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  1. - Top - End - #1
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    Yora's Avatar

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    Default Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    I really like the overall simplicity of Basic in all its incarnation, but one thing that always stood out to me as looking really bad are the chances to succeed at thief skills at lower levels.

    When you have a 15% chance to open a lock, or a 1/3 chance to hear noises on the other side of a door, then sure, why not give it a try. It can't hurt.

    Picking pockets, moving silently, and hiding in shadows can hurt a lot, though. A first level thief is weaker than almost any single creature you might be encountering, and most will be in groups.
    With a success chance of only 20% or 10%, you can be pretty much certain that your attempt to remain unnoticed will fail. If you try it, you will be detect almost every single time. This seems way too bad to ever really consider doing it. Only around 7th level or so are you getting more likely to succeed than to fail, and even then the risk of failure is still huge. 10th level seems like the point where being a thief actually becomes worthwhile. (And that's in B/X, which only goes up to 14th level. Later versions with higher levels increase even slower.)

    The only point I see in using Move Silently with these odds is to have the thief sneak up to the next corner and sneak around. If you're lucky, you might be able to see some hostile creatures and can sneak back to tell the rest of the party before the monsters know about your presence, and on a failure the thief can run back to the party, hopefully before one of the monsters can swing at you.

    Do these numbers need to be significantly raised up, or is there a way to handle these abilities as GM that makes them actually worth it as they are?
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    PaladinGuy

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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    I rather like the suggestion that these are the chances to do these things when otherwise impossible.

    Of course, this doesn't help much when the chances are this small, but it can be extended to "a thief has this much of a chance more than anyone else" to do these things.

    So, what do I mean by that?

    Well if a player asks "Can I spike his drink while he's turned away" the DM could reply "you estimate that for a reasonably dextrous character there's a 50% chance you can do it without him seeing - for a thief it's 50% plus your pick pockets skill.

    Similarly if you think there are reasonable shadows about that people can use to hide in, then determine a chance and add it to the thief skill.

    The skills suddenly become useful - and it might get the rest of the party to remember that in old-school games anyone can try (nearly) anything, but their chance of success can be really small.

    Some situations may be such that even a thief takes penalty - e.g. hiding in shadows in room with a light source in every corner, or climbing a wall that has been mastercrafted to be smooth or been greased, but D&D and AD&D were games of "you can always try" (usually with the DM making up the odds on the spot), something that the skill and feats systems have gone a long way to remove from the game - to its detriment in my opinion.

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    HalflingRogueGuy

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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    Picking pockets, moving silently, and hiding in shadows can hurt a lot, though. A first level thief is weaker than almost any single creature you might be encountering, and most will be in groups.
    With a success chance of only 20% or 10%, you can be pretty much certain that your attempt to remain unnoticed will fail. If you try it, you will be detect almost every single time. This seems way too bad to ever really consider doing it.
    Look at it this way: If there isn't a thief in the party is it a flat impossibility to ever steal something from someone? Is a locked door effectively the same asa solid wall because non-thieves can't pick locks? Is there absolutely no other way to find and deal with traps except to have a thief in the party? Are other characters utterly incapable of being stark naked and moving quietly? If a PC ducks into a shadowy corner at the last minute when an NPC is looking for them does the darkness there just... not exist to provide any practical benefit?

    Of course not. Most of what a thief's abilities do are things that other characters - at a minimal level of success - are still capable of doing. A thief's abilities are the chances of success when no NON-THIEF could possibly succeed. They can pick a lock in 1 round instead of a half hour. They can hide in shadows that other classes would stand out in like the moon on a clear night. They can pick the pocket of a guard whose only job is to hold onto the key to a lock. They can walk silently across a creaky wood floor that's covered in eggshells behind a guard who's actively listening for movement. They can climb silky-smooth, slime-covered walls as if it were a ladder. Etc. THAT is why the chances of success for a thief using those abilities is so low to begin with - it assumes they are being used in extraordinary circumstances and if the circumstances weren't extraordinary a thief would likely just automatically succeed.

    You have to remember that the core classes didn't always include the thief. The problem is that when the thief was introduced everybody understood how their abilities would get used [which is that they get used as the last resort after other ideas have already proven ineffective], so nobody ever thought it was necessary to explain that. It was only over time that DM's started to handle thief abilities as the wholesale replacement for a significant portion of game-play, which was INTERACTION with the DM to deal with traps and various thief-skill related situational challenges. It became quicker, easier, and more seductive to simply let the thief roll immediately (if there was a thief in the party), and only if the thief FAILED the roll to then figure out how to handle a situation by other means. Then both players and DM slipped into the mindset of, if the thief can't do it with their skill roll, it just can't be done AT ALL. But that was never how the game was supposed to work.
    Last edited by D+1; 2021-03-02 at 10:17 AM.

