The Talented Thief: Stealing the Spotlight in GURPS and DFRPG

You know how it goes. You think “Hey, I’ll toss out some quick new talents for thief characters”… and the next thing you know, it’s an essay on where weaknesses lie in the fantasy thief template, why you would want to nab more talents, what’s already available, how new ones should be designed, how much your thief should spend on them, what else can boost the profession…

Yeesh, it’s already looking like some unsolicited (and low-rent) first draft of Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Thieves down there. Well, this article may not be the shortest thing you read today, but it’ll slip you a swag bag of valuable (?) new talents for characters (even law-abiding ones), along with other ideas for getting the most out of your purse-cutting, gem-filching, merchant-mugging alter ego.

Edit 2018-02-08: Added short note to point out that buying multiple 5-point talents instead of fewer 10- or 15-point talents carries a secret benefit: you get to nab more Reaction Bonuses or Alternative Benefits! 

In the shadows – and overshadowed?

Is the classic fantasy thief an effective choice for adventuring? Not necessarily, argues The Effectiveness of Thieves in Dungeon Fantasy. The post makes good points about the shortcomings of the class/profession, whether the D&D thief who simply isn’t very good at her special abilities, or the GURPS thief who is pretty capable at sneaky stuff – but sometimes not that much better than her fellow multi-talented adventurers.

To be clear, the thief templates in the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy (DF) line and the boxed Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG) do offer great thieving skills. They’re not bad templates, and the characters they build are not petty crooks! The dungeon (or wherever else mighty heroes adventure) is no place for simple coin-shavers and cut-purses; appropriately, the DF/DFRPG thief is far more capable than some back-alley burglar.

The problem is simply that the thief’s abilities – skills, mainly – arguably don’t match the awesomeness of the other adventuring professions’ magic spells and astronomic damage rolls and flat-out superpowers. (Simple fact: the ST 24 barbarian and deathspell-slinging wizard are tough acts to follow.)

Consider the challenge your thief faces in DF and DFRPG:

  1. The thieves-only menu is decidedly lacking in supernatural or other cinematic “wow” selections (although DFRPG’s Expert Backstabbing is nice).
  2. Thieves are built around mostly mundane abilities and (above all) skills. That’s a fine basis for a great character. But it’s a cornerstone of GURPS that pretty much anyone can purchase those mundane traits without artificial restrictions.
  3. Thieves’ skills are spread over really wide ground: street smarts, larceny, mobility, security bypass, murder, and more. There’s a degree of “jack of all trades, master of none” in the profession.
  4. Most dungeoneering professions, like thieves, boast great attributes. It may not be easy for others to beat your DF/DFRPG thief at DX-based thieving skills like Pickpocket, but with the outlay of just a few points, many professionals can be nearly as good at a subset of DX-based sneaky skills, and can even show up your thief at IQ-based skills like Counterfeiting.
  5. Even when it’s not practical for other professions to compete with you on thieving skills, there are often easy workarounds: defeating traps with wizardly magic or gnomish deftness, bypassing locks with barbarian brawn, moving silently with martial artist weirdness, and so on.

It’s a crime, I’m tellin’ ya! In loot-the-dungeon mode, every PC is nothing more than a wannabe-thief; you should be the one showing them how it’s done. (There’s a reason why Gandalf didn’t want to leave on that dragon escapade without one of your profession!)

Unless the GM wants to rework the DF and DFRPG thief profession to feature more thief-only powers and skills, making the dungeon burglar unique and indispensable may require cranking her larcenous skills up to levels that other delvers can neither match nor ignore.

That sounds like a job for talents!

They’re a steal!

GURPS and DFRPG offer several advantages that each boost a DX-based thief skill or two, often by a lot: Sensitive Touch to help Search and Traps rolls, Silence to aid Stealth, and Flexibility/Double-Jointed to raise Climbing and Escape, for starters.

To boost many skills at a reasonable cost, however – and especially to boost IQ-based skills that the above don’t touch – you’ll want to look to talents: leveled advantages that boost some named group of skills, typically with another minor bonus or benefit added. (DFRPG doesn’t use the moniker “talents”, but they’re there all the same, in advantages like Animal Friend and Outdoorsman.)

