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OSR What are your thoughts on the success probabilities of pre-3e versions of D&D?

Aging Bard

Mac-Fuirmidh
I'm working on a "Refit" of the 1st Edition rules: cleaning up ambiguities, pre-ruling common actions, and greatly resequencing combat to clarify what actions are possible and when. None of this is directly related to the OP. However, one conclusion of the Refit is that certain classes are entirely too squishy for modern play and this must be addressed. This includes magic-users and thieves in particular. One solution comes from the Unearthed Arcana supplement, which granted single-class fighters and rangers weapon specialization. I realized that all single-class non-prestige classes needed additional abilities. Multi-class characters were fine as is. Magic-users also needed less spell squish, which I realize will be seen as a violation of a basic right of passage of early D&D. Fie, I say!

Quick quiz: How many 1st level spells does a typical cleric/druid/magic-user/illusionist being with?

Answer: 3/4/1/1. This is because 1) druids begin with 2 1st level spells for some reason, and 2) clerics and druids gain bonus spells for high Wisdom, and at Wis 14 2 1st level are gained, which is quite typical.

Thus, we change the rules so that: 1) all of the Big 4 spellcasters start with 2 1st level spells, and 2) magic-users and illusionists gain bonus spells for high Int. We further add that all single-class Big 4 casters gain 1 additional spell per spell level once a new level is obtained. So typical single-class Big 4 casters will start with 5 1st level spells. Sacrilege you say? No, I say magic-users get to actually cast spells instead of throwing darts. Considering the tradeoff of 4 cantrips per spell slot, a single-class magic-user can begin with 8 cantrips and 3 spells and be almost constantly casting. My revised rest rules also allow a low-level cast to re-acquire all 1st level spells in less than 2 hours. That's a setting I want.

As for thieves, they gain 2 single-class bonuses: 1) +10% to all normal thief abilities, +2% to climb walls; and 2) weapon specialization in a single ranged weapon. The first ability makes thief abilities useful, particularly if Dex and no armor bonuses apply. Note that this does not apply to assassin or acrobat specific abilities. The second ability applies to all weapons in the Ranged Weapon Table, and if these are also melee weapons then melee specialization also applies. I also made thieves better two weapon fighters (watching too much Conan the Destroyer), which strongly encourages dagger specialization for both melee and ranged combat. Finally, I am convinced that Gygax hated DMing thieves because he added all sorts of "stars are right" requirements to using stealth abilities in the DMG. Begone, I say! Move silently and Hide in shadows are things thieves get to do if they make their roll, even if you are staring right at them. They are just that good.
 

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Would that be praising with faint damnation?

I don't look at it as the Thief being terrible, instead I look at it as the Thief having a realistic chance to do these things at all where others generally don't. Even 20% is a whole lot better than 1% or 0%. :)

Do you have a citation on this? I can't find anything on other classes attempting to perform thief abilities (unless you're talking regular DM adjudication), other than climbing walls as listed in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. As far as I can tell from the core books (and this was a quick, cursory look, so I certainly could've missed something), all it says in both editions is that "these are the things that thieves can do."

2. Remember, thief skills weren't the % chance of success for regular tasks. EVERY class could attempt to hide, pick a lock, etc. Those skills were only used for exceptionally tough scenarios where non-thieves would have no success at attempting. So a lower score didn't mean they could ever find a trap or pick a lock, only that for exceptionally hard tasks, the thief still had a chance. It goes back to player skill vs character skill.

So in that context, yes. They were balanced.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Would that be praising with faint damnation?



Do you have a citation on this? I can't find anything on other classes attempting to perform thief abilities (unless you're talking regular DM adjudication), other than climbing walls as listed in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. As far as I can tell from the core books (and this was a quick, cursory look, so I certainly could've missed something), all it says in both editions is that "these are the things that thieves can do."
I mentioned it upthread in another response. It's a carry over from OD&D and the early days. Unless you believe that no class ever tried to hide, or pick a lock, or disarm a trap before the thief class showed up (which I doubt anyone would argue that), it very much was believed that all classes could attempt anything (again, going back to player skill). so by extension, when the thief showed up with those skills, they were meant not to mean that all other classes suddenly couldn't do those things, just that thieves were able to do them when otherwise it would be ruled to be near impossible for other classes. That's how I learned it in 1981 from the DM who taught me the game as he was taught when he learned in 1976.

