Friday, July 27, 2012

Thieving Abilities - Locks & Stalks

I had some thoughts on how to rework some of the thieving abilities for AD&D, without going down the road taken by skill sets and later editions of the game.

The Number One problem for thieving skills would be that they are based on percentages. Percentages are well and good, and have their place, but it is extremely hard to balance play and success as a thief on the basis of pure, unadulterated chance. If the abilities could be reworked to either eliminate or at least reduce the importance of percentages, I think this would be a vast improvement.

Up until recently, however, I haven't given much thought on how to do that. I've been running a few adventures that have been intensely thief oriented in the last year, however (player choice, not mine) and I've been increasingly frustrated at the weak-ass worthlessness of planning activities around these silly percentages.

Open Locks.

Count the number of times you can remember where anyone attempting to open a lock in a film or a book stopped, turned to their companions and said, "nope, sorry, I can't open it."

Obviously, if I tried to open a lock with a pick, this would probably be something I'd have to say in short order.  But I'm not a thief.  I'm not able to cast spells or fall from buildings without taking damage, but in D&D I don't have to throw percentages in order to accomplish those things.  Logically, if an illusionist can manage a phantasmal killer without chance of failure, a thief ought to be able to open a freaking lock.

Yet naturally, there's the voice of drama again:  "We can't have the party just going anywhere!"  It cries.  "That would be anarchy!  We must make it possible for parties to be stopped by doors, even if they can destroy six stone giants!"

So we are in a dilemma.  There is something to be said for thieves having trouble opening locks.  Still, I think the drama can be retained if we ignore the chance of success in exchange for time until success.  Sure, the thief can open the door ... but can he or she open it right now?  Does it take one round, so it can be done quietly and without waking anyone up, or is the thief clumsily taking a dozen rounds to succeed?

A balance that takes into account the thief's level is easy:  something like 2d4 - level would be sufficient.  Using a small result would mean that by 7th, the thief was well past all that bullshit noobie stuff with regards to opening locks.  At first, it could still take a few tricky, inconvenient rounds if opening the door quickly mattered.

Of course, you could easily mess with the players by having 4 classes of lock:  2d4, 2d6, 2d8 and 2d10.  A 2d10 lock would be tough and inconvenient even for a master thief, half the time ... it would almost always be a long drawn out struggle for a 1st level.  Remember, since actual success is not in question, the main problem would be the thief standing around for 15 rounds while trying to get said lock open.  Additional problems could be created by arguing that if the thief is distracted, the lock resets and has to be addressed from scratch; or you could implement the old % roll to see if the thief was able to pick up from where the thief left off, or if the thief lost his or her place.  Either way, the drama shifts, so that locks are more an obstacle like a speed bump ... which a good DM could use to build a hell of a lot more tension than Yes it's open or No it isn't.

Move Silently.

As a thief, this has to be the most vague, annoying, sometimes useless ability in existence.  If there's anything that can be said to be humiliating about being a thief, its when you're 10th fucking level and you still can't simply walk 30' behind a first level guard without his or her noticing you.  Sure, a lot of the time, but you're gonna fuck it up 1 chance in 4?  I mean, come on!  What do you have to do?

We can divide up move silently into basically two features, each defined by what it is used for: 1) thieves use it to get past someone or something; and 2) thieves (and assassins) use it to approach a target.  We can call (1) stealth and (2) stalking.  Neither should be a percentage die roll.


Primarily, stealth is a defensive ploy intended to avoid conflict, and its success should be dependent upon whether or not it accomplishes that.  If I want to move past someone without being heard (or seen, for that matter), then what matters is distance between me and the listener, and whatever material happens to burden me at the moment.

For example - oof! - I am going to carry this - oof! - 113 lb. sofa on my - urg - back while I sneak behind you on your keyboard.  My success is going to be - uh - balanced by the fact that I am least several miles distant, and in some cases on another actual continent.  This will enable me to move several dozen yards - oh my back - while going completely undetected.

There.  I'm done.  You did not hear me or see me, and so my success at moving silently, in this case, was 100%.  I did say I was doing it, but even despite that, you were completely undisturbed ... and mind you, I'm not even a thief.

On the other hand, if I were to attempt to do the same while almost brushing you with my sleeve, it is unlikely I'd manage.  And this is the point.  Distance is everything.  The better the thief I am, the closer I should be able to pass and the more I should be able to carry while doing so.  There is another reason that runners strip down to almost nothing in warzones that has nothing to do with speed - less weight makes you more agile, more silent and less noticeable.  You're less likely to snag something on a tree while running along.  When's the last time a thief in your world stripped down before attempting to "move silently?"

I haven't quite got an modifier for this, but I'm sure something like 5d4 - level + 1/10 lbs. of weight carried (any weight at all), where the sum equals an optimum distance in hexes (or squares) is a good place to start.  All things could be calculated and if the die was less than the distance, the thief succeeds; more than the distance, and the thief fails. Thus, the thief is able to judge the distance against their level and what they take with them, and roll the dice, rather than depending on a ridiculous flat percentage that is supposed to fit every situation.


This would be primarily an offensive use of silent movement, intended to get the thief (or assassin/monk - or even ranger) as close as possible to the enemy before being noticed.  It is presumed that at some point the enemy will see or hear you ... but preferably not until you're in sword distance.

