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!