The 4e Thief is brutally effective… and boring

My Friday night War of the Burning Sky campaign has reached an exciting point – paragon tier! I had to delay the game by a week so that I had time to get everyone’s new and improved characters programmed up in MapTool, but we finally got together last night for some gaming with more power.

At this point, we have a party of seven PCs. We have the original five players who started the campaign in July 2010, plus two more players I added earlier this year when one of the original players got a job that caused a scheduling conflict and another player was only able to come about once every three weeks for a while. Lately, though, they’ve all been able to play, so it’s a big party.

One of the original five players was starting with a new character (11th level, of course) last night. This was the player who was running Fudrick, the gnome warlock who defected to the bad guys in the previous session. Fudrick’s player rolled up a new character – a human Thief. This is the Essentials rogue.

Meet the Thief

I had seen a second-level Thief in action once before, and the paragon thief is similar in a lot of ways. The Thief has fantastic accuracy with his attacks, especially since he has so many ways to get combat advantage. His damage is fantastic, too, with sneak attack being an almost every-round thing. Once the Thief was able to get into melee with the bad guys, they didn’t last long.

The Thief is a very effective striker, dealing out massive damage quite reliably. But after running a session with the Thief in the mix, it felt, well, boring.

I know that hitting despite a 2 on the attack die is what a Thief is built to do, but that takes the excitement out of the Thief’s attack roll. If you know you’ll only ever miss on a critical failure, there’s no drama with the attack roll.

The Math

The Thief in this party starts with a +20 to attack at 11th level. For comparison, an 11th-level monster should have an armor class between 23 (brute) and 27 (soldier), with 25 being typical (other defenses should be two points lower). Add in the fact that the Thief almost always has combat advantage (+2 to hit) and a feat (Nimble Blade) that gives him an extra +1 to hit when he has combat advantage (so we’re up to +23 now), and a feat that lets him choose whether he wants to attack AC or Reflex (which averages two points less than AC). And he can use Backstab twice per encounter for another +3 to hit.

Thus, the Thief is usually attacking at +23 versus Reflex, and twice per encounter he can bump this up to +26 versus Reflex. If by some chance the monster has a lower AC, he can attack that instead. Even-level opponents should have a Reflex defense of about 23. Level+3 opponents should have a Reflex defense of 26. With Backstab and Combat Advantage, the Thief will hit a typical foe three levels above his own on a zero, so the only chance to miss is on a natural 1.

To be clear, I do understand that “this is what Thieves do”. Their schtick is to be ultra-accurate, hardly ever missing. It works really well. And it’s boring. It’s like Magic Missile in a lot of ways (though the Thief at least gets to roll a bunch of dice for weapon damage plus sneak attack) – another power that works, but is boring.

This particular Thief is also a little boring in that if he can’t get into melee, he can’t do anything useful. Early in yesterday’s session, the party was facing down some soldiers mounted on flying drakes. The Thief actually spent one round taking the total defense action because he couldn’t do anything to a flying foe.

What to do?

So, what’s the solution for me as the DM? Well, I have a few options.

First, I could raise enemy defenses. This is a terrible idea, as making it so that the Thief needs to roll, say, a 6 to hit will mean that other PCs will need a 15 or better. Not fun for the rest of the party.

Second, I could give enemies ways to negate combat advantage. This isn’t a trait I’ve seen on many monsters, and using it would just feel like a “screw you” to the Thief, which isn’t what I want either.

Third, I could use monsters that punish melee strikers. They could have auras that deal damage or do other nasty things. I like this idea, as long as I give the melee PCs some ways to mitigate or entirely avoid the issue by doing something interesting.

Fourth, I could use monsters that are hard to get to in melee, such as fliers or artillery with protected positions. I’ll probably do this a little bit, but I won’t want to go overboard.

Fifth, I could raise hit points on monsters. I really have no desire to do this, as it leads to fights that drag on whenever the Thief isn’t hitting a particular bad guy. Plus, it’s still boring.

Sixth, I could have monsters that beat the crap out of the Thief, either by dealing tons of damage or by denying him the ability to get combat advantage by using something like immobilization (most of the Thief’s easy ways of getting combat advantage come from using move actions, though there are lots of cases where the Thief could use them even if he can’t leave his square).

