Monday, October 24, 2016

The Sweet Spot

In case some people missed it, I have been suffering from the plague all week.  I don't know what else to call it; the damn thing won't let me go.

It is perhaps because of this that I am fixated on the pickpocketing problem.  I've received a lot of helpful comments and I will be putting much of what people have said into the thief and assassin characters, when I am again able to think with a clear head.  This is the first time in days that I have felt up to writing anything.

There is a point that has been missed, however.  Several have said that in their campaigns, their thieves most often use the pick pocket skill to get hold of things, like a guard's key or a specific item from an NPC.  I must say I find this strange, since I never have players that do this.  Not that I have any problem with the idea, I think it is sound.  It is perhaps that I don't give keys to guards who can be approached in the open (logically, a guard standing outside a gate would be let through the gate by a guard on the inside, thus you would need the key to steal the key) or because I don't think to put valuable adventure-critical items in NPC pockets.  If we as DMs don't create the situation where the pickpocket can solve the problem with pickpocketing, the players don't use that as the solution.  After all, who needs a key?  Doesn't a thief open locks?

My bigger problem, which I stated on the previous post, but which was passed over, is this:
  1. We can assume that pickpocketing is a way for a player character to make money.
  2. How much money ought a pickpocket of varying level succeed in obtaining from a total stranger, keeping in mind that we want to make the score matter to the player?
  3. How do we make the obtaining of that score difficult enough that the player can't just rob thousands of g.p. at will without risk?

Risk is, after all, the game.  Without risk, I might just as well give the thief the money and have done with it. There HAS to be a risk that threatens actual death, or it won't cause the player to hesitate.

To encourage the player not to hesitate, the score has to be BIG enough that the player can't easily forget the presence of the potential take.  It has to be mouth-watering.  It has to bother the thief.  This is the only thing that will encourage the thief to hazard the risk.

The sweet spot between these two points was the purpose for the pickpocketing table.  The sweet spot is achieved by giving the thief additional skills as the thief increases in level.  That only lowers the risk, which makes the take easier and spoils the game.  The better alternative is to increase the size of the score, arguing that the benefit of the thief's level is NOT that the thief gets better at taking things, but that the thief gets better at finding things to take.

Presumably, a 9th level thief wouldn't walk from one side of a doorway to the other to lift 20 g.p. from a target.  Why bother?  Said thief already has pockets and hoards bulging with thousands of gold.  I should have made the score size based on a die roll ~ like, say, a d10 per level.  Then a 9th level thief might feel it worthwhile balancing a point of 6 against a take of 500 g.p.  He might seriously risk rolling snake eyes again if the score was nearly 10,000 g.p.

It has to be understood that ALL game rules are seeking that sweet spot that produces the player's dilemma.  We want the emotional rush that is produced by the sound of the ball rolling around the roulette wheel coupled with the near certainty that putting a hundred dollars on number 26 is sheer folly.  The near certainty.  There is a world of angst to be found in the word "near."

So we don't want rules that eventually guarantee a player's success.  I understand this is what most DMs adhere to when creating rules for anything, the presupposition that as a player character increases in levels, their success edges towards certainty.  No.  No, no, no.  We've got it all wrong there.  The game is designed to ensure that increase in levels assures a greater variety of monstrous foes, a greater variety of obstacles and difficulties to overcome and a greater variety of ways to die.  The game does not get easier for players who go up levels!  In most ways, it gets harder.  Much, much harder!

3.5e never learned this lesson, 4e never learned this lesson, 5e hasn't learned this lesson.  It is why most games, played the way the rules say, suck ~ but in a very subtle way, in a way that has DMs and players scratching their heads and thinking, "This is all really awesome, except for this thing I can't quite put my finger on."

It takes a very self-aware DM to overcome the tendency to feed the player's hero-fantasies and ensure that the game consistently makes the player ache and flinch at the same time.  Most DMs who can do this, I'm dead certain, don't know that they're doing this.  It goes back to what I've consistently said: we don't know when we're playing the game well.  It is such a hard game to know.  


Scarbrow said...

