Thief 'Fixes'

As with some people, I think old school thieves kinda suck.

So I’ve recently been writing/collecting some ‘solutions’ in my blog to help make thieves more effective in their role. Some I found on other blogs, other’s I’ve retrofitted from later editions of the game. Hopefully you’ll find some interest in them.

I don’t like any of the fixes. Having ability scores mod thief skills puts way too much weight on ability scores. This is the start down the min/max road that ends up being 3.5/4e.

Ditto with assigning skill points. It’s just bogging down character creation and the race mods again just leads to min/maxing.

I really don’t see where their weakness is. Thieves have backstab which scales up to x4 and as far as the high skill rolls go, first level thieves should be going up against weak locks and traps which mods those down.

If anything was done with thieves I’d rather see something like luck rolls taken from DCC. Give a unique mechanic to the class and something extra to their niche.

Hey Tywyll,

Some interesting blogposts for Thieves. I think they’re a difficult class to play, but in my experience there’s always one or a couple of people who love to play them to the hilt, ahem, and have an absolute blast doing so. A couple things came to mind as I was reading your posts:

First, in ACKS thieves get some of the coolest ‘domain’ abilities when they reach higher levels. Hijinks are awesome, and I feel like ACKS in particular brings high level thieves and guilds to life if you invest in a high-level campaign.

Second, I completely agree with you, and would implement in my own game, both your ability and racial modifiers to thieving rolls. It gives lower level thieves incentive to do some actual thieving! Those first through third level charts are pretty brutal unmodified. Thieves should be encouraged to use their abilities, and if higher level thieves can breeze through their open lock or find/remove trap rolls… well, so what imho? Let them have some fun with the class doing the things they wanted to do in the first place. As long as there’s some chance of failure, I don’t mind seeing a thief have some better chances of success over the long term of the game. Encourage them.

I doubt I would implement “All it costs is time” across the board, but I might use it for certain things - untrapped locks and wall-climbing for instance.

Another option I was thinking of would be to allow thieves (and only thieves, not nightblades or assassins, who have quite a few tricks of their own) to select Class Proficiencies in General Proficiency slots. This would give them a slight power boost, particularly right out of the gate, and potentially some more interesting tricks up their sleeves as they level up. This was an option I was considering for bards as well. I haven’t thought hard enough about it to know if it would break anything or not, but in the swirling morass that is my mind it seemed like an interesting option for those two classes in particular.


Haven’t looked at your links yet, but I’ve modified starting and improving thief skills by converting 2e’s concept of getting a pool of % to getting a pool of points… distributing that pool of points as you see fit, with some restrictions. I’ll post it if you’re interested.

I’m sure folks would like to see it. The 2e point system would be pretty easy to just drop right in.

Actually, after perusing my 2e inspired thief skill houserules, they step quite a bit away from ACKS conventions (they work more like 3e’s “skills” vs. a target number of 10,15, or 20 (Judge determines which number to use based on task difficulty). It’s great for players because it’s very customizable, but it’s fiddly for the Judge when making thief NPCs for the same reason.

This one is more akin to how ACKS works, it uses the current “proficiency throw” convention. It allows for customization at 1st level by allowing the player to choose the thief’s “area of expertise.” With this house rule, comparatively speaking (houserule thief vs. standard ACKS thief), houserule thieves are overall better in their skills at low levels, about the same around 9th level, and fall a little bit behind in overall ability at the higher levels. It’s also really easy for Judges to create NPC thieves with varied levels of skill.

At 1st level, thieves assign each of the following levels of proficiency to one of their thief skills (excluding Climb Walls*):

1 skill @ 11+
2 skills @ 13+
2 skills @ 15+
1 skill @ 17+

When gaining a new level, each thief skill improves by 1. A skill may even go below 1+ (Note that at 14th level, you will have one skill at -2+, and two skills at 0+ by default). It’s assumed that scores of 1+ or less matter since the Judge may impose a penalty for a particularly difficult use of a skill.

*Under this houserule, the proficiency throw progression for the Climb Walls skill remains as it is in the ACKS book (there are enough proficiencies tied to it that it’s not worth messing with).

For Judges making NPC thieves beyond 1st level:

  1. Assign the levels of proficiency to the NPC’s skills
  2. Improve each skill by the thief’s level minus 1.

(Re-posted from the same discussion on

I’ve been using the ‘If you do it during a Turn it succeeds, if you do it during a Round you test’ concept for a while and I think it works great. I also allow attribute bonuses to affect the rolls, so even under duress, a thief is a valuable member of the party.

