cat burglar

Dumping out the loot sack: More rules and tools for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy thieves

As promised in my mini review of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Thieves, I’m rounding up and presenting ideas and content that I had suggested for Thieves during its playtest but that didn’t end up between its pages. This includes more-or-less finished items (like new traits and gear) and a lot of unfinished ideas. (There were naturally many unused suggestions from other playtesters, too, but those aren’t mine to offer. And needless to say, I won’t be offering up any playtester suggestions that did see inclusion; that’s the stuff you need to buy the book to get!)

The question you should now ask: “Okay, so more fan-created free stuff for GURPS. But is it any good?”

The reply: Well… Thieves gave all of the below a pass, so what does that tell you? : )

Yep, the following constitutes a collection of rejected content – a treasure sack filled with dungeon scrap, in Dungeon Fantasy (DF) parlance. In all fairness to said content, though, “not used by the book” doesn’t necessarily mean “no good”. The Thieves volume, like any work, headed into the playtest process with much of its limited page count already mapped out, and only so much space and development time remaining for consideration of all-new stuff.

So approach the below with open-minded caution, as you would any fan-made content.

Goods not filched

The below is swag that Thieves left sitting on the merchant shelves as it filled its heist bag with higher-value plunder. Let’s see if I can pawn any of it off onto you…

Thievish Talents

The talented thief: Stealing the spotlight in GURPS and DFRPG takes a detailed look at beefing up the thief profession through select Talents, with many new larceny-oriented choices. Thieves doesn’t pick up those particular Talents or go into detailed discussion of the role of Talents in thief design, but it does offer a half dozen Talents of its own invention or taken from earlier GURPS works. (To avoid confusion, note that its Graceful is not the Talent of the same name that I offer here.) Pick up Thieves to nab its offerings, and rifle through my article for more Talents and tips on their use.

Technique-based power-ups

On to some new stuff. In keeping with my instinct to beef up thieves through mostly mundane (but impressive!) abilities, I suggested enhancing skills with both Talents and techniques.

GURPS offers many great techniques for thieves, especially in Action 3: Furious Fists. Thieves naturally works techniques into its power-ups, though generally in combination with non-technique traits, for results that can be expensive but interesting. (Combat Tumbler, for example, combines a leveled technique of Acrobatics with increased Basic Move.)

All very good. But for DF (and Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG)), I like the idea of turning leveled techniques into simple, one-shot power-ups – not unlike the “feats” of some other games – and so I suggested many of these for Thieves. To me, these just feel spot-on as low-cost, easy ways to give a thief high-level mastery of narrow exploits.

I’ll divide my power-up suggestions into those based on published techniques (many of them in Furious Fists) and those built from my own suggestions for new techniques.

Power-ups based on existing techniques

Dive Master          4 points
Prerequisites: Acrobatics
Ignore the -4 penalty on Acrobatics rolls noted under Diving (DF 2: Dungeons p. 7). This is a lifesaver among the oversized blade traps in lost temples!
Techniques: Dive n’ Roll (A) Acrobatics +0 [4]
Note: Built from the Dive n’ Roll technique on Action 3: Furious Fists p. 16.

Evasive Action          5 points
Prerequisites: Acrobatics
Take +5 on Acrobatics rolls to perform an Acrobatic Evade (DF 2: Dungeons p. 12).
Techniques: Evade (A) Acrobatics +5 [5]
Note: Built from the Evade technique on Action 3: Furious Fists p. 16. That book also allows Judo as an alternative for the feat and for this technique; for simplicity, I’ve left that out.

Rappelling Master          4 points
Prerequisites: Climbing
When descending a rope, replace the -1 penalty to Climbing skill (see p. B233) with a +3 bonus.
Techniques: Rope Down (A) Climbing +3 [4]
Note: Built from the Rope Down technique on p. B233; also the Rappelling technique on Action 3: Furious Fists p. 18.

Rope Climber          2 points
Prerequisites: Climbing
Ignore the -2 penalty on Climbing rolls to ascend a rope straight up (DF 2: Dungeons p. 7).
Techniques: Rope Up (A) Climbing +0 [2]
Note: Built from the Rope Up technique on p. B233; also the Rope Up technique on Action 3: Furious Fists p. 18.
I’ll note that “Rope Climber” is a pretty boring label, but I don’t know what else to call this, unless you want to get cute with names like “Ascended One” or “Gym Class Hero”.

Skid Pro          2 points
Ignore the -2 penalty on DX rolls (or Skiing if you’re using it) to perform the skid noted under Skidding on DF 2: Dungeons p. 8.
Techniques: Skidding (A) DX +0 [2]
Note: Built from the Skidding technique on Action 3: Furious Fists p. 18.

Tic-Tac Pro          7 points
Prerequisites: Acrobatics or Jumping
Take +6 on Acrobatics or Jumping rolls to perform the stunts noted under Running Climb on DF 2: Dungeons p. 8 or a similar tic-tac move.
Techniques: Running Climb (H) Skill +6 [7]
Note: Built from the Running Climb technique on Action 3: Furious Fists p. 16. (Note that Furious Fists sets this one as a Hard technique; I don’t know why.)

Well-Balanced          5 points
Prerequisites: Acrobatics
Take +5 on Acrobatics rolls for the feats noted under Balancing on DF 2: Dungeons p. 7. This is mutually exclusive with the more powerful Perfect Balance. Use it in place of Perfect Balance to give a lower-powered thief ledge-walking prowess.
Techniques: Balancing (A) Acrobatics +5 [5]
Note: Built from the Balancing technique on Action 3: Furious Fists p. 16.

Power-ups based on new techniques

These power-ups are built from new techniques. “New” as far as I know, that is; any of them might certainly appear somewhere in the expansive GURPS-verse (probably with a better name than what I’ve come up with).

I’m assuming that the all of these techniques can be treated as Average and don’t call for perks like Unusual Technique or Technique Mastery. But if you suspect otherwise, consult with GURPS experts more savvy to the ways of techniques than I am (and please let me know where I’m missing something).

For all of the below, I’ve bought up the technique to its maximum level – which, since I’m inventing the techniques, is an arbitrary maximum I’ve made up. Change the levels and point costs as you see fit.

Bootstrapper          2 points
Prerequisites: Climbing
Take +2 on the ST-based Climbing roll noted under Pull-Up (DF 2: Dungeons p. 7). This is useful after a leg up or at cliffhanger moments.
Techniques: Pull-Up (A) Climbing +2 [2]
Note: The Sure Grasp trait from Dungeon Fantasy 11: Power-Ups achieves a similar bonus to ST-based Climbing rolls for pull-ups not through a skill technique but through Lifting ST 4 (Only for climbing, -60%). That’s a slightly more expensive way of going about it, but take that route if you prefer.)

Guarded          5 points
Prerequisites: Acrobatics
Take +5 on Acrobatics rolls to perform an Acrobatic Guard (DF 2: Dungeons p. 12).
Techniques: Acrobatic Guard (A) Acrobatics +5 [5]
Note: My arbitrary +5 is set to match Evasive Action above.

Needle Threader          4 points
Prerequisites: Escape
Take +4 on Escape rolls to slip through a narrow crack, tiny window, etc. (DF 2: Dungeons p. 8). This is useful for thief and spelunker alike.
Techniques: Squeezing (A) Escape +4 [4]
Note: I got wedged in place trying to think of a good name for this one. If you want to get cute you can go for “Squeezy-Peasy” or the like, but I’ll deny suggesting it.
(More importantly: Is this simply re-inventing the Total Exhalation technique of Escape on Underground Adventures p. 22? If so, use that instead.)

