Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Criminal Class

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.


  1. I'm excited to see how these wind up. I do hope you find the time to polish the sage abilities up every now and again: as much as I adore every aspect of world design and adventure building you create and showcase here, I've always had a soft spot for really well-researched and intelligently designed gameplay mechanics.

  2. I'll do my best to polish, Tim. I do try every once in awhile to work on these things, to stay one step ahead of my parties.

  3. Suggestion: a thief will know how to fight dirty and hide a body, but an assassin will specialize not only in how to kill, but also how to kill in a specific manner. For example, back when medical schools would pay people for well preserved bodies for experiments, a man named Bjork developed a way to suffocate people with careful placement of his hand over the nostrils and mouth that left no marks on the cadaver.

    In short, a thief should know how to kill via finesse, but it takes an assassin to make it look like an accident.

  4. Piggybacking off of Chaos, wouldn't another difference between a thief and assassin be that while the thief has a wider range of skills, and the assassin is better at killing by whatever his or her chosen means are (whether that be strangulation, false suicides, poison, etc).

    Some other possible skills useful for thieves:

    Recognizing easy marks, recognizing undercover guards, knowledge of patrol routes, maybe some sort of skill in memorizing directions or knowing city layouts (to be better plan escape routes).

    I feel like some of the problem with thieves is that what makes a great thief is not conducive to adventuring, because a lot of what makes a great thief is knowing the ins and outs of a specific area, so that they can get strike quickly and get away easily. So maybe sage abilities that allow them to obtain knowledge of an area more quickly/completely would be valuable.

    Also, a lot of value in criminals is criminals tend to know other criminals, either through acquaintances or shared time in jail. So maybe some sage abilities that make it easier for players to find better and more effective criminal aid with a thief in tow might represent this.

    Another idea is that criminals tend to be poor, and people tend to know and associate with those of their socioeconomic class. While characters of other classes were studying, thieves/criminals were among the people. So not only might they have a better idea of what the poor think of a certain political power, but maybe they have an advantage if recruiting henchmen from among the poor.

    I feel like a major difference between classically portrayed thieves and assassins is (generally) in training. Most thieves pick up the skills they need by doing them from a young age, sort of a trial by fire. While training may occur, you are more expected to train by doing rather than by study. Assassins, on the other hand, tend to be more likely to be trained specifically for the job.

  5. Cool stuff. I can't wait to see more.

    I didn't see specifically listed, though this may be rather obvious. Thieves also have a special ability to spot another. This can lead to being able to easily find criminal hirelings or maybe spot a scam or a thief in action against the party or another NPC.

    I suppose assassins would be able to spot another who lacks all empathy towards human life or maybe all emotion in general. This is why serial killers are so successful because the untrained person can't tell that they are pretending to have emotions. Though not all assassins are necessarily sociopaths.

  6. I appreciate the suggestions. Keep in mind, however, that any "power" that a character can be given must NOT shortcut the role-playing process. No short-cuts.

  7. That would make thieves much more difficult. If I am correct, sage abilities are about informing you exactly what your character knows or could know? That makes thieves uniquely difficult, since a lot of what they could know are things that could be obtained through roleplay (such as knowledge of patrols, city layouts and the like).

    Still leaves you with the skills you listed, but I see what you mean regarding being very limited.

  8. That's right, James,

    There's no evidence that real thieves in the real world have the superpower to recognize other thieves or undercover cops. Where is the ability that lets clerics recognize clerics or mages recognize mages? It is supposed that thieves can do this because they are "more clever" than the other classes - but we already have a mech for determining cleverness. It is called "intelligence." We don't give fighters more strength because they're fighters, it doesn't make sense to give thieves more dexterity and intelligence because they're thieves.

    Oh, wait - 3.5e does exactly that! In dozens of idiotic, over-powered, game-breaking ways. I threw out dozens of feats from the thief list because, well, these things were short cuts designed to make role-playing and player action unnecessary.

    But get rid of the short-cuts and I think you'll find that great thieves ARE conducive to adventuring, because ANY character class can figure out the ins and outs of a specific area, can strike quickly and get away easily. The mistake is in thinking that scouting, sneaking around, smashing someone from behind by surprise or fleeing are things only thieves can do. Thieves can do these things BETTER, but this doesn't mean they do it SO much better that no other class should even try.

    In their all-fired rush to give player characters super-powers as fan service, the game makers lost sight of the fact that these powers needed to be party INCLUSIVE. The thief, more than any class, became separated because every superpower the thief was given redesigned the class to work alone. I don't want to do that. I want a thief that has enough wherewithal to dig in and fight alongside the party and to have the ability to HELP the rest of the party hide WITH the thief. If the fighter can help keep the thief alive in a melee, the thief ought to be able to help the fighter keep quiet as they break into a house.

