21 June 2009

The Thief Class (Akratic version)

My version of the thief class relies on using the saving throw system in Swords & Wizardry as a kind of ‘general task resolution system,’ that is, as a system for determining whether a character succeeds at a particular task when his/her success or failure is not certain.  (This system is explained here.) 

My interpretation of the thief class is inspired primarily by the fictional characters of “Fafhrd” and the “Gray Mouser,” as found in the stories by Fritz Leiber, as well as other roguish characters from classic ‘pulp’ swords and sorcery fiction.  Consequently, I understand the thief typically to be a good fighter, a roguish scrapper capable of standing his own ground in most cases.  Therefore, the thief is understood to be a ‘sub-class’ of the fighter (fighting-man) class.  Except for the special restrictions and abilities noted below, the thief follows the rules (including experience point requirements and attack rolls) for fighters.

Prime Attribute: Dexterity, 13+ (5% experience)

Hit Dice: 1d6+1/level (Gains 2 hp/level after 9th)

Armour/Shield Permitted: Thieves may use their special abilities only when wearing leather armour or no armour, and not using a shield.  When wearing armour heavier than leather and/or using a shield, they may fight as normal (as a fighter), but may not use their unique abilities and advantages (including their combat advantages, as described below). 

Weapons Permitted: When using two-handed weapons, thieves may not use their special abilities and advantages.  They may use any one-handed weapon without penalty, including a weapon in each hand (more information on this below, in the description of thieves’ special abilities).  The one exception to this rule is short bows, which thieves may use without penalty.  (If using the ‘Class-Based Damage’ system that I presented in the first issue of Knockspell, thieves use the ‘fighter’ chart – except for large weapons.  When using large weapons thieves only do 1d8 damage.)

Saving Throw: As Clerics (i.e., starts at 14 at first level, and improves by one every level thereafter, until level 11, when the thief’s saving throw is 4, and no longer improves).

Establish Thieves Guild (9th level): Instead of establishing a traditional stronghold like regular fighters, thieves may, upon reaching ninth level, establish a guild in any urban area of appropriate size (population 3,000 or greater).  Upon establishing such a guild, the thief typically will attract 4+1d6 thieves as followers (levels 1-4; roll separately for each thief).  (The GM may decide that additional thieves will join the guild in very large cities, e.g., cities with populations of 20,000 or greater, and that fewer thieves will join the guild in smaller settlements, e.g., towns with populations less than 8,000.)  Additional thieves may join the guild later, if it proves to be successful (GM’s discretion).  However, if the town or city in which a thief establishes a guild already has a well-organized thieves guild in it, the GM may want to role-play the subsequent conflict between the two guilds (or negotiations over ‘territory,’ etc.). 

Races: Thieves may be of any race (Elf, Dwarf, Halfling, or Human), unless the GM judges otherwise.  Non-human thieves may progress to any level, but have a Hit Dice of only 1d6 (and gain only 1 hp/level after 9th).

Thief Special Abilities

Thieving ‘Tasks’ – Climbing, Legerdemain, Opening Locks, Perception, Stealth, and Traps

The thief enjoys a +3 bonus to any roll involving the following categories of tasks (using the saving throw system described earlier).


This category covers attempts by characters to scale sheer surfaces, including walls and cliffs.  If a rope and grappling hook are available, though, the character normally need not make a roll in order to climb (although if the situation is very stressful, e.g., the character is being pursued by trolls, then the GM may judge that a roll is necessary).


This category covers tasks involving the skilful use of one’s hands when performing tricks (e.g., hiding a dagger from a guard), as well as attempts to pick the pockets of others without attracting notice.  Halflings (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a +1 bonus to any legerdemain task.

Opening Locks

This category covers attempts to pick locks.  Halflings (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a +1 bonus to attempts to pick locks.  If the thief lacks a proper set of lock picks, he/she suffers a penalty of -2 or greater (as the GM judges) to his/her attempt.  Especially well crafted lock picks may give the thief a bonus to his/her attempts.  Legends speak of magical lock picks that enable thieves to overcome even the most difficult of locks.


