Only in one game have I seen pickpocketing done well: Assassin’s Creed. In the original one, I tended to often be short on insta-killing throwing knives. In those cases I started to keep an eye open for mercenaries, who wandered the streets. When I spotted one, I locked on and moved behind him. The screen focused on the mark, making the crowds and buildings a blur. Avoiding the people and slowing down when the mark looked around I inched closer. And when I was close enough, I extended my hand towards his belt. And finally, the prize was mine. Pocketing the knives, I turned around and walked away as the mercenary slowly started to pat his belt. Assassin’s Creed showed two facets that I see are important to making pickpocketing fun: Effort and rewards.
First, rewards. As I stated, trowing knives tend to run out fast in AC, and one of the easiest ways to get more is pick-pocketing. This makes it necessary to pick pockets from time to time (outside designated pick-pocketing sidequests). Many games throw in pick-pocketing as a side thought, and therefore do not give much value for the activity. In Neverwinter Nights, I remember once pick-pocketing a single Ring of Protection at the beginning of the game. That was the most valuable loot I have ever stolen. Many characters who have something tended to just have negligible amount of money, which is not a suitable reward for the effort that picking a pocket takes.
So, effort. Many Infinity Engine games (Baldur’s Gates, Neverwinter Nights…) used the classic d20 method of picking a pocket: Rolling a single skill check. I don’t remember/know how AD&D did it, but modern incarnations had the following: You roll Sleight of Hand, and succeed if your check is over 20. The target rolls Spot and if he rolls over your check, he notices the action. This is an incredibly merciless system, since you need at least 10 points in SoH to have a 50/50 chance of succeeding in taking something, and even then the target may notice. In a tabletop environment the DM is interpreting the situation and can craft a sensible and working solution to the situation. But in a video game, the default solution is to have the target become hostile towards the thief, and that creates the problem.
Since picking a pocket requires the target not to be hostile, they are usually either allies to the player, or a neutral party. And in Baldur’s Gates, the targets with any potential loot tend to be high-level characters. And they tend to have high Spot. So if you try to pick-pocket for example a captain of the guard, he most likely notices you and attacks. If you fight back, all the NPC allies of the captain also turn hostile. Most likely you just die. And if you do manage to kill the guards, you have either now pissed of about 70% of the city you were in, or most likely killed an important, plot-related NPC. So you have now two options: Accept that due to the low morality of the heroes of the Sword Coast, they have failed in their quest, allowing the main bad guy to plunge the world into evil, or load the game. This means that usually pick-pocketing is just rolling dice and loading until you manage to get something from the target, which is a boring, time-consuming task.
So how would I implement pick-pocketing? First of all, I understand that making a sensible reaction for an NPC that notices the thievery is extremely hard, if not impossible. That’s why I would eliminate the possibility of getting noticed. I would give each NPC in the world a stat called “Suspectibility to Pickpocketing”, which is a number from 1 to 3 (or whatever range I have my skills in). If your rogue has equal or higher pickpocketing skill, he automatically succeeds in stealing something. If he does not, he does not even try (that guy looks alert. Better pass this one). Like lockpicking in Dragon Age II.
Then I would add rewards. In Dragon Age Origins, pickpocketing was a skill that was grouped with Persuasion, Lockpicking and crafting skills. As Persuasion leads to discovering more lore, getting more experience and rewards, and getting side quests, then pickpocketing would have to offer the same. In this case I would grant experience every time the player picks a pocket, increased loot and occasionally giving the player option to carry out a quest by picking a couple of pockets.
So that would be how I would manage pickpocketing in an Infinity game. But let’s widen the scope a bit. Assassin’s Creed II: Revelations had a maneuver called Counter-Stealing. It was like a counterattack, except you stole whatever your opponent was carrying. In Revelations this was a bit useless maneuver, but there is a game I would have loved to have something like this: Dragon Age II. Some of the tougher enemies in DA II quaff a healing potion when they are down in HP. I would love to have my Rogue have a skill that would stun an enemy and steal any combat items it has, like bombs or potions. This would make pickpocketing a tactical combat maneuver worthy of consideration. Disarming enemies would probably go to the same category, perhaps as an upgrade. It might sound like a game-breaker, but that’s just a matter of balancing it.
Another thing in Assassin’s Creed Revelations are the hired group of thieves. They automatically loot bodies while following you, and give you the money found. That would be quite a nifty ability: Have the rogue of your group automatically pick some pockets while you are travelling. This way you can concentrate on your quests and won’t need to press at every bloody peasant on the streets to get use out of your expensive ability.
So now you should have principles with which to make a useful, modern, streamlined rogue in your fantasy game. You’re welcome. Next time something else.
And you probably have discovered that I changed the visual layout of this blog. If so, good for you.