Monday, June 12, 2017

Thief Weapons Through the Ages

Looking at the OED house rules recently, my friend Paul S. and I realized that we had a stark difference of opinion in what weapons are customarily allotted to thief characters. This was a result of him coming from the direction of the Moldvay B/X set, and me coming more from the Gygax AD&D game. I didn't realize previously how much thief weapons vary by edition of the game. Here's a look:


Some notes:
  • * The first appearance of the thief class in Original D&D Supplement I mentions only that "Thieves can employ magic daggers and magic swords but none of the other magical weaponry." Thus proficiency with any non-magical types is technically undefined, and can be interpreted in different ways. Compare to OD&D Vol-1 which likewise only refers to magical weapons in any of the class descriptions, which everyone agrees is identical to the nonmagical weapons they can use (e.g., for clerics, "all non-edged magical weapons (no arrows!)"). Thus the AD&D branch (Gygax) tends to interpret this restrictively, while the Basic D&D line (Holmes) assumes no restriction to thieves on any nonmagical weapons.
  • ** The weapons in 1E are all one-handed only (e.g., bastard and two-handed swords are explicitly prohibited in a footnote). 
  • *** Note the addition of the shortbow to 1E. The 1E Unearthed Arcana also presents a thief-acrobat "split-class", with all the weapons of a thief, plus lasso and staff.
  • **** The 2E weapons list is effectively identical to the 1E UA thief-acrobat class.
  • ***** The 3.5 list is expressed as "all simple weapons, plus the hand crossbow, rapier, sap, shortbow, and short sword". 

In particular, the thing that's really jamming me up in OED is the question of what missile weapons to permit to thief characters. To my eye it seems like a very big switch that Gygax made from 1E to UA in allowing them use of the shortbow. Thieves with slings very much appear like the urban thieves' guild members in the stories of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser (and of course Gygaxian thieves are very explicitly restricted to bases in cities only). Interestingly in Gygax's first novel, "Saga of Old City" starring Gord the Rogue, that figure picks up the thief-acrobat split-class and use of the crossbow while venturing with the Roma-like Rhennee people, among other rule-breaking advantages noted in the Afterword (p. 350). These are specifically noted as heavy crossbows in the text (Ch. 10, p. 92, 95). I've gone back-and-forth about the strategic and thematic pros and cons of giving thieves access to bows and/or crossbows many times.

Here's a matrix of missile weapons allowed to thieves by edition (note that advancing columns are synonymous with historical weapons that are easier to learn, as seen earlier):


In short: Thief weapons in Original D&D Sup-I is really undefined. Every other edition gives them the sling (with the anomalous exception of 3.0). The Basic line always gave all bows & crossbows to thieves (by virtue of Holmes "use all weapons" interpretation, although later versions gave only one-handed melee weapons). The AD&D line starting with Gygax's 1E Unearthed Arcana always gave them shortbows (never long) and at least the exotic Drowish hand crossbows. Note that the AD&D rule seems reverse to the real-life observation that slings, bows, and crossbows are progressively easier to use (whereas Gygax gives them sequentially stricter prohibitions; note also that most groups of D&D men like bandits and buccaneers are using crossbows even if they lack self bows).

I went so far as to ask this question on the Facebook 1E AD&D group and got a large number of responses (N = 166, not including joke responses). Of course we would expect the responses to be biased in the direction of 1E AD&D. That said, there was more variation than I expected; a significant number of people prefer the Basic or 3E approaches (about 30 people for each of those). If we tally options for missile weapons, mostly following the 1E UA tradition, it seems like a majority of people like their thieves to have access to slings and shortbows, but apparently not crossbows (again, something that seems historically backward). Zero people selected the strict interpretation of the OD&D Sup-I rule.