Overdoser          4 points
Prerequisites: Poisons
Take +4 on Poisons rolls to envenom blades (DF 2: Dungeons p. 12).
Techniques: Practical Poisoning (A) Poisons +4 [4]

Swinger          4 points
Prerequisites: Acrobatics
Take +4 on Acrobatics rolls for the feat noted under Swinging on DF 2: Dungeons p. 8. This is useful for a cat burglar who travels with rope and grappling hook. Or Tarzan.
Techniques: Swinging (A) Acrobatics +4 [4]

Trap Specialist          4 points
Prerequisites: Traps
Take +4 on Traps rolls related to a single type of trap (or other feature that involves rolls vs Traps): overhead deadfall traps, pit traps, hidden blade traps, hidden missile traps, trapped locks, hidden doors, or whatever the GM considers a suitably narrow specialty.
Techniques: Trap Specialization (A) Traps +4 [4]
Note: This is intended as a way to specialize in a type of trap without invoking the Optional Specialization rules. For the GM, the downside to this power-up is the need to specify available trap “types”.

Tumbler          4 points
Prerequisites: Acrobatics
Take +4 on Acrobatics rolls for the move to avoid ranged fire noted under Tumbling on DF 2: Dungeons p. 8.
Techniques: Tumbling (A) Acrobatics +4 [4]
Note: In its Combat Tumbler power-up, Thieves labels this Tumbling technique Hard. I don’t know why that is, or why it also adds Unique Technique (Combat Tumbling) [1] and Technique Mastery (Combat Tumbling) [1]. Adjust the cost of Tumbler above if I should be making those changes!
My suggested +4 does mesh with the maximum 4 levels of Combat Tumbling that Thieves allows. However, note that Furious Fists lets the similar Evade technique hit +5. Consider boosting Tumbler to Acrobatics +5 [5] if you like neatness.

Up With People          2 points
Prerequisites: Acrobatics
When you receive a leg-up boost (DF 2: Dungeons p. 7), ignore the -2 penalty on your Acrobatics roll. (To help pull yourself up the rest of the way, add the Bootstrapper power-up.)
Techniques: Leg-Up Leap (A) Acrobatics +0 [2]
Note: For those scratching their heads, the name is taken from this performing group, for no reason other than that it amuses me.

New gear: glass cutter

This, but gnomier.

Given its reliance on kit like lockpicks, there’s potential for DF‘s thief to become the adventuring party’s true gear-hound. With that in mind, I proposed a glass cutter as a new addition to DF‘s list of special ops and security gear. In response, multiple Thieves playtesters opined that a glass cutter – what High-Tech p. 26 calls “the definitive cat burglar’s tool” – isn’t of interest in a book of tools for cat burglars.

Huh. I did not expect that.

Well, people have their reasons, and there are a few up-front things to note about this tool. High-Tech calls the classic circle cutter – a device that inscribes a neat circle of glass and quietly pulls it out using suction cups or sticky pads – a “cinematic” tool that should take a -6 on success rolls in a realistic campaign. That book also pegs the tool at TL6. These strictures certainly don’t support the idea of a low-tech gizmo that defeats glass with nigh-magical ease!

That said, this is Dungeon Fantasy, which means we can toss that “realistic campaign” caveat right out of a high-story window. And we can waive the TL6 prescription, too, with the single word “gnomish”.

“Glass windows? What wizardry is this?”

But wait – does Town even have glass windows? If medieval-ish homes and shops are free of fragile glasswork to begin with, a glass cutter tool is understandably of interest to nobody.

Sacré bleu! (And rouge, and jaune, and blanc, and…)

My take: If we can have magical construct servants, floating wizards’ palaces, and orichalcum double-ended dwarven flails, I think we can have panes of glass in Town. A few common-sense caveats are in order, though.

First, I wouldn’t go festooning townscapes with show windows, glass display cases, and airy skylights. Townies aren’t going to keep property and person behind a substance that’s (I presume) expensive and that’s instantly defeated by a rock. (The vulnerability of glass does suggest a role for dwarven, magic, or other versions that are hard to cut or shatter.)

Glass windows in medieval fantasy should be small, scarce on lower stories, almost never placed near door latches or valuables, and often covered by bars, or at least by stout locked shutters when the interior is unattended. Structures with high security requirements would likely avoid windows entirely.

But wealthier townies may fall for the creature comforts of spacious patio doors and picture windows with sweeping views, at least on the higher floors of well-protected inner keeps. (Surely not even the most daring cat burglar would assault the solarium of the wizard’s seventh-floor laboratory? Right?) And a wealthy guild hall or the like might even indulge in expansive windows as a subtle message to thieves that the owners are very confident in the security measures waiting behind that tempting glass.

The tool

All right. Now that we’ve imagined some amount of glass into Town, here’s the equipment for defeating it:

Gnomish Glass Cutter. This tool silently cuts out and removes a circle from a glass pane on a roll vs DX or Forced Entry, with a bonus from Manual Dexterity. (A complementary Touch roll, with Sensitive Touch naturally allowing its big bonus, would be appropriate for this delicate job.) Failure means a noisy break; critical failure adds 1d-2 cutting damage to one hand. Cutting requires 1 minute to create a circle large enough for a halfling-sized (SM -2) thief to squeeze through. (Treat a single arm as three SM levels smaller than its owner for this purpose, so the same hole would admit a SM +1 ogre’s arm.) $50, 1 lb. 

Quality upgrades consist of kits with a selection of cutting heads, sticky pads, soft tapping mallets, and weird gnomish mechanizations. Good quality: +1 to skill, 2 minutes to cut circles or squares up to SM -1; $250, 5 lbs. Fine quality: +2 to skill, 5 minutes to cut any simple shape up to SM 0; $1,000, 20 lbs.

And here in this article, I’ll suggest a new variant:

A real pocket glass cutter already looks like weird fantasy gear.

Pocket Glass Cutter. This tool, the size of a small knife with a pointed or wheel-like cutting head, allows freeform scoring of glass to create clean breaks. Quietly pulling out a circle or other simple shape without a noisy crash is difficult, though. Roll as above at -2, with an additional penalty for larger holes: -1 per SM greater than SM -2. In combat, the tool can be used with Knife skill at -1 (and no Parry) to deliver thrust-2 cut damage. $25, 0.5 lbs.

Unnecessary extras

A GM could create rules that pit a cutter’s “damage” against the DR and HP of glass, but I haven’t done so. For simplicity, assume a base success roll is for glass of standard window thickness; handle thicker glass with penalties.

For a bit of optional detail, assume success by 0 removes the glass cut-out, but not as silently as the thief would like. Failure by 1 or 2 is a precariously incomplete job; try again at a cumulative -1 per attempt. Failure by 3 or more is a noisy, crashing break.

Note another way to defeat a glass window: the Starglazing skill from GURPS Goblins for 3e. This DX/E skill, defaulting to DX -4 or Lockpicking -4, uses a knife applied to the corner of a window to open a semi-circular hole large enough to admit an arm.

I assume that this trick gets folded into Forced Entry in 4e, but it could live on as a technique. I can see two techniques added to the game here: a Glass Cutting technique based on Forced Entry, aiding the above use of the glass cutting tools to quietly cut holes in windows; and a Starglazing technique (to keep Goblins‘ delightful old word) based on DX -4, Forced Entry -4, or Lockpicking -4, aiding the more difficult task of quietly defeating glass windows with nothing but a knife.

New gear: The assassin’s blade

Okay, this poison-friendly blade isn’t a new idea, but it would have been new as an item of published gear. Well, you’ll find it at the link should you want one. (And if you don’t mind the frowns it’ll earn you from town guards. Or anyone with a sense of aesthetics.)

Unfinished schemes

“Hey, this trait/gear/exploit might be of interest to thief PCs if we work out the details. Anyone else think so?” The answer to that was often “no” – and often for good reason, I imagine. There are only so many new avenues that an in-progress work can pursue.

