Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gygax's "The Thief Addition" (1974)

As I make my way to GenCon this week, I can't help but think back to thirty-eight years ago, to the first GenCon after the release of Dungeons & Dragons. Bill Hoyer reported then that "this year's convention was centered mainly around the new set of Gygax and Arneson rules Dungeons & Dragons. On Saturday at least a dozen games were in progress and as soon as one ended another was started." Players must have been especially enthusiastic because many saw there for the first time something entirely novel: "thief additions to D&D were previewed with this providing more fun to an already excitement-packed set of rules." Yes, nearly a year before Greyhawk, the Thief class was on display at GenCon VII.

In fact, "The Thief Addition" had first shipped in a fanzine called the Great Plains Games Players Newsletter back in May. Few saw the rules there, however, as the circulation of the zine at the time was only a couple dozen copies. Gygax invited the zine's editor, Jim Lurvey, to sell copies of the issue with "The Thief Addition" at the TSR booth; unsurprisingly, Lurvey reported that sales "went fast." (As an aside, Lurvey also sold the next issue there, which was the first place to feature Gygax's rules for a percentile Strength modifier.)

One very important thing to glean from the two pages worth of rules sandwiched between official-looking title pages is that Gygax gives us some backstory about the development of the Thief class. He adopted the idea from a fan who he spoke to over the fan; he gives the name here as Gary Schweitzer, but most likely he meant Gary Switzer, who played with the Aero Hobbies crowd in Santa Monica, California (see Section 5.2 of Playing at the World for a bit more context about Switzer). On the basis of that conversation, Gygax developed his own preliminary version of the Thief, which he stresses have "not been tested." The testing presumably would come at GenCon.

As to the rules themselves, they evince most of the key skills that Greyhawk, and innumerable later role-playing games, would associate with Thieves. They can open locks, remove traps, climb walls, steal, backstab, hide in shadows, listen for noises and move silently. These skill checks are mostly resolved with a percentile roll, a precedent that would also have a profound influence on later game designs. As areas of "other possible consideration," Thieves of sufficient level may decipher foreign languages and even cast Magic-user spells from scrolls. Small particulars differ from Greyhawk: the way that backstab damage is handled, for example. But the fundamentals are all in place.

Even thirty-eight years ago, GenCon was a place to show off your new ideas and get feedback, and a place where you could bring home a glimpse of the future of gaming. I wonder what this year will have in store for us...


  1. Woah. These rules show the thief using the original d6 hit dice. Something that I've never seen before and I know it's something other OD&D players have tried to reverse engineer.

  2. Nice to see, Jon. I've seen a doc similar to this one before, and it's always nice to see the d6-thief class get some exposure.

  3. Typo you could fix: "He adopted the idea from a fan who he spoke to over the fan [phone]"

    I think the real interesting thing here is the example of play which isn't in OD&D. It seems to clarify expected usage of the thief (although as usual, the number of successes on display is highly unlikely for the given success chances). It seems to establish that traps are automatically detected (not as in AD&D). And it indicates that failure at a removal roll sets off the trap on the thief (something I personally rule the opposite on).

  4. One thing that jumps out to me is the "Open locks (by picking or even foiling magical closures)." I've never seen anything before that indicated that opening locks included magical "closures." So far as you can tell, did that mean that a thief could actually defeat a Wizard Lock or Hold Portal spell?

    1. Traditionally, AFAIK, even if other classes could open locks, the thief was always the only class that could open and disarm magical locks and traps.

      I am also wondering if the reason the success rates were so "low" was the assumption that bonuses would be provided for 'weak' locks and 'easy' traps.

    2. Christopher: the language about foiling magical closures is also in the Greyhawk Supplement, but I think it is usually overlooked. It's unclear whether it refers to Hold Portal/Wizard Lock (as opposed to some sort of magic item lock) but that's certainly a reasonable interpretation. It fits with the rudimentary magical skills they have that allows them to eventually read scrolls.

    3. Sadly the watermark for the site covers up some of the essential info which would make it hard for me to integrate this into my OD&D game :(

  5. I remember Gary at Aero Hobbies! Great guy

  6. 'He adopted the idea from a fan...'

    I think most fair observers would say Gary Gygax stole the idea & game mechanics wholesale and didn't even have the good grace to give Gary Switzer a 'thank you' credit in the Greyhawk supplement.