Thinking specifically about the thief missile weapons, let me ruminate on the possible advantages to their permissive use. In each case it is of course valuable for thieves to use missile weapons, which leverages their high Dexterity, and offsets their weakness in melee combat:
  • Slings Only: Looks most like the earliest Gygaxian take on the subject. Conjures images of Lankhmar's Thieves' Guild minions. Emphasizes the role of thieves as being almost uniquely city-oriented (as per Gygaxian works), with weapons that are easy to carry and hide. If given stats equivalent to bows, emphasizes the exotically-skilled status of thieves. 
  • Slings & Crossbows: Realistically observes that crossbows are easy to learn. Allows thieves to hide among groups of bandits or buccaneers using crossbows. Encourages some in-game usage of otherwise slow-firing crossbows, since thieves would not have access to bows (although if the sling dominates the crossbow, then perhaps this would not be seen anyway). 
  • Slings, Bows, and Crossbows: Matches every version of D&D except Gygax's 1E and (arguably) 0E. Makes it even easier for thieves to disguise themselves as archers. Opens up more possibilities for thieves in wilderness adventures (for example, participating in archery tournaments). Encourages use of the thief class for outdoorsy-outlaw types like Robin Hood, William Tell, Adam Bell, Palnatoki, etc. (link); even though official D&D write-ups of such figures in Dragon magazine always made them high-level fighters.
So at first glance that looks like 3 advantages for the slings & crossbow idea; and 4 advantages each to either "slings only" or "all missile weapons". What are your thoughts on that?



P.S.: Paul S. is running several games next weekend at the Origins Game Fair, using the OED house rules, and he's arguably the best DM I've ever experienced in running any RPG. If you're at Origins and you have an open slot, I'd recommend that you look for his games!


49 comments:

  1. Slings only. Bows and crossbows get in the way when you are robbing a nonleman's mansion.

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    1. Fully agreed with the 2nd sentence. However: The thief could have proficiency but simply choose to leave them behind in that situation. Would be one possible argument.

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  2. IN my house rules, any class can use any weapon except when using the class abilities (like spell casting and backstabbing).

    - Spellcasting requires both hands free or a magic implement (staff, wand, etc.).

    - Backstabbing requires one-handed emlee weapons or any ranged weapon in short distance.

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    1. So the special thief ability is usable with any of slings, bows,. crossbows; yes?

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    2. Yes... Please note that the unnoticed requirement still applies as per Mentzer's Basic (my reference).

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    3. Being honest, there is arguments for many views so I apply this rule to keep immersion on the fantasy of my tables: Anyone can swing any weapon but letting a thief in full plate with halberd doing acrobats and "backhacking" people is too silly.

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    4. I saw that other comments gone into the topic of who is a thief so I will give my point too... I describe classes as the Lamentations of the Flame Princess (If you don't know, tell me and I explain it later) and NPCs doesn't have a class (because they are unique/have unique abilities) or use Fighter if they don't have anything special mechanically.

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  3. For me it depends on a few things.
    Are you going to have a category of "easy" weapons? If so, then easy weapons are easy and anyone can use them.
    Are thieves going to be a city only class? Limiting them to only what makes sense in the city does not let them grow into their adventurer/dungeon delver/hero occupation over time. (Compare the first level village militia, he probably has never used a bastard sword or plate, but he will)
    Depends on where/how slings end up.
    But my gut says, (improved) Slings/Crossbows.
    *A limiting factor for slings could be the lack of enchantments?

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    1. All of those (excellent) questions are potentially open in my mind. What do you think -- Should we model "easy" weapons historically? Should thieves be primarily city-only (as Gygax would have)?

      And it's a pretty good point about the lack of magic slings on the treasure tables.

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    2. Working Backwards: If Thief is to be a viable (base) class, it needs to work in whatever adventure setting a DM may throw at them. So building the class to be "City Only" in function and abilities seems like a mistake to me. Gotta give them something to be useful in wildness and dungeon adventures.
      Easy weapons: Yes I would consider such a category, but keep it shorter than 3rd editions Simple weapons. Dagger/Knife, Club, Staff, Crossbow You can make the argument that whatever weapon selection to give to Magic Users is by default "the easy list"

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    3. That's a pretty strong argument from the gameplay design angle.

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    4. Would it be easier to classify a few weapons as being specifically difficult? My inclination wouldn't be to say that thieves can't use a given weapon, but rather that they're only able to backstab with a one-handed piercing weapon.

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    5. That would be a fair rule. I think personally I'm trying to stay in the idiom in all classic D&D editions where thieves either get proficiency or they don't with any given weapon.

