Friday, October 21, 2016

Picking Pocket Points

Some four years ago I proposed a change to the thieves' skill, pick pockets.  I consider those rules a failure, not because they don't work, but because in four years of game play none of the thieves in my game have ever made use of them.

Now, that may seem strange to some folks, but I blame myself.  Thieves in my game just don't think like thieves in other games usually do, mostly because it is very rare that a party in my world is just farting around a town doing nothing.  They're almost always on their way to somewhere, or they're not interested in pissing off anyone in the town for a very small amount of gold, compared to what they're likely to get come the end of the present adventure.  A pouch with a hundred gold just isn't worth the possible aggravation or the potential of pissing off the locals.

This makes pickpocketing a strange non-element in my world.  It's there, deservedly so, but the rules for it are minimalist for a payoff that doesn't measure up . . . on the whole, as a sub-game inside the game, pickpocketing is a bore.

However, even though my players don't care, and won't use the rules I make for it, I'd like to find a way to make the sub-game less boring.  How to do that?

We can make the payoff bigger.  We can give access for thieves to steal bigger pouches, bigger stones and fabulous jewelry - except that we have to ask ourselves, what in blazes is all this fabulous wealth doing hanging on belts or in easily grabbed places, like fruit hanging on trees?  Too, do we want to risk making the payoff so high that the party will just hang around town rather than go to a dungeon?  There's a fine line to walk here.

As well, look at the basic system for picking pockets.  Roll a % die, win-lose, that's it.  And really, how many raucous fleeing chases do we want to run as a DM, as yet another player is chased by yet another group of NPCs in yet another town?  How often can this happen before we're just going through the motions?

Well, I wish I had an answer.  If I had an answer, I'd be writing the proposition I have on my wiki and not on my blog.  When I write things on my blog these days, it's because I'm not sure.  I'm testing the water.  I'm thinking through the problem.  The problem being, right now, that I'm working on the sage study, pickpocketing.

Let's give this a go.  I've come up with a convoluted game-like pickpocket table that works something like the game of craps.  Here it is:

The "Roll" is 2d6 for those who have never played D&D and
can't figure it out for themselves.

The above represents an attempt by a thief to find a "score" in the space of a day's pickpocketing.  Before rolling on the table, the thief must first designate a number of hours in the day that they're going to try searching.  My argument is that scores of 10 g.p. or more don't come up more than once a day, so the first penalty against the thief is that they have to waste time of their lives (and their parties) actually pickpocketing.  They can do it casually, if they wish, for an hour a day, but then the chance of any result is reduced.

Let's say Digger the Thief decides he's going to spend 8 hours hunting up a score.  He begins by rolling a d12; if he rolls an 8 or less, then it is possible that a score will be "found" ~ that is, Digger is allowed to then roll on the above table.  As well, Digger's roll on the d12 indicates how many hours passed before the possibility came up; if he rolled a "2," then the table above was consulted in the second hour.

We'll say that Digger did roll a 2 and that he does get to roll on the table above.  Now, if Digger rolls from 7 to 11, it turns out that the possibility for a score was a bust; the silvery necklace was actually cheap bone, shining in the sunlight, mostly worthless, or it turns out that the rumor that a rich ponce was going to come out of the Lost Mast's Pub on Warehouse Row was just a rumor.  The roll on the d12 be damned, Digger just spent 8 hours wandering around town, getting next to nothing.

But what if Digger rolled box cars - the "guard" result.  Well, that being the case, Digger will get hassled by local law enforcement for vagrancy, unnecessarily following people around, not having a right proper job or anything else the constabulary cares to name.  Digger won't be arrested, just moved on . . . but his face will be remembered and again, he'll lose 8 hours time since the guards and what friends they have will keep an eye on the miserable malcontent spoiling up their town.

No, to have any chance at a score, Digger has to roll less than a 7.  We'll say he rolls a 5.  His appraisal skill tells him that the item he's chasing is between 90 gold pieces (because we'll let him roll).  He also knows that the fellow carrying the score is likely between 1st and 4th level ~ I don't mind giving this information to Digger, since he's got to figure that someone carrying around a pouch with this much coin in it has to be trained in some capacity.