  9. Now, on the assassin . . .

    That class needs MORE than the ability to kill. Killing makes for a very short sage abilities list ~ and I am definite about removing a lot of the thief abilities I intend to add from the assassin class. I am thinking at the moment about things the assassin should be able to do that the thief doesn't or can't. That's an even tougher hill than the one James' notes. Spying as a profession may suggest some possibilities, but "spying" is a short-cut and is therefore useless. I don't use multiple languages in my world, but the classic ability of the assassin/spy to communicate fluently with strange cultures and strange peoples does suggest a direction.

    No doubt, it is going to require more thought and more research to find an angle.

  10. The first angle that occurs to me as an assassin sage ability is the ability to emulate another career (one or several) in order to get close to their target. Assassins get into guarded homes as window-washers or chimney sweeps, pretend to be nurses in a hospital to administer poison, play out the role of a high-stakes gambler to get close to their target, set themselves up as legitimate businessmen to cover their true source of income, and so on. Almost everything fictional (and I have to assume a fair number of actual) assassins do EXCEPT killing someone might fall under the heading of 'be plausible as something other than an assassin - at least long enough to evade notice or reasonably enough to create deniability."

    I suppose you could have studies for various covers - menial worker, trained specialist, etc. and then abilities that covered the actual tasks involved and made you believable but also potentially applied to killing people. The 'mundane healer / physician' cover-study could include toxin handling/creation, actual first-aid knowledge, and so on. (I forget or do not know: how are obscure languages handled in your campaign?) Menial worker could include tool creation, improvising weapons, physical tasks like climbing, mechanical tasks (opening locks would fit in here), and so on.

    Just a thought to play with.

  11. I'll have more time to think on this later, but what about effective recon strategies? Just like the Fighter has a tactics sage ability to handle small-scale military endeavors, both thieves and assassins should know how to effectively deploy small groups of people to surreptitiously gather information - while anyone can stake out a location, doing it with a skilled thief is more likely to yield interesting information and have the spies remain undiscovered. How does that sound?

  12. Jonathon,

    I'm right with you there - note that the post describes the thief pretending to be a doctor (quack) or a lawyer (shyster). I see both thieves and assassins doing as you say, as a thief has to get inside a house in order to evaluate its contents, so pretending to be a window washer or chimney sweep is right up a thief's alley. An assassin too.

    I was thinking of giving an assassin MORE of this ability than a thief.

    As far as what studies they might have as a cover, consider that we have every other study for every other class to choose from - so it seems clear that the player should be able to pick two or three "amateur skills" of their choice - not everything from a given study, but just one of the skills from within that study.


    I'm with you, too. I'm adding what you describe as acting as an accomplice, renamed just this afternoon as "conspiracy."

    Glad you guys are on the same page as me. Keep thinking on those lines. We need a really DIFFERENT skill to add to those abilities.

  13. Hmm... riffing off of Spazalicious up there, thinking of what a real assassin might need to know that others don't, and remembering a fictional example - how about forensics as a study, with skills/sub-headings for different types of evidence or methods of detection?

    I started down this track remembering a book starring an assassin who never kept a weapon on him for more than a couple of days and left them in his victims so that people couldn't track the crime back to him via sympathetic magic. I don't know if there's enough here to flesh it out, but knowledge of how arcane divination works (and thus how to foil it), detecting or cleaning up mundane evidence at a crime scene (which could apply to many adventuring situations)... I am no longer sure there's enough here but I am not so sure that there isn't that I won't bring it up.

    It feels more assassin-ish than thiefly to me, if only because I imagine more effort is put into apprehending assassins and there's more mundane evidence that's relevant to 1600s-era investigation at a murder scene compared to a con or burglary.

  14. One thing we can be sure of, Jonathon: if we're making heuristic conclusions about what an assassin can do as opposed to what a thief can do, we're in the wrong mindset.

    Did you read my series of posts on heuristics last week?

  15. Hah! I did, and it's a fair point. Going back to the first paragraph of this post, you're trying to build the framework on as sound a foundation as you can. Accepting that the details might be rounded out using in-the-moment decision making is not the same as building your structure that way.