What choice talents do DF/GURPS and DFRPG dangle before thieves? Let’s case the joints and see:

DF

The following talents can be found in the sources noted and in Power-Ups 3: Talents:

Widget-Worker (Dungeon Fantasy 3: The Next Level): This thief-friendly talent boosts the Armory (Missile Weapons), Forced Entry, Lockpicking, Scrounging, and Traps skills. The catch: gnomes only!

High Manual DX (Basic Set): Although not technically a talent, this advantage essentially serves as one. It boosts the thieving skills of Lockpicking, Pickpocket, and Sleight of Hand, plus a number of artistic and other skills of lesser interest to pilferers.

Smooth Operator (Basic Set): This full-course talent aids no fewer than 13 social skills!

Craftiness (Dungeon Fantasy 11: Power-Ups): This talent boosts Acting, Camouflage, Disguise, Holdout, Shadowing, and Stealth.

Street-Smart (Dungeon Fantasy 11: Power-Ups): This talent boosts Merchant, Panhandling, Scrounging, Shadowing, Streetwise, and Urban Survival.

Street Smarts (GURPS Thaumatology: Urban Magics): This enhanced version of Street-Smart covers Area Knowledge (City), Current Affairs (City), Law (City), Merchant, Panhandling, Scrounging, Shadowing, Streetwise, and Urban Survival, with some detailed restrictions noted in the text.

DFRPG

The following two advantages are ideal for thieves in DFRPG:

Widget-Worker: As above.

High Manual DX: In DFRPG, this advantage aids the six skills Forgery, Knot-Tying, Lockpicking, Pickpocket, Sleight of Hand, and Traps – but only when the skills are based on DX, not IQ, Per, etc. (That mainly matters for Forgery, Lockpicking, and Traps, which can often stray from a DX base.)

A light haul?

Thieves in DF enjoy a fair number of talents, but with restrictions. Craftiness, Street-Smart, and Street Smarts require additional books for their full write-ups. Smooth Operator is a powerful boon to a con artist, but it goes far beyond that calling’s set of skills and carries a huge cost to match. High Manual DX, meanwhile, remains a fine choice for a thief, but like other advantages geared toward the profession, does nothing to aid middling IQ-based skills in the template.

Thieves in DFRPG face a particular dearth of dedicated talents. There’s Widget-Worker – if you’re short and often mistaken for a cousin of Gimdurin Khazadhammer. If you’re not a gnome, your choice purchase is the talent-like High Manual DX – which, again, doesn’t help IQ-based skills.

GMs can easily increase the offerings for DFRPG thieves. You can carry over Craftiness and Street-Smart as they are (if not Street Smarts, which includes several skills not found in DFRPG). Smooth Operator could be brought into DFRPG by dropping the Politics skill; under GURPS’ talent pricing rules, that would also cut the cost to 10 points/level. But that’s still a high price for a talent that’s of partial use for thieving in town and very little use in the dungeon.

In the end, mixing and matching all the advantages and talents noted above will do a lot for your thief, yet still may leave holes in the design. Some skills get “double-dipping” treatment, appearing under two or more advantages/talents, while others (like Counterfeiting and Poisons) appear under none.

With all that in mind, below are some new talent options for thieves who want to further finesse their very particular set of skills. Feel free to nick one or a few!

The talent show

The design goals for these new talents:

