On Thieves: A Trifunctional Analysis of OD&D

My friend Ava Islam and I were talking about how thieves could possibly be integrated into OD&D without compromising the integrity of its simple system with little mechanical variation between characters. Her solution is to treat thieves as a parasitic class that steal abilities from monsters by stealing their treasure [1]; unlike other characters, her thieves are also not limited by how much they can advance per session or how much XP they can receive from higher-level feats (i.e. from looting higher-level floors or defeating higher-HD monsters). This incentivizes the thief to pursue riskier jobs than other classes, and also to hold onto treasure rather than selling it and/or receiving XP for it. It’s very interesting and worth checking out, so please do that and also support Ava’s transition fund (link)!

My original (less interesting) thought for a while was to explore thieves as a viable option for characters with poor prime requisite scores, which in OD&D are strength for fighters, intelligence for mages, and wisdom for clerics. That is all fine, but that doesn’t explain what exactly thieves do or how they do it. I suggest that thieves could simply be better at dungeon actions in general than their classed peers, but this has the weird effect that a character who transitions from a thief into a real class seems to forget their thievish abilities. Then, I consider the economic classes embodied by the original three character types, in order to explore what niche a thief could possibly fulfill among them. This culminates in a critique of Greyhawk, the supplement that introduced thieves, for undermining so many of the core structures which were definitive of OD&D.

Thieves & Prime Requisites

  • Fighter PR: Str + 1/2 Int + 1/3 Wis
  • Mage PR: Int + 1/2 Wis
  • Cleric PR: Wis + 1/2 Int + 1/3 Str
  • Thief PR: Dexterity???

In OD&D, the fighter-mage-cleric class system is based on a triangle of directions for potential growth [2]. Fighters receive their primary XP bonus from their strength ability, but also receive a half-bonus from their intelligence and a third-bonus from their wisdom. Mages receive their primary XP bonus from intelligence and a half-bonus from wisdom; they receive no bonus for strength. Finally, clerics receive their primary bonus from wisdom, a half-bonus from intelligence, and a third-bonus from strength. Owing to this distribution, intelligence is the most impactful ability across the board; you should be a fighter if your strength exceeds your wisdom or a cleric if your wisdom exceeds your strength, and you should be a mage if your intelligence exceeds both. This means, overall, you’re more likely to be either a cleric or a fighter than a mage (and, with lower experience requirements for cleric levels, being a cleric might be more worthwhile if you want quicker progression).

What if you roll for all three scores, and they’re all dogshit? The nice thing about OD&D is that, except for prime requisites, ability scores don’t have many hard-coded effects. In fact, only the abilities that are not prime requisites tend to have such specific effects [3]; constitution modifies hit points, dexterity modifies missile accuracy, and charisma modifies hireling morale and maximum quantity. I imagine that the original thief class in Greyhawk, whose prime requisite was dexterity, was meant to be (to some extent) an alternative for players whose characters turned up with bad strength, intelligence, and wisdom. The problem is that dexterity is outside of the original triangle of scores which created such interesting tradeoffs between the original three classes (among other issues introduced by Greyhawk).

Instead, it would be more interesting for there to be a non-class; that is, a catch-all negative category which is not modified by any ability score. Anyone could be this non-class, and no one will be any better or worse than any other person. The trick is to find a way to set apart this non-class, give it something or anything to set it apart, without resorting to the infamous skill system that made thieves notorious to begin with.

Thievish & Other Skills

Thief skills are weird. To many, they represent a deviation from the play style originally prescribed in D&D, insofar as they (seem to) imply certain actions which only thieves and no other characters types may attempt: hiding in shadows, climbing up walls, etc. Another interpretation is that characters may do any of those things in general, but that thieves are especially or even supernaturally capable of them; for example, anyone can hide behind walls, but thieves can literally hide in mere shadows as per Robert Fisher [4]. The result is that the thief skills do not replace any existing mechanisms for surprising enemies or disabling traps, but they offer a layer of protective redundancy. This makes sense, but to me it is still indicative of a shift from party activity to individual activity that is characteristic of Greyhawk in general.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, for example, that the thief class was introduced in the same supplement as strength-based bonuses to melee attacks, or as dexterity-based bonuses to armor class as per [2]. Although such special character abilities were originally granted to e.g. demihumans like elves who are twice as likely to detect a hidden door, they were the exception rather than the norm. As character individuality increased, there became more rules to learn and more information to keep track of on your character sheet. It would be interesting, then, to see what a thief would look like if not beholden to the individualistic tendencies introduced in Greyhawk.

