13 March 2013

Earthdawn: Anatomy of a Discipline 17 - Thief

This is the seventeenth Anatomy of a Discipline in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.


The Thief takes; it is simply who they are and what they do, and all Thieves do this. It is a singular and inescapable truth about this Discipline. What they take depends on the individual Thief, but the most important question is why they take.

There are two varieties of Thief, the selfish Thief and the trickster Thief. Every Thief will prefer to rely only on their own abilities. For the selfish Thief, there is no exception to that. They have no desire to share anything with anyone else, ever. Relying on another for any reason is tantamount to notifying them that you are weak and specifically how you are weak. Which will just invite them to take from you. This is unacceptable. They take to have; they take because they want to have it, or they don't want someone else to have it. Ultimately, the selfish Thief has no interest in anyone else and exist to prey on others.

While a trickster Thief would rather rely on their own abilities, they have learned that this is not always possible. They take not because they want, but because they would rather free others from their obsession with things rather than what matters. Money will not help you, but friends will. Objects, obsessions, these things only serve to create barriers between Namegivers and what they truly want: community, friendship, love. This is their goal, though it can be difficult to understand for those on the outside. True friends of a trickster Thief will understand, or at least pretend to so that they no longer find themselves unwillingly involved in these important lessons.

Of the two kinds of Thief, only the trickster has any real place as a player character in a campaign. The selfish Thief is a self-serving adept in a way that is inimical to fostering any sense of camaraderie from which a Group will form. Even though they are primarily self-reliant (which comes with their often unique territory of handling traps and going on the black-op), a trickster Thief will still form the bonds vital to any Group.

When creating an adept of this Discipline, it is important to consider their background. The experiences of each Initiate will be significantly different based on who initiated them into the Discipline. There is no formal methodology of instruction, it is handed down from teacher to student, improvised, ad hoc, simply whatever will work at the time. Those interactions will likely shape the adept's outlook and interactions, what kind of Thief they are.

Another important question is to expand on exactly why they take things, why is that concept important to them and why were they drawn to that philosophy. Part of the answer to that should include what they take; is there something they find irresistible? Perhaps it is a particular kind of thing, or a situation which they simply cannot pass up. Keep in mind that a trickster Thief has no real interest keeping a low profile - theft is an act of showmanship! A calling card is always a classy way of informing everyone in the know of your exploits. That way bragging can be more subtle.

Discipline Violations

These are best employed not as a stick, but as a chance for the player to take a deeper look at what it means to follow their Discipline. A selfish Thief should suffer a crisis whenever they rely on anyone else or find themselves becoming attached to anyone. If they ever doubt their abilities, that doubt will eat at the very core of who they are. Since they take for themselves, what they are taking is of vital importance; if it is ever taken from them, they must get it back. To fail in that is to fail at being a Thief, it is to admit weakness.

Trickster Thieves will have issues if they ever become too attached to anything, if they ever start feeling greed, or becoming obsessed. Their primary ethos is about freedom, which means that laws do not exist to be obeyed and oppression should be questioned. This is not generally in the deep defiance a Liberator may engage, but a more casual and flagrant display. As well, their desire to spread their exploits compels them to engage in extravagant heists and then ensure everyone knows they were behind it.

These are activities that could easily put a trickster Thief at odds with the rest of their Group (though easily endear them to a Swordmaster with the right bent). They will get into trouble and likely drag the rest of their Group with them. These adepts may find it impossible to keep a low profile when not actively engaged in skulduggery and Adventure Logs penned by them may read as a tell all expose.


With seven (!) different specialists, the Thief has by far and away the most specialists. These include the Assassin, Burglar, Confidence Trickster, Cutthroat, Romancer, Slasher and Spy. You are almost guaranteed to be able to tailor your character to your particular needs between these and Talent Options.

The Assassin has Melee Weapons as a First Circle Discipline Talent, while Picking Pockets becomes an Initiate Talent Option. The Novice Talent Option Haggle is replaced with Missile Weapons and the normal 7th Circle Karma ability is replaced with the ability to spend 1 Karma on Damage Tests. These changes make the Assassin significantly more combat capable and this is likely to be a popular specialist for many adepts that are likely to spend most of their time away from civilization (where Picking Pockets won't be very useful).