So now Digger has to decide, is the score worth it?  It is probably the only score he'll get today ~ but to get it, he has to roll a 5 again before he rolls a 7, 11 or 12 (see the 2nd roll column).  See?  As I said, like craps.

Now, he's not putting up any stake, but as he starts to stalk the score ~ that is, he rolls on the "2nd Roll" column ~ there's a rub.  It reads, "if not the same roll as the original score" ~ in this case, not a 5 ~ "add 1 level to the target."  In every sense, not rolling the 5 (or the "point" as it is called in craps) indicates that the target carrying the score is eluding Digger.  And as he keeps missing the number he needs (his chance), we can imagine it is because the target is staying just out of Digger's reach, likely because of good instincts.

We'll say Digger is 5th level.  He isn't afraid of being exposed to a 1st to 4th level target, but now he's missed the number he needs three times and the target is probably 4th to 7th level.  Does Digger want to try again?

If he's exposed, it means that the target discovers what Digger's trying to do as Digger is doing it.  Rather than the cliche, which says the thief grabs the object, is discovered doing so and is chased through town, here we're saying that the object is in the hands of both parties, who are wrestling for it.  If exposed, if Digger wants the score, he'll have to grapple for it; that's going to mean initiative, rolls to hit and potentially his getting attacked by other people (say, guards that recognize him) if Digger gets stunned.  The only way Digger gets away with the score clean is if he makes that number he needs.  Therefore, having more levels than the target matters.

But it's okay . . . because Digger can walk away any time he wants.  He can just grumble and give up the rest of his day and say, "Oh well, tomorrow."  He's lost nothing except the opportunity.

I'm hoping players will want to play this game.  I'm hoping the score is big enough to be worth it.  A really lucky low level thief could conceivably hit a jackpot.  A high level thief might feel that it's worth possibly getting into a fist fight, if that's the worst that can happen.

What the table doesn't do is offer a higher chance to a thief that is higher level to get away clean.  I've been thinking about that.  Perhaps having the option of ignoring a bad roll, one time per 3 levels above 1st? Perhaps optional rolls replacing a d6 with a d4, when the player chooses to do so, with one substitution per level above 1st.

Also, the size of the score could be increased; higher level thieves would see bigger scores, thus we multiply the numbers shown as the thief goes up a level.  A 1st level may have to roll two 3s to get a 250 g.p. bauble but a higher level thief would only need to roll two 6s.  These are things I think are potentially viable.

Like I said, all in the thinking stage.  Perhaps it is simply too convoluted.  Perhaps it is not convoluted enough.


Matt said...

Maybe a bit messy because it involves dice pools, but maybe your thief can have a pool of D6s per day based on level. They can throw as many extra d6s as they want at any of the pickpocket stages, and select the best 2d6 out of the rolled dice.

Since your stealth tables are also d6 based this could even be a shared resource between thief skills.

It does seem a little dissociated, and I haven't run any of the probabilities on it though.

Ozymandias said...

I agree with Matt, having a pool of bonus dice - somewhere between 1d6 per level and 1d6 per 2 levels, outlibed in a table - would make a great minigame. You could also, potentially, extend the skill to targeted items. Digger's party has been following a cleric with a holy book for some time and have just caught up with him in a big town. Digger employs his pickpocket skill to case the town and locate his mark, then hone in and make off with the book (or relic/bauble/whatever). Of course, there has to be reasonable limits. You can't pocket someone's pants or sword, no matter what the rules say.

Of course, there's nothing that says a dice pool to modify the roll has to replenish every day, either. It might be based on time spent in a location/town/city.

James said...

So my first thought on reading this is that it is far too difficult on the pickpocket; in craps, after point is determined, you only crap out on a 7. Of course, before point is determined, you win on a 7 or 11, and lose on a 2, 3 or 12.

Having said that, this seems far more interesting. And my statement on it being too difficult is irrelevant if higher level thieves can ignore a certain number of bad rolls.

It doesn't seem to allow for pickpocketing specific items, but that may be an ability you have no interest in.

Alexis Smolensk said...

On the contrary, James - the system can be worked backwards. The item is worth such-and-such a value, that determines the score point. The players find the target, the thief needs to make the necessary roll to steal the object. Easy.

I'm not convinced a die pool is practical. I have a 10th level thief in my game; that's 9 extra dice in the pool. It would hardly be worth rolling - he's sure to win every time.

