Ask Angry: Antisocial Thieves

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The Hungry GM asks:

I’ve got some great players. I love running games for them. We have a great time. But something happens every time someone chooses to play a Rogue or Thief. In fact, I’ve noticed that this thing happens in a bunch of D&D actual play videos on YouTube.

Every time a player decides to be a rogue or thief type character, they turn into a piece of shit. Why? That’s my main question.

I’m lucky enough to have players who don’t try too hard to be lone wolves or anything. But where other character types tend to be able to involve many players in character exploration, the thief type character tends to derail gameplay just to steal stuff. On their own.

How do I, as a GM, do my best to limit this kind of play, where a player unintentionally attempts to steal the spotlight? How have you dealt with it in the past? Have you noticed it, or is it just me?

I usually edit these questions down a little bit to cut right to the point, but I felt this question needed all the qualifiers around it. Especially, because there seems to be two different questions happening here.

First of all, people think I’m crazy when I say it, but it is true: certain character archetypes attract certain styles of play. That’s why there are so many jokes about lawful-stupid paladins alongside the jokes about anti-social a$&hole thieves. The patterns are strong enough that everyone notices them. Now, that is not to say “every paladin” or “every rogue” is going to end up a certain way. Because every time you bring this up, someone always insists on saying “not ALL paladins” or “not ALL rogues” and “certainly not MY rogue.” But that’s because people are stupid. Number one, statistical patterns DO happen. Number two, no, they don’t apply to all individuals but that doesn’t disprove the pattern.

Do you want to know why gnomes are banned from my games and pixies are not only banned, but extinct, in all of my games? It’s primarily because of this. I could make both gnomes and pixies work in my worlds if I wanted to, but the fact is, they attract the wrong type of players. They seem to be permission to be silly and obnoxious and ruin a serious game with bonkers-a$& lunacy. So I just outright banned them. That’s also part of the reason why I hate bards. Bards are the purview of the spotlight-hogging, amateur, obnoxious, creative thespian who is going to seize control of the game, damn the other players. Yeah, not ALL bards. But lots. Enough. Sorry. F$&% bards and the players who like them. If you like bards, you’re a terrible player. I can almost guarantee it.

The thing is, I think the problem is that each of these classes and races give the player a sort of winking, nodding permission to be an a$&hole. “I’m the thief, I’m supposed to steal and be antisocial and only care what’s in it for me?” “I’m the paladin, I’m supposed to behave this way and make everyone else behave the same way.” “I’m the gnome, I’m supposed to be ‘hilarious’ until everyone at the table wants to tie me into a burlap sack and drown me.” But if you really want to get deeper into it, all of these people are basically the same. They are all spotlight hogging special snowflakes who want to be the focus of the attention and do whatever they want. Different races and classes just give permission to be that a$&hole in different ways.

Personally, I can deal with the paladins and rogues and most of the other spotlight hogging crap. But, it’s the inveterate, random silly person I absolutely can’t cope with without punching. That’s why I ban gnomes and pixies and bards but not paladins and rogues.

As to how to deal with it, you deal with it the same way you deal with every problem player. You tell the player what they are doing is a problem and why. You set some boundaries and enforce them. And if they player doesn’t want to change the way they are playing their character, you let them make a new character. And if the player doesn’t want to make a new character, you let them find a new game.

It sounds harsh, but this is the reality. There comes a point where you don’t get to be the cool person playing a fun game with their friends anymore and you have to be the MASTER OF THE GAME doing what is best for everyone at the table even if it is painful, difficult, hurts someone’s feelings, or even costs you a friend. It sucks. It really, truly does. But when the spotlight hogging reaches the point where it’s upsetting you and other people at the table and the person isn’t willing to compromise, the will of the group has to win or the game dies. And you, the GM, are the will of the group. That’s your job. It’s part of being behind the screen. It sucks. Because it should be just about playing games with friends. But it isn’t.

If you were running a sports team or an official club, you couldn’t give your buddy leeway to f$&% it up for you and everyone else. And D&D is a club. It’s a sports team. It’s not just a board game with friends. Board games are board games. The minute you get behind the screen, you accept responsibility for steering the ship. And that’s the truth. The buck will always stop with you.

Shawn asks:

My question sort of piggybacks on your previous answer about PCvPC skill rolls. How do you handle PCs stealing things in game, like the lonewolf ranger on night watch searches through another party member’s bag and grabs their Opuscule of Erotic Fanfic. Or the old pickpocket in the bustling market deal. do you tell them something is missing, pass notes, wait till they try to buy/use something and say “huh, you can’t seem to find that item”, or do you just sneakily erase it from their character sheet and wait for them to notice? This is strictly an in-game query, as it’s not common or causing any butthurt feelings between players (yet) and i can handle that if it arises.