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  4. Robin Hood is a high level fighter and not a thief?

    Are we going to get into the discussion of whether or not bandits are thieves? Because bandits use bows.

    If dwarves...a subterranean race...are comfortable learning archery and using bows, I don't see a reason why the urban thief can't learn how to use a bow (or crossbow).

    Then again, as a B/X player I've had thieves that equipped two-handed swords, so perhaps I'm not the best opinion to ask.
    ; )

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    1. Yes, the 1E writeup for Robin Hood had him as a pure fighter (same for his men). I think that's in Dragon #55. Of course, this could be related to the fact that pure 1E thieves could use no bows.

      I will go with "no", bandits are OD&D/AD&D-style normal men (not classed thieves), even though I know in B/X Moldvay made them thieves (and mostly every NPC some class).

      While OD&D bandits simply have 25% with "shortbow or light crossbow", the AD&D MM splits in finer: a total of 20% with light crossbow (some horsed), and only 10% short bow. Considering the crossbow is at such a disadvantage in the field, I can only interpret that the shortbow takes more training to learn, and hence a small minority of bandits have that weapon.

      My DCC DM lets my thief use a two-handed sword, which of course I happily do, so I'm not one to point scolding fingers in that particular direction. :-)

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    2. Moldvay doesn't actually call bandits "thieves;" bandits just SAVE AS "1st level thieves" (and folks have made inferences). They are 1 HD monsters (pretty similar to their first appearance in OD&D, pre-Sup I/thief class).

      But, man, I am almost positive I've seen the thief mentioned as an archetype for ol' Robin Hood SOMEwhere...maybe in a 2E book (when the thief first became the "rogue").

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    3. Not sure where you might have seen that, but 2nd Edition used Robin Hood as an example of a ranger. Also, just as trivia, thief was still a character class; "rogue" was just a bucket that 2E put thieves and bards into to indicate that they shared Hit Die size, THAC0 progression, and saving throw numbers (much as fighters, paladins, and rangers were all in the warrior bucket)

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    4. JB: Moldvay really does call them thieves, though. "Bandits are NPC thieves who have joined together for the purpose of robbing others." (p. B30)

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    5. To touch back on the Dragon #55 article -- November 1981, by Katherine Kerr (one of my favorite Dragon authors). Gives Robin Hood (Ftr12), Will Scarlet (Ftr8), Little John (Ftr10), Friar Tuck (Clr7), Merry Men (39 Ftr5's); and Sheriff of Nottingham (Ftr6).

      Trivia: The illustration of Robin Hood here (I think by Holloway) reappeared in 1E Unearthed Arcana, among the tables of racial information, on the page dominated by elves, half-elves, and halflings -- and positioned directly under the column for "Ranger" (p. 9).

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  5. While I have no issue with thieves using slings, bows, and crossbows, I would assign some sort of penalties (possibly significant) to Hide in Shadows, Move Silently, and Climb Walls (at least) if toting a bow/arrows and crossbow/quarrels. A sling and stones/bullets can be easily concealed, not so much the former. I would also not allow two handed weapons since they are too big to conceal and are more martial/fighting man oriented.

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    1. That's reasonable concern and not a foul rule. For me it's a bit complex and I'd prefer if the encumbrance rule just took care of it (slings weighing nothing).

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  6. Shadowspawn, the inspiration for many a thief character from the Thieves' World novels, was known to use a bow, though mostly just to get to high places with a thin rope attached. But he was known as a decent archer, though not among the best...

    Then, too, IIRC, the Gray Mouser used a sling exclusively, while Fafhred was proficient with a bow, so maybe that's where the "thieves only use slings" thing came from, because Mouser had plenty of wilderness adventures, yet never took up the bow...

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    1. Yes, that's the prime example. The Gygaxian rule just screams Lankhmar to me.

