Five Fingered Discount

A discussion on Facebook prompted some thoughts on a common ability that pops up in theater style LARPs pretty often- pickpocketing.

Pickpocketing: Boffer vs. Theater

I have yet to see it in a boffer LARPs, which I think is an extension of the tendency to prioritize highly representative mechanics over allowing players to experience things they can’t actually do outside of LARP.

To clarifiy- boffer LARPs tend to involve mechanics where the player’s actions closely resembles the character’s actions- i.e. the player swings a padded weapon to represent their character swinging a sharp weapon. But this means the player has to actually be good at swinging a padded weapon in order for their character to be good at swinging a weapon (mechanics, such as adding extra damage per hit can alter this, but only to a certain extent.) Meanwhile, theater LARPs want to allow players to play characters who are brilliant at swordplay, no matter what the players’ skills are, so swinging a weapon is abstracted to something that doesn’t resemble swordplay at all, such as playing rock paper scissors, or whatever the combat mechanic is.

Which is why pick-pocketing can occur theater LARP- you can represent it abstractly for people who aren’t actually nimble fingered. Typically, this is done by a GM walking up to a victim and asking for an item-card from their hand. (Which also reflect theater LARP’s leniency for allowing GMs to interfere directly with players when not in NPC roles. Boffer LARPs tend to prefer GMs interfere less outside of their NPC roles.) But there aren’t any great ways to do it in a way that closely resembles actual pick-pocketing- one, it’s a very rare skill for players to actually have, and two, it would require physical contact, which we typically avoid as much as possible, up to the point where we avoid it entirely in most LARPs. Searching people in boffer LARPs is often done by standing right next to the person being searched and stating “I search you.” Which works fine if the victim is dead (typically, searches are done by PCs looking for treasure on the bodies of fallen enemies)  but not great if you care about the victim not knowing who took something from them. (One could try trusting players not to meta-game, I suppose, but that has its limits.)

The Benefits and Drawbacks

One can see the appeal for including it in theater LARPs- rogues, tricksters and thieves are popular archetypes in almost any genre, it’s a means of moving items around, it’s an easy skill to represent in game, it can be very useful and while not supernatural, still pretty cool and outside the realm of the average mundane real person. And yet, it’s strangely unpopular. People seem to particularly hate falling victim to it. Why is that? Yeah, it sucks to get robbed, but it also sucks to get stabbed, or mind-read, or cheated at cards… a million terrible things can and do happen to our characters in LARPs through the mechanical abilities of other characters, so why is this one complained about that much more?

The discussion on Facebook produced quite a few thoughts on why being pick-pocketed in a LARP sucks, though I’m still not entirely clear on why this is so much worse than any of the other things one can fall victim to in a LARP, but I can try to summarize the possibilities.

– It happens to you, not with you

When your character is pick-pocketed, you’re not meant to know who did it, and you’re not meant to be aware that it even happened until well after it happened. It’s not an opportunity to roleplay with someone and there’s generally no way to consciously influence it. If someone wants to stab you with a dagger, you can try to talk them out of it, choose to surrender, or draw your own weapon and fight back, even if you know you’re going to lose, you can still interact with the player attacking you. Something bad Just Happens; there’s no silver lining. You don’t gain information on who your enemies are, or what methods they’d use to influence you. Then only information you gain is that someone out there is a thief. Which generally doesn’t come as a surprise, anyway.

In one LARP I played in, there was an assassinate ability that let people strike from a distance and instantly kill their victim… similar to pick-pocketing in a few ways. You couldn’t tell who it was coming from, weren’t aware of it until after it was too late, and generally, there was no defense. This mechanic generated a fair number of complaints, more than getting stabbed in combat ever has, which I think supports my theory that this is one of the biggest reasons people hate pickpocketing in LARPs.

– It undoes major goals in a single action

Another common complaint is that the result of pickpocketing is that the victim loses an item of the utmost importance to them. Plots surrounding acquiring McGuffins, or widgets that are hard to acquire, are pretty common, and with pickpocketing, it’s often possible to lose it in a single moment. Of course, there are probably lots of other plot-types in LARPs that have been undone by a single ability from another player, but somehow, this one particularly irritates victims.