One of the other ideas you mentioned was also mentioned by someone else recently (I don’t remember who): the idea that all adventurers are by nature, rogues of one sort or another. I think there is something in that and I’m tempted to give everyone thieves skills, but have them roll when using it during a Turn, and denying the ability during a Round, sort of a step below the thief. In fact, I have a game tonight and I’ll see how that works. This would be, in my mind, part of the skill pack that comes with the Adventuring Proficiency in ACKS, but doesn’t go up with level for anyone but thieves.

Here are a few additional thoughts I have one the subject. Tell me your opinion:

  1. Give everyone the backstab ability as well, after all if they can sneak up on it they should get some bonus, but allow the thief to auto-kill creatures of less than their HD if the creature fails a Save vs. Death.

  2. As the Adventuring Proficiency now assumes thief skills, allow characters to take Adventuring multiple times, giving them a +3 bonus to Thieves skills every time they take it. Now you can have your Conan or Fafhrd fighter character.

(POST 2)

I think those are some pretty cool ideas. I might be more generous though and allow characters to advance as half their level in thief abilities.

I like your round/turn approach, I think that’s a nice divide. How would it work for move silently?

I tried out the ‘everyone is a little roguish’ last night and it worked a treat. That half level thief thing is a good idea, but I like having the development of thief’s skills being a conscious decision of advancement through proficiencies, basically giving up one thing to get another, instead of being automatic.

As far as the round/turn approach, that is a rough rule of thumb that revolves around the idea of time pressure, i.e. if you’ve only got 10 seconds to accomplish something, you’re probably being rushed. That being said, last night the thief character was searching a room in a guards tower that the bailiff had temporarily cleared in order to give her time to search for a murder weapon. She had more than a round, about a turn actually, but I determined that the time pressure of knowing the guards would return eventually and the fact that she had to search without obviously tossing the place and giving the investigation away to the saboteur, made it a situation in which a roll was necessary.

I haven’t seen the ‘everyone backstab/thief auto-kill’ rule in action yet, but considering the fact that the conditions for achieving either are not always assured, I think it should work out fine. Last night saw an ambush by giant black widows for instance, and the whole thing was over in a couple of rounds, so making a hide and then a sneak roll in that situation (given the low numbers for thief skills in that regard, even with attribute bonuses), versus two crossbow shots to kill the buggers quickly was a critical decision, especially against poisonous creatures. She chose the latter, thankfully, and the extra two bolts meant only one character and one henchman died from poison that encounter…

Check out fix three…that’s what I’ve done. Personally I find that one of the best fixes.Would be interested in seeing your version as well.

I’ve written some more on the ‘Everyone is Skilled’ idea, this time taking Proficiencies into account:

I don’t like automatic success much (at least at low levels), but here’s what I do:

The Thief Skills represent the values for when the skill is being used quickly or in stressful situations. When the thief has the opportunity to take more time and be more relaxed about it, their skill level is effectively doubled.
Example: A 1st level Thief can Move Silently on 17+ (that’s 4 out of 20) when doing so hastily or under stress. When given the time to relax and do it more carefully, he can Move Silently on 13+ (8 out of 20). And even when he fails he’s stilled moved quietly and may not have been heard anyway. The chances of a monster hearing someone moving quietly are actually fairly low in most cases.


Here are some rules I wrote for ACKS Cyberpunk. They should translate well to ACKS Core thief skills.

Time Interval: Most proficiency throws takes a standard amount of time (the time interval). For example, a Searching throw takes 10 minutes. A character gains a bonus from dedicating additional time on the effort, as noted on the Time Interval table below. Each step upwards on the Time Interval table provides a +1 bonus. The time spent need not be unbroken – a character may dedicate 1 hour per day for 8 days, for example, to reach the 8 hour time interval.

Time Interval

1 month (5 weeks)

1 week (7 work days)

24 hours  (3 work days)

8 hours (1 work day)

1 hour (6 turns)

10 minutes (1 turn)

1 minute (6 combat rounds)

10 seconds (1 combat round)

2 seconds (1 action)

 EXAMPLE: An Electronics Security throw normally requires 10 minutes. A Techie spends 1 hour installing an alarm system. 1 hour is one step above 10 minutes on the Time Interval table, so he gains a +1 to his Electronics Security throw.

Continuous Effort: A character who fails a proficiency throw may attempt it again with the same chance of success after dedicating additional time equal to the next time interval listed.

