Friday, 17 June 2022

Alternate Thieves for OD&D

What if Greyhawk...but good?

I've begun editing Marcia's OD&D retroclone Fantastic Medieval Campaigns. Since the aim of her project is not clarification or interpretation, but rather fidelity to the original text, we have been having a fair amount of conversations about the game's exasperating idiosyncrasies. One such conversation turned to the possibility of presenting an alternate universe take of Supplement I: Greyhawk that is actually, well, good. In particular, how to design a thief class that does not take away from the core locus of play in OD&D to the extent that the version released in our timeline does, while still retaining a design sensibility that doesn't feel out of place in the 1974 context. This is my take on such a challenge that emerged from our conversations.

Art by Dave Trampier


Hit die, attack progression, experience progression, prime requisites, equipment restrictions, and saving throws all remain the same. Don't use variable weapon damage.

I) Thieves may use all magic items, scrolls, potions, etc. regardless of any restrictions (either of the magic item, or the thief's own equipment restriction).

2) If a thief steals an item of treasure from a monster with a value in gold pieces equalling or greater than the monster's hit dice multiplied by a thousand, they may once per day use an ability of that monster, e.g. if the thief has stolen a torc worth three thousand gold pieces from a wight, then once per day they may attack using a wight's level drain ability. Each treasure can be utilized only once per day, and the thief may only utilize in total a number of treasures not exceeding their level. Items stolen for these purposes do not contribute their value in experience points when recovered. 

3) Thieves may be awarded experience above a 1 to 1 basis.

4) Thieves may be awarded experience above what is required to increase them by one level in a session.

Additional Rule

All classes are able to backstab to receive a bonus to hit and damage. Backstab damage increases in accordance with increases in attack group: fighters three levels/group; clerics and thieves four levels/group; magic-users five levels/group.


So the problem often stated with thieves as they appear in Greyhawk is that by codifying rules for common adventuring skills, they limit the play capacity for what should be ordinary dungeoneering skills for every type of player character. As is often said, "every player character in D&D is a thief."

With that in mind, I removed abilities that would ostensibly make thieves "better" at thieving than other character types (though thieves are, notoriously, awful at thieving as written in the original rules). With that in mind, given that every character ought to be a "thief", I also think it applicable to allow backstab bonuses for all characters. Instead, thieves are rather rewarded more, and thus incentivized more, for thieving. They are thieves not be virtue of ability, but by desire. 

They do of course have a seemingly supernatural propensity for theft not just of physical goods, but of immaterial attributes themselves. This is probably the mechanic least in line with a 1974 design ethos, but there a couple of interesting things I like about it.

First of all, beyond encouraging thieves to go after high ticket items from dangerous creatures, it adds a little bit of friction to group play in a way that I find interesting, rather than infuriating. It is a cliché for the thief in the party to attempt to filch items from other players or from the treasure hoard before anyone sees; while this kind of antagonistic PvP play is generally not conducive to good table experiences, there is something appealing in its quintessential fantasy, the almost stereotypical idea of a classic Gygaxian adventuring party. By removing high value items from the shared experience pool, there remains this tension of the selfish thief somewhat apart from the party, but it is a tactical decision that can be decided upon by the party: give up some XP in exchange for an ace up the sleeve. I imagine amongst a group of mature players it could be pretty fairly negotiated if the party decided that they didn't think the XP loss was worth the upside.

There is also the tension introduced by the thief potentially being desirous of all magical items. I think this adds a bit of flavour, but in practice I don't see it causing too much conflict; the proper distribution of magical items I think will remain obvious, with the thief getting the items that are otherwise underutilized or unusable by any other party member.

Finally, the last two abilities are me engaging playfully with what I think are some of OD&D's more baroque and nonsensical rules. 

In practice, this means the thief will want to push farther, deeper, and longer than other players, because the rewards for them are greater. It also creates a bit of a trinity of countervailing forces regarding the thief's level progression: they have the fastest level progression of all classes, but this is throttled somewhat if they choose to accumulate treasure for the purposes of using monster abilities, but can again be accelerated should they choose to attempt riskier delves on deeper dungeon floors. A pleasing calculus of risk vs reward that fits rather thematically, in my opinion; a greedy ne'er do well, the devil on the party's shoulder whispering to them to push their luck. "One more roll, one more room, we're on a hot streak, we can't lose!" 

Level fast, die young.


  1. This generally looks like the sort of thing I'd expect from thiefy type classes. The "use all magic items" rule in particular, I feel like should be standard, with thieves all able to kind of "fake it" with magic items ("Klaatu barada *mumble mumble* " style).

    But the one rule about taking on aspects of monster by using its treasure gives the simulationist part of me mixed feelings.
    On one hand, I really like the idea that characters taking a valuable item could start to take on qualities of a foe (at least powerful magical foes) as a sort of curse. Even for items which are not exactly magical in-and-of themselves.

    But in my mind these would include both positive and negative traits of the foe, sort of like The One Ring.

    And the wight's torc example you give makes sense to me thematically (wights are sort of cursey-undead beings). But, like, if a thief stole a 20,000gp painting belonging to a dragon the flavor of being able to breath lighting bolts after that feels a bit off to me.

    ...though again, maybe I could see dragon powers if it was treated partly as a curse. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treater, Eustace does become a dragon by sleeping on one's hoard while being a little shit. But the story treats it as a mixed blessing at best.

    Also, I'm not sure I completely understand the reasoning behind the value calculation for such an item. Is it just to make sure the item would be of exceedingly high importance compared to the creature it belonged to?

    To be fair, none of these mean I think your idea is broken or bad, just not the way I personally quite view the themes of the class.

    1. The value calc is there to not let a player nick a coin from a hoard and immediately start spewing fire, yeah.

      I think of the "taking on aspects" of the monster ability as this almost metaphysical instantiation of the thief's greed. Greed or covetousness usually is not just a desire for what another has, but to in some way be like the other, to be the kind of person that would have those things. I think then the thief's greed is so strong that by possessing the object they covet they do in same way become like its previous owners.

      There are also two other implications. One is just that monsters, being supernatural, tend to exude their qualia into the things around them, endowing their possessions with their essence the same way a sofa soaks up cigarette smoke.

      Alternately, it is not the monster that makes the treasure, but the treasure that makes the monster. Treasure as a mutating force that turns men into monsters, which is something I talked about in my 'Gold & Dragons' post. This makes a weird kind of sense in the context of classic D&D rules, given that the acquisition of treasure will eventually turn your PCs from human to something decidedly more so.

      At the end of the day tho', these are just ad-hoc suppositions to justify a game mechanic that is first and foremost, gamey. I think its cool for thieves to be able to steal monster abilities. Its a staple in a lot of JRPGs for instance. Does it make sense? Not really. But I don't really mind acknowledging that the game we're sitting down to play is, in fact, a game.

    2. Fair enough.

      As I think you're suggesting, it isn't somehow inherently wrong to include these kinds of elements. It just alters the basic assumptions of setting norms and metaphysics. A matter of taste.

      I just personally like things to have in-setting justifications. Or, if not justified, then having folks in the setting acknowledge how weird the unexplained quality is.