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Wond’ring aloud: Thieves and spell scrolls

July 31, 2012

These are not fully-formed thoughts, just mental scratches and doodles.

Thieves have special abilities regarding reading languages and using magic-user spells from scrolls. Here’s a table showing how the parameters of these abilities vary (or not) between some editions and clones:

Supplement I: Greyhawk B/X D&D AD&D 1e Swords & Wizardry Core Labyrinth Lord
Read languages at level 3 4 4 3 4
Chance to read languages successfully 80% 80% 20% +5% per level above 4th to a maximum of 80% at 16th level 80% 80%
Cast scroll spells at level 10 10 10 9 10
Chance to cast scroll spells successfully 100% (90% for spells above 6th level) 90% It’s complicated (see below) 100% (90% for spells above 6th level) 90%

In the AD&D 1e Players Handbook (p. 27), Gygax says:

At 10th Level (Master Thief), thieves are able to decipher magical writings and utilize scrolls of all sorts, excluding those of clerical, but not druidic, nature.

Whoa. Wait a minute. It’s been decades since I played any AD&D 1e, but I’m not sure I remember ever noticing that before. Thieves can use druid spell scrolls? Wow. I wonder what Gary’s thinking was there? Anyway, let’s go on.

However, the fact that thieves do not fully comprehend magic means that there is a 25% chance that writings will be misunderstood. Furthermore, magic spells from scrolls can be mispronounced when uttered, so that there is an increasing chance per level of the spell that it will be the reverse of its intent.

Does that first sentence refer to spell scrolls or just to “magical writings” in general? If it does include scrolls, then does that mean a thief has a 75% chance of successfully casting a spell from a scroll? I think an equally valid interpretation would be that the thief has a 75% chance of correctly identifying the contents of the scroll in the first place. And then (“furthermore”) the second sentence kicks in, telling us that there’s “an increasing chance per level of the spell” that it will backfire on the thief. But what is the chance? And how much does it increase per level?

I can only assume (“guess” might be a better word) that Gygax was referring to the passage in the Dungeon Masters Guide (p. 128) headed “Magic Spell Failure”, in which the chance of failure for “spell-users” (does that mean clerics, druids, magic-users, illusionists, and thieves?) is described as being:

5% per level difference between the character’s present level and the level of magic use at which the spell could be used.

So, a 10th level thief trying to cast disintegrate (a 6th-level spell, normally usable by a magic-user at 12th level) from a scroll would have a 90% chance of success – or, conversely, a 10% chance of a cock-up. In the event of the thief blowing it, the little table in the DMG would come into play, and there would be a 95% chance of spell failure and a 5% chance of a reverse effect.

I have no idea whether that’s right or not. Possibly that stuff in the DMG is intended to apply only to clerics and magic-users using scroll spells “above their station”, as it were. In which case, the wording of the thief ability is vague at best. When we played AD&D 1e back in the day, I don’t think any thief character ever made it to 10th level so the issue never arose.

Edit: I consulted the AD&D 2e Player’s Handbook, wherein (p. 41) it’s interpreted as being a straight 25% chance of spell malfunction/reversal. (For bards, kin to thieves in 2e, the chance is 15%.) I’m not sure that’s what Gygax intended, but it has the merit of clarity at least.

Moving on…

This post at Jeff’s Gameblog about “hybrid Chainmail/DCC spellcasting” made me think of several things. One was that you could use something like that for thieves casting spells from scrolls. Forget 90% or 100%. Just roll 2d6 on a table like this:

2-3. Reversal
4-5. Failure
6-7. Delay
8-12. Success

Apply whatever modifiers you deem appropriate for the spell level, the thief’s level, and maybe the thief’s Intelligence score.

And finally…

I was also thinking about this post at Untimately and I agree that allowing lower-level thieves to use scroll spells (unreliably) is a good idea because, as Brendan says:

[I]t encourages fun play (“roll to see what fun way the thief is going to screw this spell up!”) and means that players of thieves will be more likely to get some use out of scrolls (since few characters reach name level).

Brendan’s simple and elegant solution is to let the thief’s player make a saving throw vs. spell to get it right. I like it. But, just to throw another idea into the mix, I’d been thinking of ways to use the cleric’s 2d6 Turn Undead table for other D&D mechanics (partly because there will be no clerics in my Alien Orifice setting), and after a bit of tinkering I came up with this:

Level of Spell

Level of Thief

1

2

3

4

5

6

1

9

11

2

7

9

11

3

5

7

9

11

4

3

5

7

9

11

5

A

3

5

7

9

11

6

A

A

3

5

7

9

7

A

A

A

3

5

7

8

A

A

A

A

3

5

9

A

A

A

A

A

3

10+

A

A

A

A

A

A

The thief’s player rolls 2d6 when attempting to cast a spell from a scroll. If he rolls the target number for that spell level, the spell goes off as intended. If he fails by only 1 or 2, the spell fizzles and nothing happens. If he fails by 3 or more, he has “done a Cugel” and the spell’s effect is reversed to the caster’s detriment and – no doubt – distress.

“A” indicates that the spell is automatically successful.

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