– It’s often illogical and/or indefensible.

A lot of theater LARPs don’t prop all of their items. Typically, they’re represented with index cards, and in the interest of simplifying mechanics, they may not take into account the size of the item or the nature of how it’s carried. How does one pickpocket a chainsaw? I don’t know, but if a LARP doesn’t distinguish between pocket sized items and huge items, they’re equally likely to be stolen without the victim noticing. Additionally, if something is being worn rather than being carried, such as jewelry, or if it’s actually in the hands of the person who has it,  it may still be just as likely to be stolen. And there’s often no accounting for things like anti-theft devices.

So how do we improve it?

So I guess that begs the question, can it be made into a less frustrating ability, and if so, how?

Personally, I love it when there’s some system in place that lets people which abilities used on them they consider it important to defend against. In other words, defense is a limited resource for players to allocate. In Redemption: High Noon at the Devil’s Luck, players were given two decks of cards- one for physical interactions, another for mental. Once could choose which card to use as a defense score when an ability was used against them, but that used up the card. So if one wanted to use their highest card to defend against something like pickpocketing, they’d have lower cards to defend against other abilities (or use for their own offensive abilities.) It’s not perfect- it’s a little more complex than most systems, and it resulted in players being very conservative with their abilities, but I liked it very much in principle.

Other options include…

Limited number of uses, so it’s not “spammable” (people can’t just use it over and over again until they get what they want). This might encourage a bit more forethought- who one is going to steal from and when, instead of just “whomever I feel like, whenever.”

Limit it to once per player. Justifiable, as the victim may get suspicious if they’ve been robbed several times. This also prevents “spamming” and offers some way to protect an item- carrying lots of little items reduces the odds that the important one will be the once chosen (unless the thief is able to select which item they want, instead of having to pick one at random from the victim’s possessions.

Requiring specific situations, especially if they give other players clues, such as only allowing it after the players have been around their intended victim for 2 minutes, or requiring them to (gently!) bump into their intended victim (assuming players are ok with minor contact… you never know.)

Requiring players to leave something similar in its place. I like this one a lot, particularly because it may give players a starting place for figuring out who the thief is, if they can figure out where their new item came from. This works particularly well if the thief only start with items that people can identify as theirs, or if there’s an ability in game that can tell you where an item originated/who it belonged to/who has touched it.

Requiring the thief to know what it is they’re trying to grab in advance. Just another way to reduce its power and make it a bit more interesting for the thief- they have to put in effort to be able to use it. Also, may help the victim figure it out if they can find out who was asking after the item that was stolen.

Letting players know when they can realize they were robbed. It’s really hard to be sure if you’re meta-gaming or not if you know a GM has taken an item from you, but you’re not sure when your character would have logically noticed something missing. Giving a specific time, especially if it’s very short, is helpful. It may even help narrow down the identity of the thief (if the victim can figure out who they’ve been around recently.)

Letting players hide one item on themselves that can’t be found by pickpocketers. It’s nice to be able to choose what’s most important and isn’t subject to random grabbing… although I wouldn’t allow people to conceal it under all circumstances. Many combat systems allow victors to choose one item to take from the loser, and letting people hide it even then may mean that there’s just no way for the item to ever change hands. I played a weekend long game where nearly everyone was looking for a crown that turned out to be literally under the skirts of one player the entire time. I’m not actually sure if it’s the case that no one could have retrieved it even after defeating her (or rather, her guards) in combat, but this is the kind of frustrating situation that can arrive if taking an item is always impossible unless it’s willingly given up.

Letting players hold one item in their hand to make it un-pickpocketable… though this should require the player to actually display that they have it, possibly by pinning the item card to their badge or requiring them to hold the actual prop in their hand.

Success not 100% guaranteed, with the possibility of getting caught for failure.

