Friday, January 14, 2011

The Thief Is NOT Guilty ! (part 2)

So, after a surprising amount of thought, and even more unsurprising amounts of dawdling (and working), I’ve decided to sum up my long hanging discussion on thieves.

In my imperial manner, I will ignore almost all of the arguments I previously said I’d discuss, and focus on two points: a discussion of one particular complaint, and one argument in favor not advanced before. Here goes the first part.

No, 'twas proficiency that killed the beast……

It is said that Thieves introduced D&D to the long painful slide into skill systems, and thus roll-playing rather than role playing, and , to those of us who care, this is a most damming accusation, for the heinousness of skillsystems in D&D  is true, to the extent that skills in almost all later editions are a train wreck, and promote the “roll to resolve” mindset for play. And when I say “train wreck", I mean it. Skills from 1E onwards just didn't work or were too clumsy for words.
Skills are and always were a bolt-on that really didn't add much. So, this, then, is what the thief stands accused of: nothing less than striking a  conceptual backstab to the rules of D&D at their  very birth birth in Greyhawk. A wound that has ulcerated and bled more each edition, until the entire structure of the game seems to be half intended to support it, as with some terrible parasite.  Were the thiefs abilities truly the wound that could not heal ?  A dolorous stroke to the system? No good readers, I say it is not. For while the skill systems of D&D are an abomination, they are not the thieves fault. No! Not the thief, I say. It was NOT the humble thief that struck the blow which we see now killing the colossus.  Then Who?  There ! He stands before you brazenly showing his known weapon proficiencies and specializations! The Fighter! THE FIGHTER !(Gasps from the crowd).
 How is this so ?  I will say, it was the lust for weapons and proficiency and clarification that birthed the blood-sucking tabeworm of dispair and confusion that is has grown, leviathan like, into the current skill systems.  But how you ask ?  Surely the thief brought skills into being, not the fighter ? No, lean close and I'll tell you the truth. (san loss =1/3-18)

Put aside the argument that the thieves “skills” are in fact class talents, and poorly explained at birth – and rather consider that the skill system as it exists, grew directly from the perceived need for weapons proficiency in D&D. See, back in the day, the argument was something like this;
  • 1. We have limits of weapon use by class, but not within fighters
  • 2. A fighter can thus use any imaginable weapon at all
  • 3. The limits on non-fighters are assumed to be due to lack of training
  • 4. If so, non-class weapons aren't impossible to use (do they burn us?) but rather usable poorly and at a penalty and
  • 5. Fighters should have limits on weapons use, too, since knowledge of all weapons is clearly unbalancing or (your pick) unrealistic.
Now, I can't recall the exact source, but it might have been in the dragon, where EGG argued against weapon proficiencies for the exact reasons stated above: fighters should be able to grab anything, and class limits were no wonkier than armor limits or spell casting.
 “Weapon proficiency” was, however a constant source of variants everywhere, and at some point, EGG himself caved , insofar as it became official in the PH. Then came the cries for specialization –surely we need the ability to be insanely (here it is) SKILLED with less weapons if we are willing to limit the total number of slots. So, unfortunately, UA included weapons specialization that allowed trading slots for bonuses. At some point, I think it was the dragon in the AD&D era; we have “non-weapon proficiencies” which allow trading weapon slots for …other….skills! And by 2E it was a huge hodgepodge of variants and semi-official rulings accreted on the PH weapon proficiencies. So it was “improved” and regularized, and made completely core book official; and, it sucked, too. (Truth in advertising: I never liked 2E all that much)

Now, at some point, and I think it must have been just prior to 2E, or early on, at least, some clever Nelly came along and said some fateful words: “Hey, look, since thieves use skills and proficiencies, and now so does everyone, perhaps we should make them all work together  ? “; or at least that what it sounded like. And thus, when 3E came along with its rules heavy agenda we discovered that what the clever Nelly said was actually:
"I have an unresolved need for order and symmetry in my life, which is far more important than any consideration of rules intent or play, so I’m going to bollux up the thieves because they make me itch. And, I’m going to claim it’s more modern and advanced to have a defined skills system just to make it superficially acceptable , but mainly I want to do this to make DocGrognard's head explode in frustration ten years from now when he tries to play a 3.5 edition Thief" 
So, yes, Skills have been one of the banes of later edition D&D, but it isn't the thieves fault. It’s those damned “non-weapon Proficiencies.” And the bean counter fighter players who just HAD to know if they could use a three headed Battle parang, and if they used it in both hands, did it hit harder? Thanks dudes.

NEXT: Why the thief defined and created D&D as a role playing game. No, really.

Postscript, because I can.
I really don't know where the idea came from that if thieves could sneak, and then no-one else could. At least in the LBBGHBMEW games, we seemed to have assumed that sneak (for example) was ninja style sneaking, and hiding in shadows was batmanesque.

Actually, what we also assumed was that first level thieves suck and are unplayable as anything but muggers (backstab + loot); except for climb, every other “skill” was absurdly low. Which usually meant house rules to make them useful, which invariably included some notice of what they meant?


Clovis Cithog said...

then at long last came 4th edition ,
where I wrote in Alarmus & Excursion fanzine (about June 2009) to lead author, Rob Heinsoo

"Thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed your narration on the return of your color vision. I envy your association with DnD luminaries such as Jonathan Tweet. I wish you future literary success. Hopefully, you will not be remembered as the man who destroyed DnD."

Jayson said...

Yes, persuasively argued.

Maybe it's because I came aboard with B/X, but I never saw a problem with the thief. The class always seemed to fit.

Clovis Cithog said...

I dont believe the problem is skills -
the real nightmare is the endless proliferation of feats which are mostly non-sensical.

Skills can be seamlessly added to a campaign and are easily limited by

character class
(sorry, clerics dont climb walls).

character's intelligence
(maximum number of skills & languages = half intelligence score)

and/or level
(skill rank = half level, unless thief, in which case, rank = 2/3rds level).

FEATS just attract the munchkins and power gamers as they are poorly defined and spuriously combined.