Welcome to a brand new series of exceedingly late reviews for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition sourcebooks! I mean, it’s only 31 years late, right?
First up we have The Complete Thief’s Handbook, a good ol’ guide to our favorite class, the
To begin, I’ll go ahead and specify that I actually have all of the books I review here. Yes I know it’s an odd thing to collect, but it’s cheaper than collecting baseball cards.
The Complete Thief’s Handbook was published in 1989 by TSR, the original company behind Dungeons and Dragons. It’s part of a robust series of books focusing on different character options in the game. There’s a Handbook for each class, as well as books for certain non-class character concepts, such as necromancers and psions. Each book aims to introduce a few specialized kits for the given class, and a few other new mechanics.
For thieves, the book offered over 15 new kits as well as several new nonweapon proficiencies. It also detailed mechanics and inspirations for thieves’ guilds, as well as expanded rules for classic thief skills and tools. All in all, it’s a solid collection of content. Oh, and you can also get some bonus snide political commentary circa 1989. Now that’s a value-add!
There’s also a lot of useful inspiration for character building. This info does suffer a bit from the “thief” moniker, however. Despite offering non-thieving options (such as the Investigator, Scout, and Spy), most of the general-use narrative advice is very specifically tailored to literal thieves and burglars. If your “thief” doesn’t steal things, finding inspiration here might be a bit difficult.
However, this focus on narrative also leads to the book’s strongest use in modern-day campaigns. But first, lets look at the mechanical side of things.
Thief Kits (Not) Worth Stealing
There are 18 kits in total offered by The Complete Thief’s Handbook. You can generally split them into three groups; the bare-bones kits, the mechanically solid kits, and the narrative inspiration kits.
First off you have the bare-bones kits. They just don’t have much to them. You get a description, usually nothing new, and then no real mechanical differences. The Adventurer is the best example of this; its description is just “you’re an adventurer, like in D&D” and then there are no unique benefits or drawbacks. You’d be better off saving ink by not writing the kit name on your character sheet and just saying “I’m an adventurer” whenever someone asks.
Next up are the fun and engaging kits with interesting mechanics and potential. Those include the Assassin, Bandit, Buccaneer, Scout, and Swashbuckler. Out of those five, three are already subclasses in 5e. This should show how much potential they have.
The Assassin, of course, became 5e’s assassin rogue, while the Scout and Swashbuckler both showed up fairly intact in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. And the Bandit has potential in my mind as a sort of bludgeoning rogue archetype with maces. Y’know, like a Ruffian. Or something.
Quick shout-out to the Buccaneer though, which is (as far as I can tell) actually detrimental to take. It gives a bonus to climbing and fighting on ropes and rigging, but couples this with a heavy penalty to climbing on literally any other surface. So unless each and every encounter is on a boat, this kit will only make you worse. It could still be interesting… it just needs some numbers fixing.
Last but certainly not least we have the inspiration kits. These are where The Complete Thief’s Handbook really shows its skills. I’ll go into that more in a moment, but as far as kits go these are all winners for character narrative. The Spy is particularly good, as is evidenced by how its flavor descriptions were mostly worked into the modern-day assassin to flesh out its story potential.
Mechanically though, the kits are weak. Some just don’t really have mechanics, much like the bare-bones kits, while others are just… weird. The Troubleshooter, for instance, has no special benefits or hindrances besides having really swingy luck. And I’m being completely serious here; the book literally advises DMs to “fill the character’s life with astronomically improbable events and bizarre consequences.” That’s a little too rules-light for me.
Fun Fact! The book also offers a “Lone Wolf” concept for creating a unique kit for your player. It comes off as being a pain to use, but humorously enough the example “Lone Wolf” kit they describe is pretty much just the arcane trickster from 5e. Almost concept-for-concept, in fact.
Bardic Thievish Inspiration
While the kits might not be anything worth writing home about, the various character and story inspirations included in The Complete Thief’s Handbook are really what make the book worth reading.
First off are the kits mentioned above. Aside from the bare-bones kits, each one has a lot of good ideas on how to make a character fun, unique, and interesting. Even better, almost all of these concepts can be done in 5e without homebrew! For anyone looking for a unique take on the rogue concept, this is a perfect source.
But there’s more to this book than just player character options. The Complete Thief’s Handbook is also a gold mine of ideas for Dungeon Masters. There’s a cool glossary of thief-y sounding slang, as well as some cool descriptions of swindles and cons. It also includes a pretty slick collection of specialized thieving gear. Sadly most of the items are rendered irrelevant by mechanical changes between 2nd and 5th Editions, but it’s still full of some pretty neat ideas.
By far the best chapter of the book, however, is its extensive section on thieves’ guilds. Included are a whole lot of tables that can really simplify the process of making a believable and story-friendly guild. The various descriptions are also great sources of inspiration, and it covers a lot of specifics that you might not normally think of.
