On Thieves: A Trifunctional Analysis of OD&D
My friend Ava Islam and I were talking about how thieves could possibly be integrated into OD&D without compromising the integrity of its simple system with little mechanical variation between characters. Her solution is to treat thieves as a parasitic class that steal abilities from monsters by stealing their treasure ; unlike other characters, her thieves are also not limited by how much they can advance per session or how much XP they can receive from higher-level feats (i.e. from looting higher-level floors or defeating higher-HD monsters). This incentivizes the thief to pursue riskier jobs than other classes, and also to hold onto treasure rather than selling it and/or receiving XP for it. It’s very interesting and worth checking out, so please do that and also support Ava’s transition fund (link)!
My original (less interesting) thought for a while was to explore thieves as a viable option for characters with poor prime requisite scores, which in OD&D are strength for fighters, intelligence for mages, and wisdom for clerics. That is all fine, but that doesn’t explain what exactly thieves do or how they do it. I suggest that thieves could simply be better at dungeon actions in general than their classed peers, but this has the weird effect that a character who transitions from a thief into a real class seems to forget their thievish abilities. Then, I consider the economic classes embodied by the original three character types, in order to explore what niche a thief could possibly fulfill among them. This culminates in a critique of Greyhawk, the supplement that introduced thieves, for undermining so many of the core structures which were definitive of OD&D.
Thieves & Prime Requisites
- Fighter PR: Str + 1/2 Int + 1/3 Wis
- Mage PR: Int + 1/2 Wis
- Cleric PR: Wis + 1/2 Int + 1/3 Str
- Thief PR: Dexterity???
In OD&D, the fighter-mage-cleric class system is based on a triangle of directions for potential growth . Fighters receive their primary XP bonus from their strength ability, but also receive a half-bonus from their intelligence and a third-bonus from their wisdom. Mages receive their primary XP bonus from intelligence and a half-bonus from wisdom; they receive no bonus for strength. Finally, clerics receive their primary bonus from wisdom, a half-bonus from intelligence, and a third-bonus from strength. Owing to this distribution, intelligence is the most impactful ability across the board; you should be a fighter if your strength exceeds your wisdom or a cleric if your wisdom exceeds your strength, and you should be a mage if your intelligence exceeds both. This means, overall, you’re more likely to be either a cleric or a fighter than a mage (and, with lower experience requirements for cleric levels, being a cleric might be more worthwhile if you want quicker progression).
What if you roll for all three scores, and they’re all dogshit? The nice thing about OD&D is that, except for prime requisites, ability scores don’t have many hard-coded effects. In fact, only the abilities that are not prime requisites tend to have such specific effects ; constitution modifies hit points, dexterity modifies missile accuracy, and charisma modifies hireling morale and maximum quantity. I imagine that the original thief class in Greyhawk, whose prime requisite was dexterity, was meant to be (to some extent) an alternative for players whose characters turned up with bad strength, intelligence, and wisdom. The problem is that dexterity is outside of the original triangle of scores which created such interesting tradeoffs between the original three classes (among other issues introduced by Greyhawk).
Instead, it would be more interesting for there to be a non-class; that is, a catch-all negative category which is not modified by any ability score. Anyone could be this non-class, and no one will be any better or worse than any other person. The trick is to find a way to set apart this non-class, give it something or anything to set it apart, without resorting to the infamous skill system that made thieves notorious to begin with.
