Legends and Lore - Evolution of the Thief

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Legends and Lore
Evolution of the Thief

by Mike Mearls

Of all the classes in the game, the thief is the one whose very identity has changed the most over the years.

Talk about this column here.

Well, I thought that this was a fair evaluation of how the Thief/Rogue has changed. You can say that the change was not a good one, but I think that Mearls got it right.

"Ah, the age-old conundrum. Defenders of a game are too blind to see it's broken, and critics are too idiotic to see that it isn't." - Brian McCormick

I believe he was right about what made the thief different and that was the set of skills he had and I believe that they should have stayed with the thief.  When those unique skills of his were taken away, he just became another melee combatant who could sneak attack.
Hmmm, yeah. Honestly I think looking for traps might well best be made a Thievery function though. Making rogues depend on virtually a dump stat for one of their fairly significant traditional functions is harsh. It also makes the whole Thievery skill less useful.

But anyway, he's right. In fact he understated things, the 1e DMG flat out states that any attempt of a thief to backstab more than once in a fight is doomed to fail. The backstab bonus was a nice feature for a thief but it wasn't ever going to make them effective in combat. The better way for them to go was really as a bow user or throwing daggers/darts. Anyhow there are a dozen ways the 4e situation is overall quite a bit better.
That is not dead which may eternal lie
When I look at the thief I picture the trap disarming, wall climbing, pocket picking, scoundrel who has lots of tricks up his sleeve and will go the distance to fill his pockets.  I think there should be "Skill Specialties" that each class has towards certain skills.  I know everyone can use these skills but make some of them go just that little extra mile when dealing with a certain class that isn't open to other classes. 
I have a 1e thief and I have to say it's not good.  At level 1, I had plenty of skills, but like a 10% chance of success at any of them.  Now, we're around level 5-6, the wizard and cleric are regularly casting encounter-swinging spells, the fighter is even more of a badass, and I... am up to about a 30% chance of success.  I suppose by level 15 or so I will actually be able to perform some skills with confidence, but so far I'm just a weaker version of a fighter.  So yeah, theoretically you're the skill guy.  But you're not actually any good at those skills for a long, long time.

And as far as backstab is concerned, it's just not possible with any regularity, and I don't see how it could be unless the DM is specifically setting encounters up around its particular requirements.  It's extremely frustrating after you've played 4e and are used to all characters contributing equally.

I will admit though that it encourages RP, if only because its the only way to distinguish myself from our classless level 2 henchmen.
OMG, I've been looking for that picture for years.
I think Mr. Mearls has a good point about the thief losing some of his identity over the editions.  Once some of his schtick became available to other classes in the form of skills, the class lost a great deal of its uniqueness.  Especially outside of combat. 

I wish more points like this would have been recognized as a problem in 3E and 4E. 

What you guys have gained in 4E tactical play you have lost several times over in other areas.  

And that makes me sad.   
I think Mr. Mearls has a good point about the thief losing some of his identity over the editions.  Once some of his schtick became available to other classes in the form of skills, the class lost a great deal of its uniqueness.  Especially outside of combat. 



I don't miss it a bit.  I never especially liked the idea that to survive, I had to take along a clown that contributed virtually nothing in combat, was almost required to hose the party and try to steal treasure from his fellow adventurers, all because of skills that nobody else could have and were needed to survive, but weren't very likely to work.

Good riddance.


-Polaris     
The rules should be tools, well-wrought and easy to use, that help build those situations. In the hands of players, such tools are options, ideas, and possibilities that come to life in play—guideposts to help make D&D as funny, scary, and enjoyable as possible. The rules are a springboard to an exciting, engaging, and imaginative game; good ones are neither a straitjacket nor so empty that they suggest nothing.


For once, +1, Mr Mearls.
I would add that it is true of each aspect of the game - not only skills and abilities, but combat options, too.

I would say that the most interesting evolution of the game was to redefine what was, or not, covered by the notion of "class". With AD&D1, for instance, your class defined everything about your character : how he fought (and if he was able to fight at all), what he could do or not out of fight, even its morality, or the way he had to be roleplayed. The class defined the character.

In 4E, your class defines the kind of attacks or utilities you can use, the tactics you favor - and the skills you are better at. Role playing, be it in the sense of " playing a personality", or in the sense of "accomplishing out of rule actions" (like walking in a corridor with your 10'' pole in hand for the "gelatinous cube test") are not limited by class. As you said, the Fighter can be a gifted "thief". Or a magic user, thanks to the ritual caster feat.
The character concept comes first, the class selection is just a way to flesh him out and define the way he interacts with the rules.

