Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Pick Pockets

I'm not racist, but most of them are halflings
Another interesting Slate article reports the decline of the New York City pickpocket. Alas, no more need Mom and Dad instruct their kids to put their wallet in the front pocket. Apparently these darn urchins today with their Pokeymons and social networks have no gumption for learning a craft involving elaborate feats of misdirection and legerdemain.

Well - need it be said? Good riddance.

I was in Barcelona last summer during a wave of pickpocketing. Constant reminders on the subway, from hotel personnel, everywhere. Paranoia undercutting our enjoyment of one of Europe's most amazing cities. My wife had a compartment on her backpack (thankfully empty of anything valuable) opened by stealth. Not much desire there to applaud the exquisite art of the sneak thief.

You know, I also feel the same way about the "pickpocketing" skill in roleplaying games. Even when expanded to "sleight of hand" to allow minor conjuring tricks, it's a basically antisocial skill. It screams out "Hey! Thief! Go off and have a solo adventure!" While whispering "Psst! Thief! Care to try your skill on your fellow party members?" Note-passing campaigns with stealth player vs. player action may be fun to run online, but at a tabletop I see that kind of action as a pain (but see also JB's somewhat different take on the whole issue).

And yet ... if you have a character who is a thief, he or she just might have been trained in this very exacting skill. My solution is to treat it as part of the 1-3 background words a starting character gets in my Old School Players system; so if you choose "thief" you will get a minor chance to pickpocket, ruled on the spot, and if you choose "pickpocket" you'll be quite competent at it from the start. I don't want pickpocketing to be at the center of the campaign but it's fine as flavor. Maybe if the game revolved more about intrigue and capers things just might be different. But in my dungeon-bashing game, there ain't no need.


  1. I always wonder why more thief players don't try that pick-pocketing skill on monsters in the dungeon. Granted, many monsters don't wear clothes, so have no pockets to pick. ;)

    Still, those ogres and giants and the like tend to carry around sacks of gold all the time. Why not try to nab some of that on the sly, and avoid a potential beat-down?

    I just don't see that happen very often.

  2. Yeah, reason being it's hard to convince the rest of the party to stand down while you sneak up and fiddle with the giant's bag :)