On picking pockets

So I’ve been playing roleplaying games for a long time. And it’s fair to say that my favourite game of all time is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (in either the 1st or 2nd edition varities). I don’t think it’s the best game ever made, or anything along those lines, but there’s a combination of things that put it at the top and kept it there.

  • It’s a fantasy game, and I spent most of my childhood glued to fantasy novels.
  • Dungeons and Dragons was the only roleplaying game I was aware that existed for many years.
  • I like games that involve characters going on adventures.
  • Everybody who roleplays knows it.
  • It’s pretty flexible.

So you’ve got nostalgia, people to play with, and an approximation of my cup of tea. Which is pretty much all you can really ask for in a game.

Within the AD&D system, my favourite character class has long been the Thief (or Rogue, after it’s renaming and rehabilitation).

I see combat in the game as secondary, so rarely choose Fighter types (including Rangers and Paladins, who are a bit more interesting). And I was never a fan of managing the long spell lists that Clerics, Druids and Magic-Users build up through a campaign.

The Thief character is my ideal — a character type that thrives in the non-combat portion of the game, who has a well-defined but limited skill set that improves as the game goes along (rather than expands, as a spellcaster’s would). I think I like that the skills are based on real world skills as well. Scaling walls, picking locks, and creeping quietly through the shadows are real-world things that can be done.

But one of the traditional D&D thief skills has always bothered me: picking pockets.

While real world pick pockets exist, and it is a real skill, the application in Dungeons & Dragons has always felt more magical. Like a wallet sewn into someone’s underpants could be removed by someone being watched like a hawk in a huge crowd. I disliked it. In 2nd Edition, where the player can choose where to apply their points, picking pockets was the poor thief skill that I would neglect.

But today, I need to re-evaluate that belief. Because that magical application that I so disliked for its lack of realism? It’s correct.

The New Yorker has run an article on professional pickpocket Apollo Robbins. It’s absolutely unbelievable. Take the following story of him meeting Penn Jilette, of Penn & Teller:

Jillette, who ranks pickpockets, he says, “a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole,” was holding court at a table of colleagues, and he asked Robbins for a demonstration, ready to be unimpressed. Robbins demurred, claiming that he felt uncomfortable working in front of other magicians. He pointed out that, since Jillette was wearing only shorts and a sports shirt, he wouldn’t have much to work with.

“Come on,” Jillette said. “Steal something from me.”

Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.

“Fuck. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.

Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.

The descriptions of his feats are ridiculous, and night unbelievable. So I went to YouTube to find him:

And it looks like he really can take a pen out of a person’s pocket, remove the inside of the pen, and then slip it back — all without that person noticing, even as they are aware he is a pickpocket, and talking to them about pickpocketing.

So, um … yeah. Next game? I’m playing a pickpocket.

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