If fear that, even if I agree with you on this, we don't have the same standards for defining what is too few or too much options, however.
Remember Tunnel Seventeen !
Polaris,


That's a rather jaded view of a Thief don't you think?

Maybe I played them different then others but I never stole or cheated from my party and I found ways to contribute every game to the success of our adventures.      
Polaris,


That's a rather jaded view of a Thief don't you think?

Maybe I played them different then others but I never stole or cheated from my party and I found ways to contribute every game to the success of our adventures.      




In ADnD 1E, you got 1XP per GP gained and by the rules that included gold gained by stealing from other party members.  In ADnD2E, that mechanic was dropped EXCEPT for the Thief.

Result:  Almost every thief could be counted on to steal from the party since it game them massives amounts of XP to do so and the rest of the party has virtually no way to detect it let alone stop it.

So is my view of the old Thief jaded?  Yeah.  It's also very much factual and to the point at least IMHO.


-Polaris      

Polaris,


I can certainly understand your point, then.

I guess I was lucky in that my gaming group didn't play like that. 


There were some guys in other groups I knew that played Chaotic Neutral and Evil thieves like that but none of my gaming group did.  We knew not to becuase stealing from buddies causing problems, both in game and at the table.  None of my group's GMs rewarded people for acting that way.  Quite the opposite, actually. 


So for me it was trying to be pragmatic and trying to be a nice guy. 

I never realized that a whole lot of people played it differently.   


         

I am happy to see an L&L article with a clear and concise conclusion. Hopefully this will continue in the future so that these articles can involve less confused arguments and more discussions. Regarding the thief/rogue, I'm very happy with how it's evolved over time. Personally, in 2nd edition, I was a big fan of the basic ninja class from the ninja's handbook - it was basically a thief that focused more on combat, making it much more like the modern striker rogue.
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that's a good point.  I thought the article's focus was better this time as well. 
This article was indeed a whole lot better then the previous ones, and you can see that the reactions have also improved a lot as well.

As for the rogue using its uniqueness... only in theory. In practice nobody picks locks and breaks traps just like him. 
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Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
I'll say this was a good show by Mearls. Mentions of 4e, an actual CONCLUSION! For once its not something that a fifth grade teacher would give a F to!

This is how all of those articles should have been.

Now on to the actual discussion the Rogue is much more interesting than the Thief and I have no problem with skills being handed out. I do agree that Thievery should be capable of spotting traps and hidden doors.
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These articles seem to be getting emptier and emptier.  Yeah, in 2e the Theif was divorced from the stealing-for-a-living concept and re-named the 'Rogue.'  In 3e, it became a sometimes-effective highly-stituational-high-damage class, but still relied on superior skills (double the skills of most classes) to contribute (until those skills were obviated by magic, which didn't take long).  In 4e, the Rogue was given a striker role, a dependable, less-situational extra-damage mechanic, and, yeah, more skills than typical, but not hugely more.  In Essentials it was suddenly the 'Theif' who could 'backstab' again.

One of the things 4E did was balance each of the classes by their role in combat. While I think balance extends beyond combat, combat is a good place to start...

The way I saw it was that 4e balanced classes combat and non-combat separately.  Where 3e tried to balance the weakness of the Rogue with a lot of skills, 4e balanced every class in combat, with comparable numbers/useabiity of powers, and left out-of-combat more to tradition.

The fighter has little to do out of combat, in 4e, because that's how it's always been.  The Rogue has a bit more - he doesn't 'pay' for that in anyway, it's just free for having had lots of skills in the past.

The classes with neglected out-of-combat abilities (3 skills from a bland list) could use a boost.  The Rogue could certainly use an alternate way to find traps - though it'll be hard to imagine one, with both INT (formerly used in search) and WIS (perception, currently used to find traps) being potential dump stats for the typically high-DEX/high-CHA Rogue...

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"You want The Tooth?  You can't handle The Tooth!"  - Dahlver-Nar.

"If magic is unrestrained in the campaign, D&D quickly degenerates into a weird wizard show where players get bored quickly"  - E. Gary Gygax

 

 

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I, in no way, shape or form, am not interested in any non-combat abilities. Roleplaying is make belief- I think I can handle creating it up on the fly.