It's also why I made that comment about how that should have been a huge red flag for the 3e design team, because they had years of data that showed as soon as you gave a character a skill, players (especially newer players) would assume that you couldn't do that unless you had the skill for it, which we saw a lot in 3e, but as this thread shows, we also saw in AD&D with how people interpreted thief skills.
 

Voadam

Legend
Would that be praising with faint damnation?



Do you have a citation on this? I can't find anything on other classes attempting to perform thief abilities (unless you're talking regular DM adjudication), other than climbing walls as listed in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. As far as I can tell from the core books (and this was a quick, cursory look, so I certainly could've missed something), all it says in both editions is that "these are the things that thieves can do."
The closest I get to that in descriptions is the climb walls description.

In the 2e PH revised description of thief skills under climb walls on page 57 it says:

"Climb Walls: Although everyone can climb rocky cliffs and steep slopes, the thief is far superior to others in this ability. Not only does he have a better climbing percentage than other characters, he can also climb most surfaces without tools, ropes, or devices. Only the thief can climb smooth and very smooth surfaces without climbing gear. Of course, the thief is very limited in his actions while climbing—he is unable to fight or effectively defend himself."

B/X had rules for everybody searching for traps (not disarming).

1e I remember had rules for people listening at doors.

For sneaking and picking locks and picking pockets and the rest I think it was completely undefined but my guess is it was DM adjudication so deliberately sneaking by saying you are slowly and carefully doing so sounds reasonable and something anyone can do but picking locks and pockets seem a specialized skill I would not assume everybody can do. Even though he was a thief I do not expect Conan to be picking pockets.
 

When I was playing back in the day (starting in the mid 80s, so later than you), everyone I and everyone else I played with ruled that thieves were the only ones that could attempt these abilities, unless specifically stated, like certain racial abilities. Once thieves were a defined class, looking at the text in 0e's Greyhawk supplement, Basic, 1e, and 2e, the assumption appears to be that thieves are the only ones that can do these things, other than those few specified exceptions. Nowhere is it called out that these are abilities that stack on top of ability checks, for nigh-impossible tasks.

I think also by the time I started gaming, the rules were more crystalized and codified, so your earlier experience, in turn informed by an even earlier one, would be different.

I mentioned it upthread in another response. It's a carry over from OD&D and the early days. Unless you believe that no class ever tried to hide, or pick a lock, or disarm a trap before the thief class showed up (which I doubt anyone would argue that), it very much was believed that all classes could attempt anything (again, going back to player skill). so by extension, when the thief showed up with those skills, they were meant not to mean that all other classes suddenly couldn't do those things, just that thieves were able to do them when otherwise it would be ruled to be near impossible for other classes. That's how I learned it in 1981 from the DM who taught me the game as he was taught when he learned in 1976.

Ugh, that long list of skills in 3e drove me up a wall! Leveling up 3e/Pathfinder skills were always agonizing bean-counting for me.

It's also why I made that comment about how that should have been a huge red flag for the 3e design team, because they had years of data that showed as soon as you gave a character a skill, players (especially newer players) would assume that you couldn't do that unless you had the skill for it, which we saw a lot in 3e, but as this thread shows, we also saw in AD&D with how people interpreted thief skills.

As with so much in earlier editions, there was a lot of DM adjudication, because of rules that were ambiguous or contradictory. One DM might rule that only thieves with thieves tools could pick a lock, another might say "eh, roll under your dex score with a -4 penalty and see what happens." Which would make thieves even worse - Imagine a first level fighter with a Dex of 13. They would need to roll a nine or better, which would be a 45% chance to the first level thief's (assume human with a dex of 18) 40% chance.

