Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Mr. Baggins & the Thief Class

Over at Grognardling, Staples has taken on the onerous task of rehabilitating the thief class. One of the first things that he did was to tackle the idea that the thief has no archetype. Arguing that there are plenty of thiefly archetypes, he came up with an impressive list, including a Mr. Bilbo Baggins. He then goes on to insist on a name change for the class. He does this in order to better reflect his new list of archetypes.

Frankly, I think this is a brilliant idea. Following in his footsteps, I would like to propose a name change for the Holmesian Thief, where the archetype is Mr. Bilbo Baggins.

The reason I choose Mr. Baggins as archetype is because Tolkien casts such a long shadow over Holmes. Bilbo, more than any other character on Staple's list, fits into a Holmesian vision of D&D. So much so, that he implies that halflings can become thieves. The name I propose for the Holmesian Thief is the title that Gandalf gives Mr. Baggins in Tolkien's classic The HobbitBurglar.

Please note the definition of burglary in the Webster's Dictionary:
the act of breaking into a building esp. with intent to steal.
Given that the Holmesian thief has the primary function of opening doors, I think this is eminently appropriate.

In light of this name change and its homage to the archetype of Mr. Baggins, I want to take a quick look and all of the burglar abilities in light of this archetype.

Open Locks: as I have noted before this ability does not impede other classes from opening locks. Everybody has a base chance to open doors of 2 in 6. This burglar ability, then, represents an extra and stealthy attempt to open doors for the adventuring party. If this attempt should fail, the party still has an opportunity to surprise whatever lies behind the door with a normal 2 in 6 chance to open a door.

Remove Traps: personally, this is my least favorite ability of any thief class. Keeping in mind Mr. Baggins, however, this ability can be re-skinned as a saving throw. Bilbo Baggins never really removed a trap, rather he was in the right place at the right time. Thus, remove traps can become a saving throw for when a player fails to figure out to how disarm a particular trap. Making the save means that the burglar is in the right place at the right time. Therefore, every class still has the opportunity to disarm traps. The burglar just has a better knack for it.

Pick Pockets: like remove traps, I am not a fan of this ability. Its primary purpose seems to be to steal from party members (something that more often than not can ruin the fun of an evening). Yet, Mr. Baggins does display some sleight of hand. Therefore, I think this burglar ability needs to be treated in much the same way as Remove Traps — as a saving throw. If a player fails to adequately describe the working plan on how to use sleight of hand, the burglar is allowed this saving throw. Again, this does not prevent other classes from trying — it just gives a burglar an extra chance not to fail.

Move Silently & Hide in Shadows: these abilities represent the burglar's affinity towards being sneaky (something Mr. Baggins was very good at). This is where I am willing to take a major departure from the traditional mechanics of the thief class. Everyone can be sneaky. Mechanically, this is represented by the surprise roll. Every class has a 2 in 6 chance of surprising an opponent. The traditional percentile rolls for move silently and hide in shadows divorce these abilities from the normal surprise roll. When a thief has the ability to backstab these percentiles seem necessary. The Holmesian thief, however, has no backstab ability. Therefore, move silently and hide in shadows serve no real mechanical purpose.

Rather than using these percentiles, I propose that a burglar has an increased chance to surprise. At first level this could start out at 3 in 6. Using the same progression pattern as hear noise, this would increase to 4 in 6 at 5th and 5 in 6 at 9th.

This surprise could be handled in one of two ways. The first would be to grant this surprise to everyone in a party that includes a burglar. The other is to allow the possibility for a burglar to have a round of surprise while the rest of the party does not. This latter approach treads closer to the literary source material. There were many times where Bilbo Baggins seems to have an opportunity to act while the rest of his party does not.

Hear Noise: humans have a 1 in 6 chance to hear noise. Demi-humans have a 2 in 6 chance. Burglars, whether human or no, begin the game with a 2 in 6 chance and get better as they increase in level. For the reason that it really needs no re-skinning or tweaking, this is my favorite of all the thieves' abilities.