  1. These talents are aimed at the classic fantasy thief, a combination burglar, con artist, acrobat, and dungeon trap-springer who moonlights as a backstabbing assassin. In fact, I suggest declaring the first five talents thieves-only in DF/DFRPG games (a stricture that you’re of course free to ignore).
  2. Each new talent is DFRPG-friendly – that is, it covers only skills found in both GURPS and DFRPG.
  3. As much as possible, each talent speaks to a narrow concept or theme – something more specific than just “You’re good at shady stuff”.
  4. The new talents don’t overlap; no skill appears under more than one. This is to ensure that all key thievish skills get a spot somewhere. (These talents will unavoidably overlap with the existing advantages and talents discussed above. That’s fine!)
  5. The suggested thieves-only talents don’t carry a Reaction Bonus; their skills are meant to be used undetected! (Feel free to offer a Reaction Bonus in appropriate circumstances – say, when the PC is watched by an appreciative fellow sneak or potential purchaser of shady services.)
  6. All of the new talents do offer an Alternative Benefit, a concept discussed fully in Power-Ups 3: Talents. DFRPG appears to prefer Alternative Benefits over Reaction Bonuses (as do I).
  7. Most of the new talents cover five skills; all cost 5 points per level. (A couple of the talents cover more skills than five, but with special restrictions.) That setup works with both the talent pricing rule from Basic Set and the alternative point cost rule from Power-Ups 3: Talents (p25), which sets a cost of 1 point/level for each skill covered. It also keeps each talent very affordable!

Meeting these design rules made it a little tough to set up the talents, especially when several skills really want to belong to more than one of the talents. I like the results so far, though.

(Oh, there’s a final sneaky motive in using only 5-point talents: nabbing more special bonuses (Reaction Bonus or Alternative Benefit) for your thief. A 15-point talent nets you about 15 favored skills and one special bonus; three 5-point talents net you about 15 favored skills and three special bonuses!)

New talents (“procurement experts” only)

I suggest restricting these five talents to thieves, to solidify the profession’s dominance in all things larcenous.

Devious Devices 5 points/level

You have a genius for deviously manipulating things: picking locks, setting traps, faking valuables, concealing contraband, and more. You get +1 per level to the Counterfeiting, Forgery, Lockpicking, Scrounging, Smuggling, and Traps skills – but in all cases, only when the skill is based on IQ or Per, not DX. You can also take +1 on Camouflage skill when hiding things or other persons (not yourself).

Alternative Benefit: +1/level to IQ-based “legitimate” skills for crafting, repairing, or building things, whenever you modify an item for some sneaky, nefarious purpose.

Notes: This talent covers a fair number of skills, but only when based on IQ or Per. It’s intended as a counterpart of sorts to High Manual DX, which also covers a good number of skills but only when based on DX.

Note that while both traits cover Forgery, Lockpicking, and Traps, they don’t “double dip” on these three skills; rather, the two traits combine to offer +1 on all uses of the skills, whether based on IQ, Per, or DX.

Born Sneak 5 points/level

There’s little you love more than skulking, spying, and slipping into and out of places you shouldn’t be. You get +1 per level to the Escape, Lip Reading, Observation, Shadowing, and Stealth skills. You can also take +1 on Camouflage skill when concealing yourself (not things or other persons).

Alternative Benefit: +1/level in Contests to notice others shadowing and spying on you.

Notes: This talent is a bit of a counterpoint to Devious Devices. That talent helps you do sneaky stuff with things; this talent helps you sneak yourself about. It includes Lip Reading, an oft-ignored skill that puts your spying prowess to good use.

Note that Born Sneak and Devious Devices combine to give you +1/level on all uses of Camouflage skill.

Light-Fingered 5 points/level

Mary Firth, notorious pickpocket of early 17-century London

Things around you have a tendency to… disappear. (A thorough search might find those items on your person, though in the darnedest places.) Your brilliance at secreting objects also helps you ferret out items hidden on others. You get +1 per level to the Filch, Holdout, Pickpocket, Search, and Sleight of Hand skills.

Alternative Benefit: +1/level to rolls to avoid being fooled by the same skills.

Notes: The trio Filch, Pickpocket, and Sleight of Hand can surprise newcomers to GURPS, which asks thieves to purchase three skills for capabilities that many game systems would bundle into one skill. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see some games toss the abilities of Holdout into the mix as well.) This talent can ease the considerable cost of excelling in those skills.

Natural Impostor 5 points/level

Just who are you? Those around you may never know, what with your uncanny knack for impersonation and verbal deceit. You get +1 per level to the Acting, Disguise, Fast-Talk, Mimicry, and Ventriloquism skills.

Alternative Benefit: +1/level on rolls to avoid being fooled by the same skills.