  4. - Top - End - #4
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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    Quote Originally Posted by D+1 View Post
    Of course not. Most of what a thief's abilities do are things that other characters - at a minimal level of success - are still capable of doing. A thief's abilities are the chances of success when no NON-THIEF could possibly succeed. They can pick a lock in 1 round instead of a half hour. They can hide in shadows that other classes would stand out in like the moon on a clear night. They can pick the pocket of a guard whose only job is to hold onto the key to a lock.
    Yes. All true. But when there's a 90 to 80% chance that the thief will get caught, will you still try it?

    I rather get detected 100% with my two fighter buddies and a cleric right next to me, than get caught 90% all by my lonesome self.
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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    Another option is to use the thief skills as saving throws.

    A save, unlike later editions, isn't a first line of defense. It's a "you failed and your only hope is to get lucky" last chance. I recall in AD&D that rangers, elves, and halflings had (mostly outdoors & ahead of the party) higher chances of surprising and lower chances of being surprised. Using thief skills to replace that is a straight downgrade, but adding them as a save after the normal methods fail makes then useful.

    It also lets thieves try things that other classes auto-fail. Like hiding in a dark corner in almost plain sight instead of needing to hide behind something big enough to conceal them.
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    HalflingRogueGuy

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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    Yes. All true. But when there's a 90 to 80% chance that the thief will get caught, will you still try it?
    I meant to add that failure does NOT equate to always being caught. For Pick Pockets there's a chance of your attempt being discovered, but that doesn't automatically mean your character has been arrested and jailed. It almost always just means you run like hell and hide until the heat's off. :) But it also doesn't mean you CAN'T try again as soon as you want. For Open Locks it means that you don't get to try again - and that is more support for the idea that you don't START with a thief trying to pick the lock but in actually using the key (if you can find it), and maybe occasionally just bashing the door open or smashing the hinges off the chest with a decent hammer is a better option, etc.

    Finding/removing traps is a particular trump card that is originally intended to be used after all the players have used up their ideas in trying to find possible traps, and if they have found any to disable or remove them, or simply find a way to avoid the damage from them. The original style of play would have had the DM describing the DETAILS of the trap - what the players could see, what it was likely to do, how it was triggered and so on. The players could then deal with the trap without a thief ever needing to be there - or participating along with the other characters in dealing with it WITHOUT resorting to their thief skill roll. If nothing the PC's did could otherwise solve the issue to their satisfaction, THEN the thief would roll and if successful the means to handle it would have been assumed to have been figured out. Over time DM's stopped putting time and effort into coming up with the details of traps and how they worked, and simply had thieves make their rolls - especially if the percentage for it was particularly high and would be more likely than not to make the effort of creating highly detailed traps rather pointless. But it eventually came to be that ALL trap details were considered rather pointless (even at low levels) and that dealing with traps was STRICTLY a job to be done by thieves - but that wasn't how it was ever supposed to be.

    Moving Silently failure doesn't mean you were HEARD, it just means you weren't SILENT. That's a large and important difference, and the consequences to the character if they WERE detected after the failure should be informing just what situations are WORTH risking the attempt. Same with Hiding in Shadows. Failing that roll doesn't mean you've now been spotted, just that you're not as hidden as you wanted to be. It also has to be noted that according to the DMG, even if you've succeeded in your hide attempt your thief still can be detected as if the thief was invisible! Even success at the roll hasn't guaranteed the character can't be detected. Thieves have to keep those drawbacks in mind - small chances of success and the consequences of failure along with still facing issues even with success are all factors that thief players have to use to weigh how often they try to entirely rely on thief abilities. Once thieves get to higher levels their abilities are more powerful and trustworthy, but at low levels and low percentages the best thief is the one who depends on those abilities as little as possible. And it's generally seen as a reason that thieves advance so quickly too - to more rapidly get to levels where they CAN make better use of their percentages.

    I rather get detected 100% with my two fighter buddies and a cleric right next to me, than get caught 90% all by my lonesome self.
    And again it's more support for the idea that just having the chance as a thief ability doesn't mean it's the first thing you resort to - it's the FALLBACK you resort to when other actions have failed, or else you're willing to risk the consequences for failure. Thieves (especially at low levels) aren't supposed to be lone wolves, laughing at the dangers as they James Bond and Stainless Steel Rat their way through adventures. It takes a while to build those abilities up to that point.

  7. - Top - End - #7
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    Yora's Avatar

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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    Is your argument that thief skills are basically saving throws that only thieves get to still get success after an attempt to do one of these things has failed?
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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    Is your argument that thief skills are basically saving throws that only thieves get to still get success after an attempt to do one of these things has failed?
    I think they can function in a similar manner. Its an idea I ran across some years ago and keep remembering because it sounded odd at first. AFB so I'll pull out random half-remembered numbers.