Thievish & Other Skills
Thief skills are weird. To many, they represent a deviation from the play style originally prescribed in D&D, insofar as they (seem to) imply certain actions which only thieves and no other characters types may attempt: hiding in shadows, climbing up walls, etc. Another interpretation is that characters may do any of those things in general, but that thieves are especially or even supernaturally capable of them; for example, anyone can hide behind walls, but thieves can literally hide in mere shadows as per Robert Fisher . The result is that the thief skills do not replace any existing mechanisms for surprising enemies or disabling traps, but they offer a layer of protective redundancy. This makes sense, but to me it is still indicative of a shift from party activity to individual activity that is characteristic of Greyhawk in general.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence, for example, that the thief class was introduced in the same supplement as strength-based bonuses to melee attacks, or as dexterity-based bonuses to armor class as per . Although such special character abilities were originally granted to e.g. demihumans like elves who are twice as likely to detect a hidden door, they were the exception rather than the norm. As character individuality increased, there became more rules to learn and more information to keep track of on your character sheet. It would be interesting, then, to see what a thief would look like if not beholden to the individualistic tendencies introduced in Greyhawk.
One option might be to still let the thief be better at dungeon tasks: opening doors, listening through doors, searching rooms, and so on. However, instead of handling this through finicky bonuses, we can preserve the dice pool (really, worker placement ) aspect by letting the thieves roll different dice. Assume that a door can be opened on a roll of 5+ (rather than 1 or 2). A typical d6 has the usual 33% chance, but a d8 would have a 50% chance. You could keep the roll-low aspect by having thieves roll a d4 and succeeding at a 1 or 2 like normal, but those pyramids are not my favorite thing to pick up off the table and roll. Anyway, this kind of thing would give thieves higher chances of success at tasks without shifting the focus from party rolls to individual rolls. It can also be retrofitted onto elves and halflings for their exceptional abilities (and a thief could be a character who simply has all those demihuman abilities, and nothing else going on). It would even encourage characters, as they move away from the dungeon, to transition into a classed character with specific skills suited for wilderness and domain play.
I just find that to be not very compelling, and slightly confusing. You could probably systematize it in greater depth, saying what exactly thieves are better at (even if that just means clarifying what everyone else already can—or can’t—do), but that is a hassle and it defeats the point of all this. Plus too, what does it mean to become worse at dungeoneering in exchange for becoming better at combat or magic? Are characters like Pokémon that forget how to do things? At least they would probably forget over some time between sessions, rather than instantaneously. If the above works for you, that’d make me happy to know; but I don’t think it satisfies what I would want for a distinct thief class to matter in OD&D.
It is said upfront that the three main classes have distinct yet hegemonic roles in the economy of OD&D (at least, upon reaching high levels). Fighters own land and extract rent. Mages manufacture valuable magical items. Clerics collect tithes and, as theocrats, extract rent from their territories. These three ‘classes’ can be described in European terms as the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the clergy. Consider also the trifunctional hypothesis by the fascist philologist Georges Dumezil, that ancient caste society and their deities tended to be divided into three categories: the sovereign, the warrior, and the producer (the hypothesis has often been criticized for its truth-content, but it is still a reflection of Dumezil’s own perspective on European society) . From these various perspectives, then, the fighter-mage-cleric triangle can be interpreted as a multidimensional triad that interfaces between early modern economics, pseudo-historical analysis of premodern society, and generic tropes of sword-and-sorcery pulp literature. Where is the room for thieves in this distinctly modern and European complex of three?
One option, which Ava suggested in our conversation, is to analogize thieves with the peasantry, i.e. agrarians with only small land holdings. In certain understandings of the early modern economy, the peasantry was considered a distinct class from the bourgeoisie proper; they were not industrialists and they did not employ the labor of others on a mass scale, but they owned what little property they used to make their living. They constituted, in part, the petite bourgeoisie for Marx in that respect; Marx thought that as capitalism developed, such small firms would be outcompeted by large ones, and peasants would become proletarians as they lost their previous livelihood. Gygax identifies this anxiety about losing one’s livelihood in the AD&D DMG, saying that the most likely adventurers are the not-firstborn children of landed peasants or nobility, without an inheritance to begin a new life (or, perhaps, unwilling to become proletarians). This motive interfaces well with the apparent end goal of OD&D, to clear the wilderness and settle your own barony or achieve some other important livelihood .
