Thursday, January 16, 2020

Video Games- Better Pickpocketing Mechanics

So this blog is mostly about tabletop games. But I also like video games, and talk about them sometimes. I know everyone thinks they're some expert game designer, we all watch the GDC talks and the youtube videos, we all play around with Unity or Godot for ten minutes and think we're gonna be the next indie darling. We get it, we know we aren't actually that good, it's just arrogance.

But honestly this shit annoys me. I've played a modest amount of RPGs. The Elder Scrolls Games, Kenshi, Fable, a few others. You know what really annoys me in these games? Beyond stealth and the “thief” archetype in general; Pickpocketing. Pickpocketing in these games is usually a dice roll. You either pickpocket and just get a set amount of gold, perhaps based on your skill, which is lame but not that bad, OR the game lets you open up the NPCs inventory and steal from them, with each item having a chance to get caught. I'm not saying these systems don't function, they're just boring and feel unfinished and tacked on.

This pisses me off for one, it tends to encourage saving and loading over and over until you get to steal successfully. Secondly, in many games, you don't get the XP or you get a piddly amount of XP if you don't successfully steal, further reducing this. On top of this, your chance to steal tends to be not weighted highly, having a 5% chance to steal something is annoying, and makes it hard to train the skill. Of course, these problems don't exist really because people who savescum can use it while people who don't will not use the save and load trick, you can always hack the game to increase your level or just pay for training in some games, it's not a huge deal, but it just feels like it isn't much of a 'viable' archetype, it's just poorly designed. It's a solid success or fail, it's not like swinging a sword where you deal more and more damage with higher level, you just get a chance.

So I have thought about it for a bit and I have some solutions, depending on the inventory system.

Every inventory item has weights. Small items like coins don't weigh much, bigger items like equipment weight more, obviously. Whenever you steal from someone, you can see what you can steal and can then steal from them, which transfers the items to your inventory. There is no chance to be detected here- this is just stealing from a menu right now, the game considers you have successful gained access to their “bag” if you snuck up behind them, no need for a check yet.

So then, the game keeps track of what you stole. If you stole 15 kg or pounds or units or whatever from the NPC, then it will have a little slider that shows how much weight you stole. This slider will be colored- blue/green around the middle, yellow to the sides, and red on the ends. Basically if you are stealing too much at once, and make the weight too low, then the NPC will notice instantly when you exit this menu. However there is a trick, you can buy or make “thief weights” as well as use regular items- you
place these in the NPCs inventory to rebalance the weight. You steal coins from their bag and replace them with little lead discs, you take the sword from their scabbard and put a painted bit of wood inside; it's that kind of gaming abstraction that creates stories, and also makes the archetype more powerful. (You can also put in too much weight, which will make the NPC alerted as well, but that's unlikely to happen unless you are like stacking bombs to blow up in their inventory or something) When you exit this NPC's inventory, as long as the weight stolen isn't in the red zone on either end, they don't notice. 

But they have a timer; over the course of a few seconds, based on how much weight you changed and how high your pickpocket skill is, they will slowly be alerted. At the end of the timer they get the exclamation mark above their head and realize they've been stolen from- and go searching for you. This means pickpocketing isn't just a random chance; squat down, access the inventory, and steal whatever you want- then stand up and walk away. No, it's about successfully stealing but also making an escape, having a route to get away from the target, avoiding their notice. If you steal barely anything they won't ever be alerted to the theft. So a few coins from here or there is a good way to level your skill, but stealing a lot or something valuable like a treasured piece of equipment or entire sack of coins will alert them. Higher skills increase the amount you can steal and how long it takes for them to notice the theft. You can't just shimmy into a corner and crouch for 1.2 seconds to get behind a guy to steal everything, you need to actually sneak up and away so nobody knows.

This method is more hectic, and may be more suited to action-y games with stealth, but works in the same way as above. In this method, you may need to hold down the button for a second to actually get into an NPCs inventory, needing to trail behind them for a second to actually steal, then the game goes into slow motion and opens up the NPCs inventory. If this game uses a grid based inventory system, or weight system but with pictures, it will arrange the items out randomly on a small window that gives you only a few seconds to pick something and back away. You'll see a bunch of coins, food items, clothes items, arrows, etc. just scattered around the NPCs inventory. You need to have skill to see the valuable gemstones or quest item or key you're trying to steal, mousing over it, stealing it, and backing away with your character using the WASD or whatever control scheme your game uses.

Using this method, the higher the player skill the more successfully they can steal. They can just spam click to steal things but the longer they spend on their screen and the more they steal the higher the chance the NPC will turn around and catch them. The idea is to prioritize quick reflexes. If the player character has a high degree of skill then they can stay in this screen for longer, or even make the items displayed in the NPCs inventory more orderly; before it was a jumbled mess, now its more likely the more valuable items will be near the top of the list; meaning a high skill theif can just click click click to grab all the coins and gems and treasure off the top row of the inventory, ignoring the junk, and backing off to avoid getting caught. This system could also be interwoven with the above system here- NPCs will notice they have been stolen from after a few seconds, so you have just enough time to escape and avoid getting caught.

The second version of this method also uses the Thief weights; you're playing inventory Tetris but literally. You have to fill in anything you "steal" with the weights or decoy items; the more holes you leave the more likely/faster they become alerted. You could also have the fun situation of having certain items being hard to steal for this reason; a key can be replaced by any item that is 2 tall and 1 wide, for example, but a master key is 3 tall and 1 wide in blocks; and very few items fit that size. I also really like the idea of not even having or using thief weights; but just having low quality or cheap items you can replace items of people you steal from with. So replacing rare alchemy ingredients in a satchel with some weeds, or putting a wooden training sword in a scabbard instead of a magical steel sword. Some of this stretches believably, but it sounds really fun.


  1. This gives you a reason to keep ahold of junk equipment, and also a way to get rid of it in a fun manner!

  2. Good ideas. I also hate pickpocketing in crpgs, and these systems would be vastly better.

  3. The time one is a bit like how Kingdom Come: Deliverance does it. You have to sneak up, moving along with them if they're walking, and hold the activate button for as long as you like, but the longer you hold it the more likely they notice. THEN you get that amount of time to grab from the NPCs items, but they're all obscured until you examine them, and taking time. Thief perks can reveal them automatically. THEN you have to get scroll the selector back to exit and click it before time runs out and they detect you. No Thief weights but having to scramble to find which thing you want to steal is the same.