Monday, January 18, 2010

What's Wrong With Thieves in AD&D?


Well, I admit, *I* don't necessarily believe there is anything "wrong" with Thieves in AD&D. I merely present that as a rhetorical thought echoing the numerous thoughts and commentary I have read in various locations, with people lamenting how:

"Thieves are weak";
"Thieves die to easily in AD&D";
"Thieves in AD&D are next to useless";
"In AD&D, Thieves are near-hopeless characters";

I also confess--I have never played a Thief character. I've always played my favourites, Paladins, as well as Rangers, Fighters, Mages and occasionally Clerics. I guess I've just never really identified with Thieves. Nonetheless, I freely concede that even my recollection and familiarity with the nuances of rules pertaining to Thieves may be ignorant; however, I really do not understand where all the gnashing of teeth and wailing about how pathetic Thieves are in the game. In many, many campaigns I have been a part of--speaking exclusively of AD&D games back in the day--I recall friends of mine *loving* playing their Thief characters--whether they were uber-fighter/thief elves, elven fighter/magic-user/thieves--or merely *Human* Thieves--they loved them all dearly. Truth be told--the way they typically played them, whether they were Human or Elven, they were always talented, ruthless, smooth, charming, clever, daring, and often funny, zany, madcap characters of affection, and great style--sometimes even mixed with a pinch of the flamboyantly ridiculous--they all stand out in my mind as absolutely fun, creative, flexible characters that were always useful and effective in--and out of combat.

Thus, I am at a loss as to this seemingly recent consensus of lamentation about how Thieves in the game are entirely *Lame*.

Any of you, my friends, have some thoughts and commentary on this curious matter?

Semper Fidelis,



  1. There is, as you know, a hierarchy of power-effectiveness in the D&D games, AD&D included. This hierarchy has at its top the Magic-User, and at its lowest rung, the thief.
    --This is the case by virtue of the similarity of restrictions placed upon them both (HD, weapon choices, and limited armour choices, while the M-U's have a disproportionate degree of increasing power through their spells, their magic item selection, and their ability to create magic items.

    When the thief, whose sole claim to linear effectiveness is necessitated upon a set of combat conditions to deliver a single 'back-stab' attack at whatever multiplier of their restricted weapons damage (envenomed, possibly), is compared to the M-U's tremendous rise in power in all vectors save that of melee combat, is it any wonder that thieves are perceived to be 'next to useless'? This is even more pronounced, Read as Written, for the Assassin, who must be of an evil alignment -- thus drastically reducing their operational limits within most parties (i.e., neutral to good-aligned).

    The fighters (ftr/rng/pal), too, are increasingly left behind except for their ability to wear better armours, wield powerful weapons, and their 'nice' hit points.

    Next, I would posit, is the monk, who may begin as a dog along with the thieves and assassins, but eventually breaks the curve with a host of increasingly more powerful personal abilities (if played correctly/efficiently -- and that is a precarious edge), but never ones even rivalling the cleric or illusionist.

    The illusionist is in almost every way a pale reflection of the M-U, and their magics are often useless against the most common of foes, especially at the lower levels -- placing the curve intersection at roughly the same increment of the monk's rise in power, but still dependent upon the intelligence-level of their targets (unlike similar restrictions upon the monk). However, given their prolonged longevity, the illusionist is capable of being played in an effective manner as regards large numbers of foes, but this edge is perhaps/likely even more razored than the monk's with fewer magic items of consequence than the M-U, and (if memory serves) far diminished ability to craft magic items (save that of scrolls, their use dependent upon either a screen of fighters, or fortunate opportunity).

    If one is generous, and the Unearthed Arcana is utilised, the Druid is more powerful than the illusionist. However, without the UA, this is simply not the case in AD&D, putting them roughly ahead of the monk, but only by the narrowest of leads.

    The cleric, essentially a fighter with spells, only grows in power as s/he continues to please her/his god, which, in and of itself, is a great boon, potentially greater than that of the solipsistic M-U's, but still limited in the panoply of gear to the M-U. The cleric's in-game, RaW plateau is reached earlier than the M-U's, although it is arguable that the relationship with the patron deity has the potential to outstrip them all.

    Now, take the M-U, and all that has been said about it in comparison to the other classes. Yes, they start out terribly vulnerable to the most common hazards of adventurers, but once past 4th level, outstrip the thief/assassin. The Fighter is very quickly outstripped by the M-U when played correctly and with the assistance of the hp-soak to damage-dealt ratio of the fighter types. By 8th or so, the monk (who is coming into their own about the same time), 11th for the druid, and 13th to 15th versus the illusionist.


  2. ...

    Simply to be complete, I shall address the limited powers of the paladin, given that non-evil foes (natural monsters of heightened power, to sum it up) that could easily plague the party, including the alignment-oriented issues of the cleric. One could say that if the cleric is a fighter with magic, the paladin is part of that evolution/curve, but fails to achieve either class's power for exactly that reason. Ultimately, the paladin is only comparable to the bard, which is clearly outstripped by the holy warrior so long as their alignment restrictions are upheld.

    Thus, the ineffectuality of the thieves.

  3. Thieves, as the class is designed, are not built for thuggery or outright combat. At low level, the thief is a weaker party member but not by orders of magnitude. However, this comparative weakness is balanced by abilities that are only useful in certain situations--doors, traps, locks, etc. I've added the thief-acrobat abilities to the thief class, along with some things like appraising gems and forgery, just to give them more to do. For those that do a lot of wilderness adventuring, however, thieves are not of much use right from the start.

    Getting back to the low-level thing--in a recent adventure, the player with the thief character was absent and two of the characters died as the result of a poisoned trap (although one didn't truly die, as a neutralize poison potion was administered). In a classic dungeon or module setting, thieves are quite useful at low level.

  4. Greetings!

    Timeshadows--Very nice! I now know why the Thief is lame in AD&D! Very helpful, sugar. I appreciate such a thorough analysis!

    Rusty Battleaxe--Hmmm...any ideas on providing some additional utility for the Thief? Should he have some few special abilities, or enhanced damage and fighting ability?

    Semper Fidelis,


  5. Dude, you've got to stop calling me Sugar.