Some LARPers suggest giving players rooms/safes to keep items in, but let’s be honest- those are just as likely to get robbed. Someone always has the ability to break into them. I’ve had it myself a couple of times. Would be nice of some of those games had ways for players to build alarms for thieves to trip.

Any stories of pickpocketing in LARPs, or idea for pickpocketing mechanics? Feel free to share in the comments!

About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
This entry was posted in mechanics, theater/parlor. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Five Fingered Discount

  1. Kevin Riggle says:

    Ooh, ooh! I have Opinions about pickpocketing mechanics!

    Basically I really don’t like pickpocketing mechanics which don’t have some player skill component. If I’m going to have something stolen from me as a character, I want to feel like I earned the loss as a player, by guarding against the loss insufficiently, rather than being at the mercy of an opaque mechanic. As you say, I want it to happen with me, not to me.

    Folding the River’s pickpocketing mechanic required you to stand near someone for ten seconds in order to use the ability. I seriously considered never getting within arm’s reach of anyone in that game in order to prevent them from using that ability on me. (All the items I possessed in that game were things I Could Not Lose.) Which would have been bad roleplay and bad gameplay.

    The Guild’s usual pickpocketing mechanic is related to the one used for sneaking up on people and knocking them unconscious. To pick someone’s pocket, you Waylay someone (hold out your hand in the sign of the devil at eye level pointed at your target and give a count, usually a five-count), If your target doesn’t notice you, you go tell a GM and the GM enacts the rest of the pickpocketing mechanic, which can involve character-skill challenges, randomness, or information transfer. If your target notices you, you fail, and you get to deal with whatever consequences your target feels like enacting on you.

    I think that’s basically the ideal pickpocketing mechanic from my perspective. If my character is jumpy about being pickpocketed, I play that by being jumpy about being pickpocketed. If someone can successfully pull off a waylay on me, I think it’s reasonable to say that they could also have picked my pocket IRL. And there’s still room for character skill, when the pickpocket goes to talk to the GM.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I think the waylay mechanic is a step in the right direction. Especially since it could result in other people seeing the pickpocket, even if the victim doesn’t. (I think giving mechanical incentive to keep everyone at arm’s length might get annoying.) Maybe we could take something from the typical poison mechanic, which involves getting a sticker onto something someone is eating or drinking from. (Though that involves players not minding being stuck with stickers.)

  2. Ivan Zalac says:

    Well, I would disagree that such pickpocketing mechanics allows you to experience pickpocketing – more like simulate it, in only a slightly more realistic way than in tabletop roleplaying… These “theatre” larps are not really popular where I come from, and avoiding physical contact seems limiting… but I digress.

    Here are two examples of how it’s been done on larps in Croatia, though all of them would require some limited touching:

    We ran a Fallout larp back in August (using airsoft weapons). It had out-of-character stickers on items which were stealable, and they were actually fully stealable – real items (not cards) which players got to keep after game… Pick pocketing was actually player skill based, but items were limited to make sure nobody’s property is being snatched by accident.

    On a Steampunk larp that we had, a person had to touch the pocket/purse/container with his or her finger, then ask the GM (who’d ask the robbed person to empty the contents of that container, to be handed to the robber).

    Some of our larps simply have no options for pickpocketing (due to organizers not wanting to allow “the real thing” and not being able to find a satisfying enough mechanic). In such cases, armed robbery has always worked fine 🙂 (as well as knocking victim unconscious or using mind control abilities).

    • Fair Escape says:

      I guess when I say “experience it” I don’t mean getting to experience the action itself, it’s more about experiencing being the kind of person who can perform those actions. People like to be able to say “I was the sneakiest person at the party” or something like that. It’s like when someone plays the badass warrior in a theater LARP, they’re not actually experiencing using their big muscles to beat people up, but they are experiencing a social reality where they can use brute strength to achieve their goals, if that makes sense.

      Did stuff at Fallout actually get pickpocketed?

      The rule about touching the container is interesting. I feel like I’d be designing my costuming around it to prevent pickpocketing. Though I wonder if it would result in people just unable to pickpocket. I had a mechanic for cheating at poker once that required me to actually cheat at poker (with some help.) And I just couldn’t do it.