I guess I can point the Rogue- Thief from Heroes of the Fallen Lands squarely on Mike's shoulders.

Never will use the knack abilities for the Scout or Hunter.
When I look at the thief I picture the trap disarming, wall climbing, pocket picking, scoundrel who has lots of tricks up his sleeve and will go the distance to fill his pockets.  I think there should be "Skill Specialties" that each class has towards certain skills.  I know everyone can use these skills but make some of them go just that little extra mile when dealing with a certain class that isn't open to other classes. 


I think the point is that a rogue is a combat role and a thief is someone trained in Theivery.  You can now be a rogue but not a thief and a thief but not a rogue (and a rogue and thief, or neither rogue nor thief).

I like that combat roles are divorced, for the large part from noncombat roles.  I'd like there to be more mechanical support for noncombat roles, however.
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At any rate, back on topic....

Not all noncombat is "roleplaying".  To be fair, I use the term "roleplaying" here to mean acting in character, whether that be through social interaction, or simply physical actions that are consistent with the character's personality.  Noncombat can include exploration, wilderness survival, and research.  I think there is a place for rules for actions that don't directly involve combat.  After all, that's why we have rituals, and Skills like Diplomacy, Endurance, History, and Streetwise, which have no direct combat applications.
I feel that the skills provided to the clas adequately serve any non-roleplaying needs.

I'm not a fan of the knack abilities or the Shade's at-will racial power. One of the strengths of 4th is the separation of non-roleplaying and combat abilities.

Balancing a combat ability within a class with a non-combat ability is dangerous. I 100% play hack and slash, kicking doors down, dungeon delving. The Shade is not very fun to do this with. Nor are the knacks for the scout/hunter.

As long as non-roleplaying abities are not balanced with roleplaying abilities all will be fine.
As long as non-roleplaying isn't balanced with combat abilities all will be fine.


I agree that the game should not force a choice between combat and noncombat mechanics.  Sadly, 4e did not go far enough in that direction, mixing Skills that have combat uses (Acrobatics, Heal, Bluff) and Skills that do not (Diplomacy, History, and Endurance), and mixing combat feats with noncombat feats like Lingustics.

I don't have as much problem with races having noncombat abilities as part of their racial package, since races are not supposed to be simply for the combat.  They mostly revolve around abilities, which bridges combat and noncombat pretty evenly.  And other races already have noncombat abilities.  The eladrin fey step, for instance, while great in combat, is indispensable to things like exploration.  I'd love for other races to have powers that work well out of combat.

I do think there is plenty of room for more noncombat mechanics, as long as they don't impinge on the spaces carved out for combat mechanics.
> Balancing a combat ability within a class with a non-combat ability is
> dangerous. I 100% play hack and slash, kicking doors down, dungeon delving. The
> Shade is not very fun to do this with. Nor are the knacks for the scout/hunter.

I don't know about the Shade, but I don't think the Scout or Hunter suffer for the presence of 'knack' abilities, nor are they all useless in a hack-and-slash game. Something like Beast Empathy might not see a lot of use, but Ambush Expertise sure can, and even the 'you can tell what has been here recently' trick at least gives you a heads-up to what you'll be hacking your way through next (so you can prepare appropriately).
One aspect I did like for the martial classes in Heroes of the Fallen Lands was tying skills with utilities. I'm specifically thinking about the Knight and Slayer. As a non-Roleplayer the skills mostly go unused. With the Knight my skill training in Diplomacy now has purpose.
True- I have noticed that the Knacks don't take away from the combat abilities. In other words, they were not balanced by taking away from the combat abilities.

Perhaps Mike is making me nervous that he might start balancing across the board- combat abilities with non combat abilities. He hinted that was what happened with the Shade.
I, in no way, shape or form, am not interested in any non-combat abilities. Roleplaying is make belief- I think I can handle creating it up on the fly. I guess I can point the Rogue- Thief from Heroes of the Fallen Lands squarely on Mike's shoulders.


