expanded enough to make the temptation of picking pockets a thing of the past.


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