The abilities of the thief class were drawn from various archetypes from history and myth, but clear debts from modern fantasy literature can be traced to characters such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins, Fritz Leiber's The Gray Mouser, and Jack Vance's Cugel the Clever.
In his article "Jack Vance and the D&D Game", Gary Gygax stresses the influence that Vance's Cugel and also Zelazny's Shadowjack had on the thief class.
D&D fan Gary Switzer shared the idea for a thief class with Gary Gygax over the phone; development was done in Switzer's roleplaying group, primarily by D. Daniel Wagner, one of the writers of the Manual of Aurania, the first non-TSR D&D supplement. The thief class was introduced in the original 1975 Greyhawk supplement. They had 4-sided hit dice under the new combat system introduced in that supplement.
The thief was one of the standard character classes available in the original Player's Handbook. The thief was presented as one of the five core classes in the original Players Handbook. In the 1st edition the Thief character class was the only character class that any nonhuman type, such as an elf or dwarf or halfling, could achieve unlimited levels in. In some lights, it must be stated that thieves can be a very noble class indeed, and this is reflected in the AD&D game rules, permitting thieves to be Neutral Good or even Lawful Neutral, but never Lawful or Chaotic Good. Gary Gygax has noted in hindsight that this may have been an oversight, as alignment was never meant to be viewed as an absolute hierarchy of best to worst, and character classes should reflect their medieval fantasy counterparts, even into accurate ethical and moral alignment license.
In the Players Handbook, the thief's hit dice improved to a d6. In 1st edition, thieves were swiftest to earn new levels. At the same time, under the 1st edition thieves were sharply limited by having their essential skills (such as Open Locks and Move Silently) defined as beginning at a flat chance of success of perhaps 10-20% regardless of most circumstances, and requiring perhaps ten levels to reach the point where they had much confidence in using them.
Thieves were available as a character class in the game's "Basic" edition. In the later (Moldvay and Mentzer) editions of the Basic game, they could be any of the three available alignment options (Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic). Thieves had to be Human, even in the Holmes edition. They retained the same abilities (with the same high failure rates at low levels) as in the Original and Advanced games, and at higher levels gained additional abilities, such as the ability to read any nonmagical writing (including dead languages and secret codes) and casting magic-user spells from scrolls, both with a high success rate.
The thief, as part of the "rogue" group, was one of the standard character classes available in the second edition Player's Handbook. According to the second edition Player's Handbook, many famous folk heroes have been larcenous like the thief class, including Reynard the Fox, Robin Goodfellow, and Ali Baba.
In 2nd edition the term "Rogue" first appeared, used to describe the group of classes made up of those individuals "living by their wits day to day-often at the expense of others." In the core rules, these "rogue" classes were the thief and the bard. Thieves could be of any alignment other than lawful good while bards had to be at least partially neutral.
The thief was the robber, the thug, or the "expert treasure hunter". They specialized in the acquisition of goods, stealth, and disarming traps. Unlike in 1st edition, 2nd edition allows thieves to specialize in skills so that they needed only a few levels to master two skills.
The assassin class, a sub-class of the thief in first edition, was excluded from the second edition core rules. The assumption was that an assassin could be treated mechanically as a normal thief who simply specialized in assassination-related skills.
Bards, a completely revised class for Second Edition, are "glib of tongue, light of heart, and fleet of foot." Merging thieves, musicians and magic-users, bards are the "jack of all trades". Bards share many of the thief's skills, albeit with a smaller pool of skill points, coupled with a limited selection of mage spells and a few Charisma-related musical abilities.
The thief class is further detailed in The Complete Thief's Handbook.
The thief became known as the rogue in 3rd edition. The class was renamed "rogue" to reflect the supposed new scope of any skilled and stealthy character. Spies, scouts, detectives, pirates, and sundry ne'er-do-wells, as well as thieves and just about any other character who relies on stealth or a broad range of skills, are stated to fall under the rogue class. In fact, the character class still bears only three large divergences from other character classes, namely their superior aptitude for skills, their capacity to notice traps, and their signature "sneak attack" maneuver.
The rogue class is given 8 skill points per level, higher than any other character class. However, the number of skill points is modified by the Intelligence attribute, so it is possible for a very low intellect rogue to be no better off than a particularly bright fighter, although they would still have a broader range of skills to choose from. Also, 3rd edition skills removed the flat percentage rolls that previous thieves had used, using their Difficulty Class mechanic to let a rogue have a better chance against the cheap locks and ordinary guards that might appear in lower-level games.
Modifying the skills system, rogues are normally the only class allowed to search for most traps; nobody else has the training to recognize them. However supplements to core D&D have added a few new classes that can also recognize traps, such as the scout.
The rogue has the ability to deliver a sneak attack whenever an opponent loses its Dexterity bonus to Armor Class (i.e., when the opponent is flat-footed or flanked or cannot see the rogue). The rogue can then take advantage of this momentary weakness to strike at a vital part of the anatomy (provided the creature has a discernible enough anatomy to suffer a critical hit). This ability was formerly a "backstab," which made it difficult to define when it might be applied in open combat. Allowing flanking (attacking while a teammate is on the opposite side of the target to create a sneak attack) makes the rogue deal a great amount of damage.
The Iconic rogue is Lidda, a halfling female.
Fourth edition Rogues are swashbucklers, focused on getting to where the enemy does not want them and hurting them by applying extra "sneak attack" damage to enemies that grant combat advantage to them (for instance because they are flanking the enemy or the enemy is dazed or prone). They are also highly skilled, with the most trained skills of any class in the game and all with training in stealth and thievery (a skill that includes picking locks and pockets, and disarming traps). In fourth edition rules, there are two very different mechanical conceptions of the same class; Rogues and Thieves.
The Rogue was introduced in the fourth edition Player's Handbook, and initially came in two types; Artful Dodgers and Brutal Scoundrels, with Artful Dodgers being able to slip past or flank enemies easily (gaining their charisma bonus to defend against opportunity attacks) and Brutal Scoundrels adding their strength bonus to sneak attack damage to hit even further. Player's Handbook Rogues focus on their Exploits – codified tricks they can use either at will, once per encounter, or once per day and that show how they move and how they attack. Martial Power added the Ruthless Ruffian who can use maces easily and focuses on intimidating people as well as hurting them, and Martial Power 2 added the Cunning Sneak who can hide in shadows where no one else can and therefore normally specialises in ranged attacks, and added in the option to choose as their weapon talent the crossbow.
The Thief was added in Heroes of the Fallen Lands and uses a very different approach to roguish swashbuckling; instead of representing the Rogue's more cinematic abilities with encounter and daily exploits it does so with "tricks" that the rogue uses as they move, with, for example, Tactical Trick allowing them combat advantage against any enemy adjacent to one of your allies and Sneak's Trick allowing the thief to hide as easily as a Cunning Sneak rogue can in order to more easily ambush enemies.
The rogue has been included as a character class in the 5th edition Player's Handbook. Players may choose from three different Roguish Archetypes at third level: Thief, Assassin, and Arcane Trickster. The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide supplement adds Mastermind and Swashbuckler to the list of Rogue archetypes.