I’m sure there are other options I haven’t thought of, and I’d love to hear more ideas in the comments. For now, I’ll try to think about using some enemies that are either hard to get to in melee or that punish PCs who get too close to them, but I don’t want to unduly punish the Fighter and Swordmage in the party, either. I definitely won’t make the bad guys shy about attacking the Thief when he starts dishing out massive damage, perhaps even breaking defender marks to do so. We shall see.

25 thoughts on “The 4e Thief is brutally effective… and boring

  1. I have a campaign with a kobold thief that does everything you describe above, but once he’s done he gets to shift away from melee range as a minor action using the kobold’s racial at-will.

    But a melee soldier can drop him in two hits, so I think it works out.

  2. I totally feel ya, from the opposite angle (I play a thief). And you do a very good job considering possible ways to address the issue and weeding out the worse ones.

    My thief is similarly ridiculously accurate and deals wicked damage, but gets hit most of the time he is attacked and isn’t exactly a big bag of hp. I was having trouble with this for a while for exactly the reasons you say – not really worrying about hitting and dealing solid damage, but then getting my ass handed to me as soon as I drew the DM’s ire.

    That’s when I realized: the fun part of playing the character is not making the attack roll – I’m using basic attacks, afterall. Rather, it is using my awesome mobility to get myself into a position where I can attack the creature I want with combat advantage and minimize the number of likely reprisal attacks. In this way, the game is a bit more strategic.

    What I’d recommend – ask the player of your thief if it’s boring to be hitting and getting hit all the time, and if they say no don’t worry about it. If they say yes, then advise them to think about the game at the level of risk-reward strategic thinking rather than the roll itself. That’s what worked for me.

  3. I have a drow thief that uses a hand crossbow so never even come close to being hit. Because his stealth is so high and he uses deft strike to great advantage, he is almost always hidden when he attacks and get CA along with sneak attack. So this guys almost always hits does good damage and never gets hit in return.

  4. If the *player* is the one feelling like the character is boring, suggest they re=spec the character as a Classic 4E Rogue. They’ll get lots more options, movement powers, and cool new toys to play with, but stay basically the same character.

  5. Yes, you should sometimes:

    * Break marks to attack the biggest threat. It makes the striker more cautious and gives the defender more to do.

    * Place opponents out of easy melee range. That thief should have a throwing dagger as backup.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts, everyone! To be clear, I don’t yet know if the player finds the character boring; I’m guessing he might eventually, but it’s still new right now, so I think he’s having a good time. It’s a bit boring for me as the DM, but in the end it’s about the player’s fun. It just feels that other characters get to be more “interesting” with variety in what they do, but the Thief in a lot of ways outshines them in terms of effectiveness in killing stuff.

    I’ll be sure to have bad guys take shots at the Thief from time to time, especially against Fortitude and Will (his AC is decent and his Reflex, of course, is awesome). That should liven things up as the Thief will have to focus on not just getting into position to deal out tons of damage, but also making sure that he’s not getting creamed on the counterattack. That sounds more interesting.

  7. When a player tells me they have “nothing to do” in combat, I tell them to look beyond their character sheet. Where are the vines to ensnare the flyers? What about acting as a shield for the party ranged fighters? (roll to hit versus incoming missiles.) Looking for shelter from the barrage? Lighting a fire for smoke screen? That sort of thing.

  8. I’ve seen some monsters with immediate reactions to being hit with combat advantage. I’ve also seen alot of monsters with auras that will do ongoing damage anytime a creature enters or starts its turn there. Lastly, I’d almost certainly use “defender” style monsters, or rather monsters with their own marks and I’d mark the theif so that if they ignored that monster, it could dish some damage. None of these tactics will shut down the thief, nor with they greatly impact the rest of the party. However, using a couple of them, in conjunction with the good ideas you mention, will keep the thief on their toes even WITH an autohit build.

    lastly, I’ll mention the point about the thief being helpless in the flying encounter. THIS IS AS IT SHOULD BE! If you build a character that is solely designed to autohit in melee, he SHOULD be horribly weak in some other areas. Thats why you build balanced PCs. This character is strong in melee but he is NOT balanced. I’d make sure to build encounters that demonstrate this fact. Sure, he many dominate a typical meat shield bag of hitpoints, but he’s going to struggle with flying, skirmishers, and artillery. Thats just the way it is.

    • Your point about balance is excellent. If there are situations in which the Thief can’t get into melee, well, the player will have to think about bringing some balance into the character. Of course, with the uber-Dexterity, it’s not like the Thief wouldn’t also be awesome with ranged attacks, but it wouldn’t be quite as easy to get combat advantage.