The Burglar has Climbing as a First Circle Discipline Talent and Picking Pockets as an Initiate Talent Option. Also, Evaluate is a Seventh Circle Discipline Talent and Fast Hand is a Journeyman Talent Option. This particular setup is more practical for the adventurer that has considerable combat support already. It trades things to do in town for an emphasis on dungeon crawling.

The Confidence Trickster has Charisma instead of Perception as an important attribute and the Sixth Circle Karma ability changes accordingly. Also, First Impression and Haggle are Second and Third Circle Discipline Talents (respectively), while Detect Trap and Disarm Trap are Novice Talent Options. Additionally, Bribery is a Novice Talent Option (Great Leap is no longer a Talent Option), and Graceful Exit is the Fifth Circle Discipline Talent, while Sense Poison is a Journeyman Talent Option. This specialist is significantly different from the baseline Thief and optimized for a intrigue heavy city campaign. They can still perform all of the Thief trap-related duties through Half-Magic, but are now significantly more socially oriented characters.

The Cutthroat has Unarmed Combat and Search as First Circle Discipline Talents and Silent Walk and Trap Initiative as Initiate Talent Options (Climbing is no longer a Talent Option). Steely Stare is the Sixth Circle Discipline Talent. For me, this Specialist somewhat misses the mark on what is generally being looked for in a Thief: Search is available through Half-Magic, Silent Walk as a Discipline Talent is the Thief's thing and Unarmed Combat isn't very good (particularly when you have nothing else to support it). 

The Romancer has Charisma instead of Dexterity as an important attribute and the Fourth Circle Karma ability changes accordingly. Also, Flirting is a First Circle Discipline Talent, Winning Smile is a Second Circle Discipline Talent and Seduction is a Third Circle Discipline Talent. Trap Initiative, Detect Trap and Disarm Trap are now Novice Talent Options (Haggle, Sprint and Surprise Strike are no longer Talent Options). I quite like this specialist, and it may just be me. They have a lot to do and many ways to contribute, even continuing to do trap related things through Half-Magic. In a dungeon crawling campaign, they are unlikely to be very effective, but in games that feature significant social interaction, they can bring quite a bit to the table (granted, in a specific area). As an additional Discipline to a Swordmaster... there is a lot to like here.

The Slasher has Close In as a First Circle Discipline Talent and Trap Initiative as an Initiate Talent Option (Search is no longer a Talent Option). Also, Conceal Object is a Sixth Circle Discipline Talent and Slough Blame is a Journeyman Talent Option. This is going to be a combat character (though without an actual combat Discipline Talent, d'oh!) focusing on smaller weapons. From the numbers, this is a risky proposition, requiring small weapons, which means lower damage in general and a damage boost that is difficult to pull off until Journeyman (when there still isn't much support). It's neat in theory, but... I just cannot see this being better than an Assassin in most circumstances.

The Spy has Search as a First Circle Discipline Talent and Picking Pockets as an Initiate Talent Option. Novice Talent Options include Read/Write Language and Bribery (losing Haggle and Sprint), and Journeyman Talent Options include Book Memory and Research (losing Call Missile and we'll call it Evaluate). This is another good specialist for a Thief more interested in adventuring than spending most of their time in a city. However, since most of the changes are to Talent Options, it comes with very little commitment to the changes. None of the lost Talent Options are critical (or even good choices most of the time) and Search as a Discipline Talent is almost certain to be more useful. In all, this is a very good specialist for the average adventuring Thief.