What follows is a bunch of unfinished ideas. Who knows; any one of them could reappear on this site someday in “look, I made it and played it” form. But if anything strikes you as something you’d like to use now, you’ll have to develop and polish it yourself.

Reworked Perfect Balance

A fair number of DF (and DFRPG) players consider the Perfect Balance advantage too costly at 15 points. Like a lot of traits that invite cost-effectiveness quibbles, this would normally be easy to ignore (“if it’s not worth it, don’t buy it”), but when the trait is a mandatory part of a key template (like Outdoorsman for some professions), it’s bound to attract discussion.

Thieves (p. 30) wisely addresses this, suggesting that dissatisfied gamers could rework Perfect Balance into a 5-point Talent, remake it as a 10-point advantage, or keep it at 15 points but add some benefits. See the book for details.

If none of its suggestions work for you, here are more that I put forth. But before that, a side thought:

The paradox of Perfect Balance is that thieves have the greatest need for it, but also the least. That is, they’re already well-equipped for high-wire stunts through DX and Acrobatics skill alone, without further enhancement. 15 points is a lot to spend on beefing up something you can already do well.

No, Legolas, falling blocks are not stairs.

That said, the GM is certain to create balancing challenges that call for more than Acrobatics 14 or whatever. So, okay, there’s reason for a thief to buy Perfect Balance. But to really appreciate the advantage, I recommended viewing it as this wise gamer does: it’s not “you’re good at balancing”, but “you maintain Legolas-like, nearly supernatural footing and balance on the most impossible of surfaces”. I like that.

On to the suggestions:

Replace Perfect Balance with Well-Balanced on the template

Well-Balanced, introduced up above, is simply five levels of the Balancing technique from Furious Fists as a 5-point advantage, conferring +5 on Acrobatics rolls for the feats noted under Balancing on DF 2: Dungeons p. 7. It’s mutually exclusive with Perfect Balance, but that’s fine; it’ll still leave many thieves with more ledge-walking prowess than they need, while opening up 10 points on the template to spend elsewhere.

Better yet, make both Well-Balanced and Perfect Balance optional advantages for the generic thief template, opening up 15 points. That’ll suit a lot of thieves who happily stick to mugging, smuggling, sneaking, and so on with both feet on terra firma, avoiding upper-story work. Thieves nicely drops the Perfect Balance requirement for such variant rogues. (For the occasional narrow-ledge need, they’ll have to make do with DX and Acrobatics.)

Replace Perfect Balance with a 10-point advantage

Thieves offers a take on this. I believe I suggested another, though without a name, so let’s name it “Amazing Balance”: a simple combination of Well-Balanced (+5 to balance rolls, worth [5]) plus a Talent that adds +1 to Acrobatics (including its Aerobatics/Aquabatics variants), Climbing, Dancing, Immovable Stance, and Light Walk, with the Alternative Benefit of +1 to resist takedowns and throws and +1 on Catfall’s DX roll. (Maybe toss in the freebie benefit of allowing purchase of Immovable Stance and Light Walk without chi abilities?)

As with Well-Balanced above, the GM could use Amazing Balance as a replacement for Perfect Balance, or make the whole bunch available as mutually-exclusive options.

Create a new 15-point Perfect Balance

Again, Thieves offers a take on this. Another would be to take the 10-point Amazing Balance immediately above, and enhance its Talent component with more boosted skills: Body Sense, Skiing, Skating, even Boating and Riding if the roll involves staying upright in the seat/saddle. That boosts the Talent component to a 10-point value, and the whole thing to 15 points.

Enhance the existing 15-point Perfect Balance

Perhaps the most conservative approach is to keep Perfect Balance as written but add some or all of these bennies:

  • Extend the +1 skill bonus on Acrobatics and Climbing to more skills – at least a neat five (as suggested above).
  • Copy the lead of Action 4: Specialists p. 23 and let Perfect Balance include free, universal Sure-Footed for any terrain, negating the ‑2 to attack and ‑1 to defend due to bad footing.
  • Expand Perfect Balance’s value as a “buy-in” trait for amazing feats of dexterity (a la Trained by a Master as the buy-in for chi skills and feats). Thieves nicely does so for some of its new power-ups, like Better Part of Valor. Do it for more, like Dungeon Freerunner (or, at the least, let Perfect Balance reduce the high prerequisites of such power-ups). Consider letting Perfect Balance alone act as a prerequisite for Immovable Stance and Light Walk (without Thieves‘ Light-Footed perk).
  • Leaning harder into that idea of Perfect Balance as a sort of Trained by a Master for athletics: Just as the latter advantage halves certain penalties, Perfect Balance could halve any penalties applying to acrobatic feats. It’s an interesting idea… but I think that’s moving away from the simple concept of Perfect Balance. It’d be better saved as a component of a potential “Acrobatic Master” counterpart to Trained by a Master, so I’ll set it aside.
My perfect 15-point rebuild?

My personal (minor) beef with Perfect Balance isn’t so much its high cost. Rather, I’m not fond of its triple set of bonuses: no die roll (effective infinite bonus) for most cases, +6 for wet/slippery/unstable surfaces, +4 to maintain footing in combat.

That “no die roll” bit is just trouble. What if the surface underfoot is fine, but my thief is plagued by illness or poison that inflicts a -5 on balance? What’s the success roll for “no die roll, with a -5 penalty”?

Bah. Replace “no die roll” with an actual, usable modifier, I say, like a big +8. The +4 bonus to resist combat knockdown, etc., can remain as it is.* Delete mention of the in-between +6 bonus for wet or other surfaces; just apply normal penalties for the surface as needed. (A difficult surface might generically inflict a -2 penalty on balance, neatly turning that +8 bonus into the text’s +6 bonus – but penalties may vary, as under the “…With Spikes” rule from DF 2: Dungeons p. 7. So let’s just drop that explicit +6.)

*This +8/+4 pair meshes nicely with way-back-to-3e house rules: Use any total balance bonus from techniques, traits, etc. for rolls to maintain footing, as always – but halve the total bonus if the character is knocked off its feet, as with knockback. I still like this as general practice.

Along those lines, I suggested the following as one way a GM could re-engineer the components of Perfect Balance to net a perfectly balanced 15 points:

  • Set the bonuses to balance rolls to +8 normally, or +4 to resist knockdown in combat, etc. These effectively average to +6, which, using the Balancing technique of Acrobatics, is worth [6].
  • Add the No Nuisance Rolls perk [1] from Power-Ups 2: Perks p. 16 for feats of balance, allowing automatic success when the roll would be 16+. That means “no die roll needed” for most situations.
  • Come up with eight skills that receive a +1 bonus (Acrobatics, Climbing, Dancing, and so on). That’s worth [8] using the alternative pricing structure for Talents in Power-Ups 3: Talents. Add some Talent-appropriate Alternative Benefits (like +1 to resist takedowns and throws, and +1 on Catfall’s DX roll).
    • Alternately, reduce the number of boosted skills to only five [5], but add the above-noted Sure-Footed perks for any terrain (call this [3], three times the cost of a single perk).

It all makes for a neat 15 points. I think I like it. (How about you? Got your own recipe for a reconstructed Perfect Balance?)


Legolas atop Mûmakil
This guy. Again.

Dungeon Fantasy Denizens: Swashbucklers p. 11 calls out Perfect Balance as a trait to help you “stand atop behemoths before stabbing them in the eye”. Once again, this is the domain of Perfect Balance poster child Legolas, scrambling atop big creatures to deliver point-blank arrow shots to the back of the head.

The ultimate test of balance?

I suggested that this exploit could be developed as a cool stunt to showcase Perfect Balance, but the playtest group didn’t pursue it. I think that’s perfectly sensible. The exploit may clearly reward the mobility and balance of DF thieves, but it should be attemptable by any character with decent DX or Acrobatics. (Not all beasts will be bucking, unstable platforms to begin with.) There’s no doubt some better place to detail this exploit than in a Denizens book.