+1

I enjoy my Rogues just fine. Or whatever they'll be called in a month.
Does anyone else see Hugh Jackman-as-Wolverine all over this picture?
Here are the PHB essentia, in my opinion:
  • Three Basic Rules (p 11)
  • Power Types and Usage (p 54)
  • Skills (p178-179)
  • Feats (p 192)
  • Rest and Recovery (p 263)
  • All of Chapter 9 [Combat] (p 264-295)
A player needs to read the sections for building his or her character -- race, class, powers, feats, equipment, etc. But those are PC-specific. The above list is for everyone, regardless of the race or class or build or concept they are playing.
I think they should have brought in the thief as a martial controller — using agility, wits, and sneaky-basterdness to hinder enemies. Instead of backstabbing, this thief trips enemies into each other, distracts them with hijinks, tosses around slippery oils or other impediments, etc.
I think they should have brought in the thief as a martial controller — using agility, wits, and sneaky-basterdness to hinder enemies. Instead of backstabbing, this thief trips enemies into each other, distracts them with hijinks, tosses around slippery oils or other impediments, etc.

Lacking a controller doesn't seem quite the affront to the Martial Source that it used to, now that we have the new daililess standard in HotFL/K.  :sigh:

Want to see the best of 4e included in 5e?  Join the Old Guard of 4e.

5e really needs something like Wrecan's SARN-FU to support "Theatre of the Mind."

"You want The Tooth?  You can't handle The Tooth!"  - Dahlver-Nar.

"If magic is unrestrained in the campaign, D&D quickly degenerates into a weird wizard show where players get bored quickly"  - E. Gary Gygax

 

 

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Great article, Mearls! Thanks!
(I employ zie/zie/zir as a gender-neutral counterpart to he/him/his. Just a heads-up.) Essentials definitely isn't for me as a player, and I feel that its design and implementation bear serious flaws which fill me with concern for the future of D&D, but I've come to the conclusion that it isn't going to destroy the game that I want to play. Indeed, I think that I could probably run a game for players using Essentials characters without it being much of a problem at all. Time will tell, I suppose.
Tubermancer.
June.
just wait and see...
Get the troika folks back, retool TOEE using the current ruleset, Turn Based Combat, of course. Release in December then follow up with expansions covering Against The Giants, The Scourge of the Slave Lords. maybe DLC for the one shot's like Ghost Tower of Inverness, White Plume Mountain, etc. Using the same engine, could throw the Dragonlance folks a bone or two with faithful adaptations of the first 3 mods of that series. Then when it looks about like the engine's run it's course release an adventure editor/builder expansion sort of like the old Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures.
Nice re-hash of what Mearls wrote four years ago on the evolution of the Rogue in Wizards Presents: Races and Classes. Tongue out


Mike Mearls, 2007 (Wizards Presents: Races and Classes, p. 67):
To better balance the classes, the design team set aside noncombat functions and looked solely at what each class does in a fight. We then balanced their abilities across the board, while following a similar process for noncombat abilities. By cutting off any bleed in balance between those areas, we created characters that are on equal footing across every part of an adventure, rather than creating a situation where player characters are balanced only if you look at all the encounters as a whole.


Rule of Three, 11 April 2011:
What’s the rationale behind the shade’s healing surge penalty? Why give them this penalty without an offsetting bonus?
Balancing the loss of a healing surge is a tricky matter. It’s sort of like taking out a loan without any promise that you’ll have to repay it. When we balance something like this, we have to look at the race’s role in the game session as a whole. We can’t just look at combat, as healing surges are a strategic resource.

With that in mind, the shade’s racial ability is a powerful tool. A shade traveling in the middle of a group is effectively invisible. At night, a shade can evade detection with ease. While the racial ability’s standard action cost makes it a suboptimal choice in many combat situations, outside of a fight its at-will usage makes it a powerful, versatile tool. In addition, a smart shade can begin most combats hidden.


Since the racial power focuses on strategic play, we decided to balance it with a strategic penalty.



Yay for flip-flopping design decisions - balancing in-combat benefits with out-of-combat benefits is now a-ok. Undecided


 

“If the computer or the game designer is having more fun than the player, you have made a terrible mistake.” -Sid Meier
Nice re-hash of what Mearls wrote four years ago on the evolution of the Rogue in Wizards Presents: Races and Classes. Tongue out


Shh.  Baby steps.  He didn't utterly bollocks this one up like the others so we're praising him for it.
(I employ zie/zie/zir as a gender-neutral counterpart to he/him/his. Just a heads-up.) Essentials definitely isn't for me as a player, and I feel that its design and implementation bear serious flaws which fill me with concern for the future of D&D, but I've come to the conclusion that it isn't going to destroy the game that I want to play. Indeed, I think that I could probably run a game for players using Essentials characters without it being much of a problem at all. Time will tell, I suppose.