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Stop, Thief!
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.

I have a confession to make. The thief is my favorite character class. I realize that it’s been called the rogue since 1989, but as far as I’m concerned the class will always be the thief. Sure, the name rogue encompasses far more concepts; it gets across the basic idiom of the class—but to me, a rogue is still a thief. It’s a little hard for me to write about this class and remain objective, but I think the thief quietly encapsulates everything that makes D&D awesome.

d4 Hit Die + Lousy AC + Unreliable Skills = A Challenge!

Back in the days of Basic D&D, the thief was a fairly weak character. Tied with the magic-user for worst hit points, second to the magic-user for worst AC, the thief made up for these shortcomings with a variety of skills. Only a thief could open locks, find traps, or hide in shadows. Exciting stuff… until you actually learned enough math to figure out how terrible your chances of success were. For instance, a 1st-level thief in Basic D&D had a staggering 10% chance to hide in shadows. If there was a trap in the dungeon, the thief had a 1% chance (yes, that’s 1%, not a typo) of both finding and removing it; this from a 10% chance to find and a 10% chance to remove it. That’s a worse chance than rolling a 17 or 18 on 3d6.

Could you imagine how that played out in adventurers’ guilds across the Known World? Being a thief had less to do with the class’s actual skills and far more to do with the share of treasure it took away from other, more useful classes.

It’s easy to point at the thief and laugh—but that’s not what I did back in the early 1980s. I played a thief, and I loved it. Why? That’s easy. Saddled with a variety of at best unreliable skills, the thief forced me to improvise, invent, and interact* with the game in ways the other classes weren’t forced to. A fighter could chop through orcs, the cleric hammered creatures with a mace and threw healing spells, while the magic-user unleashed fireballs and magic missiles. So if I wanted to match them as the thief, I had to be clever. If I just sat back and rolled dice, I’d fail. A lot. Instead, I had to approach the game like improvisational theater, my eyes open for any chance to make something interesting happen.

Conan, What is Best in D&D?

That brings us back to what I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the idea that ye olde style thief represented everything that makes D&D awesome. Now before I go on, let’s keep something in mind. As I’ve brought up in this series repeatedly, gamers are an incredibly varied group. We play D&D for a variety of reasons. Our approach to the game differs from individual and individual, and from group to group. My favorite part of D&D might be your least favorite, and vice versa.

What I like about D&D, and what keeps me coming back to the game after 30 years, is the infinite possibilities it opens up to us. There’s something incredible about the group creativity and action that the game fosters, this sense that we can break off in any direction at any time. Is there a troll in the next room? OK, the thief climbs above the doorway, pulls out a flask of Greek fire, and the rest of the party attracts the monster’s attention. When it comes through the door, troll flambé!

In other types of games, you couldn’t do that unless the designer anticipated it. In an RPG, all it takes is a good idea and a few die rolls. The DM adjudicates things on the fly, and the action takes off from there. Maybe the plan goes off perfectly, and the troll bursts into flame. Or maybe the rogue slips and falls on top of the troll. Even as we shoot off in different directions, we never know what might happen next.

It reminds me of the many RPG panels I’ve been on at conventions. Invariably, some beleaguered DM asks what he should do when players ruin his carefully built plans. A DM can often put together an elaborate plot or sprawling dungeon, only to see the players race off in a completely different direction. To me, that’s D&D in a nutshell. But if you are a DM in that position, remember that turnabout is fair play—just as the players can mess up your plans in the wink of an eye, you can do the same to them. When they strike off in a strange direction, roll with it. Pick a few critters from the Monster Manual at random, think about the last good book, movie, to TV show you watched, and go from there.

Most entertainment fosters a sense of admiration and fandom in us for its creators. D&D fosters a fandom in ourselves. We are the stars, we are the creators. The game gives back to you as much energy and love as you put into it. Not too many forms of entertainment can claim that. That’s what makes D&D great. That’s why I still play after all these years.

So, what do you think is the best part of D&D? Drop your answer in the comment field below.

*This sounds like the logo of a really positive-thinking thieves’ guild, the kind that breaks your money-owing legs with a smile.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 05/10/2011

1. What do you think of character death in D&D?

  • Character death should happen once in a while: 62.4%
  • Characters should die only rarely: 29.0%
  • Character death should be a regular part of the game: 8.6%

2. What do you think of characters returning from death in D&D?

  • A character should come back at a moderate price, one that most players will pay: 56.4%
  • A character should come back at a heavy price that encourages most players to abandon a dead character: 35.5%
  • A dead character should stay dead, with no options for return: 4.8%
  • A character should come back easily, like recovering from any other condition: 3.3%

3. What should drive character death?

  • Any of the above; a DM should have options to introduce any of these situations into the game: 59.9%
  • Bad choices; smart players can avoid death if they plan well and pay attention: 30.8%
  • The plot or the story; a character should die only if the DM sets that up to happen: 5.7%
  • Random chance; any fight or trap might kill an unlucky character: 3.6%

4. Continuing our adventure from last week, as you inspect the wall you note that it is clearly of supernatural origin. As you examine the stones in their checkerboard pattern, they give way to your touch and the lantern pulses a flash of white light. The wall disappears, revealing three shambling, rotting figures beyond it. With a moan, they shuffle toward you. What do you do?

  • As a cleric, I brandish my holy symbol and turn these obviously undead creatures: 35.9%
  • As a wizard, I draw my wand and unleash a burning hands spell: 31.5%
  • As a fighter, I draw my sword and charge: 20.2%
  • As a rogue, I throw a dagger at the nearest one before it can react: 12.5%
Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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