But for the fun of it, I’ll repeat my main thought here. In DF, “beast-surfing” would make for a great thievish exploit for two reasons:

One is as above: attaining and keeping a perch atop a giant mobile beast likely demands excellent mobility traits like high DX, Climbing, Acrobatics, Jumping, and the ability to roll with falls from up high. Standing atop a thrashing beast could be a heroic challenge even with a huge bonus from Perfect Balance.

And the second reason why a thief in particular should be the PC to scale Mount Mûmakil: backstabs. Yes, good ‘ol Striking ST (Only on surprise attack, -60%), a.k.a. Expert Backstabbing in DFRPG. Once poised between the beast’s shoulder blades or wherever she needs to be, a daring thief could perform the nasty job she climbed up to do, claiming a sweet backstab bonus for attacking a defenseless target.

The ultimate backstab?

I know, I know – “Wait, is that kosher as a backstab situation?” I get the objection: unless the beast is really huge and the thief exceptionally stealthy (the Light Walk skill would be interesting here), the beast is hardly an unaware target! The DF backstab is built with the “Only on surprise attack” limitation, which wouldn’t technically apply. Thieves further drops reminders that backstabs require the target to be surprised, unable to see the attacker, and unable to use active defenses. Even DFRPG notes “when attacking by surprise” in its Expert Backstabbing description. All of these point us away from letting a beast-surfing thief claim backstab bonuses.

But there’s room for reasoning here. Do the rules truly intend complete, unaware surprise as an absolute condition? That is, if a thief approaches a completely paralyzed foe from behind, whispers “So sorry to have to do this, guv” in his ear, and then slips in the knife, does it make sense for the GM to say, “yeah, he’s as motionless as a rock, but he’s not surprised and unaware, so no backstab bonus”? That strikes me as un-fun rules-lawyering.

I’m more inclined to go with “zero active defense” as the prime green light for a backstab bonus. I take some inspiration from the second line describing Expert Backstabbing in DFRPG (after the line noting “by surprise”): “This ability works only with a melee attack that allows no active defense (not just a defense penalized for stun or attack from the side) because the victim couldn’t see it coming – you’re behind them, invisible, or in a social situation where they completely trust you.” (Note that none of these requires that the target be unmoving or unaware of the thief’s presence, only that no active defense exists.)

Should that description cover the PC who’s perched between a beast’s shoulders, safe from its flailing limbs, shielded from its vision, and allowing it no hope of an active defense? In the end, it’s a matter of rules exegesis, and I have no prescription that I ask you to follow. I’ll just summarize my pro-backstab preference with this plea:

Oh, come on. The party thief, normally an afterthought in cool combat scenes – especially those involving huge boss monsters – did an utterly insane thing, scrambling up a house-sized dragon’s tail and leaping to its shoulders. She’s now fighting to stay atop that writhing mass of muscle, making crazy-tough balance rolls to satisfy the GM’s demand that she secure a stable perch to launch an attack. By dint of derring-do (and very expensive traits), she finds solid footing where neither claw nor bite can reach her. She raises her blade to strike between the scales at the base of great wyrm’s neck – and asks the GM whether her backstab Striking ST can add its power.

Let her have it, I say. It’s a backstab, and she’s literally atop the beast’s back. We’re talking – what, an extra 2 or 5 or so basic hits, maybe? Her damage will probably still fall far short of what the knight and barbarian dish out with no particular effort. A cheap, one-shot kill against a giant target sounds very unlikely. But the bold strike could have some significant effect, more than the thief would ever achieve through mundane sword whacks.

Crazy stunts like this create the moments that gaming groups talk about for years. Let the thief enjoy this well-earned bonus and a rare taste of combat spotlight, I say.

“Dude. I thought you brought the saddle.”

As I noted, the playtest group didn’t pursue the idea, and I haven’t worked on it either, so there are no detailed mechanics to offer here. Part of my problem is quirk-level obsessive completeness: I immediately think of how standing atop a moving beast falls under the same notion as the circus trick of standing atop a horse’s saddle, a Riding technique already addressed somewhere in the GURPSverse (I forget where), and so I tell myself that any beast-surfing mechanics would have to mesh smoothly with that, and also that the mechanics would have to address the PC who uses Climbing or just ST to cling to a beast’s back, rather than balance atop, which is something that the Serpents of Legends book recently grappled with, so it’d be good to work with those rules too if possible, and furthermore…

So, yeah, maybe someday. For now, I lean toward these basic conditions for Legolas-style beast-surfing:

  • The target beast must be at least one SM larger than the “surfer”.
  • The means of getting atop the beast will vary with several factors (its size, the ease of climbing it, etc.).
  • The availability of “safe” spots free from counterattack by limbs, bite, etc. will naturally vary greatly by beast. (A monster with Flexibility may be able to reach a surfer anywhere!)
  • The ease of balancing atop the beast will depend somewhat on its form and largely on its motion. (Is it standing still, striding steadily, bucking erratically, etc.?)
  • A beast unable to grab or otherwise directly apply muscle to a surfer may try to buck him off, but this would generally not be a Contest of ST. (Picture a bee clinging to your back; it doesn’t have to pit its ST against your thousand-times-greater ST to stay attached.) The beast’s mobility/agility – possibly involving its Basic Speed or Dodge – would be a prime determinant of how easily it can buck off a much smaller surfer.
  • A surfer would typically have to succeed at balance rolls to act. Assuming you’re a surfer safe from the beast’s direct counterattacks but making rolls to maintain footing, outcomes of your balance rolls might be as follows:
    • Bad failure: Loss of footing. You fall off!
    • Failure: Shaky footing. You stay aboard but are unable to perform Move, Attack, etc.
    • Success: Reasonable footing. You’re free to perform Move, Attack, etc. (though possibly with penalties, and with a bucking target possibly maintaining some effective Dodge defense).
    • Good success: Solid footing. You’re free to perform Move, Attack, etc. The beast gets no active defense – and, GM willing, your backstab bonuses go into effect!
  • As long as the thief can maintain that solid footing and the beast can make no active defense or otherwise act directly against the thief, the thief can continue making backstabs and claiming bonus ST.

That’s how I envision it, anyway. Again, I think allowing backstabs (albeit with difficulty!) is a fair reward for a thief performing such a daring stunt. Probably a very modest reward, too – though thieves spending big points on Thieves‘ backstab power-ups might do some serious damage after clambering atop a dragon’s back. (Now, what gaming group wouldn’t want to see that happen?)

And if GM-allowed backstabs and other power-ups still don’t let a DF thief stab a huge, high-DR monster into submission, there’s always creativity. Atop or near the head, a thief could toss a blinding powder into an eye or a stunning grenade into an ear. Wrap chains around strategic parts. Tactically place some magical trinket that acts as a homing device for spells or arrows. Or just be a really annoying distraction, letting colleagues set up attacks while the beast futilely claws at that bug on its back.

Covert Tactics and criminal Strategy

A master of criminal strategy lays out the key to felonious success: brainwork.

A small quibble I have with “smart” criminals in GURPS – long predating the Thieves playtest – is that despite the system’s infamously lengthy skill list, there’s no good skill covering mastery of schemes, scams, complex heists, and general criminal masterminding.

I think what’d do the job is right there in the open: Tactics and Strategy, geared toward criminal, not military, actions.

I brought this up in the playtest, and some discussion ensued, but Thieves didn’t take up a rethinking of these skills. I think that’s reasonable. It’s potentially a big topic, extending beyond Thieves‘ purview; more of a “maybe in a future GURPS 5e” sort of thing. For curious readers, though, I’ll try to briefly explain what I’m talking about.

The mob defers to his strategic brilliance.