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  7. I want to bring in pretty-boy Paris from the Iliad wielding an unmanly bow and being ridiculed for it. And Odysseus who is a sly devil able to have his bow central to part of his story without loss of reputation - he's just that cool. Of course a typically 0D&D response would be that both of them are just fighting-men with different stats from characters like Ajax or Ajax. Maybe some people feel a bow is OK for thieves because of Garret in the Thief video games. Crossbows make a lot more sense as a sniper weapon, because you can lie in wait and fire from prone of behind concealment without your bow sticking up, and maybe there is a video game precedent for stealthy crossbow-users (like Denton from Deus Ex). Also crossbows have the cachet of being a weapon banned by the pope at one point, making them seem dastardly, but actually Pope Innocent II banned the use of crossbows, slings, and bows against Christians. So that's not really the same thing.

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    1. Those are great examples, thanks for those!

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  8. I've been considering restructuring the whole proficiency system, starting from a base of the "Weapons Wear Out, Not Skills" article from Dragon 65. That will probably include going over the allowed weapons for each class, so this discussion is very useful to me.

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  9. So ... it sounds like you can change what weapons a character class has access to, in order to convey information about your campaign's setting and cultures. How about that!

    An idea that I have never heard expressed explicitly before, although I think many DMs follow on their own (see the Gygax/Gord example above):
    - maybe the list of allowed weapons should be the list of INITIALLY allowed weapons? A character can then pick up the use of any weapon they see fit over the course of the campaign.

    This allows the DM to convey information about the classes and culture of their world while allowing PC freedom after the initial creation.

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    1. In some sense I like that, but it does open up a box of record-keeping issues (for both PCs and NPCs). And we'd have a few players who would immediately respond with "I know all weapons", and how to adjudicate that...

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  10. I like thieves with short bows, but I started with BX. And slings, yes. But crossbows are bulky, and long bows are long, so while a thief can *use* either of those, they can interfere with their thieving abilities.

    This article (http://www.princecon.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/PCon1Article.pdf) on the 1976 PrinceCon has a line potentially of interest: “A thief listens at doors, fires arrows...”

    Also, as an aside, Robin Hood can’t be an OD&D thief because he’s Lawful. He’s not selfish, unconcerned, or disinterested, which are the defining characteristics of the neutral; he’s not on a power trip, insane, an anarchist, seeking to impose his will upon the world, or aligned with dark (anti-civilization) forces; and above all else, he dedicates his life to justice and remains loyal to the king.

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    1. Fully agreed on the idea of Robin Hood being Lawful. Same would go, I think, for rebels like William Tell, etc. Admittedly among the things I do is open up the Thief class to any alignment (counter to Sup-I, partly just to have one less rule on the table.

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    2. I disagree that Robin Hood is lawful. AD&D descriptions have him solidly at Chaotic Good
      , which I think is fair.

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    3. Robin Hood's primary motivation is freeing his people from a tyrannical leader until the "good" king (Richard was a rubbish king) returns, but he's still old nobility, he respects the old ways.

      It largely depends on whether you take the newer fluffy view of chaotic (free spirited), or the older darker kind, which is far more in keeping with WFRP's vision of chaos (from that perspective, he's definitely lawful).

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    4. In OD&D there are only three alignments.

      I haven’t read an AD&D rule book in about 25 years (and never read anything past 2e). Could AD&D have anyone as Lawful Good in the Robin Hood stories during the time King Richard is away?

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    5. It's true that Kerr in Dragon #55 (Nov-1981) pegged Robin and all his men as Chaotic Good, in line with the AD&D use of that mixed alignment. And yes, as an OD&D player I'm trying to fit it into the older 3-alignment system, which seems more primal, for which Robin looks Lawful to my eye (see other posts on the Anderson/Moorcock literary traditions of those alignments).

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  11. I think thieves need to be handy with whatever is available, so slings are a must. I'm a fan of Order of the Stick, where Haley the rogue uses a shortbow, so thieves should be able to use those too. Finally, small crossbows seem like just the thing for a thief, so they're good too (I can easily picture an assassin hiding in the shadows with a poison tipped bolt).

    However longbows are out (they require too much strength), and thief skills don't work with heavy crossbows. That fits with my general OD&D rule: you can use *any* weapon or armour, but class abilities won't always work.

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    1. Yeah, obviously Haley in Order of the Stick was based on playing with 3.5 rules above, where the shortbow is certainly the best missile option for the thief (rogue). Although her "daddy was a First Edition thief" (OOTS #8).

