"There's only two types of thief, boy - the good ones, and the dead ones."
-Ari Blackhand, Head of the Valerian's Reach Thieves Guild
After the success of The Gentleman's Guide To Being A Bard, I thought I'd try my hand at another little "D&D general" guide, this time focusing on one of my personal favourite Classes - The Thief/Rogue/Expert/Whatever.
Thievery has been around since the first man who looked to his brother, and thought "His rock looks better than mine!" - most agree it's the second oldest profession (and, indeed, members of the oldest profession frequently use such methods as well!). The Thief fills a certain societal niche - lower than the common man, for cutpurses and muggers, but somewhat more upwardly-mobile than the beggars that fill their streets.
There are a dozen archetypes of the Thief - the black-clad assassin, the dashing rogue, even the jack-of-all-trades Bard started out life as a Thief sub-class. But the main points are being light of feet and fingers, stealthy, and quick-thinking.
1. Know Your Role
You're not tough enough to be a front-line fighter, even though you might be good with a sword - your role in combat is to assist - set up flanking manuvers (for your tasty Sneak Attack bonus), pelting foes with ranged weapons, and acting as a "backup" when the Fighter goes down. As a player, you should be maximising the amount of times you can use your Sneak Attack - so, set up ambushes, adjust the lighting, set or re-set traps, get yourself and others into flanking positions, and generally think like a sneaky bastard.
Outside of combat, you are the skills guy - you check for (and disarm, hopefully) traps, you pick locks, you charm your way past guards, and generally make yourself as useful as possible. Again, play to your strengths - know which skills you can use more reliably than others, and know which party members are better than you (and defer to them when needed). You're also the best Scout in most parties - your stealth and perceptive abilities are second to none, so make sure you go ahead of the group to get the lay of the land, and report back with a multitude of ways in which you can turn the fight in your favour.
For Old-School games, the Thief is also one of the few Classes that most demi-humans have unlimited advancement in (depending on the game) - while not useful for most games (which never reach past the 10th-level mark), anyone planning on playing a demi-human in a long-running campaign could do worse than to dual-class with the Thief. Those Thief Skills can be put to great effect by most Classes, and it's always good to have a back-up trapfinder! Plus, once you hit the level cap for your other class, you still have somewhere to put (half) your XP, instead of it going to waste.
2. Play To Your Strengths
|Goddamn stupid sexy midget...|
Whatever system you're using, Dexterity is key. For older systems, it affects your Thief skills percentages, making it a vital component of being a great Thief - but, random generation might screw you over. For the more modern ones, it can affect your key skills which revolve around mobility and balance - and trust me, you're going to need them! Dexterity can also affect your ability with ranged weapons - something we'll get on to later.
Intelligence isn't too big a deal in older systems - it can affect how many languages you can learn (and a good Thief should have ways to communicate privately!), and might be used when determining traps or lies (both pretty useful), but these can also be covered with good role-play and thinking like a Thief - trust no-one, everything's trapped, and remember, it's not paranoia if they are out to get you. In newer editions, it can affect how many extra skill points you get - though Rogues do get a huge amount, so it's not essential. Then again, more skills is never a bad thing, so a decent Int score is always a good investment.
Charisma can go either way - depending on whether you're a skulking ruffian, or a smooth-tongued trickster. If you plan on spending all your time hiding in the shadows, leaping out only to delicately plant a knife between someones shoulder blades, forget it. Otherwise, it lets you lie, bluff, cheat, and seduce your way past obstacles you couldn't hope to fight otherwise - and makes the Thief all the more pragmatic for it.
OSR gamer, remember - while you have stat minimums for Dexterity (and various others, for various products), low Dex isn't a total killer. With planning, proper equipment, and the support of your party (and a good line in GM bribery) you can be just as effective as any other Thief. OSR games expect a lot more creative thinking and less system mastery than modern games - so be careful, be paranoid, and you should be just fine.