      • Ivan Zalac says:

        In Croatia, alternative style to the action-boffer style would be “Nordic-style”, which is slowly spreading… It commonly tries to disregard simulated abilities in favor of more personal experience of storyline or internal character conflict. I did an introductory article:

        I’m not too familiar with theater larp or its goals, but they do seem clearer now 😉

        Actually, the stuff on Fallout larp rarely got pickpocketed – but I guess players were not used to pickpocketing – but they could. Instead it was commonly robbed, given, sold and looted.

        Touching the container & clothes design is actually quite an interesting question. Nobody here designs his clothes specifically to prevent pickpocketing. But thinking about it, it’s actually quite realistic – you can design your clothes IRL to prevent pickpocketing, with internal pockets, money belts etc. and it works well. Then again, not everyone wears those pickpocket-proof clothes. It’s interesting, because that way real countermeasures can be used against a mechanic… I guess that its ability in shutting down pickpocketing on larp depends on how many people would actually actively pick pockets. In real life, only a small minority do so.

        • Fair Escape says:

          I don’t know if this is metagaming, but if I knew the pickpocketing mechanic required a player touching my pocket, I’d definitely try to make my costume a barrier to that. I don’t wear special-anti-pickpocketing clothing day-to-day because, as you say, it’s only a small minority who do it. (Extremely small where I am now, somewhat higher when I was living in a busy city.) But I suspect the average LARP has a pickpocket, and a LARP with a pickpocket mechanic in the rules is pretty much guaranteed to have at least one.

          I tend to favor LARP design that makes the hobby as accessible as possible- I feel as though being unable to afford to be picky about costuming shouldn’t convey disadvantage in game. (Though I understand if someone favors realism and immersion over accessibility.)

          And maybe this is a bit more shallow, but I’d hate to not wear a piece of costuming because it wasn’t as advantageous- i.e. didn’t have well concealed pockets.

          Thanks for sharing- I always find impressions on LARPing from other countries very interesting.

          • Ivan Zalac says:

            Hmm, I’d say it’s not a question of accessibility, but priorities. First of all: you’re right, it can be under certain circumstances disadvantegeous to some unable to afford specific costuming (though under that mechanic just being careful and keeping a bit of distance will work wonders, as will not pissing someone off enough to pickpocket you, or looking dangerous enough for a quick retribution if he’s found out).

            However, plenty of players here are far less concerned with balance, if it makes for a good story or a good immersive experience. In fact, if the larp in question is not competitive, balance is much less important than in a more competitive environment. Thus, I wouldn’t call you shallow or a metagamer 🙂

            The probability is that you’ll never find a perfect mechanic in all aspects. One will be better for one set of reasons, another for others etc. However, don’t let that discourage you from trying them out, you (and other players) might discover something you like on your journey and end up using that 🙂

  3. Tillymint says:

    In the UK we have a much more casual attitude to physical contact in LARP and so the pickpocketing mechanics I have seen have always been “if you can take it, it’s yours”.
    In a few of the very large games, there have been rules about what you can take so that you don’t accidentally run off with the leather pouch with an asthma inhaler in. It’s common to attach laminated business-sized-cards (‘lammies’) to items with in-character value (good swords, special maps, potions, armour), so one game I played said you can take anything with a lammy on, plus any document or coin (it was a game with fully minted metal money). If it was a lammy, you had to take the real item to the referee’s desk and leave it there as lost property to be collected, but you could then put the lammy on a relevant item of your own. Coins and documents were considered fair game.
    I got quite good at stealing. People leave a lot of things lying about, and they don’t pay enough attention to their bags. It was good fun – of course, not a skill I would ever use outside of a larp, but it has made me conscious of choosing bags that aren’t so easy to open!
    I’ve never played a game where you had to tell someone you were stealing from them. The idea seems kind of strange to me, because all the element of skill is removed from it, and of course, even if there is a chance of failure, you have no way to watch for a moment when they’re distracted. And then when you’ve done it, they know you did it. So if they’re asked to pick the thief out of a line-up they have to make an active decision to be wrong or right. Seems odd.