Notes: This talent includes the little-used Ventriloquism skill, letting you further confuse people as to where you are.

Assassin’s Gift 5 points/level

Killing comes unnaturally easy to you – just not the straight-up, face-to-face kind of killing. You get +1 per level to the Blowpipe, Fast-Draw (Knife), Garrote, Poisons, and Thrown Weapon (Knife) skills, helping you make deadly strikes from the shadows.

Alternative Benefit: +1/level to your attack roll with the Knife skill if used for a true backstab. The GM may extend this bonus to other small (Reach C) weapons, such as a rock or cosh to the head from behind.

Notes: This talent avoids full use of Knife skill; that’s a melee thing. Assassins who aren’t afraid of actual fighting should check out Born Brawler (below).

New talents (open to all)

These talents seem reasonable for any character profession. They’re a good fit for particular types of thief.

Born Brawler 5 points/level

In-your-face mayhem comes as naturally to you as breathing. You get +1 per level to the Boxing, Brawling, Forced Entry, Knife, and Wrestling skills.

Reaction Bonus: Fellow brawlers, or anyone impressed by groin-kicking and ear-biting.

Alternative Benefit: +1/level to the DX roll to ready a weapon in close combat, to any offensive default DX roll in combat (such as an unskilled punch thrown at DX, not a weapon attack at default skill), and to any roll to execute or spot a dirty trick in combat (a sucker punch, etc.).

Notes: This talent’s intent is to make you a natural at up-close, offensive, simple armed and unarmed combat skills (hence no Karate or Judo). There aren’t many such skills suited to street brawling, though, so the talent complements Brawling and Knife with Boxing and Wrestling. Forced Entry rounds things out, letting you take out your aggression on objects as well.

Feel free to replace Boxing, Wrestling, or both of these with other skills. Shortsword is a possibility, augmenting Knife with really big knives (as well as clubs). Intimidation would also make a great replacement, letting you wither opponents with swagger and verbal brawling. (This change would place Intimidation under two of the new talents, but that’s okay; the combination of Street Survivor and Born Brawler would allow terrifying – and perfectly plausible – levels of Intimidation even without high IQ.)

Finally, if you want to make this a more wildly aggressive talent, replace the Alternative Benefit with “+1/level to hit with any All-Out Attack in close combat”.

Naturally Nimble 5 points/level

You can move. You get +1 per level to the Acrobatics, Climbing, Jumping, Running, and Swimming skills.

Reaction Bonus: Anyone who appreciates amazing athleticism.

Alternative Benefit: +1/level to any sports skills, sporting contests, or generic DX rolls that take advantage of your full-body agility.

Notes: Larceny aside, one of the classic fantasy thief specialties is mobility: wall scaling, rooftop running, and all-round “dungeon parkour”. This is the talent for such a thief.

Swimming can be of help in infiltrating a dockside warehouse from the water, and in making a quick river getaway when discovered. If you find Swimming an odd man out, though, replace it with Escape as one of your nimble knacks.

Finally, if both the Reaction Bonus and Alternative Benefit feel boring, consider replacing those with yet another Alternative Benefit, available to thieves only: +1/level bonus to your Dodge roll, once per session.

Street Survivor 5 points/level

You have an instinct for getting by on the meanest of streets. You get +1 per level to the Detect Lies, Intimidation, Panhandling, Streetwise, and Urban Survival skills.

Reaction Bonus: Street hustlers, bums, ruffians, and anyone who’d be impressed by their ilk.

Alternative Benefit: +1/level to rolls to spot street scams and miscellaneous dangers in urban situations, and to urban Tracking rolls. (This is paraphrased from the Alternative Benefit for Street-Smart and Street Smarts.)

Notes: This talent covers key abilities you need to survive on the streets, both socially and physically. If you’ll be spending lots of time in the darker dark alleys, also consider Born Sneak and Born Brawler.

Nurturing new talent

You can easily make up more thievish talents; just start with an interesting sneaky theme and put together the skills involved. How about a weird knack for hiding anything, including yourself? That could cover Camouflage, Filch, Holdout, Smuggling, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth.