Honestly, since you’re not asking about how to deal with the a$&hole player, you’ve made my job easy. Because you’ve acknowledged you know you’re going down a dangerous road and you’ll handle that when it arises. Famous last words! Ha! Good luck is all I have to say.

But seriously, who cares. It’s all the same. It depends on what your goal is. If your goal is to delay the surprise as long as possible so you can say “gotcha,” then, yeah, wait for the person to look for the item or for them to dig through their stuff and say “by the way, your thing is gone.” This is fun because it makes players extra mad. First, they get mad at you because they think you screwed them in some unfair way. Second, when the culprit is actually revealed, they are usually murderously mad at the player who took it. You can pretty much guarantee that things are going to get personal at that point. That’s a great way to wreck a game. Have fun with that.

I’ll tell you what I do though. This is going to drive everyone utterly f$&%ing bonkers. The commenters are going to scream at me and use words like “metagaming.” It’s going to be great.

I resolve the theft AT THE TABLE so that the players know exactly what happened and who did it. And then I leave it up to them to decide how they discover it and what they do about it. That’s right. When Oona the rogue steals the ruby out of Ragnar’s backpack, everyone gets to watch that scene play out. Ragnar’s player knows what happened. Everyone knows what happened. And they have to decide how to discover it, what they reason about what happened, and what to do about it.

Look, there’s two types of players in the world. Those that are mature enough to handle to a thief in their midst without it ruining a game. And those that are going to go absolutely f$&%ing bonkers when they discover a thief is in the midst and ruin my f$&%ing campaign over it.

The first type can absolutely handle the whole thing being played out in the open. The thief understands the choice they are making and is accepting the potential consequences. The other players will deal with it appropriately. And there won’t be a pissy little fight about “metagaming” when the players immediately reason that the professional thief they hired to steal things for them and left on watch alone at night might be responsible for the sudden appearance of party valuables. Because, not for nothing, that’s usually a pretty good assumption.

The second type can’t handle it. And the thief is usually the first one to realize they can’t handle it. So, when they realize you aren’t going to hide their crimes from the PLAYERS (not the characters), they have a tendency to back off. Knowing the action will be exposed to the table usually puts the kibosh on the action. And if it doesn’t, the fallout – whatever it is going to be – is going to happen right away. Whatever is going to get ruined is going to get ruined immediately. And I prefer that. I don’t want to run a campaign I know is a dead-man-walking.

So, do it however you want, but I heartily recommend you do it where everyone can see it.

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18 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Antisocial Thieves

  1. Great advice. I will agree, it is really hard sometimes gaming with your friends, especially when they condone and defend the thief’s right to steal from them if it’s his choice, and getting mad at me, the GM, for trying to get him to stop hurting the party by stealing all of their magical items before they get a chance to discover any of them. Needless to say, that campaign fell apart quickly.

  2. Ugh.

    I basically hate having thieves in my group for this reason. I pretty much tell every rogue, from the outset, that his/her character has to be the sort of person who wouldn’t steal from party members.

  3. A thief in the group! Yes, it can lead to disaster if the player wants to be a complete jerk about it. But if you have a good group, it can be quite enjoyable.

    A D&D 3.5 campaign that I ran years ago had both a Paladin AND a Thief. I realize that the class was called “Rogue” but he was a straight up Thief. But both of the players were very much wanting to build some interesting story. So the Paladin had taken the Thief on as his ward because he felt that the “young, misguided youth” could be redeemed. The Thief regularly pilfered things from the Paladin. Most of it was just things like taking a few coins here and there and using them to buy drinks or whatever. The players were quite aware of it as it was their idea in the first place. The Paladin would “find out” that the Thief had pilfered something and tell him, “Okay, you can’t do that. Give it back.”

    It all worked because the players understood the purpose of what they were doing. They were making interesting character interaction that actually built toward the ultimate fate of these two (the Thief gave up petty robbery and focussed on becoming a master of stealth while the Paladin ultimately lost his faith and “fell” to become a powerful Blackguard). The point being that both of the players understood the “metagame” part of it, which was that even though the characters had reasons to behave as they did, the PLAYERS knew that they didn’t want to screw over their actual friend sitting at the table with them every other weekend.