Talent Options: Avoid Blow, Climbing, Melee Weapons, Search, Throwing Weapons

First Circle
Discipline Talents: Karma Ritual, Lock Picking, Picking Pockets, Silent Walk, Trap Initiative

Talent Options: Detect Weapon, Disguise Self, First Impression, Great Leap, Haggle, Sprint, Surprise Strike

Second Circle
Discipline Talents: Detect Trap, Durability (6/5)

Third Circle
Discipline Talent: Disarm Trap

Fourth Circle
Discipline Talent: Thread Weaving [Thief Weaving]

Talent Options: Call Missile, Conceal Object, Dead Fall, Direction Sense, Engaging Banter, Evaluate, Graceful Exit, Mimic Voice

Fifth Circle
Discipline Talent: Sense Poison

Sixth Circle
Discipline Talent: Slough Blame

Seventh Circle
Discipline Talent: Fast Hand

Eighth Circle
Discipline Talent: True Sight

The Thief (excepting specialists here) wears a few different hats in their themes and can add to that variety through Talent Option selection. Their first area of expertise is traps (Detect Traps, Disarm Traps and Trap Initiative). Through Half-Magic, they can deal with all of this at First Circle, though may not be terribly good at it quite yet. This supports their common role in classic fantasy RPGs. As well, they gain your standard stealing Talents, whether Picking Pockets, or breaking and entering (Lock Picking and Silent Walk).

At Journeyman, they begin to add to their trickster capabilities and become masters of intrigue. Fast Hand, Sense Poison and Slough Blame all find their greatest use in a city setting. Sense Poison in particular for high level social games with the highest stakes. True Sight is going to be useful in any setting where you may encounter an illusion.

In other games, the Thief character is typified as a jack-of-all trades, granted more skills than other characters. This is not the case in Earthdawn. Mechanically, they have some very specific themes and their Talents support those strongly. It is worth noting that combat is not one of those themes. This Discipline is notably poor at combat, with even their Talent Options being notably poor in that area.

These adepts shine the brightest in games and situations where finesse is beneficial over force. Games where there isn't much interaction with other Namegivers, beyond purchasing gear, won't give a Thief many opportunities to show off and contribute. Despite their loner nature, they only mechanical thrive when they have people around them to play off.

There is only one must have Talent Option at Initiate, though if you find yourself with empty selections at higher Circles, you may be revisiting these:

