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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17 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.

    • mad wabbit says:

      I have played many character classes & also been a DM for well over 30 years. I fully agree that anything later than second edition is not for me or the people I play with. We looked at 3rd edition, and that was the end of it.

      As for thieves & assassin’s, we have all tried playing these characters. I agree that it is the player(s) and DM`s fault if it gets out of hand. What party wouldn’t want the skills those characters have? Scouting ahead, finding / disarming traps, opening locks, gathering information, sneaking up behind an opponent for a backstab while the party is fighting for their lives?

      We had a DM once who ran an entire campaign where all players were single class or multiclass assassins. Once we had advanced to around 8th level, he secretly gave us orders from the guild master that we had to kill one of the other party members. Each was assigned a different member, no 2 matching up with each other. It ended with the party leader dying ( killed by a party member following orders ) in a dungeon after a major battle with monsters. It then came out what the guild master was doing, and the party decided to pay him back for his actions. The players chipped in for a raise dead for the leader, then the guild master was eliminated. After the end of that, we got a new DM.

      We all found a way to work together, & never in the last 20 years has a thief or assassin been a problem when dealing with other party members.

      All character races & classes are welcome in my games, there are only 2 requirements; that the character race or class has a full write-up – anything from a witch or archer-ranger from the old dragon magazine to anything from first or second edition, oriental adventures,the drow of the underdark book, unearthed arcana, complete gladiators handbook etc. The second rule is that the characters MUST work together; those who don’t are removed.

      I think that imagination & teamwork are the key to having a great game, and it can easily be done with thieves or assassins in a party. Over the years I have encountered all types of players & DM`s good & bad. Simply don’t invite those players that don’t work well with the group, and don’t show up to play if the DM sucks.

      Cheers

  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.

      Dave

      • Timothy Park says:

        I do find it amusing in 5E where I’ve played more rogues than any other class that “sleight of hand” — the current form of Pick Pocket, of course — has rather become the “dump skill”.

        There was a time in the City State of the Invincible Overload when the encounter tables turned up the Overlord himself in the streets of the city. My hobbit thief couldn’t resist and with a “watch this!” to the party he came up with some excuse to fall in with the procession, work his way close and lift the Overlord’s purse.

        Where most would have run, he flashed the purse to the party to be sure the deed was witnessed and then said to the DM “I’m putting it *back*.”

        “You know I’m going to make you roll again.”

        “Fortune favors the bold.”

        We rolled. It worked. Dear Thaddeus did get a “Who the hell are you?” as he fled.

        More than 30 years of braggin’ rights. Worth it.

  6. Fabian Stretton says:

    Interesting – but not essentially true – and will give two examples I have played.
    a) An elven Sorcerer Assassin (Nominally a MU as it was 2nd Ed).
    Character had grown up as the primary field agent in the local rulers secret service (hence the skill set), but was Neutral good. When the king changed and elves/Very long lived individuals became unpopular, she left, but the skill set (kill by stealth / spy, etc) left with her. As she was Good aligned, party issues were not a problem, in fact due to good care and roleplaying, the other players didn’t actually discover she was an assassin until the group reached 6th level – by which time she was the party spokesperson and well trusted.

    B) A slightly unhinged and “Psychotic Good” dwarf barbarian was embarrassing but VERY useful (purpose built hamburger maker), until he picked up a cursed 2H sword. The primary effect was to make him Chaotic Evil. Given his “anger management issues” it took the other players several sessions to notice any difference. Basically, becoming evil made very little difference to how he worked with the party. They were still necessary companions on his march to power, and enlightened self interest encouraged him to not attack/piss them off. The party only noticed the curse when they realised that he was starting to kill and kill slowly for fun, not accept surrenders, etc. slightly different to his normal rage and otherwise honourable behaviour.

    Point is – very few Evil characters would backstab trusted companions simply because they are so useful on your rise to power. Backstabbing them to join a major “BOSS” is foolish because in reality, the BOSS will see this, and not trust you/off you first chance he gets – and he IS evil, so conscience isn’t an issue, etc.