One option might be to still let the thief be better at dungeon tasks: opening doors, listening through doors, searching rooms, and so on. However, instead of handling this through finicky bonuses, we can preserve the dice pool (really, worker placement [5]) aspect by letting the thieves roll different dice. Assume that a door can be opened on a roll of 5+ (rather than 1 or 2). A typical d6 has the usual 33% chance, but a d8 would have a 50% chance. You could keep the roll-low aspect by having thieves roll a d4 and succeeding at a 1 or 2 like normal, but those pyramids are not my favorite thing to pick up off the table and roll. Anyway, this kind of thing would give thieves higher chances of success at tasks without shifting the focus from party rolls to individual rolls. It can also be retrofitted onto elves and halflings for their exceptional abilities (and a thief could be a character who simply has all those demihuman abilities, and nothing else going on). It would even encourage characters, as they move away from the dungeon, to transition into a classed character with specific skills suited for wilderness and domain play.

I just find that to be not very compelling, and slightly confusing. You could probably systematize it in greater depth, saying what exactly thieves are better at (even if that just means clarifying what everyone else already can—or can’t—do), but that is a hassle and it defeats the point of all this. Plus too, what does it mean to become worse at dungeoneering in exchange for becoming better at combat or magic? Are characters like Pokémon that forget how to do things? At least they would probably forget over some time between sessions, rather than instantaneously. If the above works for you, that’d make me happy to know; but I don’t think it satisfies what I would want for a distinct thief class to matter in OD&D.

Domain Play?

It is said upfront that the three main classes have distinct yet hegemonic roles in the economy of OD&D (at least, upon reaching high levels). Fighters own land and extract rent. Mages manufacture valuable magical items. Clerics collect tithes and, as theocrats, extract rent from their territories. These three ‘classes’ can be described in European terms as the nobility, the bourgeoisie, and the clergy. Consider also the trifunctional hypothesis by the fascist philologist Georges Dumezil, that ancient caste society and their deities tended to be divided into three categories: the sovereign, the warrior, and the producer (the hypothesis has often been criticized for its truth-content, but it is still a reflection of Dumezil’s own perspective on European society) [6]. From these various perspectives, then, the fighter-mage-cleric triangle can be interpreted as a multidimensional triad that interfaces between early modern economics, pseudo-historical analysis of premodern society, and generic tropes of sword-and-sorcery pulp literature. Where is the room for thieves in this distinctly modern and European complex of three?

One option, which Ava suggested in our conversation, is to analogize thieves with the peasantry, i.e. agrarians with only small land holdings. In certain understandings of the early modern economy, the peasantry was considered a distinct class from the bourgeoisie proper; they were not industrialists and they did not employ the labor of others on a mass scale, but they owned what little property they used to make their living. They constituted, in part, the petite bourgeoisie for Marx in that respect; Marx thought that as capitalism developed, such small firms would be outcompeted by large ones, and peasants would become proletarians as they lost their previous livelihood. Gygax identifies this anxiety about losing one’s livelihood in the AD&D DMG, saying that the most likely adventurers are the not-firstborn children of landed peasants or nobility, without an inheritance to begin a new life (or, perhaps, unwilling to become proletarians). This motive interfaces well with the apparent end goal of OD&D, to clear the wilderness and settle your own barony or achieve some other important livelihood [7].

However, that all being said, it is not very interesting if the end goal for a character in D&D were to become a peasant. They ostensibly do not aspire to as much as the others do, and may even find themselves in competition with them. This perhaps is a perfect fit for the thief as someone who wants nothing more than to be a bandit, and whose job is being done by more competent people with greater purpose (within the ideological framework of D&D). Consider especially that, in OD&D, bandits are specifically the basic human 'monsters' (i.e. hostile NPCs) which serve as the lackeys of high-level classed NPCs roaming the wilderness, likely in search of land to claim. Does this mean being a bandit is a temporary state, occupied by aspiring peasants who need funds to acquire their own land, or by adventurers who have not yet become one class or another? This might be a fine way to handle thieves or even player characters in general, but with the caveat that their participation in a long-term campaign is thus limited unless they become a fighter, mage, or cleric later on. This relates closely to our consideration of thieves as a temporary class, like “level zero” characters in other rulesets, but it does not satisfy our search for a thief class that is on equal footing with its peers.