For sneaking and picking locks and picking pockets and the rest I think it was completely undefined but my guess is it was DM adjudication so deliberately sneaking by saying you are slowly and carefully doing so sounds reasonable and something anyone can do but picking locks and pockets seem a specialized skill I would not assume everybody can do. Even though he was a thief I do not expect Conan to be picking pockets.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
When I was playing back in the day (starting in the mid 80s, so later than you), everyone I and everyone else I played with ruled that thieves were the only ones that could attempt these abilities, unless specifically stated, like certain racial abilities. Once thieves were a defined class, looking at the text in 0e's Greyhawk supplement, Basic, 1e, and 2e, the assumption appears to be that thieves are the only ones that can do these things, other than those few specified exceptions. Nowhere is it called out that these are abilities that stack on top of ability checks, for nigh-impossible tasks.
Which I think was the most common way people looked at those rules, even if they weren't intended that way. Hence my comment about being a red flag for 3e design when they went heavy with the skill system. It's human nature to make that assumption. Unless you had someone who learned it the original way to talk or teach you, I think most people just assumed only thieves could do those things as you say.
 

Another voice to say that by the time I was GMing (post-Greyhawk) most people I encountered did not assume most of the thief actions could be usefully done by others. Under some circumstances you could climb or hide, but they weren't assumed to be useful tactical actions the way they were for a thief.

Regarding the rest, my comments would probably be unuseful for this thread, as my dissatisfaction with the inconsistencies in resolution was part of what pushed me out of D&D and into other, more coherently designed systems. So as with many things in what is commonly considered OSR, my reaction is primarily negative, and thus not helpful.
 

Part of me kinda wishes that 5e hadn't used the skill system, and had just relied on background and class for whether or not someone gets to apply their proficiency to a task, based on whether it makes sense or not. That way we wouldn't need all these skill and tool proficiencies.

Don't get me wrong, I think the 5e skill system is vast improvement, but I wouldn't mind something even lighter.

Which I think was the most common way people looked at those rules, even if they weren't intended that way. Hence my comment about being a red flag for 3e design when they went heavy with the skill system. It's human nature to make that assumption. Unless you had someone who learned it the original way to talk or teach you, I think most people just assumed only thieves could do those things as you say.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Thus, we change the rules so that: 1) all of the Big 4 spellcasters start with 2 1st level spells, and 2) magic-users and illusionists gain bonus spells for high Int. We further add that all single-class Big 4 casters gain 1 additional spell per spell level once a new level is obtained. So typical single-class Big 4 casters will start with 5 1st level spells. Sacrilege you say? No, I say magic-users get to actually cast spells instead of throwing darts. Considering the tradeoff of 4 cantrips per spell slot, a single-class magic-user can begin with 8 cantrips and 3 spells and be almost constantly casting. My revised rest rules also allow a low-level cast to re-acquire all 1st level spells in less than 2 hours. That's a setting I want.
I've done similar, but not as extreme. All casters in my game start with 3 1st-level spells. Bonus spells for high Int or Wis don't start kicking in until at least 2nd level. Reacquirement takes 15 minutes per spell level, to a cap of 8 hours, thus getting back those 3 1sts takes about 45 minutes.
As for thieves, they gain 2 single-class bonuses: 1) +10% to all normal thief abilities, +2% to climb walls; and 2) weapon specialization in a single ranged weapon. The first ability makes thief abilities useful, particularly if Dex and no armor bonuses apply. Note that this does not apply to assassin or acrobat specific abilities. The second ability applies to all weapons in the Ranged Weapon Table, and if these are also melee weapons then melee specialization also applies. I also made thieves better two weapon fighters (watching too much Conan the Destroyer), which strongly encourages dagger specialization for both melee and ranged combat. Finally, I am convinced that Gygax hated DMing thieves because he added all sorts of "stars are right" requirements to using stealth abilities in the DMG. Begone, I say! Move silently and Hide in shadows are things thieves get to do if they make their roll, even if you are staring right at them. They are just that good.
Other than a toned-down version of the very last bit to make MS and HIS worthwhile, I have not done any of these.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Do you have a citation on this? I can't find anything on other classes attempting to perform thief abilities (unless you're talking regular DM adjudication), other than climbing walls as listed in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. As far as I can tell from the core books (and this was a quick, cursory look, so I certainly could've missed something), all it says in both editions is that "these are the things that thieves can do."
No citation; I was speaking half in jest. That said, I allow anyone to try anything but if you don't have training in it your odds of success at anything specialized (i.e. most Thief skills) range from pretty much zero to very low. I've never liked the school of thought that says if you don't have a skill you flat out can't do it; anyone can get lucky once in a while, but the skill sure helps.
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
When I ref OD&D or AD&D, I don't use any kind of a general skills or non-weapon proficiencies system, and I don't use d20 roll-under ability checks either. If the rules define a specific action (like opening doors or searching for traps), I use the rule; otherwise I make a ruling and maybe call for a die-roll (% chance or x-in-6 or maybe 2d6 on the reaction table for actions with lots of possible outcomes), based on the circumstances and the character's background.