EXAMPLE: Despite spending one hour on the task, the techie (from the example above) fails his Electronics Security throw to install the alarm system. He can try again with the same +1 bonus after an additional 8 hours of work. If he fails again, he can make a third try (still at +1) after another 24 hours of work, and so on.

Stopping and Starting Fresh: A character who fails a proficiency throw can cease his efforts and do other things. The character may “start fresh” when time has passed equal to the time interval 3 steps above that expended in his last attempt. When he “starts fresh,” his proficiency throw will only take the standard time interval. The character may spend more than the standard time interval to get a bonus on his throw if desired. 

Very cool. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be inspired by the FUDGE system’s “increments of success”. In that, the amount by which you succeeded or failed would modify how long you spent doing something. My particular introduction to FUDGE rpgs was Diaspora, a hard sci-fi implementation.

I'm not hugely familiar with FUDGE but the concept of "increments of success" has shown up in plent of games I like!

Basically, you roll 4dF (the F is a fudge die, a d6 with two +, two - and two blanks) to get a result between -4 and +4 with 0 being most common. you have static modifiers and a target value. For tasks that hinge on the amount of time they take, exactly hitting the target means doing it in the standard time, and each degree you succeed or fail by increases or decreases the length of time by exponentially growing units. I highly recommend checking out Diaspora if any of this sounds interesting to you and you like hard sci-fi.

Reminds me of HERO actually (and that’s a good thing!) Though Fudge and FATE took the same idea as well.

Hm. I am intrigued by the “automatic success” option.

That would make thieves about as useful as possible, contingent on clever usage.

It seems like you could require a roll for particularly difficult or hastily-done tasks, but otherwise allow success.

It seems like that would make even a 1st level thief competent, without making them as good in difficult situations as a master thief.

I think I’ll playtest that next session I run.

I’d love to hear how it works out!

I thought about this a bit more last night, and had a few ideas on when I would require a roll for each thief skill:

Open Locks

This works when you can devote a whole turn to it. The roll determines if you crack it in the first round or not. As a DM I might put a level cap on some locks, such that only a thief of the listed level or above could open them. The players might also like this for locking up their own stuff…

I might also just require a check every turn. I like the idea of a thief laboring at a lock for a couple hours while the rest of the party gets increasingly nervous about wandering monsters and those noises they keep hearing. :slight_smile:

Find and
Remove Traps

This works if you take a turn for each 10x10ft area. If you check hastily in one round, as in combat, you would roll. Removal works the same way.

Pick Pockets*

This works as long as your target is not aware of you, as in a crowd or when you are sneaking. Otherwise you make a check to make something “disappear” off a table in front of someone, for example.

Move Silently

You know, as a thief, how to move without making noise, assuming your leather armor is properly oiled and you are carrying anything noisy. You make a roll if you want to move faster than 1/2 your speed.

Climb Walls

This succeeds unless, like above, you want to move more quickly.

Hide in Shadows

This succeeds if you have time outside of combat to find a good place to hide, but if you are trying to “duck out” in a combat situation, behind a wall or into a dark alcove, you need to both be within your movement speed of a hiding place and roll against this skill.

Success means that your opponents have lost sight of you at the end of your round.

Hear Noise

If it’s loud enough to hear, you hear it. You roll to get a general idea of what it sounds like (voices, footsteps, etc), which could be followed by a knowledge check for identifying, for example, what kind of monster makes that noise.

All of these combined, I hope, would make master thieves better at pulling off really cinematic thief stuff, while beginner thieves who are cautious can do much of the same stuff.

Players would still have to decide how to use their skills, and the ability to move silently or hide somewhere does not make you truly invisible. A vigilant opponent looking your direction is going to see you, so a clever thief will need to consider line-of-sight … and also things like how noisy it is when an armored sentry hits the ground after you snipe them.

As it stands, nobody in my player group chose to play thieves. I hope this can change that.

That sounds like a really good addition!

I have been using the 'Auto Success Round/Roll Turn/Roll Round for non-Thieves every session since my original post and it works great. Makes the thief ore competent.

Ours avoided death for quite some time and was very useful until she blew a roll to sneak up on a hobgoblin chief during a combat last week and ended up attracting his attention instead. He smashed her brains against a wall for her temerity. But before that, she did quite a bit successfully by careful (read: Turn by Turn) use of her abilities and saving rushed uses (read: round by round) for critical situations.

And everyone else is enjoying the opportunity to use first level thief abilities to cover those times when she hasn’t been available, as when the party splits. It inspires them to attempt more sneaky stuff.