As an example, the section goes into various options for different styles of guild leadership and personality, as well as the guild’s relationship with other entities. These latter details fall a bit short when looking at governments and countries (just an effect of being too generalized). But they end up being a huge help when looking at the specifics between two thieves’ guilds, or a thieves’ guild and some other guild.
It also includes some handy demographic tables to determine how many thieves a given city or region could feasibly support. The actual numerical-historical value of this is a bit iffy (they seem kind of low), but the important thing is that the numbers make sense and have easy relationships with as many of the other factors as you like. If you want, you can just calculate things with the population and wealth level. Or you can go all the way and factor in modifiers for law enforcement attitude, type of culture, etc.
All in all, its a great section. It ends out with an example that runs through the entire gauntlet of tables, which is a welcome addition. I always appreciate a walkthrough of how the generator is supposed to work. Plus, the guild this example comes up with is actually pretty damn interesting itself – it’s all inter-guild tension and politics while remaining open-ended enough to not be distracting.
Pitfalls and Other Traps
Despite its strengths, The Complete Thief’s Handbook isn’t perfect. Besides the lackluster kits detailed above, the book also has one other crippling flaw… an overly human-first perspective.
In this book, non-humans (“demihumans” as 2e calls them) are definitely given the short end of the stick. Not only is the section on them literally short, but it’s also just confusingly nonspecific. It uses a traditional 2e “detached human POV” style (as I call it) where the author is assumed to be a human, and their descriptions of non-human player races are left vague and relatively unusable as a result.
Now, this isn’t a problem new to The Complete Thief’s Handbook. A lot of other AD&D books do the exact same thing, to the point where I feel it might’ve even been a deliberate design/editorial choice. It’s hard to tell, but it seems reasonable to me.
My main problem here is the way that dwarves, elves, gnomes, and halflings are presented as two-dimensional, flat, uninteresting peoples. All that gets mentioned are factoids like “elves are not overly secretive” without any real explanation for why that is. The book also makes a few blanket assertions that are wholly unbelievable, such as the idea that “tradition absolutely prohibits one dwarf from stealing from another.”
Doesn’t make much sense to me. You can definitely have a culture that is traditionally very harsh on thievery, but you’re never going to get a 100% success rate. Any time that someone has a thing that another person wants, you’ll get thieves eventually.
The book does address the fact that non-humans raised in human society would be different from those raised among their own people, but it still retains that weird 2e assumption that all members of a race are predisposed to certain tendencies. To anyone who thinks old D&D wasn’t at least a little racist, just read the section comparing gnomish thieves to rats. It’s fine to say that in-universe groups hold various opinions, but when it comes to a sourcebook we really need to know what a given culture is actually like… not just what they look like to their human neighbors.
Maybe that much context is just too much to put in a book primarily about thieves. Regardless, this is a continual shortcoming of the book, and it does pop up multiple times while reading through it.
Obviously a review of a book this old doesn’t serve too much of a purpose unless you can somehow use it now. So what can you use this book for?
Inspiration is a good first choice. The Complete Thief’s Handbook is just different enough from modern D&D that reading it feels new and unique, but it simultaneously retains enough similarities that you can easily apply any new ideas you get while reading it.
Another phenomenal choice is to use it solely for its included thieves’ guild tables. If you’re a DM struggling to set up a believable and interesting thieves’ guild for your campaign, this book is a godsend.
Unlike some of the other Handbook series, The Complete Thief’s Handbook is a bit light on usable character options. But does it really need to have any? Either way, don’t expect to come up with many new subclasses based on these kits. All the best ones have already been updated anyway.
In the end, I’d definitely recommend this book primarily to DMs, rather than players. All of the book’s best sections are on world-building and story-writing, things that only DMs generally need to worry about.
Conclusion: All Rogue Campaign When?
So, how is the book, really? I’m not going to put a numerical rating on a book that’s older than I am, but I can pretty safely say that it is a book worth reading.
In addition to all the bells and whistles above, it also has a very interesting section on all-thief campaigns which I particularly enjoyed reading. The intro example for that was actually so interesting I wished they had included a full campaign write-up of it at the end of the book.
I like most of the “Complete X’s Handbook” collection. However, The Complete Thief’s Handbook might be my favorite. It has interesting class options (even if most fall a little flat mechanically), and a wealth of well-written information to get your thoughts rolling. It’s great, and definitely worth the read for anyone interested in older D&D stuff, anyone who played older D&D, or anyone who just really loves rogues in general.
And I’m all three of those, so it’s a real winner for me.
You can find The Complete Thief’s Handbook on DM’s Guild if you’re interested – click here* to check it out!
I got my copy at a renaissance faire, so this is a much easier method. I had to run the book out in near-Biblical rains while dodging an actual sword fight. Thematic, sure, but not as easy as an online checkout.
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