  16. Tying into this impersonation ability is also an intimate knowledge as to how different cultural power structures function - how does a merchant's household compare to an artisan's household in terms of expectations and etiquette? What is the function of everyone within the the house - filial/nonfilial relationship to househead, employment situation, etc. This is, essentially, knowledge of the different kinds of social contracts applicable in different walks of life. Another subspecialty of this category of sage ability might be French courtly etiquette, alongside Ferrarese, Venetian, and Roman court traditions.

    And while you don't use different languages, each subpopulation (particularly oppressed or non-majority groups) will have a set of coded expressions that allow them to identify other members of the subpopulation without outing each other - we see this with queer black populations mid20th c. onward - and so a thief or an assassin might pick up on this coded language more readily than an average person. YMMV - I don't know how much identity politics form a part of your game's discourse, and I understand how this might seem like a short-cut.

    Oh, this kind of goes without saying, but a thief should be able to determine with increasing degrees of exactitude the relative value of an observed object (not a manufactured good, obviously, but an object whose value is entirely aesthetic and nonpractical, like art objects).

    This leads into knowledge of art history - the thief who recognizes a famed artist's signature will make a better profit on the painting than the thief that doesn't, and that information is better-learned in context - recognizing artistic style trends, knowing prominent artists and their geographic locations, etc. Thieves wold also know how to spot obvious forgeries, too. This knowledge would also cover how to obscure an object's value without compromising it - hiding obvious signatures or master's marks so that passers-by won't recognize them.

    A more specific use of smuggling would be getting the party through tariff points with minimal fees and/or getting contraband through - the thief could instruct allies as to the best places to hide specific pieces of equipment, allowing the group to get supplies through controlled access points.


  17. Loving that art connection, Danny. In Alexis's case there are already skills such as History which are keyed to periods of the world and/or periods of time. I think applying such constraints would make giving the thief an objects-of-art recognition study quite feasible -- as long as we are talking a thief who is closer to "jewel thief" than "ordinary criminal underclass," which seems reasonable for mid-level knowledge-type skills.

    I can also see thieves and assassins maybe getting some mild skills in the architecture category, for the purposes understanding building design and its effects on the movement of people within the structure would be invaluable. obviously this category wouldn't take the place of rolelplaying out the process of spying in order to sneak peeks at the location in the first place, but once the players began carrying out some kind of reconaissance operation or even just moved to a new kind of area, this study could answer player questions like:

    1 - what is the weakest point in a wall made of wood? stone? when it's the corner of two walls? when the wall is round?

    2 - can i recognize thicknesses of glass in windows, so i know which ones are easiest to break open? can i gauge how thick doors are based on the sturdiness of their hinges or the speed with which they open?


    As far as re-purposing some of the other classes' skills, it seems clear to me that at least some of a thief's skill should apply in certain regions only. for Alexis this could mean giving them some abilities which are tied to a locus ( be


    (I'm having trouble articulating an additional point about how to incorporate thief skills without circumventing the roleplay processes, as Alexis points out above. I might come back and write that later.)

    Great timing Alexis, I've got a thief and an assassin running in my game and they've been eager for me to start fleshing out those skills. I'll put my wiki editor hat back on a bit more tightly for this stuff.

  18. I guess I would start with what do thieves know that non-thieves don't? (And that you haven't already mentioned)

    1. How alarm spells work. Maybe only high-level thieves, but even if they don't know how to frustrate them they would need to know how they work so they could even try to outsmart them or avoid them.

    2. How easy or difficult it is to unload certain types of objects. Not necessarily where one could do so, but at least recognize that some objects might have exceptional value "to the right buyer," and some idea of what the "right buyer" would be like (an art afficiendo, someone who hates the government, etc).

    3. The laws of a region, especially one where defendants have rights. While nowhere near the breadth or depth of one who studies law, I have found criminals are certainly more aware of the law than your regular citizen.

    4. Some knowledge of social engineering. You mentioned it above, but specifically skill with portraying common, everyday jobs that allows them to pass unnoticed and unremembered as they case a joint. This has a lot of room to grow, as a really skilled con man could even pretend to have a high-level job they don't have convincingly, and use it to obtain information or fool enemies rather than using it to remain unobserved.

    I really like the idea of a thief helping his allies help him. Maybe sage abilities that let allies use low-level thief tables for various rolls?

    With assassins, I feel like there are a lot of potential areas, but each requires a lot of training and skill. So maybe make assassins have far fewer skill points, or make their skills more expensive? Some ideas not mentioned above:

    1. Some knowledge of how to frustrate common Divination spells

    2. Like the thief's social engineering, but to a much higher degree, able to use it to potentially gain access to hard-to-reach targets.