      I wouldn’t want to punish the Thief unduly by having too many no-melee encounters, but it’s going to happen every now and then and that’s okay. I shouldn’t feel guilty about a character being confronted with a situation that’s hard for them – they’ll have to adapt.

  9. I’m surprised the thief had nothing to do at range, with Ambush Trick and/or Tactical Trick the thief can be pretty effective with a shortbow and not even worry about trying to get into melee.

    • Remember that this was the character’s first session. I’m guessing it was just an oversight that the player forgot to pick up a ranged weapon. He’s definitely built for melee, though, with a spiked chain.

  10. Melee or ranged isn’t whats important. What’s important is that the build is not balanced. Its the DMs job to make sure that this weakness is exposed. You’re right. Don’t punish him. But let him know that if he wants to dominate certain situations, there’s a price and that means in other situations he’ll likely be abnormally weak. 4E is very well designed in this regard. Its hard to make a player that dominates at more than one or two things. You can have a player be adequate or even pretty good at a lot of things but if you go so far down one direction, (such as an overwhelming focus on to-hit bonuses) you’re almost certainly left exposed in other areas. If the player doesn’t feel this weakness, then you may have to get a bit more creative in encounter design. Again, without punishing the group. But it can be done. I had a similarly designed thief in a game I ran. He was designed to be “autohit” at range. He could get combat advantage very easily simply by hiding and using his stealth (which was very good). I had to design encounters that kept him moving and make sure there was plenty of artillery and skirmishers to harry him about the battlefield. He was hiding in shadows so the monsters got smart and started tossing torches to expose him. Terrain is also very important. I don’t mind a player dominating in combat, but for both that players fun and mine, I want him to have to work for it.

    • Yeah, the weak spot of the melee Thief is that if a bad guy can get to him, he can be taken down somewhat quickly (doesn’t have that many hit points). His AC and Reflex are quite good, but someone going after Fortitude or Will can hurt him. Now, the party does get a chance to shine here; we have good defenders and controllers who make it hard for the enemies to go after a striker, and an amazing healer (yep, a pacifist) who can patch injured PCs up in no time. That’s good teamwork, and I think the Thief will continue to destroy bad guys, as is his wont. It’s a little dull, but at least it lets the party work together.

  11. erm…. If the thief in your party is “too effective”, then bump up the stats on the monsters! It’s the DM’s job to make things challenging, not the player’s. This leads into, that if the game were to get boring, then it is most likely the DM’s fault.

    • I didn’t say the thief was TOO effective. He attacks, he hits…yawn. There’s no tension when he makes an attack roll. It’s like having a wizard whose only tool is a super-powered Magic Missile. It doesn’t ruin combats or make the enemies die excessively fast or anything like that – I just find it to be dull.

    • Well, the thief’s player hasn’t been able to come to the past few sessions, but things have gotten more interesting by showing the thief’s mortality. He is indeed rather fragile, and he went unconscious a few times. So, if he recklessly throws himself around the battlefield, he’s more likely to get killed. My job as the DM is to make that clear through example, and things are more interesting.

  12. First, your thief needs to get a +1 Dagger. It’s a light blade, so his Expertise counts. And he can throw it for a ranged attack. He’s just as good with range, and can get CA at range at Paragon pretty easily. All his abilities work just as well with a thrown dagger as a short sword or what have you.

    Second, Thief is supposed to be fun like a striker. Not a defender, for whom hitting means more than just damage: It means stopping forward motion, marking, slowing, immobilizing, creating difficult terrain, pushing, pulling or even proning. Not a leader, for whom hitting means granting saves, allies moving into position, zones of buff going off, offensive bonuses to effect a nova turn or focused fire… Not a controller, for whom hitting is a game changer — stunning, dazing whole zones, sliding creatures across the battlefield, immobilizing, ongoing damage, even domination. No. Strikers are not fun because it’s a thrill to see if they hit or not — strikers hit. They’re supposed to be the party’s reliable damage output. If the striker can’t be reliable at doing damage, it’s less fun. What makes a striker fun to play is the glass cannon factor.