Desirably, we'd want this number to occur with the maximum amount of uncertainty while still allowing a reasonable judgement and improvement upon the stalker increasing their level.  This is not as difficult as it sounds.  If the base die is 3d4 hexes - level of the attacker, a lot of low levels are going to find it difficult to get right next to their enemy.  Still, if you reason that the moment of detection is also the potential moment of SURPRISE, it only dictates how far away the thief is before the melee begins.  This distance can be balanced by making it +1 hex per level of the highest target ... thus at 1st, there won't be much edge.  At 10th, however, its better than average that against a 2nd level target the moment of detection would be zero or less - which means, before the thief attacks, there is no moment of detection.  The thief attempts to back stab, the assassin assassinates ... and the melee is resolved.

So, no percentages.  Improvement with level, adaptation to abilities as the thief improves ... sounds like good work to me.


DaveL said...

I really like your take on this! As far as getting rid of the percentages, I wrote in my blog recently here:
Where I convert to a D20 system in keeping with the D20 nature of everything else. The distance affecting chance of success seems like a much better mechanic to me. I'm liking this a lot.

JB said...

Yeah, I removed all thief skill rolls from my B/X game some time ago (more than a year...I don't remember, it's on my blog somewhere). Instead, thief skills just automatically succeed, so long as they take the time to succeed.

Did it break the game? Nope. What it DID do was allowed thieves to play as thieves instead of lightly armored archers/fighters. Prior to nixing skill rolls, beginning thief characters would look at their piss-poor skill percentages and say, 'no I don't really want to check for traps, thanks.'

With hindsight, I realize I took an over-expedient, cut-the-Gordion-knot approach. The problem is, in a game with levels, I removed the incremental increase in effectiveness that occurs with advancement: fighters fight better (and receive more HPs than other classes), spell-casters gain access to more spells, clerics turn undead better, etc.

Your posts here (especially regarding distances) are more complex than I would use in my game (par for the course: the level of complexity and "reality" in your game is more than I care to use), but it's definitely food for though...providing increased effectiveness NOT RELATED TO SKILL PERCENTAGES with ever level increase.

Perhaps thieves need to learn/master one new skill per level or other? Just an idea.

Alexis said...

I'm sorry JB ... what's complex about rolling three dice and subtracting? You're kidding me, right? You're a kidder.

Why do mages simply get another spell if thieves have to "master" another skill?

JB said...

By "master" I meant, "achieve a degree of competence where the chance of failure drops to near nil."

Take, for example, the magic-user. Is there ever a chance the character will fail to correctly pronounce the magic words or "twiddle their fingers" incorrectly? No, the mage either knows the spell or does not (and either has it available or not).

But perhaps the spells known are simply those the mage has mastered, i.e. they might TRY to cast another spell (and perhaps that's a bit of what reading a scroll is), but only the ones gained through level progression are "mastered."

What I was suggesting with rgard to thieves was the idea of, say, allowing the thief to master one skill per level earned (i.e. going up to a 95% or 98% or 100% chance) while other skills might still be used with their standard piss-poor percentages, rising O So Slowly. Thieves, unlike magic-users, have a certain Devil-may-care attitude and thus aren't afraid to continue to attempt skills they haven't "mastered"...but who says all skills must improve at a blanket rate over time?

As I said, just another idea (instead of allowing all skills to be "no fail").

Alexis said...

Trying to fix the flaw by jamming thieves into the spellcaster template (by replacing "spells" with "skills") is a dumb ass solution, one we already watched 4th edition stupidly do with fighters.

Worse, there just aren't that many "skills" you can invent which don't ultimately gather dust on a character's sheet. We've seen the 3rd edition skillset and holy shit, is there a lot of crap there.

You're making the same mistakes game designers already made decades ago, thinking that "improving" in one's profession means learning to do new things. I've got news for you, JB - when you become a doctor, "heart transplant" isn't a magical skill you get after performing a hundred appendectomies ... you either learn to do this, or you don't.

At the same time, with something like writing, it's not like after five years of novel writing, I "graduate" to poet. NO, what happens is you get to be a better novelist, and then one that's better still, and then you start improving (if you don't turn into a raving drunk, that is, or you're not dead of old age).

The problem with your tried-and-fucked-the-hobby-already concept is that it isn't based on anything like actual human experience - but it is really nifty for people who don't know what the hell they're talking about.

JB said...

Oh, there are a number of ways thief skills can be modeled; it really just depends on what you want your world to look like.

For example, say one subscribes to the view "you either know how to do a heart transplant or you don't." Well, then, my 'thief-skills-don't-require-skill-checks' rule seems to make a lot of you know how to climb a wall or not? How to pick a lock or not? Given the proper tools and enough time, you should be able to accomplish the task...assuming you know your craft the way, say, a fighter knows to use a shield and long sword.

In my own campaign, I would only call for a roll under less-than-optimal conditions: trying to pick a lock with a raging combat going on nearby or climbing a perilous cliff in the middle of a rain storm. In these cases the thief's skill check, and level, would come into account. Since most PCs chose to use their skills under less stressful conditions, the main thing lost was time, causing torches to burn low and increasing the chance of 'wandering monsters.'

On the other hand, if you want to model all 1st level thieves as inept incompetents who should have finished their apprenticeships prior to wandering off into a dark dungeon, well you can use the system as written. It really depends more (in my opinion) on the cosmology of your world and how you interpret the modeling of the rules.