(Note: Any discussion of Strategy and Tactics skills, whether the existing skills or potential variants, runs into questions of where and how to separate the two, and which of the skills a given task falls under. To keep things short, I’ll refer to a combined “Strategy/Tactics” here, and leave discussion of their breakdown for another day.)

Under an expanded treatment, Strategy/Tactics would remain what they are now: the skills for setting objectives, planning and executing operations, foreseeing and preparing for contingencies, organizing and deploying resources, creating teams and timetables, outthinking rivals, and much more. The difference under an expanded treatment would be the addition of required specialties. The current skills would become Strategy/Tactics (Military). Business leaders, meanwhile, would seek to master Strategy/Tactics (Business). (Or Strategy (Business), anyway; Tactics (Business) is arguably Administration or other business skills.) In a similar manner, other specialities would equate to existing skills: Strategy/Tactics (Politics), for example, is clearly the existing Politics skill.

Even the World’s Greatest Detective knows it: The Penguin is a genius who plans his crimes with military precision.

I think Strategy/Tactics (Criminal, until a better name presents itself) fills a genuine blank spot. Picture complex illegal operations, from meticulously planned Ocean’s 11-style heists to whatever it is that the Kingpin and Lex Luthor spend their days doing, masterminding huge schemes for their crews to carry out. Setting the goals, planning the timetable, putting together the team of specialists, allocating resources, predicting and countering the actions of the law… it’s Strategy/Tactics all the way, really. The same for an understanding of the procedural elements of cons and scams, from back-alley Three-card Monte to Spanish Prisoner-type confidence scams: I don’t know whether experience with those should fall under Strategy/Tactics (Criminal), but presently there’s nowhere to place them. (Streetwise doesn’t do it for me. That’s an influence skill.)

…uh, what were you saying there, Batman?

So, for good or bad, that’s the general idea. Note that Thieves does address some skills for “smart” thieves: notably, expanded use of Intelligence Analysis and Tactics (the latter similar to the treatment on Martial Arts p. 60, but with even more detail). Those are welcome, but to me, something still seems criminally missing from underworld mastermind builds in GURPS. Turning Strategy/Tactics into skills with specialties would be one way to introduce this missing expertise in the planning and running of heists and scams, and the general business of holding the city in an iron underworld grip. (And in a hypothetical future GURPS, specialities for Strategy/Tactics could shorten the game’s skill list by folding Administration, Politics, and many other skills under the single umbrella of Strategy/Tactics (Type). Though I’m not yet sold on that as a net good thing.)

Taking a whack at the blackjack

The blackjack (cosh, sap, etc.) sounds like the very epitome of the “low-tech thief” weapon, but in GURPS it does nothing more than what any fist load does, despite being heavier and more expensive than alternatives like brass knuckles. Why does it exist?

Triple headache.

I suggested that Thieves take the opportunity to give the weapon a raison d’être. How might that work? I don’t know about real blackjacks, especially as the name covers a variety of law enforcement tools and improvised weapons. But let’s go with the common image – at least in fiction – of a small, flexible club or “weighted sock” sort of tool that supposedly excels at knocking out targets with whack on the head. In the world of DF, it’d be a (usually) non-lethal, lights-out tool for mugger types. A fantasy Taser.

Martial Arts p. 213 helps out from the start, suggesting that the blackjack delivers beatings with less obvious bruising (even requiring a Diagnosis role to spot the injury). And while I don’t recall seeing this stated in Martial Arts or elsewhere, I would imagine that a blackjack’s flexibility makes it easier to hide (+1 to Holdout?) than a rigid baton of similar size. (Another idea I like: let’s assume that a blackjack thwack makes less noise than a conk on the head from a rigid tool.)

All right, maybe these small benefits are enough to justify the weapon’s existence. But what about that special knock-out prowess so beloved of fiction? I floated a couple of ideas long those lines: perhaps give the weapon higher damage than a similar baton to better defeat helmet/skull DR and achieve a KO, but halve actual damage inflicted. Or, similarly, allow good damage for KO purposes, but reduce actual damage by a flat amount (which is better in line with rules for padded weapons on Martial Arts p. 232). Or another route: give the weapon an armor divisor of (0.5), letting skull DR protect well against actual injury, but again, treat the blow as more serious for KO purposes.

None of these “extra KO prowess” ideas excited the playtesters – including me. No idea jumps out at me as “yes, this is how blackjacks should deliver knock-outs in the game”. In the end, Thieves didn’t rework the weapon, though the text gives the weapon one nod. On p. 19, the work carries over the special Kayo rule from Action 3: Furious Fists p. 24 that lets a sneak attacker arbitrarily declare a crushing head blow as potentially causing knock-out while delivering no damage. Thieves turns that rule into a perk named Kayo, and changes the length of knock-out from 15 minutes to (Margin of Success) minutes, +3 minutes for using a blackjack.

So that’s something. Still, I’d like to see a blackjack that offers improved knock-out prowess without calling on a special perk. (In the absence of a better idea, I suppose a GM could simply rule “a blackjack confers a -2 penalty on the HT roll to resist stunning/knockout from a head hit”. I don’t love that, but it’d do the job.)

More templates and lenses?

The following are thievish types that I suggested would make for good templates/lenses. That didn’t get much reaction, so I didn’t work these out in detail. Maybe some day. In the meantime, rest assured that Thieves has plenty of fully worked-out templates and lenses of its own, ready for your game.


This would be an underworld character who’s less about breaking windows (or heads) and more about middleman action and back-alley services. Not a criminal mastermind, but still a clever expert at very particular skills. Smuggler, cleaner, pawnbroker, counterfeiter, forger, fixer, fence… The guy you go to “see about some stuff”. Whatever the specialty chosen, a fixer’s focus would be on IQ, not physical traits and skills.

Actually, the agent template from DF 15: Henchmen largely covers this. But I think it’d be interesting to explore a few more variants – or at least more customization notes – to focus on experts that make Smuggling, Scrounging, Counterfeiting, Forgery, Poisons, and/or Housekeeping (for cleaning up crime scenes) their primary skill choices, depending on specialty.

Petty crook

DF 15: Henchmen has the 125-point cutpurse, and Thieves offers several 125-point versions of its 250-point builds, but I don’t see a 62-point thief type anywhere.

It wouldn’t be too hard to modify one of Henchmen‘s bargain hirelings into a petty thief. But would any PC want to hire such a small-time crook as a hench-thing? Probably not; still, a 62-point build would be useful for mooks and miscellaneous shady NPCs.

Speaking of which, here’s a build that’d put the small in small-time crook:


This would be a child pickpocket or shoplifter, possibly posing as a panhandler while thieving under a Fagin-like gang leader. Relying on small size, fast feet, and Honest Face to wriggle out of trouble, the urchin would probably work well as a lens (with child-sized SM and ST) for a 62- or 125-point thief build.

Why this lens? “Child version of a DF profession” makes no sense for any template except the thief. Street urchins are a thing, and they belong in any DF game as Town NPCs. Children may not be in demand as full-time hench-things, but cheap PCs will think of ways to put them to work as decoys, lookouts, and the like, for just a few coppers. (Callous PCs will hire them for dungeon work.)

Tomb robber

Okay, all DF PCs are tomb robbers. (All DF PCs are thieves, really.) So this build would hardly be a unique new thing among existing templates and lenses. Still, it’d be interesting to see a thief-like template that downplays town stuff like Pickpocket and Shadowing, maintains Forced Entry, Lockpicking, and Traps skills, and goes heavy on Architecture, explorer skills (Cartography and Navigation), and select scholarly pursuits: Hidden Lore (Lost Civilizations, Magic Items, Undead), Occultism, Research, even Thanatology for the robber really big on tombs. Toss in Leadership, Savoir-Faire, and other people skills as options for the explorer who leads parties and pleads with sponsors and what not.

Filch this character for your next DF tomb robber. (Just lose the gun.)