I'm pretty much fine with the chances for most actions in the rules, but I house-rule the heck out of thieves. I fold all of the thieving skills into three broad categories—Perception, Thievery, and Acrobatics—and start them off at different odds of success for different classes.

Thieves: Perception 35% (+5% per level), Thievery 50% (+5% per level), Acrobatics 85% (+1% per level)
Assassins: Perception 25% (+4% per level), Thievery 40% (+4% per level), Acrobatics 75% (+1% per level)
Bards: Perception 20% (+3% per level), Thievery 35% (+3% per level), Acrobatics 70% (+1% per level)
Monks: same as bards, except they improve their Acrobatics by +3% per level, the same as their other skills.

If I'm running an OD&D-based game set in some genre other than medieval fantasy, particularly in a more modern setting, there probably won't be a specialized thief class there in the first place, and instead I'll use a more generic "expert" class and the d6-based skill system that I wrote for Engines & Empires, back when the OSR was first taking off and becoming a thing.
 
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ECMO3

Explorer
With regard to the success probabilities of attacks, thief skills, the damage outputs of various classes at various levels, NWPs in 2e, and anything else you wish to discuss, do you find that pre-3e versions of D&D have a good balance between success and failure?
In 1E at low levels in terms of combat there were fighters, Rangers, Cavaliers and Paladins and there was everyone else. Barbarians were a step below these martials and everyone else was well, well below them. A magic-user could be one-shot until level 5 or so and his best damage spell at first level did 3.5 damage and could be cast once a day.

At upper levels it evened out a bit with Magic-Users being on par with the fighting classes and Clerics being a step down. Thieves sucked at combat at high levels too.

No class had a specific advantage in social situations .... except for Druids and especially Paladins that had high Charisma minimums. If you did not have one of these classes the face was as likely to be a fighter as anyone else. So aside from being the best at combat they could likely be the best out of combat too.

As far as skills, a low level thief was nearly useless at anything except climbing walls .... unless they were a Halfling, Gnome or Dwarf, then they sucked at climbing walls too. At higher levels they could be decent skill guys.

2E was a little better because you got subclasses to boost the combat power of the casters and thieves could put all their points in one ability making them good at SOMETHING.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In 1E at low levels in terms of combat there were fighters, Rangers, Cavaliers and Paladins and there was everyone else. Barbarians were a step below these martials and everyone else was well, well below them. A magic-user could be one-shot until level 5 or so and his best damage spell at first level did 3.5 damage and could be cast once a day.
Not quite. A 1st-level MU's best spell could put a bunch of people to sleep once a day; usually followed by coups-de-grace all round.

That you mention Barbarians implies you're talking post-UA 1e, which as written is a vastly different beast than pre-UA 1e. Pre-UA, at low levels there wasn't much difference between warriors and Clerics in combat other than Clerics had a more limited weapon selection.
 

