Or better yet, every character is an adventurer, a tomb robber; they are out for silver and gold and nothing will stop them. So why not make everyone a thief?
If we accept that a lot in the OSR is about adventure and discovery - about playing low-levels characters, about exploring the space provided by your modules from the prospective of adventurers, who are basically tomb robbers or similar... well, then yes, every one of them is a thief.
We saw in the previous posts about skills (one and two) that a skill system could be beneficial... Without it, it's hard to have consistency and to judge your chances, as a player, and a lot is left to the GM's fiat.
But if we introduce a skills system, we need to solve a few problems:
1. How to avoid making characters other than the thief unable to attempt certain tasks?
2. How to avoid skills replacing role-playing?
My answer to the above (and it's only one of the many possible answers) - at least in the context of this article - is the following:
1. Make everyone a thief
2(a). Make a meaningful skills list
To the above, I would add:
2(b). Have solid principles: as the GM you should be open to say "yes", and description, imagination, and planning, skilled and creative (role)play, and GM judgement, prevail of the need to roll.
Make everyone a thief
This house-rule would be simple. Take your thief skills list and every character is of one of the other available classes (i.e. a fighter, a magic-user, or a cleric) but is also a level one thief (with the thief skills).
When leveling up, every character has its own progression as by its class (fighter as fighter, etc.) but also increases the skills as a thief of the same level.
It's not multi-classing; everyone is a thief of a level equal to its own level, with the related skills.
Pro: no "you cannot do that - it's a thief's thing" any more. No better progression in skills for a single class (the thief). No unbalanced probabilities with mixed thief's skills and roll-under-attribute or other skill's rules. No more getting stuck in front of a door, of a wall to climb, of a trap to disarm. Actually, anyone is has the potential to resolve those situations - and everyone is a potential victim of those situations!
Con: there is no more a "pure" version of the thief (or specialist). But in any case those who play the thief very often are frustrated that they are not also playing an assassin, in some way, or some top-class adventurer... I bet those playing the thief would be the most eager to be able to multi-class (as a fighter, I guess, and close second as a magic-user to have even more tricks at their disposal).
Make a meaningful skills list
But what are the correct skills for this list? If you use a standard game such as S&W or LotFP, you can start with their respective original lists. But most likely, you want to tune that list.
What your new list should present, though, is not the list of skills for a thief or specialist in the traditional sense. What the list should provide, is a list of skills for an adventurer.
A good list, in fact, has a clear focus on the most important actions of the game - keeping in mind both a certain consistency (i.e. if you disarm traps well, you probably can pick a lock or pickpocket someone decently enough, while disarming traps has no connection to climbing or swimming) and perhaps also the frequency/importance of the skills (i.e. picking locks will always be favored vs. language skills unless your game focus heavily on negotiation... therefore you may want to give language points more easily at level-up...).
Your list will determine not just the chances of success, but also will inspire your players to do certain actions (or avoid those with low chances or those not listed, for fear of failure or uncertain odds).
So, making this list, should be like painting the portrait of an adventurer - with what it does better and what worse.
Most important, though, is to make sure that your skills list does not replace role-playing. Having a skill for "medicine" for example could make sense, especially if you want to minimize or replace the cleric's healing spells. "Medicine" makes sense because you cannot role-play the action of trying to heal another character (you may still improvise a good plan for example if you lack resources, but that's not the same as the consistent use of a "medicine" skill).
On the contrary, a skill like "negotiation" or "persuasion" is very risky because it takes away a crucial part of role-playing.
The original skills lists
The skills' lists below are taken from BXE, S&W Core, LL and LotFP for reference, and sorted so that the same (or similar) skills are on the same line.
|Climb Sheer Surfaces||Climbing Walls or Cliffs||Climb Walls||Climb|
|Hide in Shadows||Hiding in Shadows||Hide in Shadows||Stealth|
|Move Silently||Move Silently||Move Silently||Stealth|
|Pick Locks||Opening Locks||Pick Locks||Tinker|
|Find or Remove Traps||x||Find and Remove Traps||Search/Tinker|
|Pick Pockets||Delicate Tasks||Pick Pockets||Sleight of Hand|
|Hear Noise||Hearing Sounds||Hear Noise||x|
|x||Read Normal Languages||Read Languages||Languages|
|Scroll Use||Read Magical Writings||read and cast from scrolls||x|
Possible Issues in LotFP
So, what are the possible issues that may arise from applying this house-rule to your game?
The main problem that I can see is only for LotFP (or other games where players decide where to assign the skill points):
- it becomes "Everyone is an assassin" for fighters
- the party (as a whole) becomes overpowered
With players free to assign points as they wish, level by level, it's likely that fighters with go first of all for Sneak Attack and Stealth to combine the benefits of backstabbing with the to-hit bonus of the fighter.
And in general, a group of smart players would differentiate the points-investments (for example, one player maximizing points the investment in Search and Tinker, another in Climb and Swim, another in Languages, etc.). This way, the group would be composed practically by very specialized characters, each one of them getting quite fast to 5 or 6 skill points in the chosen skill(s).
A "normal" Specialist (intended as the chosen class when not everyone is a thief) would probably have to differentiate more the points investment to be able to cover more areas. With "everyone is a thief", on the other hand, you effectively have as many Specialists as characters, thus more points available every level-up.
This is slightly mitigated by the fact that for example Magic-Users take longer to level-up, and that some characters with high specialization would die (this is LotFP, in the end), forcing the players to re-do the points investment.
Other games (with a % skills progression table) do not suffer from this problem. Everyone is a thief but with the same chances at performing the same task at the same level.
So if you want to bypass this potential issue, you could adopt in LotFP a % table for the skills, forcing players to a classic slow progression.
I don't like this a lot, though, because I think that specializing and differentiating skills is part of what makes each character unique, and I would rather risk to have characters a bit more powerful than what they would usually be if they were just one class, and not class+thief.