I feel like I’ve exhausted myself in trying to find an excuse for there to be a thief class within the existing structures laid out by OD&D, and without compromising those structures individually and in conjunction (strength-intelligence-wisdom, fighter-mage-cleric, nobility-bourgeoisie-clergy). The desire to have something like thief skills in OD&D is perhaps better met by an expanded scheme for dungeon tasks, one that preserves party-subjectivity rather than elevating character-individuality [8]. The desire for there to be an alternative class for characters with poor prime requisites might also better be met by rearranging scores or even rerolling them. It is just difficult to find not only another fictional niche, or another functional niche for play, but also another economic niche to find space for a fourth class that exists in cooperation with the first three.

Yet having explored different domains of the OD&D game in total—ability scores, dungeon crawls, and high-level play—we have a new lens through which to view the undermining of OD&D’s structures in Greyhawk and subsequent publications. The domains of individual ability, abstract (i.e. class or type) ability, and economic participation are unified under the three triads described above. Later editions of D&D complicate character abilities, expand class roles, and deemphasize economic classes in such a way that those three domains no longer enjoy the same symmetry they used to have. The result is that the game becomes less naïvely simple. Character abilities become functionally homogeneous, being used for a variety of dice benefits or class requisites. Character classes come to indicate concrete concepts rather than structural relationships to the (physical, social, and ideological) world of OD&D. Economic classes are deemphasized and, eventually, phased out in favor of endless dungeon crawling.

If you prefer thieves to clerics but want the same thematic cohesion characteristic of OD&D, here’s something you can try. Let there be three classes: fighters, mages, and thieves. Their prime requisite abilities should make up a triangle, and the three stats from Into the Odd will serve us well: strength, willpower, and dexterity. Fighters become land-owners as before. Without clerics, it might make more sense for mages to fulfill the clergy role in higher society, with their supernatural abilities or what have you. That leaves thieves in the bourgeois role, and what better symbol of the bourgeoisie is there than the robber barons of mass industry? Still, it doesn't have the distinctly European flavor that the clerics grant to D&D, and which I think is essential to making the trifold models of OD&D feel complete.


[1] https://permacrandam.blogspot.com/2022/06/alternate-thieves-for-od.html

[2] https://traversefantasy.blogspot.com/2021/10/kinetic-and-potential-abilities-across.html

See also: https://dungeonsdragons.fandom.com/wiki/3_for_1_basis

[3] https://traversefantasy.blogspot.com/2021/07/deconstruction-of-od-ability-scores-and.html

[4] http://web.fisher.cx/robert/rpg/dnd/thief.html

[5] https://traversefantasy.blogspot.com/2021/08/time-movement-and-action-economy-in.html

[6] Compare also to the three estates of medieval France, the Ancien Régime: the clergy, the nobles, and the peasantry (which also included the bourgeoisie, as the middle class). I owe this insight to Ava Islam, who told me also about Sweden’s four-estate system that distinguished between the peasantry and the bourgeoisie.

[7] This all has interesting implications for D&D, having both settler colonial ideology and classic fascist ideology baked into its world and characters. This is, of course, not coincidental: both settler colonialism and fascism are motivated by the desires of the petite bourgeoisie to avoid losing their economic position and to get what they believe is owed to them.

[8] This might seem like a good opportunity to poke at a fascist tendency in OD&D, but collective or group subjectivity is not necessarily fascist. Rather, fascism is specifically a group subjectivity in service of preserving a national capitalism. If there is an analysis to be made of the D&D party as a fascistic fantasy, it should be in terms of economic class collaboration. Even then, there’s not much to do with that. This is a make-believe game, and there’s more serious things to look at.


  1. I wonder if the thief would work as a subclass of an "outsider" class, one that lives 'off the land' (in the case of the thief the 'land' is civilized society which accumulates wealth the thief then 'farms'.) Their societal role might be a mutual system of outsiders (which other classes would view as a criminal element). Other subclasses might be ranger/barbarian (literally living off the land, role to rebalance/retake areas where encroaching communities have denuded the ecosystem) and monk/wise man (living off ki/mind/mana of the gods, role of ultimate development of body/mind/spirit).

    It might not make sense in a game sense. Just an idea your post triggered.

    1. that would be really interesting! ava and i were talking on a similar note about what if the greyhawk classes were a dark reflection of the original three, representing attitudes that modern european societies had towards certain groups of people. however, them being more plain 'outsiders' would be less of a downer! your ideas are really cool :)

    2. I really like this idea. I kind of accidentally blundered down this route - "thief as outsider" - a little ways when I came up with the idea of reflavoring the thief as a ghoul. If I end up tinkering with the class any more, I should lean into the concept even harder. http://dragonsgonnadrag.blogspot.com/2020/10/the-ghoul-thief-variant-for-lost.html

  2. These are very iteresting thoughts on the Thief class.
    I like the idea that the class should not have a prime requisite in the same manner as the core three classes, so why not use the 7th 3d6 roll of character creation, gold, as a sort of prime requisite for thieves. Like, the more gold you possess, the faster you advance. I always wondered why the thief didn't have more skills like appraisal, investment, haggling and such.