    • “the PLAYERS knew that they didn’t want to screw over their actual friend sitting at the table with them every other weekend.”

      This is brilliant and I wish more people thought this way.

  4. Hello Angry,

    What advice would you offer to fellow players with a spotlight hog in their midst? I have the exact high charisma, rogue playing, sticky fingered, must be in the middle of everything player you described in my midst right now. GM has stepped up and curbed the issue of robbing the party but has proven, both in this game and over the years, to be a soft touch in regards to the rest. I have no previous personal or gaming experience with this player. I am concerned that approaching him, however politely and measured, is more likely to be interpreted as adversarial and accusatory, causing a schism in the group, since we do not have the trust and accumulated good will that results from a longer friendship. That said, I still find this tiresome, and would like to find a constructive way to address it. Any ideas?

    • IF you have a rogue or rogue type (Not only rogues have the ability to steal, cheat, be charismatic etc etc) that is STEALING FROM THE PARTY, then your dm needs to have a stiff upper lip and tell that idiot to cut it the hell out. There are a lot of people out there that think they should play a rogue because it gives them licensee to be a jerk and screw everyone over. These people are wrong and they need to be told so, but rogues in general are not the problem. Also if there is a player at the table that is being charismatic, excited, interested enough to be a part of everything, and this annoys you, then I think you need to look inward and find out why. You don’t need to be a rogue to speak up, to offer ideas, to flatter or hell even intimidate an NPC. Step up your game because to me it sounds like your just crying that someone is doing something that you didn’t think to do or don’t think that you can do. You also might not want to play in that way, well, then why in the hell does it matter that someone else does? If your GM is not doing anything and you have voiced your opinion then I think you should talk to the player yourself. Here is the key though, don’t be flip floppy, be direct and outline how you feel without becoming a jerk. If you are being oppressed in some way then stand up for yourself and be confident in your voice. If it causes a schism then it causes a schism, but i want you to know that your irritation at this player the way you think of him as “Him” and “The party” is a schism.

  5. As Angry has pointed out in the past, the G in RPG stands for game. Any PC who steals from another PC without an OOC agreement is taking away a source of fun and a reason some people play the game. Some of us like the treasure, and having it stolen is shit. A player who does this is saying they value their fun over yours. I have been very vocal in my groups that we don’t allow this as players. If it is discovered it will be dealt with in a way brutally consistent with the middle ages. In other words, I take characters hands. If that doesn’t prove effective enough we can move on to drawing and quartering. Its shitty, but it makes a point. Fuck with us, we fuck with you.

    Further I don’t know why people are always surprised when the thief steals from them. He’s a criminal! “Hey guys, I met this great guy who was convicted of rape. I’m gonna hire him to guard us while we all sleep. What, don’t look at me like that. I’m sure he won’t do it again.” Yeah… right. Almost no one plays a rogue who was a pickpocket as a kid, but then got picked up off the streets by the church and is a priest now. Everyone plays the type of dirtbag you would be uncomfortable leaving your kids alone with.

    These same people always have stupid syndrome in the worst way. They think they couldn’t possibly get caught, or that they can sneak up behind the boss and kill them with a single stroke. Either assumption usually ends up with a dead character. I know all you rogues took stealth. Try not to use it to sneak up next to something infinitely more bad ass than you. That dragon is going to kill you when you get caught (which is only one bad die roll away), and I’m gonna be sitting back with the other PC’s wincing as your bones go crunch when you are being eaten. A special shoutout to our party rogue who did just that this last week. Dead PC walking. I salute your stupidity.

    • You’re a lucky GM if the rogue characters were the only ones that ever felt like they could take on the world by themselves.

      I do believe that the PC’s are right in being shocked when the dastardly coward of an adventuring partner steals from them. One of the reasons parties work is because they lean on a system built of trust. The rogue is on your side and you start the game understanding that. If they break that trust then I do agree that they should be punished.

      • Confidence men are people who get your confidence, and rob you blind. The only reason no one would suspect the party rogue is because they are a PC, as if that puts in place some mystical trust. It feels like lazy GMing and role playing to assume you can trust random strangers. Even well intentioned people do bad things given the right circumstances.

        In a world where there is no FBI or even identification, its very easy to rob people blind than move on to commit more crimes somewhere else they don’t know who you are. The reason why a PC shouldn’t steal from the party is that if they run off with their gains they are out of the game. They are committing the cardinal sin of shitting where they sleep. This is why I consider these people stuck with the dumb stick. Its a metagame social contract about not screwing over other players or being so much of an ass that you think you can outsmart and play everyone else at the table time and time again.

