The Lucky Thief

This is sort of a repost of my comment here on Thief skills.

Instead of improving a Thief’s skills as he levels up, why not give him one 2 in 6 chance per level for any Thief skills in any one turn (10 minutes)? This ensures that the Thief never reaches a true 100% at the expense of more than one die roll. But there are other benefits.

You eliminate an entire table of skills in exchange for a simply-stated rule.

You also get situations where a low-level Thief concentrates on one skill at a time while a high-level Thief can afford to do two things at once.

For example, if your Thief will Move Silently while Climbing Walls, and he’s 4th level, he gets 4 chances total this turn. Maybe he rolls 3, 4. Failing both. He has two more rolls and nothing is finished yet, so he uses a roll for CW and gets 3. Dang, another failure. He tries CW again and gets 2. So he managed to climb, but not quietly.

Another example would be a Thief trying to Hide in Shadows in a side passage and Pick Pockets as people come by. If he ends up with no success on his Pick Pockets he got nothing or possibly jostled the victim. But if he fails Hide in Shadows he’s spotted! A lower-level Thief would need some other way of approaching a victim, such as in a busy marketplace, where he doesn’t need to use other Thief skills at the same time.

What if many traps require a Thief to deal with the trap at the same time he handles a lock? You can’t just Remove Traps first in a turn, then in the next turn Open Locks. This trap is suddenly much more difficult, the enclosure more secure, without adding a modifier. You just say the two have to happen together. This is how you’d add more difficult Thief skill situations (Climb Walls over a guard also using Move Silently, Remove Trap along with Detect Noise because the trap’s workings are invisible but can be heard, Open Lock with Move Silently so the door opens silently, special lock that relocks itself unless you open all three locks at the same time – so you need 3 successful rolls at once!).

The main thing is that this isn’t a dice pool count-the-successes rule. It’s a retry-on-fail rule. So you wouldn’t want a floor that was really squeaky that required 3 successful Move Silently checks to move across. A better choice would be Detect Noise and Move Silently so you can hear when you’re about to squeak and step someplace else. I know that seems like a faint justification, especially when the skills are all 2 in 6, but it keeps the DM on his toes and inventive. You can’t just say “roll open locks at -50% because this is a tough lock” anymore. But more work and creativity on the DM’s part helps make a more interesting game for everyone.

The main downside I see here is that it involves lots of rolls. On the upside, there’s increased tension as these rolls come up fail, fail, fail, “if I don’t make this one guys the Frost Giant will kill us all” SUCCESS! WOOHOO!

But it is a weird mechanic in D&D because we don’t have other stuff that works this way. In all other cases you have a single roll for success, the chance of which increases as you gain levels. Maybe this method would work for other things. A Fighter might have a 2 in 6 chance to hit, but get 1 try per level. A 6th level Fighter could declare 3 tries on one enemy and 1 each on three others. If he gets any tries that make it, he hits.

The more I think about it though, the more this really does sound like a dice-pool system like WoD or Shadowrun. Part of the problem with these systems is that it’s tough to predict how easy a task will be and a modifier to the number of dice can have a HUGE impact on success chance. When I wake up tomorrow I’ll probably have a pretty low opinion of the whole thing as a D&D rule :/

One Response to “The Lucky Thief”

  1. Brendan Says:

    This is a very interesting approach. I usually quite dislike dice pool systems, because I figure it is usually easier to “unroll” the pool into a similar single die check with the same percentages. For example, N successes using dM can always be rewritten as a flat percentage, assuming there are not variable degrees of success.

    That said, being able to allocate skill dice between different thief skills within the same turn is quite elegant, and the rule is, as you say, instantly memorable (compared to the huge ugly table of percentages).

    Even more attractive to me is bringing in the dimension of time, which is the critical element needed to make thief skills not boring in my opinion. Too often, thief skills are done in a way where searching everything and picking all locks has no downside.

    I am pretty happy with my current approach, which allows thieves to try as many times as they want on most tasks, meaning that a low percentage doesn’t mean “sucks” but rather means “slow.” But I definitely plan on thinking about this more.

    It also reminds me of a reworking of cleric turning that I did using multiple d6s for number of hit dice turned, and also the proposed “expertise dice” system for fighters in 5E.

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