Escape would remain useful for squeezing into ruins, as would Smuggling for getting tomb riches past checkpoints. Don’t forget Filch (“replace golden idol with sandbag” and all that). Whip and Phobia (Snakes) are purely discretionary.

On the disadvantage side, Delusion (“Tomb curses aren’t real”) is amusing. Greed is also good. (Motto: “It belongs in a museum!? No, it belongs to me!”)

Thieves does offer a taste of such a build with the Dungeon Specialist lens, so be sure to check that out. (Its focus on a unique piece of gear, the collapsible 10′ pole, is interesting.)

The gentleman thief

I recall taking part in a bit of discussion on the debonair, courtly sort of thief, an image befitting a genteel cat burglar or a Robin Hood type. Thieves ably addresses this with the Suave lens, so use that to build your urbane ne’er-do-well.

I suggested two bits of added color:

  • A cultured thief may be truly upper-crust, lacking in crude mannerisms – or may just entertain a self-image as such. A “genteel” thug loaded with boorish OPHs and quirk-level delusions (“I’m utterly charming”) is amusing.
  • I’d let a thief with the Suave lens access the appearance-related perks Combat Haberdashery, Sharp-Dressed, and Superstylin’ from Swashbucklers. If that leads to the party’s foppish swashbuckler and fashionista thief squabbling over who’s the more spruce… well, enjoy. : )

Changes to existing templates

Other than my earlier thoughts on skills for the planning of schemes and heists, I don’t think I had a lot to say on the templates Thieves had lined up for the playtest. They look ready to do their jobs!

“It’s technically in violation of the King’s writ, but there’s a way around that…”

However, I do think Law needs to be an option on all thief templates. Breaking the law and running from (or skirmishing with) law-keepers is what thieves do. Many law-breakers would learn a smattering of Law as an inevitable part of their work (which surely includes being subjected to recitals of decrees and ordinances by pompous court magistrates after every arrest). Some thieves would master legal intricacies as vital elements of high-level scheming. For the Mastermind template, I wouldn’t object to Law as a mandatory primary skill.

Tweaks to new power-ups

Not surprisingly, the playtest included plenty of discussion over changes to, or even replacements for, some of the work’s new power-ups. (You’ll have to buy Thieves to get their details.) Here are a few traits on which I had thoughts.


The gist of Ambusher: it’s an area effect, centered on the thief, that nullifies Combat Reflexes, Danger Sense, and (sometimes) Enhanced Defense in foes, explained as the ability to “make snap decisions mid-battle, confounding enemies with your changing tactics.”

The power-up is a complex build, and I can appreciate the work that went into it… but I gotta say that I just don’t get it. For a huge 40-point buy-in, the ability nullifies two or three advantages that some foes may have; there’s zero effect on anyone else. Claiming even that minor benefit requires winning a Quick Contest every turn… to affect foes within a measly radius of 2 yards. (Fortunately, the 50-point version extends that to a more tactically useful radius, and the 60-point version to a nice battlefield scale.)

I think the main purpose is to allow the thief to achieve surprise against foes that aren’t normally surprised thanks to Combat Reflexes and Danger Sense. That does sound interesting, and could make for a nifty power-up.

But… despite its name, there’s no particular requirement that the ability accompany an ambush. (Its “snap decisions mid-battle”, “changing tactics”, and “call[ing] out commands or tips during combat” would all rather ruin a surprise attack, I’d think.) So I assume that its actions are envisioned as part of an ongoing fight, following optional initial use in a true ambush… though in that ambush, it seems to me that a target’s Danger Sense would readily trigger well before the victim wanders within two yards of the bushwhacker. And once fighting ensues, the ability to negate foes’ Spidey-sense or resistance to surprise feels moot to me; fighters “mid-battle” are part of the fight and know they’re in danger.

Hm, maybe the key intent is that the victim with Combat Reflexes may be initially surprised and, if so, will have to roll for recovery every turn like a normal character, sans +6 bonus, with the possible result of several turns of surprise. Okay, that’d be a thing. But the intended effect only happens if the thief stays within a certain range, and even then only by winning a Quick Contest rolled every turn, and then there’s the odd lack of any effect on normal combatants…

Look, the most likely explanation for my head-scratching is that there’s something I didn’t get about this during the playtest and still don’t get. Maybe it’s much more useful than I realize. If Ambusher strikes you as worthwhile, I’m glad to hear it!

Actual workings aside, I liked Ambusher’s concept of “exceptional ability at springing ambushes”. And so I suggested some other ways to get that effect – not necessarily as replacements for Ambusher in the tome, but as more options that shoot for the same spirit. In no particular order:

  1. Take one of the many fate-like advantages that broadly equate to “things just go your way”, such as Luck and Serendipity. Make it more affordable with limitations like “Only in combat”, or an even narrower “Only when springing an ambush” for bushwhacker types. In the case of Luck, that would allow the ability to re-roll your own or foes’ TH or defenses during an ambush – or the “resist surprise” roll of a foe with Combat Reflexes, or the 1d roll for seconds of surprise inflicted. (It could also be used for the Tactics roll to set up the ambush, of course.)
  2. Adapt mechanics from Higher Purpose, for bonuses that apply only against surprised foes and to the ambusher’s initiative rolls. (I’m not sure I like this idea, but it’s worth a thought.)
  3. Modify the Audacity power-up from Swashbucklers p. 25. This takes Destiny Points (for Buying Success) and adapts them to swashbuckler-y uses. Adapt them to ambushing instead: the power-up would let the ambusher buy success with combat rolls in an ambush situation or with ambush Tactics rolls, or add directly to the 1d surprise and initiative rolls. The result could be a nicely affordable, leveled trait with flexible use in an ambush. (Actually, I see just now that Thieves does take this tack with its Finesse power-up. I guess my suggestion here would be to narrow its scope even further to ambush-situation rolls, a cost-cutting limitation.)
  4. Use the Prepared Ground trait from DFRPG Companion 2 p. 63, essentially a meta-level “once per session, spring an awesome ambush” ability. (You could buy four instances of that for the maximum cost of Ambusher!)

All potentially of interest. But my favorite approach to modeling master ambusher ability is this: use plain old Tactics skill. Yep. Build that astoundingly effective bushwhacker with a high level of Tactics to let her gain advantages in the fight, especially the re-rolls and bonuses offered by the abstract Tactics rules in Martial Arts or Thieves. (The description of Ambusher – “make snap decisions mid-battle, confounding enemies with your changing tactics” – sounds to me like a perfect description of Tactics-16.)

What’d be particularly welcome here is Tactics-based techniques (or optional specialties) to model expertise in specific types of tactical operations: say, Siege, Sentry, Bodyguard, and, of course, Ambush. Loading up on that last one would let a guerrilla warfare specialist spring particularly effective surprise attacks.

Like my earlier discussion of Strategy and Tactics types, though, that’s a topic that extends beyond Thieves‘ focus; it’s fine that the work doesn’t explore ambushing as a technique of Tactics. But for what it’s worth, whether augmented by a hypothetical Ambush technique or kept as the unadorned Basic Set skill, a simple high level of Tactics skill remains my favorite way to model expert ambush prowess.

Defensive Blade

Thieves offers a Defensive Blade perk that eliminates the -1 penalty on Parry for smaller knives. I welcome the idea, but I proposed using the method already suggested on Martial Arts p. 92: buy off the penalty as a Hard (see Martial Arts p. 93) defensive technique defaulting to Knife -1 (cannot exceed Knife). This technique-based Defensive Blade would cost 2 points.

I think that’s a fair cost for a powerful ability (an effective +1 to Parry with a number of handy, easily concealed weapons).