  7. Ilbranteloth says:

    Not quite since the tan box, I started with Holmes, just as the MM was released.

    I’ve never really had intra-party issues with thieves and assassins. Stealing from or killing a party member sounds more like a problem with impulse control than a reasonable decision a character would make after traveling with a group of individuals that most likely become fast friends after enduring many life-and-death scenarios together.

    The majority of rogues/thieves in my campaigns tend to land there as a combination of background (an orphan in the street, etc), or to be a Dex-based character. It’s almost never been about stealing things, including pick-pocketing things. They are sometimes a bit deceptive with their party, but not all rogues are deceptive either.

    Assassin is really a job description. You’re paid to kill. The only real difference between a mercenary and an assassin in D&D is that an assassin is hired to kill a specific individual, and usually not in a military situation. And the reality is that almost no PC assassins are hired to kill anybody.

    For any of my players that have played one, it’s really more about being the master killer. The guy, that given the right circumstances, can get in and make the kill in one clean shot.

    The only time I’ve had issues with intra-party conflict is when people are playing evil characters. And this is usually because most people have difficulty with how a situation like that would play out. The few times we’ve done it, I use the mob as the template. The organization is lawful evil, although some PCs or NPCs are neutral or chaotic evil. While it is quite possible that one of the PCs might want to off one of their companions (and might even come to that eventually), what prevents them from doing so is the organization itself.

    Early on, the PCs work together because they really can’t succeed otherwise. As they gain levels, it’s not really their character level that matters, it’s their position within the organization. This type of campaign requires the DM to be very invested, because there is a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering as the PCs try to gain special favor with their superiors. So it becomes a game of secrets, and each player doesn’t really know exactly where the PC next to them stands. Most of the time the machinations will not lead to an order to take out a PC. But they do work at odds with each other while trying to gain their position. And the boss (the DM) does foster suspicion and strife within the group. That’s always fun when I tell one player a secret about another player…

    It is very cool with the right group of players, and the DM has an opportunity to build a good amount of paranoia within the group. For example, what if I do decide to off my friend? Will I be targeted with a hit?

    The best situations as they gain power in the organization is that other factions within the organization begin to target them, and they again have to work together to survive.

    But it really has to be the right group of players, who understand right from the start that it’s possible that one of the other PCs could be after you at some point in time. The mob campaign is really about loyalty, and the question is whether you value to loyalty of your fellow PCs over your boss. The underlying potential, though, is that true loyalty among the PCs can build a strong enough personal organization to take out the boss and take over the entire organization. So they have an incentive to not fight amongst themselves, but the way I set it up is that it encourages it, but not to the point of death…you don’t want to kill a favorite of the boss.

  8. Alex Savage says:

    >You focus your training on the grim art of death. Those who adhere to this archetype are diverse: hired killers, spies, bounty hunters, and even specially anointed priests trained to exterminate the enemies of their deity. Stealth, poison, and disguise help you eliminate your foes with deadly efficiency.

    ^Fifth edition on the assassin archetype for rogues. You’ll note that the book gives far more options from the get-go than ‘psychopathic murderer’. Other previously problematic classes have gotten a similar treatment. All that said, one of the worst encounters I’ve had at the d&d table was with a power gamer playing an assassin, but that was all the way back in 3.5, and the DM, new though he was, did not long put up with the player’s garbage before applying the proverbial DM-screen-to-the-forehead.

  9. JackbeThimble says:

    I actually did play an all-evil one-shot adventure last year for 5e (with the PCs including both a Paladin of Treachery and an actual Assassin no less) but I don’t think any of my PCs ever made any moves towards betraying their comrades in that one. Probably because the adventure I gave them gave them enough opportunity for deception, treachery and murder without having to turn on each other. I wonder if part of the problem is that when people run ‘evil’ campaigns they create the expectation that the players will actually have the chance to do evil stuff and when players find that it basically amounts the same thing as any other D&D game with a different paint job they get bored and disappointed and start acting up.

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