About the craps table, I wonder a question: Why should a player risk (possibly) life and limb, (possibly mere) harsh punishment for a gamble on (usually small) sums of money, when adequately played adventure will threaten him all the same, but will probably result in an (on average) greater bounty? After all, there IS treasure out there. The DM knows, the players know. If there wasn't treasure out there to be had while adventuring, the characters would stay on the city, either working or stealing. You say: "do we want to risk making the payoff so high that the party will just hang around town rather than go to a dungeon?". I will suggest that the answer is yes, we do. If the possible reward, after weighting for success probability, is not on the ballpark of "dungeon treasure", I don't see why should any thief bother. Unless there's 1) Less risk (and your table/system/world is far from that) or 2) The possibility of unique rewards (and there goes the idea that this is "just to get money"). In short, the sweet spot is an uncomfortable place. Oh, of course, some people just like to gamble. Las Vegas is a homage to that impulse. But then, neither the payoff nor the risk need to be high.

I would suggest to tie the pickpocketing, and the craps table, and the whole minigame, into the "adventuring leads generator", so to speak. Not something as simple as a table, of course. But all that reckoning the thief does should eventually uncover some interesting things, not necessarily valuables to steal. Simply... those small, weird bits of life that start adventures. Just "steal or be caught"... is a little old on itself, isn't it?

Shelby Urbanek said...

"So we don't want rules that eventually guarantee a player's success." Yes, this is another one of those things that so well clarifies for me what I should be striving for in my game. I started playing 3rd edition, and you have it absolutely correct that it's a ladder to invincibility. This is what I needed to hear, thank you.

Johnny said...

I'd like to posit that if a player character is pickpocketing to make money, then any score should matter to the player.
Pickpocketing is something desperate people do. That's why all the famous pickpockets are homeless orphans, and none of them get rich doing it.
A player resorting to pickpocketing has found themselves in a dire situation, maybe they have been stripped of most of their accessible wealth and are stranded in a strange city, and need to buy passage on a ship or something of that nature.
Trying to make pickpocketing a worthwhile revenue source for a high-level Thief is problematic because it's really a survival skill rather than a legitimate way to accumulate wealth.
If a mid to high level Thief wants to go into town and make a big score, that's a heist. A heist has all sorts of potential to be an interesting adventure and shouldn't be reduced to a few rolls.

Dani Osterman said...

What if you tied potential reward levels to the tech level of the urban location in which the thief is pickpocketing? The consequences for failure then increase along with the potential reward (since many individuals in high-tech areas are leveled). You could also perhaps adjust the thief's success rate based upon some relationship between their level and the tech level of the city.

Alexis Smolensk said...


The benefit of pickpocketing over adventuring is that it is fast. Situations do come up where the party has lost all their coin and needs some as soon as possible.

Additionally, there should be a point where the speed of the pickpocket's payoff compensates for the adventure's advantage - equals them out, as it were.

Yes regarding the adventuring leads generator - but I see my whole world this way. Still, you bring up the point that the thief getting caught needs more elucidation - what exactly happens? Is it risking life and limb? How hard is it for a 6th level thief to escape? Are we not just talking about a quick exchange of weapons, perhaps, then flight? Is it that different from an adventure?

Alexis Smolensk said...


I think you downplay that many thieves do it because they enjoy it. You're clearly not watching enough old movies, like the Thief Who Came to Dinner or The Sting, in which thieves participate because it is a rush. This is why it has to be a "mini-game" - so that the player will ultimately see an additional benefit to gaining the money. They may, in fact, play because they also enjoy the moment of being caught, as it gives them a chance to fight their way out. That can be fun too.


That may be a bit too gritty for me. Interesting, but time-expensive.

Keltoi said...

I dont know if have thought about and discarded but I want to put out the reverse of pick pockets and that is planting. I was reminded of a novel I read a couple months ago, two groups of theives familiar with one another were hired by a group of mages to fix an election in a city. These two groups of thieves were competing against each other. In the first scene where they interact one froup plants a purse on the other calls the guard and accuses of theft.vefore the guards could search him he manages to plant it back on the first thief put also plants the guards purse as well. I know a little far fetched but I think it a good story to illustrate the idea.