    3. Again, as the thief above, but maybe even more soecialized knowledge in how to frustrate alarm spells. Because while a thief will just move to an easier target, if an assassin needs to kill *this* target, he or she needs to know how to bypass the target's security.

    I think with the thief versus assassin question, the difference could be that the assassin has deeper knowledge while the thief has much wider knowledge, because while both are (well, can be) stealth classes that engage in illicit activity, the thief looks for easy targets and takes them down while the assassin looks for a specific target's weakness and takes him down.

  19. If you're interested, I've started writing out the thief sage. I was going to work on it yesterday and today, but I seem to have caught the plague. Spending most of today in bed.

  20. Bouncing of the forensics idea above and combining it with some half remembered scenes from various movies: assassin as a slayer. In a fantasy world there would be contracts for more than just men's lives, as there would be elves, orcs, dragons, and all manner of things wanted dead and people to pay for them. So, there could be a sage ability that gives an assassin various knowledge regarding the abilities of things wanted dead. An assassin would start knowing the weaknesses and strengths of his own race in combat, but have a chance to identify the powers and flaws of other races and monsters. Given time and opportunity to study a corpse might improve those chances.
    Also, another sage ability could be locating a contract, with various degrees of success making the contract found closer to any pre-existing goals. For example, if travel between town A and town B were to take X days, then a located contract might be found with a Y-level-2d6 delay in days need to fulfill the contract.

  21. The contract idea is appealing but on some level it must be fitted into player role-playing. But I will think about it.

    The only problem I see with the other suggestion is that genre-savvy players already have all that knowledge and act on it regularly. It is too difficult to police and stop them from using knowledge they have in depth.

  22. One idea for the assassin I think hasn't been mentioned is the possibility of simply looking more menacing. You know the literary descriptions: stone-faced, flint-eyed, looking at you like an insect. It's a social aspect, an ability that could (but not necessarily!) be turned off at will. Of course I don't expect a 3.5-style Intimidation check. But this is a kind of social finesse that happens to look like bluntness, but isn't. More like negotiating by other means. Another option would be threatening more effectively (according to social status of the victim).

    This, of course, may not appeal to you. But to me, an assassin is more like a fork of a warrior than a fork of a thief. Warriors can easily be outlaws, too. Assassins just happen to have a very specialized kind of training in killing people one by one, and not by brute force. Poison and traps should be a must, of course, but even more in a defensive sense (surviving them to reach the target) than in the offensive. I'm thinking of the Assassins' Guild at Ankh-Morpork, in Pyramids.

    Other possible option for assassins is as either very effective torturers or disablers. Client: "I don't want to kill him, but I need him unable to fight for two weeks" Assassin: (supposing adequate opportunity and ability level) . I don't know if you currently have some level of grit on "knocking out" enemies (having reviewed "Damage", "Hit Points" and "Wounds" on your wiki) but this may or may not be an interesting feature.

    Do you already have a class able to swiftly move in social circles much unlike her usual ones? This may be the stuff for the thief, with a side dish of fashion critic that knows how to appropriately dress for the circumstances.

  23. Scarbrow,

    I like the idea of the assassin's looking frightening. Perhaps a wisdom check would work to keep others at a distance ~ but it would be nice to have some more substantial mechanic at play here. I will think on it.

    I agree that the assassin is a fighter class; I think it was originally viewed as this. Your comments (and the tendency of assassins to habitually have bad luck in my world ~ no fault of mine) suggests that perhaps they should be given a d8 for hp instead of a d6. That would make them tougher than a thief. Then, more emphasis could be put on fighter skills to compliment the assassin's killing knowledge, rounding out the character nicely. Perhaps a better assassin/thief/fighter blend would entitle the assassin to things like fighter bonuses to percentile strength and constitution? I don't think I'd go with the fighter table for THACO ~ we have to have some reasonable limits. Overall, I see a lot of potential in that direction.

    Having added injury rules, I have been thinking about "pain" rules, for consideration in torturing characters. I have done no mental work in that direction but I can see more and more there's a need for it. Failing a pain resistance would take freedom of choice out of the player's hands. I'd want to reflect, however, the truth about torture rarely working like it does on TV; my direction would be a lack of all rational thought process, not an inducement to truth-telling.

    I've wanted to add some rules for knocking people out (with my negative hit point rules, zero hit points is effectively being knocked out since there is no permanent damage). I do see the option as being an authority/expert sage level, going with my rules on that. An amateur may accidently kill but an authority in killing would know how to hold back.

    Finally, movement through social circles; the cleric has a sage ability, Politics, that fits with that ideal.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.