    The thrill of the glass cannon isn’t when you pull the trigger — you know that cannon is gonna do some serious damage. You’re downing their hit points like they’re Mountain Dew. No, the thrill is when the monster’s turn comes up. The thrill is the glass part. It’s when the monster makes that recharge check for his uber-power…

    …and the DM picks up his d20 and looks at the fighter’s player, Dave, like he’s about to say something…

    …then shakes his head, and turns to you, slowly, with his whole body, so you know it’s gonna be bad. And then he grins real slow like a Herman Cain ad, and says — the grin never leaving his face — “Hey, Dave?” Mind you, he’s not even *looking* at Dave. He’s looking right into your eyes, as he says, “Go ahead and give me a Combat Challenge roll. Hit? OK. Let me know how much damage before I go on here…” And he pauses for dramatic effect, here, licking his lips, knowing you’re squirming, and then goes on, his grin getting impossibly bigger: “…because it might just make a difference.” And then you realize that the whole time he’s been talking he’s been picking up d6es behind that infernal screen. Not even looking. Just one after the other after the other…

    • I see your point (and I like the flavorful way you put it). I also agree – the tension with the Thief is to see whether or not he’ll survive getting himself into a sticky situation. We didn’t have many more sessions with this particular Thief (the player had to bow out of the game), but he ended up unconscious a few times. Those were tense moments.

      All that said, every character rolls to hit with very few exceptions (the unexciting Magic Missile being one). With the Thief, rolling to hit feels like a charade. I understand the perspective that “the Thief just hits” and I feel differently. That’s not exciting to me. And it’s not ALL strikers that are this accurate – I haven’t seen another as accurate as the Thief.

      Every class gets its “schtick”. I think the Thief’s schtick should be mobility and Sneak Attack, not that plus insane accuracy. The Avenger is the class whose schtick is supposed to be accuracy, rolling twice most of the time. That’s cool, but to balance out this accuracy the Avenger doesn’t deal as much bonus damage as other strikers.

      All that said, I’m fine with Thieves in the game. I just find them to generally be boring when it comes to the attack roll.

      • Well, Avenger is a Defender-leaning-Striker (like the Warlock is a Controller-leaning-Striker), so he’s trading some Striker optimization for some Defender toughness and a Channel Divinity type power. Avenger and Warlock are not good examples of a Striker because they blend two roles (especially Warlock). Avenger compares to Slayer better, where both have defender characteristics and similar damage, but Avenger is much more accurate, “novas” way better, but has lower HP and fewer surges.

        If you’re comparing the two, an elf Thief and elf Avenger have the same accuracy, and the Avenger gets almost twice as many critical hits, with lower base damage, lower average damage (even including the crits), and better defense. The Avenger has more exciting die rolls, especially at higher tiers when they go crit fishing, but the Thief has more of those intense “this is sure to be the death of me” moments.

        Thief is comparable more to a pure striker like Ranger, where they have similarly unimpressive AC and HP with a real damage vs. accuracy trade-off.

        You’ll have more fun DMing against a striker (in general) if you use more Lurkers and traps. When something comes out of nowhere and grapples the thief, he’s going to freak out! And the thief will use up a round or two disabling traps because they dish out lots of damage if you ignore them; and he’ll have more fun, too, because he gets to do something unique for the party. Typically the striker is the only one with Thievery, but not always, so check character sheets first.

      • Actually, I’ve found the Thief’s AC to be fantastic. He’s pure Dex. And the Thief has better accuracy than the Avenger because of all of the ways the Thief has to get combat advantage, plus Backstab, plus (at least in my Thief’s case) the ability to target Reflex instead of AC. The second die roll from the Avenger evens that out, but the Thief isn’t giving up any damage to compensate for the accuracy of a second die roll. Since it’s a martial Essentials build, it gives up daily powers in exchange for more consistent damage every round. But the level of insane accuracy still makes the Thief’s attack rolls boring to me, when I usually find the tension of an attack roll to be exciting.

        Yes, I do understand the other ways to introduce tension, specifically around putting the Thief in positions that can kill him. That’s awesome. My comment is mainly about the fact that there is no tension in the Thief’s attack roll, which I find to be a bummer. That’s all. And it’s purely personal preference on my part; I totally understand that lots and lots of people don’t see that as a negative at all.

  13. What about minions…. all nice and well the thief is good at damaging a single target but not so good at many targets especially minions……

  14. The thief wasn’t optimized enough he needed at worse a range weapon or choose pixie as a race to the take his jabbing and stabbing to the skies. Even if he ends the turn more than 1 square above air, an acrobatics check can prevent him from falling more than 1 square a turn.

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