However, that all being said, it is not very interesting if the end goal for a character in D&D were to become a peasant. They ostensibly do not aspire to as much as the others do, and may even find themselves in competition with them. This perhaps is a perfect fit for the thief as someone who wants nothing more than to be a bandit, and whose job is being done by more competent people with greater purpose (within the ideological framework of D&D). Consider especially that, in OD&D, bandits are specifically the basic human 'monsters' (i.e. hostile NPCs) which serve as the lackeys of high-level classed NPCs roaming the wilderness, likely in search of land to claim. Does this mean being a bandit is a temporary state, occupied by aspiring peasants who need funds to acquire their own land, or by adventurers who have not yet become one class or another? This might be a fine way to handle thieves or even player characters in general, but with the caveat that their participation in a long-term campaign is thus limited unless they become a fighter, mage, or cleric later on. This relates closely to our consideration of thieves as a temporary class, like “level zero” characters in other rulesets, but it does not satisfy our search for a thief class that is on equal footing with its peers.
I feel like I’ve exhausted myself in trying to find an excuse for there to be a thief class within the existing structures laid out by OD&D, and without compromising those structures individually and in conjunction (strength-intelligence-wisdom, fighter-mage-cleric, nobility-bourgeoisie-clergy). The desire to have something like thief skills in OD&D is perhaps better met by an expanded scheme for dungeon tasks, one that preserves party-subjectivity rather than elevating character-individuality . The desire for there to be an alternative class for characters with poor prime requisites might also better be met by rearranging scores or even rerolling them. It is just difficult to find not only another fictional niche, or another functional niche for play, but also another economic niche to find space for a fourth class that exists in cooperation with the first three.
Yet having explored different domains of the OD&D game in total—ability scores, dungeon crawls, and high-level play—we have a new lens through which to view the undermining of OD&D’s structures in Greyhawk and subsequent publications. The domains of individual ability, abstract (i.e. class or type) ability, and economic participation are unified under the three triads described above. Later editions of D&D complicate character abilities, expand class roles, and deemphasize economic classes in such a way that those three domains no longer enjoy the same symmetry they used to have. The result is that the game becomes less naïvely simple. Character abilities become functionally homogeneous, being used for a variety of dice benefits or class requisites. Character classes come to indicate concrete concepts rather than structural relationships to the (physical, social, and ideological) world of OD&D. Economic classes are deemphasized and, eventually, phased out in favor of endless dungeon crawling.
If you prefer thieves to clerics but want the same thematic cohesion characteristic of OD&D, here’s something you can try. Let there be three classes: fighters, mages, and thieves. Their prime requisite abilities should make up a triangle, and the three stats from Into the Odd will serve us well: strength, willpower, and dexterity. Fighters become land-owners as before. Without clerics, it might make more sense for mages to fulfill the clergy role in higher society, with their supernatural abilities or what have you. That leaves thieves in the bourgeois role, and what better symbol of the bourgeoisie is there than the robber barons of mass industry? Still, it doesn't have the distinctly European flavor that the clerics grant to D&D, and which I think is essential to making the trifold models of OD&D feel complete.
 Compare also to the three estates of medieval France, the Ancien Régime: the clergy, the nobles, and the peasantry (which also included the bourgeoisie, as the middle class). I owe this insight to Ava Islam, who told me also about Sweden’s four-estate system that distinguished between the peasantry and the bourgeoisie.
 This all has interesting implications for D&D, having both settler colonial ideology and classic fascist ideology baked into its world and characters. This is, of course, not coincidental: both settler colonialism and fascism are motivated by the desires of the petite bourgeoisie to avoid losing their economic position and to get what they believe is owed to them.
 This might seem like a good opportunity to poke at a fascist tendency in OD&D, but collective or group subjectivity is not necessarily fascist. Rather, fascism is specifically a group subjectivity in service of preserving a national capitalism. If there is an analysis to be made of the D&D party as a fascistic fantasy, it should be in terms of economic class collaboration. Even then, there’s not much to do with that. This is a make-believe game, and there’s more serious things to look at.