    • Fair Escape says:

      Most LARPs here have that “if you can take it, it’s yours,” so people generally do try not to leave items just lying around. I guess technically, if you really can pickpocket and the LARP doesn’t have explicit about not touching even one another’s clothing (most aren’t quite that explicitly restrictive, though I suppose a few might be) then anyone can, whether or not they have the pickpocketing mechanical ability. People get paranoid about not putting stuff down though. I once saw somebody actually throw items in the garbage because they didn’t want it to be found on them. I guess it was an effective hiding spot? (He got away with it… until he got shot.)

      I’ve never personally seen a pickpocketing or theft ability that involved the thief speaking to their victim. Generally, they go through a GM. I think this is why I like the “waylay” version, where you have to stand behind someone making a gesture to pickpocket them- some skill, a chance to be seen, but also possible for someone who isn’t actually nimble-fingered.

      The lammie thing is interesting- I’ve played in a few games where items had both props and index cards. The rule was often “try to keep the two together, but if they separate, it’s the index card that matters, so whoever has the card should get the prop.”

      It sounds like in your LARPs, people stuck lammies on actual props that they owned in real life? So a lammie might pass from the sword I brought in to someone else’s sword?

      • Tillymint says:

        Yes, that’s right. We’re talking here about a full contact larp – what you might call a ‘boffer’, (except no one in the UK uses boffer swords – rather latexed foam ones which look a bit more realistic). So everyone has their own equipment, and the rules stated that if you had a lammy in the in-character area, it had to be attached to an appropriate prop. Sometimes that meant you had to leave something you had stolen (or traded, or looted) out-of-character for a while whilst you went to borrow, say, a potion bottle. But it meant that you could always tell if something had in-character significance and value.

        We’re also talking about a game that had 1000+ players – so getting a ref every time would be completely unfeasible. I’ve used the same techniques in games with far, far fewer players though.

        • Fair Escape says:

          Oh, I see. For some reason I erroneously assumed we were talking about theater style. That makes sense for boffer.

          I think in Accelerant boffer LARPs (which is the only boffer LARPing I’ve tried so far… though I think the US we typically call any live-action combat LARP “boffer” whether the swords are made of spongy foam or look more realistic) they try to stay away from making rules that make it worthwhile to steal one another’s weapons. For example, in Cottington Woods, paladins get special swords, but I think the swords only have special property’s when in their creators’ hands. If stolen, the paladin can make a new one and the thief just has a plain sword. It’s just an inconvenient for the paladin to just break their sword.

          Though I think for much larger LARPs, where every has fairly distinct, handcrafted weapons, the system you described makes more sense.

          • Tillymint says:

            The big conventions that make theatre style more possible in the US are not so much a feature here. We do have them, kinda, and we do have various Mind’s Eye Theatre groups, but the combat larps are the main scene… and it seems from my reading that there may be way more emphasis on the roleplay (as opposed to the fighting) in them here than in the ones I’ve read about. Somewhere in between the two, then.

            • Fair Escape says:

              I heard Consequences ( was a lot like Intercon.

              • Tillymint says:

                Hm. Never heard of Consequences before. Which is interesting, cause I’ve been in the larp community here for a long while – and a quick straw poll of chatroom larpers said only 2 people had heard of it and no one had been. Which suggests it must be quite a distinct bunch of people, not moving in the same circles much. I wonder why that is? We do the same things! I’d love to get down next year if I can, though it is in a hard-to-get-to corner of the country. Fizzing with curiosity though.

                • Fair Escape says:

                  Clearly, you should be the catalyst and spread the word to your community of LARPers. ^_^

                  (We get some odd circles of our own here- like WPI, RPI, and Brandeis are three schools that have a lot of LARPers that play at all three, but for a long time, MIT was sort of secluded with not a lot of overlap, even though MIT is a lot closer than RPI.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s