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Evolution of the 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.

Last week, I wrote about how the thief (renamed the rogue in 3rd and 4th Editions—and a member of the rogue class group in 2nd along with the bard) was my favorite class. I also talked about how the thief’s relatively weak abilities back in the day prompted creativity and engagement from players. And of all the classes in the game, I would contend, the thief is the one whose very identity has changed the most over the years.

Sneak Attack!

In 3rd Edition, and carried over into 4th, the rogue had the ability to sneak attack. A sneak attack is a damage boost when the rogue has the drop on an enemy or attacks a flanked enemy. Prior to 3rd Edition, the thief could backstab for bonus damage. The big change between sneak attack and backstab, aside from the specifics of the damage they inflicted, involved how to activate them.

Sneak attack has a set of specific instances when a rogue can use it. If you fulfill any of those conditions, you gain the bonus damage. Gaining sneak attack damage isn’t too difficult (but it can put a rogue at risk); even better, skills like Stealth (or Hide and Move Silently in 3E) offer a fairly good chance of success if the target has a poor Perception (or Spot and Listen) bonus. Since hiding is one of the many ways you can gain sneak attacks, making that easier made the rogue more potent in a fight.

More importantly, it’s clear to a player exactly what he or she needs to do to gain sneak attacks. The rules spell out how to gain combat advantage (or flanking), and a player simply needs to follow those rules.


In comparison, a backstab required a very specific set of circumstances that were left open to a DM’s interpretation. The thief had to attack an enemy from behind while that enemy was unaware of the thief. Typically, a thief would hide in shadows or use move silently to sneak up on an enemy. Once the thief attacked, if his enemy survived he had a hard time pulling off that stunt again. On top of that, the thief’s flat percentage chance of success meant that at low levels, relying on those abilities to backstab was dicey at best. Even if you did make the roll, the DM could still easily foil your backstab by looking at the current situation and making a judgment call.

DM judgment calls are an important part of the game, but one of the big challenges facing an RPG designer is figuring out where such calls end, and hard and fast rules begin. In the thief’s case, the class’s most interesting attack ability fell almost entirely to the DM. Having played with DMs who were liberal with backstabs, and those who essentially outlawed the ability by fiat, made for much different games.

While the rogue kept the thief’s abilities with skills, the switch from backstab to sneak attack did much to change the perception of the class. In AD&D, the thief usually focused on tasks outside of combat, like scouting, finding and disarming traps, and so forth. 3rd and 4th Editions gave rogues a reliable combat ability that allows them to do a lot more damage than other weapon-using characters on a consistent basis.

Skills for Everyone

On top of these changes, the skill system introduced in 3rd Edition and carried over in a modified form to 4th gave everyone access to the rogue’s once unique abilities. A character with a high Strength could climb as well as, or even better than, a rogue. A cleric with a high Wisdom might be better at spotting traps. The class’s unique mechanics had been shifted to the general system, making them something everyone could play with.

In some ways, the basic essence of the class had changed. The thief had shifted from a class that offered a set of unique skills and abilities, to one that excelled at dishing out lots of damage. Sneak attack, rather than its skills, became the class’s defining trait.

Balance of Opportunity

One of the things 4E did was balance each of the classes by their role in combat. While I think balance extends beyond combat, combat is a good place to start—after all, during a fight each player gets a turn to do stuff. So what better way to share the spotlight than allow it to move from character to character in a fight? It’s that design principle that has morphed the thief from the guy who got to use a skill system into the rogue with sneak attack.

By the same token, granting all classes access to skill-like abilities helps make the game more flexible and interesting outside of combat. It’s easier to improvise actions if you know that your wizard can climb a wall or that your fighter has a chance, however slight, to deliver a stirring speech. The system gives you opportunities to improvise, rather than pushing you to rely solely on the DM’s judgment. The DM’s calls still play a big role, and a good DM encourages creative play, but players now have a starting point in the skill system.

Just as balancing options and power in combat gives everyone the chance to shine in a fight, so too does opening up non-combat options to everyone make all areas of the game more flexible. The thief may have changed into the rogue, but in some ways every character now has the chance to play like a thief.

In an ideal world, the challenge of D&D comes from the DM and whatever daunting situations he or she throws at the characters. The rules should be tools, well-wrought and easy to use, that help build those situations. In the hands of players, such tools are options, ideas, and possibilities that come to life in play—guideposts to help make D&D as funny, scary, and enjoyable as possible. The rules are a springboard to an exciting, engaging, and imaginative game; good ones are neither a straitjacket nor so empty that they suggest nothing.

The democratization of options, so to speak, has been one of the most important innovations in D&D across its history. It’s something that helps take the core idea of an RPG—that it’s a game where players are supposed to think outside the lines—and deliver it to every participant.

So, the next time you play D&D, remember—skill and ability checks are there to serve as flexible tools. Take them for a spin and see what happens.

Legends & Lore Poll Results: 05/10/2011

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%

Poll Time

You brandish your holy symbol, incinerating the undead creatures with a pulse of radiant energy. The three undead collapse into dust. The lantern’s light flutters, shifting from grey to a clear white light. Now that the checkerboard wall is gone, you can see a stone door set in the middle of the western wall. When you move toward the door, the light flickers with a blue radiance.

What do you do?
Head west through the door.
Head south.
Go back north, then continue north.
Head north, then turn to the west.

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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