Watch out for talents that aren’t efficient. A talent called Shifty Eyes that boosts only Per-based skills (Detect Lies, Lip Reading, Observation, Scrounging, Search, and Urban Survival) sounds nifty – but you’d get the same benefit and more by just buying Per instead!

Planning the perfect criminal

So. Does an abundance of talents give thieves a big leg up over everyone else in games of skullduggery? Not automatically. First, the thief has to buy the things – and, needless to say, those talents come at the expense of other roguish abilities left un-bought.

What’s more, as incredibly cheap as talents are compared to buying high levels of individual skills, taking a lot of talents isn’t cost effective. Buying a level of DX without its Basic Speed component (by buying Basic Speed down by 0.25 for -5 points) lets you raise all DX-based skills (plus all general DX rolls) for only 15 points. Likewise, buying a level of IQ without its Will component (by buying Will down by 1 level) lets you raise all IQ- and Per-based skills (and general IQ and Per rolls) for only 15 points.

So, how many talents should you buy? Looking at base number of talents (not number of levels) purchased, and considering talents that boost primarily DX-based skills or IQ/Per-based skills, the above suggests this: one 5-point talent is a great bargain, two 5-pointers (or one 10-pointer) is a lesser bargain, and three 5-pointers (or one 15-pointer, or a 5-pointer and a 10-pointer) is downright questionable. (The Reaction Bonuses or Alternative Benefits might make that latter purchase a fair value.)

Many talents cover skills with multiple bases – DX, IQ/Per, and even HT – which muddies the math. Still, as tempting as many talents may appear, your best choice for a thief may be a base 5 to 10 points in DX-centric talents, plus a base 5 to 10 points in IQ/Per-centric talents; or, a base 10 to 20 points in talents that cover multiple attributes. Check the numbers carefully before you buy more talents than that; you might be better off buying DX and IQ instead.

Once you’ve decided on what talents to buy, how many levels to buy is entirely up to you and your point budget. If your number of talents is small enough to be point-efficient, any further levels of these should remain an efficient purchase.

In short, if you want to be good at all thievish pursuits, high DX and IQ remain your most important purchases. From there, use talents wisely to become frighteningly good at some subset of specialties. It won’t be efficient to buy all of the talents you might want, but that’s all right. Just two 5-pointers, ideally covering both DX-based and IQ/Per-based skills for maximum efficiency, boosts an impressive 10 or so skills at a cost of only 10 points per overall +1.

Combining talents

The new talents above are created to be narrow and cheap at 5 points each. For broader 10- or 15-point talents, just combine some 5-pointers.

Note where talents (and other advantages) overlap in the skills they boost. Avoid those combinations to prioritize broad skill coverage – or leap at those combinations for dedicated focus. There’s nothing wrong with a skill gaining bonuses from multiple advantages; exploit that double-dipping to score criminally high skill levels.

Use combinations of talents to model skulkers of a particular bent. Profiles of a few talent-based criminal types:

Felonious Fingers: High Manual DX + Devious Devices. This thief earns his nickname through a cunning for locks, traps, palmed goods, and faked valuables. (There’s something familar about that name, though…)

Secret Spy: Natural Imposter + Born Sneak. This combo represents a knack for faking your way into places and then quietly gathering information. Add Light-Fingered or Assassin’s Gift (or just appropriate skills from these) if the end goal is theft or murder instead.

Trespasser: High Manual DX + Born Sneak. This combo represents a gift for physical, not social, infiltration. Consider adding Assassin’s Gift if the end goal is to “interact” with just one person (your target!), or Naturally Nimble if athletic obstacles are expected (hello, dungeons!).

Street Tough: Street Survivor (or Street Smart) + Born Brawler. Perfect for the urban urchin focused on in-town dealings – and beatings. Lots of sweet beatings.

Sticky Fingers: Light-Fingered + Craftiness: You lift goods from stores, purses from market-goers, anything from anywhere if you can pick it up and make it disappear. To specialize a bit more, use Light-Fingered + Born Sneak for the sly thief who favors the silent bag snatch or the unseen shop visit; or Light-Fingered + Natural Imposter for the chatty glad-hander who relieves shopkeepers of their goods and marketplace marks of their wallets right from under their noses.

