Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Thief Skill as Saving Throw

(Note: A version of this piece by me originally appeared in Fight On! Magazine #6 in 2009. I'm reiterating it here now for those of you without access to that document.)

The thief has been under siege of late. Internet blogs, website message boards, and FRPG fanzines have all been buzzing with some fairly harsh criticism of this venerable class.

An admittedly simplified analysis reveals that thief critics tend to fall into two frequently overlapping camps. For some, the class is too weak. Thief skill success percentages are far too low to rely upon for most of the character’s career. The second camp holds that the thief class is simply a bad fit with the rest of the game. These latter critics claim that making activities like picking pockets and hiding in shadows dedicated thief class abilities creates awkward situations where fighting men, clerics, and magic-users are de facto prohibited (or at least strongly discouraged) from attempting to perform the same feats.

So how do we fix the thief without rewriting the class or implementing elaborate supplemental rules? Simply treat each thief skill score as a sort of saving throw that the thief is entitled to in the event that the initial attempt at a given task fails. If this second roll succeeds, the initial failed roll is ignored.

Example One: Two intrepid adventurers, a fighting man and a thief, are faced with a sheer wall. The DM rules that there is only a 1 in 6 chance to safely complete such a tricky ascent with no special equipment, possibly with a +1 modifier to the roll if the climber boasts extraordinary dexterity. The fighter rolls a four and doesn’t make it. He loses his grip and suffers falling damage. The thief rolls a five and also fails, however his follow-up Climb Walls “saving” roll is 41%, a success! He completes the climb safely.

Example Two: A thief and his magic-user companion are attempting to tiptoe past a distracted orc sentry. Neither are heavily encumbered or wearing metal armor, so the DM assigns a base 1-3 in 6 chance of success for each character. A failure by either is sure to be noticed by the orc. The magic-user succeeds with a roll of two. The thief scores a six and fails. His follow-up Move Silently roll is 88%, also a failure. Despite his advantage, the thief has blown it this time around. Roll for initiative!

This approach is easy to remember, quick to employ, and doesn’t require changing one word of the thief class description from your rulebooks. It strengthens the thief significantly by allowing for two chances to succeed at any given usage of a “class skill” and doesn't infringe on the ability of other classes to have a reasonable chance of success when attempting "thiefly" actions.


  1. I like this idea. The only downside I can see is that it would require me to calculate a lot of success chances for various tasks.

    However I could add the D6 rules from Lament of the Flame Princess and use those, hmm..

    Thanks for the article!

  2. I like this as well. I'm all about streamlining rules mechanics, and having thief skills operate as a second set of class specific saves is a nice solid idea.

  3. I was very impressed with this article when it first appeared in FO!, and would be using this system myself, had I not already introduced my own take on the thief class.

  4. "The only downside I can see is that it would require me to calculate a lot of success chances for various tasks."

    Go back and look at Holmes Basic - roll of 1-2 on d6 to spring traps, detect secret doors, or surprise a foe. So you use a 1-2 for any given task, 1-3 if it's easier. Maybe 1-4 if you're really feeling gracious.

    That's what I'd do, anyway.

  5. Or you could implement a entirely d6 system for thief skills as shown in Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG. As a thief levels up, they can assign dots to each skill. The base for all other classes is 1 in 6, and they can't increase that.

  6. I like the idea, but I think I will assign the traditional Thief skills to the existing Saving Throw categories (ie Climbing -> "Turn to Stone or Paralysis") and recast the %s as bonuses.