This category covers attempts by characters to notice hidden or concealed objects (e.g., secret doors or traps) or creatures (e.g., brigands waiting in ambush).  Elves (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a bonus of +2 to all attempts at perception.  Dwarves (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a bonus of +4 to all attempts involving perception vis-à-vis stone surfaces or objects (e.g., stone traps or secret doors).


This category covers attempts by characters to remain unnoticed, including hiding and/or moving silently.  Dark shadows or dense foliage may give characters a bonus to their saving throws, while bright lights or clear ground may give them a penalty (or even make an attempt at stealth impossible).  Halflings (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a bonus of +4 to all attempts at stealth.  Wearing armour heavier than leather normally prohibits a character from moving silently.  Carrying a torch or other light source prohibits a character from hiding.


This category covers attempts by characters to disable or set traps.  The GM may sometimes judge a roll unnecessary, if the player describes his/her character’s actions in such a way that the GM thinks guarantees success or failure.  Dwarves (if understood in the ‘standard’ fantasy way) receive a bonus of +2 involving attempts to disable mechanical traps.

Exactly which tasks fall under the above categories is, of course, to be determined by the GM (although in most cases this should be obvious).  Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that any character of any class may attempt any of the above kinds of tasks – if the GM judges that it is possible for that character (e.g., the GM may decide that a character who has no understanding of locks simply cannot attempt to pick a lock).  These abilities are not the unique province of thieves.  Non-thief characters, however, simply do not receive the same bonus (+3) that the thief does.  Thus it is possible for a fighter with a good dexterity, and not wearing armour (or only leather armour), to be quite good at the ‘thief-like’ tasks summarized above, despite not enjoying the special bonus that thieves do.  (The character of ‘Conan,’ as described by R. E. Howard, can be interpreted as an example of such a fighter.)


The thief learns a new language at level 5, another new language at level 10, and a final new language at level 15.  At no point, however, may a thief exceed the maximum number of languages that he/she may know, as determined by his/her intelligence.  These bonus languages are in addition to any new languages that the thief may have learned ‘normally’ (based on the GM’s discretion or house-rules).

Reading Scrolls

At level 6, thieves with an intelligence of 12 or greater may read and use magic-user scrolls as though they were magic-users five levels lower than their thief level (thus a 10th level thief may use magic-user scrolls as though he/she were a 5th level magic-user).  There is always a chance that a thief’s attempt to use a scroll will fail.  The chance of failure = 5% + (2 x spell level) – intelligence bonus.  (Example: a thief with 14 intelligence attempts to use a magic-user ‘fireball’ scroll.  Her chance of failure is 10% [5 + 6 - 1].)  If a thief’s attempt to use a magic-user scroll fails, he/she must make a saving throw.  If the thief fails that saving throw, the scroll ‘backfires’ in a manner to be determined by the GM.  (For instance, if the thief in the previous example failed in her attempt to use the fireball scroll, and then failed her saving throw, the GM may decide that the fireball explodes right in her hands!)

Two Weapon Fighting

So long as the thief is wearing ‘light’ armour (no heavier than leather), and is not using a shield, he/she gains a +2 to hit (instead of the standard +1) when using two weapons. 

Artful Dodging

So long as the thief is wearing leather armour or no armour, is not using a shield, and is not wielding a ‘large’ (i.e., two-handed) weapon, he/she receives a -2 [+2] bonus to his/her armour class.

(Perceptive readers who own Knockspell #1 may notice that thieves automatically enjoy the benefits of the ‘swashbuckling’ fighting style described in my article, “Fighter With Flair!”  This is the only fighting style that they can use.  Unlike regular fighters, thieves do not have access to any additional fighting styles.  The thief class described above may be used with or without the ‘fighting styles’ system described in “Fighters With Flair!”)

(This version of the thief class was published previously in Knockspell #2.)


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  2. Thanks for the compliment, rainswept!

    I playtested this version of the thief in my summer S&W campaign, and it worked out very well.