Note that High Manual DX is part of the DF and DFRPG thief template; your thief will have a level whether a combination above mentions it or not. However, GMs should certainly consider requests to replace that level with another talent if the player prefers.

Rounding things out

Finessing skills

After optimizing advantages and talents, what’s left is the actual purchase of individual skills. The DF and DFRPG thief templates cover all the important ones, whether they’re required or left optional. Just remember that a talent alone doesn’t purchase the skills covered! Devious Devices will certainly improve your ability with Counterfeiting and Forgery, but unless you actually buy those skills, you’ll be working at an improved but still unreliable default level.

Speaking of defaults, look for spots where these can shore up your thief’s long list of skills. As an example, use talents and spend some skill points to get Sleight of Hand at a great level. You then get reasonable levels of Filch and Pickpocket at no extra cost, thanks to those skills’ defaults to Sleight of Hand.

Most of all, don’t hesitate to specialize. “All things thievish” is too wide a plate; it’ll make you a watered-down generalist. Buy choice talents (multiple levels if you can!) and a very specific set of skills to really shine at select heists. Leave other jobs to the street rabble.

The GM as accessory to crime

Talents and smart choices can place a thief far above her peers in criminal skills – but she’ll still be excess baggage if thievish challenges remain at levels that the scout, swashbuckler, and other mere dabblers can handle. GMs should make sure to include challenges with penalties that demand the thief’s ridiculous skill levels. Or challenges that call for multiple skill checks. Imagine the PCs are in a cell, stripped of gear. Someone has to squeeze through the bars, tiptoe past the ogre guards, filch a key (or scrounge for makeshift lockpicks), sneak back to the cell, and spring the lock. Each of these tasks may not be too hard, but they all have to succeed. Who can the party trust to nail them all?

With thieves’ skills spread so wide, give players generous leeway in tweaking the profession’s template to specialize. Going back to an example a bit above, let a player deviate from the template to leave Filch and Pickpocket off the shopping list, instead defaulting these to Sleight of Hand and spending the points on some other abilities.

If all of the above somehow still leaves thief PCs overshadowed (and I don’t think it will!), the GM can aid and abet in other ways. One idea is to limit the more larcenous skills – say, Counterfeiting, Forgery, Smuggling, Sleight of Hand, Filch, Lockpicking, and Pickpocket, for starters – to thieves only; everyone else gets stuck with default use. That’ll certainly make thieves stand out, though the decree may feel heavy handed.

Perhaps a better idea is to collaborate with thief players on more creative outlets for less-common skills. Like this: Both DF and DFRPG make thieves take the Filch skill, but neither suggests many uses for it. Why not let Filch be to Holdout what Fast Draw is to a weapon skill? That is, transferring an item from your hand to a hidden location presumably takes one or more Ready maneuvers. So use Filch as the roll to squirrel away that knife or contraband instantly, safe from sight (and even from later search, if your Holdout is up to snuff). Now that sounds useful!

This is a good place to note that “thief” is all in the what you do, not the how. Any skill of upstanding citizens becomes a larcenous skill if you make it so! Take the “angler”, a real-life criminal specialist who uses rod and reel to haul goods out of inaccessible spots. That’s the Fishing skill, of all things…

Making my getaway

Wrapping up the above, I’ll direct your attention again to The Effectiveness of Thieves in Dungeon Fantasy. You’ll find much more there on building, equipping, and playing a thief PC to best effect.

Even within the confines of a fantasy setting, thieves and their exploits are a rich topic. There’s a ton more to say about potential techniques for thieving skills, or about underworld culture and argot as fun parts of town adventures. There are also big topics largely untouched by DF/DFRPG, especially for groups looking to spend less time in dungeons: the fascinating real-world teamwork of accomplices and gangs, the anatomy of scams both simple and intricate, the planning and execution of complex heists, and much more.

It’s best that I call it a night and slink away here. How about you? Any thoughts on whether the thief PC can hold her own against her peers? Any great advice on designing and playing the profession?

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