  • Avoid Blow - The value of this as a Talent Option is still dubious. However, a Thief tends to get into trouble and this is their only defensive Talent. The more practical side is that the Thief has a lot of good Talent Options and it is going to take quite a while for this to outpace natural Physical Defense into the realm of reliability.
  • Climbing - As a natural pick at espionage for any Group, this should be taken as a skill at the very least.
  • Melee Weapons - You are going to want either this or Throwing Weapons as a Talent Option. In general, I prefer Melee Weapons because the investment is less for better damage return.
  • Search - Easily one of the most useful Talents in the game, but a Thief has the advantage of receiving this as a part of their Half-Magic. While it is better as a Talent, more effective and more potential, as Half-Magic it is free and you can spend Karma on it.
  • Throwing Weapons - While I may prefer Melee Weapons, if you have a great Thread Weapon for Throwing Weapons, this is actually a decent pick for a Thief. I would suggest combining this with Conceal Object..
The Novice Talent Options are a variety of ways to tailor your character to the particular game you are playing. A game with significant intrigue will want to look at Detect Weapon and Disguise self, while something more traditional (dungeon crawling) is likely to get more mileage from the combat supporting Talents (Great Leap and Surprise Strike).
  • Detect Weapon - Appropriate to the overall themes of this Discipline, there may be some hard decisions at this tier. Selecting this will depend on what role you serve within your Group; are you the primary source of intelligence in a game fraught with urban dangers? If so, this may be useful.
  • Disguise Self - Given the activities that the average Thief finds themselves engaging in (which is to say, the illegal variety), this is almost a must. As soon as you are in a city, this is useful. If you are doing hardcore dungeon crawling (e.g., a Parlainth campaign), then give this a pass.
  • First Impression - I always like to take this Talent when it is available simply because it provides an additional area of the game to participate. While it is great to have one primary social character, it is good to have a back-up just in case.
  • Great Leap - This Talent tends to just be fun. It is also effective when combined with Down Strike (available as a skill) for some reliable extra melee damage. Useful for getting to those hard to reach spots as well as aiding in daring escapes.
  • Haggle - A Thief highly invested in making money will probably get use out of this, though if there is a Weaponsmith, it is probably best to pass - they will be better at it. The biggest advantage a Thief is likely to bring has to do with fencing goods of dubious origin.
  • Sprint - Similar to Great Leap, despite the Karma cost, a Thief is more likely to use this to get out of trouble than to run into something terrible. If you find yourself fleeing on a regular basis, there could be some value here. If not, then keep looking.
  • Surprise Strike - This can be selected very early and these adepts tend to get more use out of than most, but it is difficult to use on a regular basis. When Conceal Object becomes available, the utility of this Talent improves considerably. This is still one of the few ways to increase Throwing Weapon damage.
At Journeyman, the Talent Options build on the direction from the Novice tier. Unless your direction is dungeon crawling, in which case there may not be much for you.
  • Call Missile - If you have Throwing Weapons and do not have a Thread Item that returns your weapons to your hand, you are going to want this.
  • Conceal Object - This is going to be useful for any Thief that has something to hide, particularly if they have Surprise Strike.
  • Dead Fall - I still have never had a player actually use this Talent to achieve anything meaningful.
  • Direction Sense - If no one else in your Group has this Talent, it is useful enough to consider, even with the Karma cost. The odds are reasonable that you will be looking for someone or something at some point in your game. 
  • Engaging Banter - Useful for any game with intrigue, a caper, really any situation where you want to keep a mark distracted. If that is something you would find useful by this point, then this is the Talent for you.
  • Evaluate - This is the other half of Haggle and you will probably want it if you have the other.
  • Graceful Exit - This is another trick in the book of a Thief looking to make a clean getaway. If you find yourself frequently in those situations, you may want to consider this Talent. You may also want to consider what you are doing on a regular basis to get into those situations.
  • Mimic Voice - The primary value of this is for games that involve some level of intrigue, which means that most campaigns will see value there. Even a dungeon crawling game may get use of of this Talent.

Most Namegivers can make a decent Thief of some variety; the exception is obsidimen, who are just bad at it in every way (penalties to Charisma, Dexterity and Perception, otherwise known as the attributes you are going to be using). The incredibly strong sense of personal honor that trolls feel prevent them from becoming this adept, but even beyond that they do not bring much to the table mechanically (average Charisma and Dexterity with a penalty to Perception). Both of these races also have poor Karma, which is often important to a Thief despite not having combat Discipline Talents: failing on many of their Talents has a significant downside.

Dwarfs and orks can both make interesting an interesting Thief; both are average in Dexterity and have a poor Charisma. However, a dwarf Spy ties into their erudite nature quite well and an  ork Assassin will have good Karma in addition to more damage. Both will be working at a slight disadvantage if going after a social build.

Elves, t'skrang and windlings bring solid attributes to the table and can pretty much do it all. The t'skrang gets special mention for being able to capitalize on the Cutthroat with their tail combat, and windlings can easily take advantage of the Slasher's Close In (which still doesn't make it attractive).

Humans have the same advantage they always do: Versatility. It is always a big advantage and can be used to further specialize (picking up the rest of the social Talents a Romancer is missing), or fill in the gaps in capabilities (some combat Talents to go with an Assassin). This Discipline tends to be involved in multiple Disciplines more often than most, and the only cases where I have seen it remain as just a single Discipline is for humans (because they can easily get away with such things).


Here's a funny thing about this Discipline: beyond Trap Initiative, they have nothing that means they need to go first. If you have good Karma, then even Trap Initiative may not be a significant concern. It's a strange place where the Thief has every reason to strap on the biggest armor they can and pick up a shield. Two-handed weapons may very well have too high of a minimum Strength requirement for the average Thief to meet (enter the ork Assassin). Aesthetically, it is weird, however, you have pretty much nothing else to protect you in combat. In an equally odd side bonus, who is going to assume the tank in crystal plate (which was totally acquired above board) is a Thief?

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