Dolorous Blow

The mechanics of Dolorous Blow aren’t particularly confusing: it’s an impaling or piercing backstab that enjoys an armor divisor and is followed by a Quick Contest which, if won by the thief, results in automatic stun, a temporary penalty to survival HT rolls, and possible instant death. I have quibble a or two with details, such as the follow-up effects having no connection to target toughness (they’re equally effective whether the target has HP 20 or HP 20,000). More than that, I simply wonder why the power-up bundles its particular set of effects. My guess is it’s emulating a feat from another RPG or a trope from fiction that I’m not familiar with.

In the end, what Dolorous Blow appears to shoot for is “this power-up lets the thief deliver some kills against big tough foes”, and that’s of course a good tack for a Thieves power-up.

So I have no big argument with the power-up, but I did make a few comments in the playtest:

  1. The armor divisor and the follow-up effects don’t feel like things that necessary should be connected. Breaking off the former into a separate power-up named “Piercing Strike” or some such would allow more flexible design. A dungeon thief who faces dragon scales and hobgoblin plate armor every day may want the armor divisor and Dolorous Blow’s follow-up effects, while a town thief who deals mostly with softer targets might be happy to pass on the armor divisor part.
    A related thought: Isn’t there already some power-up in GURPS that creates this armor-piercing ability? It seems there must be – but if not, it’d be easy enough to create it by isolating that portion of Dolorous Blow’s build.
    Semi-related to that, it’d be interesting to see a very minor power-up – maybe even a perk – that takes the modest “designed for targeting chinks in armor” ability of specialty knives like the rondel dagger and extends that effect to any knife. That’d be a nice, modest power-up for any thief on a point budget.
  2. I initially took the special effects of Dolorous Blow as intended to model an attack that results in lingering, slow death. That may have been misunderstanding on my part, or perhaps an early version of the power-up did have that feel. (Or maybe the power-up’s odd name is what put that image in my head.) In any case, a “slow kill” power-up would be interesting, perhaps giving the thief a “big kill” ability at a reasonable cost.
    I suggested a blow that delivers slowly-occurring damage and/or special effects, possibly a reworking of the martial artist’s Hand of Death power-up (DF 11: Power-Ups p. 29) with limitations like “Requires impaling/piercing melee attack to vitals” and “Only on sneak attacks” to keep the cost down. (As Hand of Death delivers HP damage, not binary effects like heart attack, this thievish variant would interact naturally with low-HP and high-HP targets.)
    I think a power-up like that would be interesting as a variant Dolorous Blow, though any GM building it should try to keep it from getting too complex and expensive. After all, for the cost of Dolorous Blow, a thief could instead buy 15 (!) levels of backstabbing Striking ST. (And as one playtester sagely noted regarding power-ups with fancy effects, a simple “stab to the vitals” on its own, with no special traits, goes a long way toward achieving “target dies”.)
Dungeon Freerunner

My comment on this perk was supremely trivial. As the power-up works equally in dungeon and town environments, I questioned whether “Dungeon” was an ideal part of the name, and further floated the idea of three separate perks covering DF‘s Big Three meta-environments: Dungeon Freerunner, Town Freerunner, and Wilderness Freerunner.

Not surprisingly, enthusiastic discussion did not ensue. : )

Masterful Planner

I believe this Talent was initially discussed under the name Careful Planner, which, in addition to its skill bonuses, offered the “Alternative Benefit” of special Aim and Evaluate mods tied to Observation and Tactics. Some playtesters balked at that, including me. I saw it as an interesting idea, but one better worked into a future system-wide optional rule that ties Observation and Tactics to Aim and Evaluate in general, not as part of a specific Talent. In its place, I suggested an extra bonus on planning-type tasks when those are able to benefit from taking extra time. A suggestion which… hey, seems to be part of Masterful Planning, pretty much word for word. So maybe there is a lone idea of mine to be found in Thieves!

Actually, the text makes one tweak to that Alternative Benefit: a limit on uses per session. I’m not immediately fond of that; it adds a new twist to the workings of Alternative Benefits, which are normally very simple things without per-session limits and the like. But I’ll take it as a well-intended, and possibly wise, caution that Masterful Planner’s Alternative Benefit may be more powerful than that of most Talents, and thus calls for care in play.


I think I get the concept, but I had questions about wording and details, and still do. Apparently, the perk lets the thief roll against “Knife or an unarmed striking skill” to place a hand over a target’s mouth. But how is that rolled – as an attack against the face (-5) or jaw (-6)? Is this a grapple? If so, is the hit location penalty halved, as with other grappling attacks, and why is the roll against Knife or a striking skill? If it’s not a grapple, does Knife take a -4 penalty for off-hand use? What does “This is still useful if you know a grappling skill” mean?

I (and possibly other playtesters) recommended building the ability from Targeted Attack ([appropriate grappling skill or DX] Grapple/Mouth) (H) to lessen or eliminate the hit location penalty for face or jaw. That’d be more expensive than a perk but still low-cost, as grappling means the penalty is halved to begin with. Toss in “automatically muffles the victim’s voice” as a special effect. From there, the ability could easily be made part of a Dual-Weapon Attack, All-Out Attack (Double), or Rapid Strike, with a stab coming from the other hand as part of classic “sentry removal”.

Thieves would find this “grapple face with one hand, stab with the other” very doable even without special traits, thanks to high DX combined with no off-hand penalty and a low hit location penalty for the grapple. The above-noted Targeted Attack, with added points in Dual-Weapon Attack and Trademark Move, would make it even easier for the cutthroat who wants to specialize.

Hm. Going back to the core action, I think it’d be best for Thieves or a future work to first outline how to muffle a target in general and how to add a follow-up attack – i.e., how to do the whole sentry removal thing – using basic rules only. Then note existing skills/techniques/advantages that would help out, and then offer any new power-ups for the job (if needed).

Unfinished variant of Daredevil

Here’s a power-up suggestion that was neither adopted nor even named: a thievish version of the swashbuckler-favorite trait Daredevil, offering +1 on any skill rolls involving “unnecessary risk” – but only for acrobatic and mobility challenges. It wouldn’t aid most combat tasks, even something as flashy (but still useful, not “unnecessary”) as an Acrobatic Dodge. It would aid unnecessary parkour-fueled leaps up walls when simply running through the alley makes more sense, tic-tacs across a lava pool while the rest of the party wisely takes the bridge, cartwheels during a rooftop chase for no reason other than showing off, and climbs that needlessly choose the more dangerous route. Like regular Daredevil, the power-up would pair well with Overconfidence. (“Why would I need your rope to descend this steep, slimy cliff? I got skills.”)

This guy really doesn’t understand stairs. Or shields.

The regular Daredevil trait would cover the same challenges, so I see this idea as Daredevil with a limitation, cutting cost to 10 or even 5 points. Before you call that too cheap, keep in mind that a Talent boosting Acrobatics, Climbing, Jumping, and Running will accomplish pretty much the same thing and more (with no “unnecessary risks” needed). So while I like the concept of “Acrobatic Daredevil” (or “Reckless Traceur” or whatever we might call it), perhaps there’s simply no need for this power-up.

That said, here’s a last-minute thought to keep the idea alive: To qualify as a “risk” that earns the bonus, a challenge should present a significant chance of failure to begin with. (A stunt that looks insane but that still nets a success roll of 19 after Perfect Balance, etc. isn’t really a risk.) Imagine this: Our “Acrobatic Daredevil” power-up grants a +1 bonus only if the unnecessary risk has a final success roll (before Acrobatic Daredevil) of 15 or lower – and even better, offers a +2 bonus if the final success roll is 12 or lower, +3 if the roll is 9 or lower, and +4 if the roll is 6 or lower.