When I was playing back in the day (starting in the mid 80s, so later than you), everyone I and everyone else I played with ruled that thieves were the only ones that could attempt these abilities, unless specifically stated, like certain racial abilities. Once thieves were a defined class, looking at the text in 0e's Greyhawk supplement, Basic, 1e, and 2e, the assumption appears to be that thieves are the only ones that can do these things, other than those few specified exceptions. Nowhere is it called out that these are abilities that stack on top of ability checks, for nigh-impossible tasks.
On the other hand one of the abilities is "Hear Noise". Making this thief-exclusive implies literally everyone who wasn't a thief was deaf because they couldn't hear noises or that hearing with your ear pressed against a door is an exclusive thing to thieves? Making it not thief exclusive with such low success chances (starting at 10%) on the other hand makes it a pretty useless ability.

The whole thing is weird whichever way you handle it.
 

Voadam

Legend
On the other hand one of the abilities is "Hear Noise". Making this thief-exclusive implies literally everyone who wasn't a thief was deaf because they couldn't hear noises or that hearing with your ear pressed against a door is an exclusive thing to thieves? Making it not thief exclusive with such low success chances (starting at 10%) on the other hand makes it a pretty useless ability.

The whole thing is weird whichever way you handle it.
I remember from at least the Holmes Basic set it describing dungeons as adversarial with PCs, doors open for monsters, but are stuck for PCs and require a strength check with possible noise to open. Enemies can hear easily but it is difficult for PCs. NPCs who become allied with PCs lose the monster advantages.

I remember this carrying over a bit in AD&D and Moldvay Basic.

In any case here is the 1e references on listening.

1e PH page 27:

1. Listening at doors includes like activity at other portals such as windows. It is accomplished by moving silently to the door and pressing an ear against it to detect sound.

1e PH Page 28:

Hearing Noise is simply listening intently. The thief and his or her accomplices must themselves be quiet (but not silent as in moving). This function can be repeated as often as desired. It requires a full minute to listen, i.e. one-tenth of a normal turn, or time equal to a melee round. Note that sleeping creatures, undead, and many other creatures do not make sounds discernible through a portal. Success informs the hearer that someone or something awaits beyond the portal.

1e DMG page 19:

Hearing Noise: This is pretty straightforward. The thief, just as any other character, must take off helmet or other obstructing headgear in order to press his or her ear to the door surface in order to hear beyond.

1e DMG page 60:

LISTENING AT DOORS
In addition to the simple exercise of observation, many times characters will desire to listen, ear pressed to a portal, prior to opening and entering. This requires a special check, in secret, by you to determine if any sound is heard. Because of this, continual listening becomes a great bother to the DM. While ear seekers will tend to discourage some, most players will insist on having their characters listen at doors at every pretense. First, make certain that you explain to players that all headgear must be removed in order to listen. Those wearing helmets will probably have to remove a mail coif and padded cap as well, don’t forget. The party must also be absolutely silent, and listening will take at least one round.
Silent creatures — undead, bugbears, etc. — will never be heard. Sleeping or resting or alerted creatures will not be heard either. If there is something for the listener to hear behind the door, the following probabilities will determine if any sound is heard:
Race Of Listener Chance Of Hearing Noise
Dwarf 2 in 20 (10%)
Elf 3 in 20 (15%)
Gnome 4 in 20 (20%)
Half-Elf 2 in 20 (10%)
Halfling 3 in 20 (15%)
Half-Orc 3 in 20 (15%)
Human 2 in 20 (10%)
Keen-eared individuals will gain a bonus of 1 or 2 in 20 (5% or 10%). Use chance of hearing a noise to determine if a character is keen-eared the first time he or she listens at a door, and if it is indicated, tell the player to note the fact for his or her character. Player characters will not initially have hearing problems (as they wouldn’t have survived if they had them). During the course of adventuring, great noise might cause hearing loss. Handle this as you see fit.
A loss of hearing might negate the chance to hear something behind a door without any other noticeable effects.
Hearing Noise: When a die roll indicates a noise has been heard, tell the player whose character was listening that he or she heard a clink, footstep, murmuring voices, slithering, laughter, or whatever is appropriate. (Of course, some of these noises will be magical, e.g., audible glamer spells, not anything which will be encountered at all!) Be imprecise and give only vague hints; never say, “You hear ogres,” but “You hear rumbling, voice-like sounds.” Failure to hear any noise can be due to the fact that nothing which will make noise is beyond the portal, or it might be due to a bad (for the listener) die roll. Always roll the die, even if you know nothing can be heard. Always appear disinterested regardless of the situation.
Maximum Number Of Listeners: Each listener will take up about 2½’ of space, so up to three can listen at a typical dungeon door.
Maximum Length Of Time For Listening: Only three attempts can be made before the strain becomes too great. After the third attempt, the listeners must cease such activity for at least five rounds before returning to listening again.