    Party mapping a dungeon has 1/6 chance to surprise a random encounter, I think I recall halflings maybe 60' ahead having say a 2/6 chance. All race based, everyone has before class factored in. If its a halfling rogue with 20% hide & silent out scouting do you use that instead? Should thief scouting because they have specific skills be rolling racial chances until class skills are higher? That makes sending the "sneaky" class pointless (until the skills are better of course). Similar effect with something like dwarf chance to spot odd stonework, should a dwarf fighter be better at detecting moving stone traps than a dwarf thief until the thief has leveled up enough to have the same base chance?Similar with listening at a door. Should thief class be worse than everyone base chance at low levels (really don't recall base chances here)? If someone wants to swipe a trinket off a table, maybe roll under Dex for non-thief but thief has worse skill % for a long time.

    If you use the skills like they're saves you can avoid low level thieves maybe being worse or just marginally at thief stuff than regular adventurers. It's another way to use them that makes up for terrible %s and not getting spells or fighting ability. And I'd do that in addition to thief being able to actively use the skills.
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    HalflingRogueGuy

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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    Is your argument that thief skills are basically saving throws that only thieves get to still get success after an attempt to do one of these things has failed?
    What I'm saying is that the normal play of the game is supposed to be:
    PC's come across a chest. ALL the PC's describe to the DM how they are searching the area, what kind of traps they're looking for that might be on or around the chest, etc. The DM, who knows what is or is not there and how easy he wants it discovered, will inform the players whether or not they found anything. If the players desire they can then have the thief search for traps. If the thief roll succeeds then unless the DM has assigned penalties to the roll for something, then if there's a trap, it's found. If the PC's already found all the traps to be found then the thief roll is superfluous - but it is not the first resort. The first resort is for ALL THE PLAYERS to interact with the DM.

    Assume they found a trap. The DM knows (or should know) what kind of trap it is, how it works, what sets it off, etc. Again, ALL THE PLAYERS interact with the DM to figure out a way to either disarm the trap entirely, avoid whatever damage or other effects it has, etc. The DM informs the players if their plans would or wouldn't succeed. If the plan won't work, or the PC's can't be sure if it will work the DM tells them that. If there's no reliable plan or the players are still paranoid then the thief can roll to disarm the trap. If the roll succeeds the trap is disabled.

    Assume the party needs to get past a guard. There are many ways they could do it. Kill the guard. Poison him. Distract him. ...Or maybe everybody moves past him as quietly as possible. If the players describe to the DM all the precautions they each take to minimize noise, ensure that the guard doesn't randomly look their way, or whatever else can be done to improve their chances of success, then that's what they do. If the DM wants there to be a chance for failure, then there is. If the DM thinks their planning is good enough he can simply tell them they succeed. But what if the guard is in a room with a stone floor that's been covered with bits of gravel specifically to try to keep people from sneaking through? Well, other characters might simply be declared by the DM to be incapable of success - but the thief has their move silently skill. It may not be a great chance - but it's not a ZERO percent chance. The players (well, the thief player really) then get to decide if it's worth the risks and they plan for what to do if the attempt doesn't succeed. In any case, any character class can steal, sneak, deal with traps AND locks, etc. They just have to interact with the DM to get anywhere doing it. The thief, however, gets to just roll and attempt those things, often when other characters would NEVER be able to succeed - but they're mostly not the thief's EXCLUSIVE activities.

    If the DM wants a trap to be SO GOOD that normal efforts by non-thieves will not discover a trap, then all the efforts by the other players are just wasted efforts because the ONLY thing that will find the trap is a successful thief roll. That kind of thing is seldom done, but it's how the game was intended to be played - interact with the DM first because that's something everyone at the table gets to join in on. The thief using their skills is reserved as a trump card. When a thief's skill percentages get to the point where they can auto-succeed then unless there's conditional penalties they get to be REALLY good. THAT'S when the DM can stop putting all that much effort into figuring out details of traps, or getting ridiculous with measures to prevent silent movement and just let the thief roll first. But, the smart players will still interact with the DM, make plans before taking action, have contingencies worked out in case of failure, etc. Thief skills aren't really supposed to REPLACE that interaction with the DM, they're supposed to be in addition to it. You don't assume that the thief needs to roll - you wait until the DM says that a roll is even NECESSARY.
    Last edited by D+1; 2021-03-03 at 06:27 PM.

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    BardGuy

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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    An important use of the sneaking skills is in combat.
    So, while the fighter engages the BBEG, the thief rolls sneakyness to get into position to backstab.
    The consequence of failure here isn't "The thief alone against the BBEG" it's "The thief doesn't get to do double damage"

    finding and disabling traps was definitely a risky operation, especially with "save or die" traps in play
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    Flumph

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    Default Re: Thieves' Abilities chances in Basic D&D

    Quote Originally Posted by D+1 View Post
    Look at it this way: If there isn't a thief in the party is it a flat impossibility to ever steal something from someone? ... Then both players and DM slipped into the mindset of, if the thief can't do it with their skill roll, it just can't be done AT ALL. But that was never how the game was supposed to work.
    This post just made me wish there was a like function on the forum.

    Also would point out the idea that DM's could apply penelties but also bonuses to chances due to circumstance. And bonus's should probably be most common in areas where low level characters are most likely. . . Where locks are simple, the guards are cheep and not paying as much attention, and walls were not created by the best of masons.

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