The more insane the stunt, the greater the bonus! Now that I like. The only downside is that we’re now drifting away from the core concept of “it’s a variant on Daredevil”, and into all-new advantage territory. Unless… we retroactively changed Daredevil itself to work like that? The above does sound like a more exciting take on what should be an exciting advantage…

Well, I’ll leave that as something to play with in the future. Moving on…

Unfinished power-ups based on techniques

In addition to all the technique-based power-ups offered earlier, there are a few more that I floated but didn’t detail:

This power-up would use the Scaling technique from p. B233 to buy off the -3 penalty on Climbing for scaling a wall. It’s already made a part of Thieves‘ Sure Grasp power-up (carried over from Dungeon Fantasy 11: Power-Ups), though, so I didn’t detail a stand-alone power-up.
Should you want it: Call the power-up Gecko Grip or some such, consisting of Scaling (H) Climbing [4].

Furious Fists offers a Sliding technique for a parkour feat called sliding, separate from skidding. DF doesn’t address this sliding feat, though, so I didn’t propose a power-up.
Should you want it: Call the power-up Slider or some such, consisting of Sliding (A) Acrobatics or DX [6]. It adds +6 to rolls to perform the feats under Sliding on Action 2: Exploits p. 19.

I suggested a technique that buys off the -2 TH for pouncing-type attacks from above (p. B402), a nice ability for committed ambushers (and cat-folk?). But a new technique isn’t needed; there’s already an Attack from Above technique on Martial Arts p. 67. (I would have expected this to be Hard, but the book pegs it as Average.)

So for a given unarmed or melee combat skill, a 2-point power-up – let’s call it “Pouncer” – lets you attack from above at no penalty. Perfect for a thief! Or a jaguar!

Working by touch
Work by Touch is a Hard skill technique on p. B233 that that buys off the -5 point penalty for picking locks in darkness by touch alone. It’s for Lockpicking, with a suggestion that versions could exist for other skills such as Traps. That suggests one-shot power-ups costing 6 points per skill, each eliminating the -5 penalty.

However, Thieves nicely munchkins a cheaper way to nab the effect: a Work by Touch power-up built as Sensitive Touch with a “Roguish skills only” Accessibility limitation, covering all roguish skills. (Though if we’re going to get picky: the default penalty is -5, and Sensitive Touch affords a +4 bonus; shouldn’t a penalty of -1 remain?)

With this better deal available, I didn’t bother detailing technique-based power-ups for individual skills.

More useful traits for thieves

Thieves naturally gathers up a lot of thief-friendly traits from around GURPS for use in its templates and power-ups. I suggested a few more traits as worthy of a thief’s notice (GM willing):

  • Compact Frame (Power-Ups 2: Perks p. 13) lets assassins and burglars squeeze into tiny hiding places.
  • Patience of Job (Power-Ups 2: Perks p. 13) helps spies and ambushers lie in wait for long stretches.
  • Thieves notes the technique-based power-ups Slayer Swing to Skull and Slayer Thrust to Vitals. They’re good choices, but note that Swashbucklers pp. 28-29 offers upgrades for both: Ultimate Slayer Swing at Skull [10] and Ultimate Slayer Thrust to Vitals [6]. (Swashbucklers sets Weapon Master and a melee weapon skill at 20+ as prerequisites for these, so they won’t be readily available to thieves unless the GM changes the prerequisites.)

Future heists?

Between all the above, Thieves‘ content, and other blogs and published works, has everything possible been said about this DF profession? Hardly! There are always more thievish character options, gear, and exploits for future works to tackle.

More gear ideas

I don’t recall whether I suggested the below as ideas for Thieves. Either way, I leave these here should you wish to flesh them out.

  • Two-factor faerie ink sounds fun. This would be a version of faerie ink that requires the noted developer fluid and some other condition: moonlight, recitation of a password, etc.
  • The fantasy genre typically doesn’t worry much about the aftermath of messy altercations, but sometimes you just have to hide the fact of a crime. An alchemical solution that removes bloodstains from clothing, carpets, etc. would be nice for the thief about town.
  • How about a grenade that creates a soundless zone, like the Silence spell? Murders can be so noisy sometime…
  • Besides its glass cutter, High-Tech has more goods that could be anachronistically nicked for thieving use, such as the climbing gear on p. 55 and mail-security spray on p. 209. (The latter would be an alchemical substance that temporarily renders paper transparent, allowing closed letters to be read without breaking the sealing wax.)
  • More poisons would be welcome! I give a thumbs-up here to Thieves, which creates a couple of new toxins. But we always want more…
  • There’s a future article waiting to be written on getting the most thievish use out of existing DF gear.
  • Carrying gear covertly is important to thieves. A bit more detailing of Holdout penalties for thievish gear would be welcome somewhere. Somewhat related, a bit of detail on what gear should be hidden would be nice. I don’t think DF needs GURPS‘ full rules for Control Rating and Legality Class, but I’d welcome, say, a simple classification of weapons, lockpicks, acid, and other gear into three classes: Legal (go ahead and flaunt it), Illegal (hide it!), and, between those two, Suspicious (time for Fast-Talk!).


Should a future DF volume delve into more Town exploits, these would spotlight thief PCs:

  • Back alley and rooftop chases! An adaptation of the Action 2 chase rules would be nice.
  • Mugging, scams, and the like as “scoring extra cash” options in Town
  • Tips for playing out heist planning and execution
  • Introducing an actual Thieves’ Guild into the campaign
  • Suggestions for the use of agents – namely, what should an agent charge PCs for finding and arranging jobs, selling treasure on the PCs’ behalf, smuggling goods into/out of Town, etc.?

Thieves and magic

Thieves unfortunately isn’t able to devote a lot of space to its new spell-thief profession, so it’d be interesting to see some future work give it more love (and a sample PC).

I’d also like to see more detailed looks at the mage-thief, or thief-mage. Key topics: What thievish skills are and aren’t best replaced by spells? What are good spells choices for the elf or half-elf looking to augment thievish skills with a few incantations from the Magery 0 list? What magics are the biggest game-changers for thieves, and how do targets defend against those? There are already spells for opening locks, levitating goods out of shops, and much more; are there also anti-forensics spells for erasing blood and other signs of a crime, disposing of bodies, perhaps even overwriting the “history” of a crime scene that investigative spells might otherwise read?

That brings us to the opposing side, the Town Guard or King’s Men. In a world with magic, what would the forensics capabilities of law enforcers look like? Do mundane thieves stand a chance against magical investigative tools?


Stepping outside the big DF line, groups with thief PCs might find the following resources of interest:

Useful GURPS books

The Action line is for modern-day, non-magical settings; many of its parts are irrelevant to medieval fantasy, and many of the rest will require adaptation to work with DF. If you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, though, the books are packed with great material on mission planning, heist-related exploits, and chases (Action 2); athletic techniques (Action 3); specialist lenses (Action 4); and countless items and settings that sneaky attackers can turn into traps or otherwise use against foes (Action 5).

The Social Engineering line adds color and detail to shady social dealings and shifty “I know a guy” contacts.

Got argot?

The 3e book GURPS Goblins contains a lovely glossary of earthy English slang. The terms come from the early 19th century, but they feel right as ersatz underworld cant in fantasy towns.

Online discussions

Here’s a starter list of forum threads focused on DF thief-related topics:

The wrap

Is there anything in all the above worth nicking for your DF or DFRPG game? (Topping my list: I want to do more table-testing of Tactics skill to try out Thieves‘ suggested workings and my own ideas for Tactics-based techniques as specializations.)

Or do you have some good thieving-related character options, exploits, gear, and more that you’d like to share with the world? Lip-Reading doesn’t work at this distance, so leave a comment to make yourself heard.

Header image: Lacking skill in the wrangling of AI prompts, I was unable to wring my desired cat-folk or other cat-headed medieval thief – a literal cat burglar, ha – out of the dad-blasted online “intelligence”. So I settled for this outcome: a burglar (?) with cat-like head wrap (and tail?). Kind of adorable as a heights-loving thief!

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