One of my goals this week has been to create a list of sage abilities for the thief, to add to the wiki. Not to actually define in detail these abilities, as that would take far more than a week, but to identify what those abilities would be and to leave the details for later. I've given up trying to introduce the sage abilities in complete form to my parties ~ it's just taking too long. I've been banging away for several years now and it feels like nothing gets done. If I make the framework, however, perhaps I can get the players to help and in some cases we can make rules on the spot, the precise limitations to be established by precedent.
This sounds bad but hell, right now, there are no rules of any kind for most of these things. A proposed structure is at least a start.
So, the thief. Now, I'm well aware that this class wound up being a public black-eye to the game company and that by the 90s everyone had chosen to adopt the term "rogue" because we are, well, all infant children and such. For my money, if there was going to be a change in the term, we should have gone the other way and identified the thief as the "criminal class." For my money, this is what the thief represents: not a playfully mischevious scoundrel, not a scamp, not an acrobat, but a class that embodies those skills that the criminal class DOES possess, however unpleasant they might be to encounter in everyday life: double-dealing at games, forgery, casing a building, holding a group of hostages effectively, acting as a quack or a shyster with no real knowledge of medicine or the law, putting the blade between the fourth and fifth ribs adroitly . . . these are difficult things to do and take time to learn. I don't care, myself, that the acquisition of these skills suggests someone who ought to be in jail; my players are free to associate with whatever characters they will. So long as the violence is directed at people outside the party, it is up to the party to decide what makes them comfortable, not me.
Therefore, screw most of the physical tricks and feats usually ascribed to the thief. These things rightly belong to the BARD, a performer, not to someone who chooses the criminal profession because it is the easiest and least physical way to make a living (something that everyone seems to have forgotten). I know, I know, the cat burglar is the quintessential thief, but a character doesn't need to do somersaults to climb buildings quietly and doing somersaults doesn't make a person thief-like. In fact, the two have nothing to do with each other, except for the thin veneer of needing the thief (er, rogue) being able to do something to make the class viable.
I would rather simply admit it. The thief knows how to smuggle, make a trap, roughly praise a valuable object, fence a stolen good and woo a victim. If I can think of enough dirty tricks to add to a thieves' sage abilities, I will add them . . . but on the whole, I must admit, it is still fairly thin on the ground.
On one level, it should be. The thief has the easiest amount of experience to go up a level so it is naturally the weakest, least effective class. There are certain aspects of a thief that are useful, that can't be gotten around with the social blunderings of a cleric, the physical force of a fighter or the raw power of the wizard. The thief is finesse. Ruthless finesse. This is the structure I'm going for.
No doubt about it: many of the thieves' studies are going to offer little. I have no interest in the massive modifier bumps that show up with e3.5 and carry through to the later editions. Basically, don't bother rolling the die, you have a +35 to any roll you care to make, where thieving skills are involved. I've just been through the 3.5 feat rules and I can say with conviction that there was a LOT of lazy game design there. +2 if you have this skill and another +4 if you also have this skill and add another +7 if you have THIS skill. Criminy.
Where my system is concerned, I am on the hook for coming up with at least 8 individual abilities (no leaning on extra bonuses!) for ALL of the following studies: setting and removing traps, casing a building, hiding in cover, picking pockets, opening locks, pawning goods and like chicanery, forgery, cheating at gambling, acting as an accomplice, acting with guile (managing victims), hearing noise, sure-footedness, dirty fighting and, of course, backstabbing.
Not an easy task. But I'm sure with time I will steadily accumulate those 120 expected abilities and probably more. That's how the sage ability design has gone so far.
Oh, the assassin is another problem. I've been thinking of the difference between the two, apart from the difference between backstab and assassination. I think it comes down to this: a thief is concerned with being liked; most of the actual criminal activities involve some kind of association, what with finding marks to cheat, victims to terrorize and customers for stolen goods. All these things are easier if the thief is appreciated and liked.
Killers, however, are just scary. They're not concerned with being liked. Dillinger was a thief and had a friendly reputation. Bonnie and Clyde, likewise. These criminals killed, yes, but they were better known for robbery. On the other hand, the less popular gangsters, like Bugsy Siegel or Dutch Shultz, were feared. No one idolized them while they were alive nor did they mourn their deaths. This is the difference, I think. Crooks imagine that someday they'll be admired and respected for their skill and daring. Assassins, on the other hand, just want the other guy to die.