  3. I'm looking at using this in my upcoming D&D kitbash adventure weekend. Very pleased with how it implements key features of the thief without some of the parts that have always bugged me.

  4. I typically don't allow thieves, preferring instead to stick to Fighting-Men and Magic-Users, and using a simple background system to represent other aspects of the PC.

    However, if I ever get a player that just HAS to play a Thief, I'd use a slightly modified version of your thief:

    Prime Attribute: DEX

    HD: 1d6+1/level

    Armor/Shield: Leather/None

    Weapons: 1H + shortbow and light crossbow

    ST: 14 (+1/level)

    Thief Skills: Climb Sheer Surfaces, Legerdmain, Open Locks, Notice, Stealth, Find/Remove Traps. Thieves add 1/2 level (round up) when resolving these tasks (using 3d6 + TN 7/11/15).

    Special Abilities:

    When fighting with two weapons, a thief rolls two damage dice and takes the highest result.

    Thieves get a +2 AC bonus

  5. Would this thief use the experience point progression of a fighting-man?

  6. Thanks for the update.

    Do you have a complete 'modded' copy of S&W including your house rules?

    I realise there's a collected PDF of your ideas but it would be nice to see the whole thing bound together.

  7. Most of my house rules will be included in a modified and repackaged version of S&W called 'Crypts and Things' that Newt Newport (of d101 Games) is putting together. More info here:

  8. Hi Akrasia,

    By default the thief has a +3 bonus to his saving throw when performing thief skills. Halflings get a +4 bonus. Is that a +4 on top of the +3 therefore a +7? Or does the halfling get a +4 instead of the +3? Thanks for the clarification.

    1. Hi Charles. The race-based bonuses are to be added to the +3 class bonus (so +7 to stealth for halfling thieves).

      Sorry for not replying earlier!

    2. No worries Akrasia. Your S&W house rules are fantastic especially your thief. S&W is one of my favorite rule sets. But I was playing it wrong. I thought the halfling simply got a +4 while a human for example would get a +3. That's quite a difference. Do you have any suggestions for human thieves? I mean with a +7 bonus I can't imagine ever playing a human thief. lol

    3. Human thieves receive +1 hit point per level over non-human thieves, so they're a bit tougher (and can use larger weapons). But overall halflings do make the best thieves (mechanically).

      If you wanted to balance things out a bit more, you could rule that neither halflings nor dwarves can read scrolls (since those races can't cast magic spells more generally, and are magic-resistant).

    4. Thanks Akrasia. I like those ideas. Let me ask you a question. How would you apply the non human bonuses if you were using the traditional skills as listed in the core and complete rulebook? I've been using the RAI thief but utilizing your saving throw mechanic for skills. A dwarf for example has a +10 to delicate tasks & traps with a +5 to hiding, move silently, and open locks. In your thief version you tend to award either a +2 or +4 bonus. So would I maybe give the dwarf a +4 to delicate tasks & traps and +2 to the others? Or maybe ignore the +5 bonuses altogether and simply award just the +4 bonus for racial bonuses of 10 or more. What do you think as your thief skill fix is the best one I've seen. I just would rather keep the rest of the class as is. Thanks!

  9. Akrasia as I look at your thief version more and compare it to the class as written I'm beginning to think I should simply treat non-human bonuses of +5 as a +1, +10 as a +2, and +15 as a +3. What do you think? For human thieves I may just allow the player to pick one skill to receive a +3 bonus or maybe only a +2. These bonuses are on top of the default +3 as you mentioned.
    Then comes the Assassin. Would love to get your thoughts here. They can only be human so I was thinking since they're supposed to be 2 levels behind the thief that they instead receive an overall bonus of +1 to all their thief skills instead of +3. But I may allow the regular +3 to Hide and Move Silently since that seems like something they would be good at.

    1. I think those ideas all look quite reasonable.


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I'm a Canadian political philosopher who lives primarily in Toronto but teaches in Milwaukee (sometimes in person, sometimes online).