      Personally if I gave thieves access to any bows or crossbows, I'd just give all of them for brevity (short text), and besides there's effectively no advantage to light-vs-heavy in the dungeon environment.

      But I'm seriously very torn on which way to go with that.

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    2. Crossbows should definitely be allowed. Just because they are the correct weapon for every encounter or job doesn't mean they aren't the perfect thief weapon in others. Sniping/assassinating is a key thief ability, and crossbows are terrific for that.

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    3. Sorry, I meant "...just because they are not the correct weapon..."

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    4. As of today I'm the side of giving slings and crossbows but not self bows.

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  12. Perhaps much of the discussion about thief proficiencies can be simplified by defining a short list of standard thief weapons and allowing them to choose one or two extra proficiencies at character creation. With perhaps the exception of 2-handed melee weapons. Backstabbing with a greatsword never made much sense to me. You might also let them select an additional proficiency at say, 4th level. And maybe again at 8th.

    I think this rule satisfies the "flexibility" reasoning behind giving them access to all weapons from some strains of the game, while not violating the limitations of others. It would also seem to fit the notion of the thief being a specialist class and let players customize their characters a bit.

    I think thieves would get access to the most familiar/easiest weapons to their milieu. For default settings, that would include 1-handed swords, daggers, clubs (and maces?), staves, and crossbows.

    As an aside, I think Gygax's interpretation of slings/bows/crossbows is probably based on faulty evolutionary assumptions: the more "primitive" weapons were replaced with the newer types because the newer types were demonstrably better. I think slings were ultimately abandoned because bows were easier to learn (and therefore less expensive to train), not necessarily a better weapon. Likewise bows being supplanted by crossbows and firearms. Once you get reliable firearms, which have roughly the same advantages of crossbows over earlier weapons, then you switch to them as their cost becomes justified by their increased capabilities.

    Corollary to the incorrect assumption argument, I believe slings should be significantly better weapons than their usual representation reflects. Damage and range should both be equivalent to bows/xbows. Perhaps 1d6 for slung stones and 1d8 for cast metal bullets, with range roughly equivalent to long bows in battle and short bows in individual skirmishes (or just average both and call it good).

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    1. I totally agree with your observation about the relative technological benefits of slings/bows/crossbows. That was the subject of a post here a few weeks ago.

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  13. What makes the most sense to me is for thieves to use compact weapons that they can tote around even in tight quarters. That would be slings and the more compact crossbows (nearly all European ones).
    Self bows are right out, but if you interpret the mysterious "shortbow" as being something like a recurve hunting bow, it might be compact enough for a thief.
    Carrying arrows would be annoying though. Short European-style crossbow quarrels would probably be OK.
    And, of course, there's the fact that any fool should be able to shoot a crossbow in at least approximately the right direction, given a quick lesson on how to work the trigger and reload mechanism. Saying that thieves mysteriously can't use them makes little sense.

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    1. Good thoughts. Today this is definitely the direction in which I'm leaning.

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  14. All 3 should be allowed. All are perfect weapons given the right situation. In fact, I give thieves all weapons like B/X. Thieves are called on to be jacks-of-all-trades, for example, so that they can successfully camouflage themselves in any role they need to mimic or infiltrate. Also consider power balance, in which thieves fall way behind the other classes in every edition. They need all the help they can get.

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    1. Also, since you like the Lankhmar feel, consider the descriptions of all the training that guild thieves must go through. Their list of learned skills would be huge. And they certainly don't rule anything out. I think Swords Against Deviltry details F&GM's first excursion into the guild hall and all the training they witness there.

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    2. Well, I just checked the scene in "Ill Met in Lankhmar" where F&GM first enter the Thieves' Guild and scout out various rooms. The see practice at: picking pockets, opening locks, tumbling/dodging, disguising, etc., but no weapons practice. When chased out the thieves only use knives, clubs, and slings -- which leads me to think that their weaponry is rather quite limited.

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  15. Maybe we should try a radical form of D&D where the only class is Thief and the only weapons they're allowed to use are Polearms, except no group can carry more than one of each specific type, and also Darts which must be hurled by Atlatl, and finally Sling Bullets (but not Slings).

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