3. Vital Skills
Again, this one comes down to what kind of Thief you plan to be. Make sure you try and spread a few points amongst all of your skills, even a few ranks here or there - the Skills you get are some of the most useful in the game.
Disable Device and Open Lock are the archetypal Rogue Skills - traps and locks are your forte.You want to make sure they're bought up ASAP - this is where your first skill points of each level should go. It's also a little bit harder
Hide, Move Silently and Sleight of Hand are almost as archetypal - though a bit easier to get through items and other means. Pop a few points into these, more if they fit your character concept (say, a stealthy assassin over an adventuring locksmith). Each of these will see some use, regardless of what type of Rogue you make.
Balance/Climb/Jump are good for the acrobatic cat-burglar type, but can be something of a trap choice - they hold limited utility, and can be easily increased with magic and items. Don't spend too much on these (unless you have skill points to spare, somehow).
Bluff and Diplomacy can be absolute game-changers, if you play your cards right. Even non-Charisma-based Rogues will find a use for these skills in everything but the most hack-and-slash game. Even then, Bluff can be used to Feint, to allow for more Sneak Attack goodness! And, with enough Diplomacy, you can turn enemies from hating you to being your best friend with a Standard Action - not too shabby!
Use Magic Device is a godsend in "Caster Edition" 3.5 - use your ill-gotten gains to pick up a few wands or scrolls to enhance your stealth and combat abilities (Cat's Grace, (Improved) Invisibility, True Strike for Sneak Attacks, the list goes on!) - you won't be as flexible as a full-caster, but you'll be amazed at what you can pull off with the right wands in your belt.
The OSR Thief has his skills all set out on a table - and get very little say in how they advance. But, pick your strongest skill, from racial and other modifiers, and try and use it as much as possible. Climb Walls is an invaluable skill in dungeons - while anyone can climb, you can tackle sheer surfaces that would make lesser men weep. Racial bonuses and Dexterity modifiers can only net you a few extra percent - your main concern should be gear to help you with whatever you may need to do.
First things first, an old chestnut - daggers are a trap. Yes, they're small, easily concealable, and can be thrown, but their damage is pitiful, and they're not as adaptable as a good short sword. Unless your campaign is set under martial law, most places will allow you to carry a sword on your hip, so there's less concern regarding hiding a weapon. Daggers do, however, make a decent emergency back-up, climbing tool, spare tent-peg, useful trap detector/trap setting tool, improvised lockpick/Slim Jim, shaving kit, and cutlery. Carry a few just in case, just don't rely on them.
Thieves should also have a good way with ranged weapons - that Dexterity score affects how well you can use them, and you might as well play to your strengths of stealth, scouting, and not being in the front lines. Crossbows are a classic old chestnut for a reason - they are easy to use, hide, and need less room to use than a bow. They also complete the classic "Thief" look well.
Second, armour. You need something that will not give you a penalty to your Dexterity (this includes Medium and Heavy Armour). Even with the appropriate Armour Training Feats, the penalties are still present - thus preventing you from fulfilling your role for the party. Now, if you're about to enter a full-scale battle, where your stealth and agility means next to nothing, then sure -strap on the heaviest armour you can wear and hope for the best. But until then, stay loose and flexible - it's better to never be hit than to be able to shrug off the blow. Light, leather armour (studded leather, preferably) is your best bet.
Third - if you plan on sneaking, go the whole hog. Blackened armour, weapon-black, padded shoes - anything to eak out an extra little bonus or two. You don't need to wear these all the time, but when you are planning to sneak, they can be a godsend!
Finally, the little extras. As I've said before, Complete Scoundrel for 3.5 has a great equipment section for Thieves - with everything from hollow weapon-pommels and wand bracers to shoe-knives and grappling arrows. A quick read through should get some ideas flowing...
For OSR gamers, The Complete Thief's Handbook is an awesome resource, covering equipment from climbing pinons to silenced armour and even more!