    1. thank you! :) using gold as the seventh ability category would be really interesting. maybe since thieves best learn their skills on the street, maybe they should have the inverse relationship to gold that the main three have to their prime requisites? i.e. the less money a thief has, the quicker they advance, incentivizing them (or, really, the player) to lose money in order to make faster gains--which might make the thief the only class that operates on some version of the house rule "GP wasted is XP!". it also means that we don't have to account for bonuses for amounts of gold past 180!

      though either way, i think thieves would also need a different method of gaining XP if gold serves as their prime requisite. maybe they're the only ones who gain XP with respect to special abilities rather than holistically, as a further distinction, and they gain XP by using those abilities? maybe for example, it costs 20 uses to advance your lock-picking skill, then 40 then 80 etc. then it would be even easy to incorporate new abilities like appraisal which would be really helpful in play :D

      thank you for your comment, that's really good food for thought!

  3. > Still, it doesn't have the distinctly European flavor that the clerics grant to D&D, and which I think is essential to making the trifold models of OD&D feel complete.

    Obvious solution? Make mages priests. It's not like premodern (and especially ancient) cultures would make much distinction between priestly rituals and magical ones. At most, they draw power from different higher beings; at least, they are literally the same thing.

    Granted, medieval Europe is probably the premodern region with the strongest distinction between witchcraft and sacrament, but there's some way to square this circle in there if we compromise a bit on fantasy tropes. (Sorry, Gandalf. Or Dumbledore, depending on how old the reader is.)

    1. yep, obvious enough i literally talked about it in the same paragraph!

      still, i don’t think the significance of mages (at the domain level) is that they represent literal occult or arcane figures in myth, or people who claimed to have that power in real life. their whole focus is on producing magic items on a social or industrial level.

      maybe it makes sense from a certain historical perspective that the mage should be the clerical figure, but od&d instead implies that there’s something about the production of gold (i.e. of value) that is magical. that’s a very european idea that we see in alchemy on a literal level, or in early modern economics on a symbolic level.

      besides, like i said, the inclusion of clerics (as something separate from mages) is distinctly european, including in the context of social roles and symbolism. od&d combines fantastic images with early modern ideology (not ancient or premodern) in a complementary way. so, i think it’s reductive to criticize it for not going the same route as its successors when it has such a different vision of its game world than them.

  4. I agree that the existence of the class triad, as well as the abilities of demi-humans, renders thieves rather difficult to justify in odnd. In fact, Hobbits already are, by Tolkien's own definition, master thieves. They even do not advance past dungeoneering levels, as your article suggests.

    Mechanically speaking, an idea I've always liked is having thief abilities as spells (credit to Bandit's Keep). Described as advanced techniques, or perhaps even a sort of "thiefy luck" (paralleling clerical devotion and magi studies), they could perhaps "prepare" a one-time immunity to surprise, detect secret doors, or some sort of damage boost (ala backstab). Maybe these techniques even require "Thief Manuals", looted or stolen from master thieves, or otherwise researched. This of course fits within the existing ability framework of odnd, and gives space for the party as a whole to "act thiefy" (thieves just get to be REALLY good at it, and break the rules a few times a session in very clearly defined circumstances). Perhaps as they advance in level, they gain abilities that help with over-world travel (misdirecting enemy armies, infiltrating camps, impersonating important political figures).

    I think this is a natural fit with the "Peasant" archetype, as this makes thieves "the people of the land" so to speak, able to navigate their environments with unparalleled ability. Of course, this leads to the conundrum you brought up, that aspiring to be a peasant is rather, well, lackluster. But perhaps we may find inspiration in a Robin Hood archetype. That is, a champion of the people, undermining the lords, wizards, and patricarch(y) of the land.

    This makes me really tempted to make Thieves not have any primary requisite, and to advance in combat ability as magic-users (except without becoming gandalf-like at higher levels). They would not wear beyond leather armour, and I would even be tempted to remove the use of swords (to keep them as a special trait as fighters, plus swords are a symbol of nobility, not being very practical weapons for financial, combat and even legal reasons). However, I would likely give them access to all scrolls, wands, and most misc items. They seem the resourceful sort, and it gives them a one-up over fighters and clerics.


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