I can see a level of thief where winning every time is a done deal, but at only 10th level? That seems low for perfect success.

James said...

Good point, I didn't think of that. I agree with you regarding die pools; similarly, if you allow ignoring bad rolls, it should be like every 3 levels after the 1st. Then even a 19th level thief (6 rerolls) only has a 15.4% chance of acquiring a, let's say, 200-1600 gp item unnoticed.

Tim said...

Forgive the war story, but perhaps it can offer some insight. I recently had a player roll up the "can cheat at cards" skill in your background generator, and we hashed out a system using the pocket picking skill. My players, for whatever reason, don't mind hanging around town for a while (they're often so strapped for cash that they need to raise some funds just to get out on the adventure with their equipment, something I am still finding the balance on) especially to rest between adventures, and I've ruled for them that playing cards could be done without losing a rest day.

Of course, since this particular player already had a very high charisma and the skill as written is 40% chance plus 3% per point of charisma, with a 17 charisma he already had a 91% chance of success. We then discussed ways to actually make the game feel more challenging, so that he couldn't just walk up to the table, make a bet and then rob people blind. Inspired by your use of Fibonacci sequences, we hashed out that he would have to make additional rolls based on the number of players and that his total haul would depend on the number of people gambling and their average level. It's ended up a bit more balanced as a result.

That seems to me to be the essential piece to creating a good thief skill: since so much is based on risk vs. reward, as DMs we have to constantly find the right balance between the two where the game is neither too risky nor too rewarding. Borrowing from tried and true gambling games like craps seems like an excellent way to resolve that problem. I'd be curious to see how you then integrate this with the sage skills. Do you think you'd want to add small bonuses when playing the game, or rather make it easier to start playing?

I'm also interested to see how pickpocketing "ramps up" with the pickpocket's skill. What is a master pickpocket up to that an amateur only dreams of? Would it be akin to a master astrologist versus an amateur? Lots to consider....

Baron Opal said...

Do you use the Pick Pockets skill as a way to represent slight of hand as well? I'm told that lifting a wallet is a similar art as the stage magician, misdirecting the target's attention so that you can do the seemingly impossible. If so, that might inspire a different mechanic.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Baron Opal,

Like any other sage ability, I'm going to break pick pockets down to a different styles. Amateurs can snatch and grab, as this link on my wiki says. An authority can do the dip you describe, that's featured in Ocean's 11 and a lot of other movies. An expert can go one further and undo clasps or untie objects from the person they're stealing from, enabling further possibilities. Finally, for sage level, I will probably make use of the Smoke Knight ideas that come from Girl Genius. I'll be throwing ideas in as they come to me.

The table above is just meant to describe the success rate; the actual method of stealing would depend on one's knowledge as a pickpocket.

Oddbit said...

An additional feature worth considering.
One of the most important parts of stealing things is identifying them.

Perhaps you can use this skill to help thief players identify what less obvious things a person is carrying may be (and their approximate values).

Hidden potions, jewelry and whatnot. Perhaps a mysterious bulge in a jacket pocket or whatever.

Mike said...

It doesn't address the proposed rules themselves but use of the skill. In my games the skill is used more to get an important item, like a key off a guard, or hide one, or transfer an item undetected. I allow it to be used to conceal an object, like magician slight of hand.

Now another use that I've thought of but never seen in play is to plant an object on someone. Nothing like a grenade in the pants, but you get the idea. :)

Alexis Smolensk said...


I don't see the three things you describe ~ stealing an object, hiding an object, transferring an object ~ as the same skill at all. But this is just me. I'm not sure I understand the meaning of the phrase, "It doesn't address the proposed rules themselves but use of the skill." Sorry, but what are you referring to with "It"?

Planting an object on someone is a good idea for an ability. I will be sure to include it.

Oddbit said...

I am now imagining the novice grab and dash inverse.
"TAKE THIS!" *runs away*

Alexis Smolensk said...


And isn't THAT a trope that has started many a movie?

Samuel Kernan said...

My players always want to hunt or trap while travelling through the wilderness. I think these rules could pretty easily be adapted for a ranger producing a "score" of food. With opportunity, of course, for the hunter to become the hunted.