So in 1e all characters are pretty terrible at hearing through doors to detect activity on the other side, but all can try and there are specific rules for doing so. Thieves start at 10% at 1st level modified by race which matches up to the DMG base character chance so they start just like any character then get better at doing so at 2nd level and higher.
 
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Yeah, both these points show just how unclear the thief integration was, because it never specified how the one type of check interfaces with the other. I could totally see a thief making the case for just making a Dex check instead of using their skills, because of the greater probability.

One hack I read (maybe here?) was to just use the d6 Hear Noise ability probability for all thief ability checks, which I quite like.

I did some more looking through Moldvay Basic (since it was close at hand and easy to parse), and it does say that any character may check for nonmagical traps, succeeding on a 1 when rolling a d6. That's what, a 16% chance of success compared to the Thief's starting 10% (and a dwarf has a 33% chance)!

No citation; I was speaking half in jest. That said, I allow anyone to try anything but if you don't have training in it your odds of success at anything specialized (i.e. most Thief skills) range from pretty much zero to very low. I've never liked the school of thought that says if you don't have a skill you flat out can't do it; anyone can get lucky once in a while, but the skill sure helps.

On the other hand one of the abilities is "Hear Noise". Making this thief-exclusive implies literally everyone who wasn't a thief was deaf because they couldn't hear noises or that hearing with your ear pressed against a door is an exclusive thing to thieves? Making it not thief exclusive with such low success chances (starting at 10%) on the other hand makes it a pretty useless ability.

The whole thing is weird whichever way you handle it.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
I think the one thing we can all agree on is that the rules were ambiguous, and future iterations of D&D starting with 1e and Holmes basic just muddied the waters.

Looking at the rules back then, it makes sense that most people would assume that only thieves could pick locks or find traps, despite what the original intent was or how it was originally played, because that's human nature to interpret things that way. And I think it's clear that by the late 80s, the assumed style of play among most players was that only thieves could do that stuff. Why do I make that conclusion?

Because if the designers of 2e still assumed the original rule (everyone could attempt anything, and thief skills were just there for the really hard stuff no one else could do), then they would have kept something very similar to the skill progression in 1e, because if you follow that assumption, that skill progression makes total sense and is balanced. After all, Skip Williams said a key design goal of 2e was to make it backwards compatible (which is why they stuck with descending AC rather than ascending, per his words).

However, if you look at it through how most people actually played, that being that thieves rolled every time they wanted to pick a lock or remove a trap, then the thief skill progression table was woefully weak, and thus is why when 2e came out, they addressed that glaring weakness by allowing you to dump up to half your discretionary points into one skill, making even a 1st level thief have a decent chance of success at those things.

So by making that significant change in 2e, it tells me that they knew that most players were not following the original intent (largely because the rules were extremely ambiguous about it), they knew that D&D wasn't growing through word of mouth via experienced DMs like the 70s but by swaths of new players learning together, and thus made a significant change to boost the function of the thief.
 

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