I must say that given these few small tweaks, I am far more comfortable with the Holmesian Thief ( a.k.a. the Burglar) than I am with virtually any other version of this class. That is not something I was expecting to be able to say...


  1. I shall definitely be using this as a reference as I continue to work on my Scoundrel class. Thank you!

    Also, I can't really take credit for the idea to change the name. Telecanter, Talysman and, well, the guys who wrote 3E (did 2E use rogues or thieves?) all used different names before I came up with the Scoundrel name. Thank you for your kind words, though. ^__^

  2. Wow, I am soooo disagreeing with you...something *I* wasn't expecting to say.


    For reference:

  3. @JB

    Your main complaint here is based on the race/class differentiation in AD&D as opposed to the race-as-class in B/X. Personally, I am a big fan of the latter and tend to agree with you about AD&D. Within Holmes, he hints at halflings being thieves, but gives no rules for it. Thus, there is absolutely no evidence that halflings have no level limit when being a thief. There are also no special racial bonuses to thief skills. This also means that you could nix the idea entirely.

    Since Cook has Halflings max out at 8th level, I would argue that ALL halflings would max out at 8th level — including thieves. In my tweaked Burglar version, that would mean missing out on surprising monsters in a dungeon on a 5 in 6. It would also mean only having 8d4 for HD.

    If you note, the Burglar is not the AD&D Thief, either. There is room for an Indiana Jones, a safe-crack, a tinkerer as well as a lucky schmuck who we all love from Hobbiton. The one thing a Holmesian Thief is not is a back-stabbing assassin like they are in AD&D. This is why Bilbo Baggins still makes a good archetype for the Holmesian Thief aka Burglar even if you never see a halfling thief or even allow them.

  4. @ Fr. Dave:

    With respect, I feel the esteemed Mr. Baggins would object to being called a safe-cracker or tomb-robber; I seem to recall he didn't like the term "burglar," either. An "expert treasure hunter" is a nomiker that could be applied to any adventurer. Also, wasn't he wearing a mail shirt at one point?

    While I find the race + class thing to be the most objectionable outcome of mistaking Baggins for a "thief," I have a sense of outrage for mistaking him for one period.

    That being said, I think there are plenty of literary precedents for a thief class in D&D, and would not ban them from MY table, regardless (only the halfling version).
    : )

  5. I'm always looking for some title for the Thief class that doesn't necessarily insinuate stealing. Most D&D thieves I've played or played with only stole as much as the other guys. If they are to be called thieves or burglars, then why not call Fighting-Men/Fighters "Muggers" or "Robbers"--they beat people up and take their stuff, after all. If I could think of an appropriate name, I'd like to reference the fact that Thieves accomplish their goals by stealth, rather than force. Fits right into many of their skills: fighters can knock down doors, but Thieves can bypass doors quietly, for instance. Then again, maybe the name of the class implies the PCs "day job", with adventuring being a unique activity that they transition into. Like, I'm a thief and I bring those skills with me when I go adventuring. Kind of like my Night Club singer in Call of Cthulhu brings his skills with him when he investigates the Mythos--"Singer" isn't the kind of adventurer he is, it's just where his skills are from.

    Sorry for rambling. I promise not to post for awhile. :)

  6. I'll just toss in my support for the idea of emphasizing alertness (Hear Noise) and surprise in a re-worked Thief. In fact, I think a better way to handle Pick Pockets is to treat it as automatic if a character -- any class -- surprises the target, with perhaps a risk of discovery when surprise is over; thieves would have a generic bonus to surprise and no chance of discovery if the victim is a lower level, but would otherwise have no special "pick pocket" ability.

  7. @Talysman
    hmmm...I like that!

  8. I love how many different takes people have on the classes. In particular I like your focus on surprise and alertness.

    Saved to my inspiration folder!