what have I got in my pocket?

Resolved: In the long history of Dungeons & Dragons, the Thief’s skill to pick pockets has never once come in handy.

On the Pro side (i.e., against Pick Pockets), it’s a ridiculous, pointless skill that is pretty much a nod to the idea that if you call a class a Thief, its members should be thieves.  In all my days of playing this game, I’ve never seen a player ever use this skill–much less a situation where its use would have made a critical contribution to play.  It’s dead wood.

On the Con side . . . I got nothin’.  I mean, maybe in a heavily urban game this skill could see some use but I think urban adventuring has never been implemented very well in D&D and is a pretty uncommon play style.

Any arguments in favor of Pick Pockets?

13 Responses to “what have I got in my pocket?”

  1. 1 Eric W
    April 20, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Possibly as a catchall for slight of hand or manual delicacy skill. There is already a Find/Detect Traps skill, but Pick Pockets might be used either as a passive skill for when a trap is present but not detected but the lightness of touch might still not spring it, or any other possibilities of delicate maneuvering. Taking documents off a desk, opening a door without causing it to squeak, taking an idol from a weighted pedastal (Indiana Jones-style).

    In a sense, it is an analogue to the Moving Silently skill applied to the hands.

  2. 2 Eric W
    April 20, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    I’ve read accounts of using a thief as a kind of field engineeer. In this sense the Pick Pocket skill (aka Manual Delicacy/Craftiness skill) can be used to ensure that a difficult tripwire is set correctly, the mechanism on an arrow trap is properly timed, or a trebuchet is calibrated to hit more directly. Pending DM judgment, it might even be used to determine if marbles or caltrops are scattered efficiently behind fleeing adventurers.

    As an outgrowth of this idea, I wonder if Moving Silently could be sometimes used to see if a thief, moving alone, might not trigger a pit trap.

  3. April 20, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    I like Pick Pockets for it’s “Death of Impulsive PCs” factor…

  4. April 20, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    Oh, I’ve both used the thief’s PP skill as a player, and seen it used in my game as a DM.

    It doesn’t have to be a “heavily urban” campaign; any stint in a city is an excuse to exercise the PP skill, especially at lower levels when the prospect of getting a few extra gold pieces might make a difference.

    It’s also much more useful if it’s understood in its original context, which does not limit it to the actual picking of pockets and cutting of purses, but includes “pilfering and filching small items.” There are keys to be had, and signet rings on desks, and even the slipping of (magic?) rings off fingers while shaking hands. Agreed, it is more useful in a setting that has an element of social interaction (i.e., that’s not all combat and climbing walls to get around pit traps). But it’s certainly useful.

  5. April 20, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    Interesting. I’m guessing there’s going to be a lot of variation on this one. When you say this:

    In all my days of playing this game, I’ve never seen a player ever use this skill–much less a situation where its use would have made a critical contribution to play. It’s dead wood.

    …it’s so different from my experience that I can only cock my head in stunned disbelief. I believe you, of course. It’s just so different from my own experience that I never could have predicted anyone ever saying it :-)

    So yeah, anecdote for anecdote, I’ve seen players use pick pockets a lot over the years, and not only in D&D (I’ve also seen the equivalent trait used very prominently in The Fantasy Trip).

    Hell, I’ve seen what I could almost call an entire… mini-game (?) develop around it. I’ve seen substantial portions of game sessions spent walking the streets of Waterdeep picking pockets while the DM rolls random encounters (from FR 1 and City System) and random treasures from I don’t remember where exactly. It’s almost an adventure unto itself. The classic follow up (in my experience) is the blown roll that leads to the involvement of the city guard. Hijacks ensue.

    Can’t say whether you’d count this as making a critical contribution to play, but it was fun at the time!

  6. 6 James
    April 20, 2010 at 11:55 pm


    Joseph you win a prize for defeating my grousing with hard facts. Your prize is that I will blog about the topic of your choice (though not very well).

    I see the arguments for improved manual dexterity (and would so interpret it in my games), but even then I have difficulty imagining how it would come up all that often.

  7. 7 Eric W
    April 21, 2010 at 12:29 am

    Hmm… I thought I was being clever. You guys have thought of everything.

  8. April 21, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Since you mention Bilbo, how about stealing keys to unlock your friends from a cell?

  9. April 21, 2010 at 1:31 am

    Yeah, stealing keys to release prisoners, stealing weapons to stealthily disarm guards, or stealing an important item an NPC carries with them at all times are what I immediately thought of. I’ve had PCs use Pick Pockets before. Now, was the use of Pick Pockets “a critical contribution to play”? I don’t remember. Which may be a bad sign.

    Nevertheless, in my re-written Thief class, all thief skills are collapsed into a bonus on “subterfuge and stealth”, making the question moot.

  10. 10 1d30
    April 21, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    I’ve seen cases where the party is in a standoff with enemies and neither side wants to give ground, but both sides think the fight would be too dangerous. And our party Thief, who was off to the side when the encounter started, snuck in and used Pick Pockets to help neutralize the enemy before giving the signal to start the fight.

    He stole potions from belts, spell component pouches from the spellcasters, the holy symbol from the enemy Cleric, the arrows from an enemy Fighter, and was in the process of tying their shoelaces together when he botched a roll.

    All that time, the party leader was engaging the enemy party leader in negotiations. And the rest of the group had to roll to not give away the Thief flitting from enemy to enemy.

    When the fight finally started due to his botched shoes-tying, the enemy lost several rounds falling over themselves and grasping for potions that weren’t there. And the enemy spellcasters were virtually nullified. A fight that we weren’t willing to start because it would be too costly became, not trivial, but easy.

    That anecdote aside, most uses of Pick Pocket were in town when the Thief wanted to make extra money. And he rarely quit before he was caught. It eats up a lot of table time and ends up with the Thief slain or handless or in jail quite often.

  11. 11 Scott
    April 22, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Pick pockets is an attempt to bring the thief out of the suck he is trapped in, by stealing loot from his fellow players. It requires a very subtle DM to keep him from immediately being slain by his party though.

    Unfortunately, the lack of survivability in finding and deactivating traps makes the class a sacrificial lamb to the treasure chest. This really must be treated as a say yes or roll dice for the thief. He says he’s looking for traps, he finds them, he doesn’t say it, then you roll for his natural instincts as a %, maybe? Don’t give other classes that advantage and you make a cautious thief a necessary party asset!

  12. May 13, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    We saw a first-level thief use pick pockets in last night’s Glantri game! It was in the you-meet-at-an-inn scene and she used it more as an introduction (guessing correctly that she would fail and get caught) than as part of an actual stratagem in play, but there you have it.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

April 2010

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