        Taking on the world on its own is another beast. The rogue does it more often than not because they are based in being “sneaky”. Its a trap as old as gaming. Do you take the item that will save your life or the one that you will use more? Stealth is an easy thing to rely on, but when it fails and you are on your own and surrounded the one item you needed was your group. These types of characters consistently put themselves in a situation where they are rolling to make it through and have no back up plan. When the paladin steps up and says he will hold some horrible monster back while everyone runs he is making a decision and knows he will likely die. Most of them aren’t so cocky as to think they will win.

        I suppose it makes sense though. Thieves get caught in literature a lot because they are cocky. Usually they aren’t on the side of the protagonists though. Even when they are, its a constant struggle to trust them. Ever see White Collar? Neal and Peter struggle constantly to establish trust.

  6. Yeah it really depends on the players, which is why I don’t like random groups of people. I’ve also seen players that play the druid like they have to destroy civilization every single time, the cleric who’s always trying to convert you every minute of the day and try to use their healing as leverage, the wizard who’s always trying to do experiments on you, the elitist elves who treat non-elves like garbage, and stubborn dwarves who don’t like being told what to do and won’t do jack.

  7. Commenting on the second question. We have always done these kind of things open for everyone to see, mainly because covering it up and exchanging notes etc. seems too much of a hustle. However, now we have the THIRD kind of player sitting here: The kind that *claims* that his character has easily figured out the culprit, with the most ridiculous reasoning. We try to reason with him, and after a long-ass discussion he gives in, but his character is somehow extremely cautious from that point onward. When we tell him that’s META-gaming, the discussion starts over. Removing him from the game for such a silly reason seems unreasonable, but telling him to stop creating these discussions would be like telling him “We’re right, you’re wrong.” If someone could think of some awesome god-like advise for me here, that’d be totally awesome.

    and YES! The characters he plays are always either Lone Wolves, no matter the class, or #YoLo viking-like barbarians/fighters. Usually the prior.

  8. I totally agree about running thieving in the open! I have a rogue in my party currently who loves to take more than his share of the loot, and we don’t play it secretly at all. I don’t think the other players love it when they don’t get their “fair share”, but they also don’t care that much about money, and they’re all willing to play along when he comes back all wide-eyed and empty-handed.

    They have started to send a few extra people with him to get the loot, though. More eyeballs = less theft

  9. Well, I love playing bards, but not for the role-playing. I love them because I like to be a jack of all trades, master of none. I love having a smattering of magic, a bit of healing and support, and even a touch of combat ability, plus skills up the wazoo. Like you said, just because most play them a certain way, it doesn’t mean they all do, so I hope I’m one of those exceptions to the rule.

    Do you know of another class that works that way without being designed for role-playing obnoxiousness?

    • In D&D 3.5 there was the Factotum, introduced in Dungeonscape. They use inspiration points (which refresh each fight) to use abilities that mimic other classes. At various levels they can get something like sneak attack, fake some divine and arcane magic, get various combat tricks and I think even turn undead.

  10. I once played with a Rogue who stole my Paladin’s focus and sold it – taunting him afterwards. This was particularly annoying as it was kinda critical to the plot due to how my Paladin’s faith tied into the story. Thankfully, my Paladin wasn’t one of those forgiving kinds and was more than happy to dispense his own justice (plot relevant), and so the next night my character took first shift and broke one of his legs and both of his hands. DM (and party out of character) thought it was great so the Rogue ended up with a seemingly permanent -5 to stealth and acrobatics, and -6 to sleight of hand, etc. I think the DM did say that the penalties could be removed over time, and with maybe some special conditions met – but I don’t remember.

    We both rerolled our characters (in character, the party didn’t wanna hang around a psycho paladin, Rogue left the group out of fear, and the player was pissed that his character got ruined) and I don’t think we’ve had any annoying crap like that since!

  11. This stuff is the reason why I think alignment is the worst idea that has ever been introduced to roleplaying games. Not only does it tell player that they are allowed to behave in disruptive stereotypical behavior, but that they should do exactly that. Character classes in D&D are not much better, and together they cause so much trouble that I consider Dungeons & Dragons to be almost unplayable.

  12. The problem is the very wrong notion of what thieves are in the real world, and at some point how evil people work in the real world. There’s this notion that thieves and evil people are always screwing each other up “because they are evil”. That’s just stupid. Pirates were scumbags, but they had a tight discipline among themselves, there was order, ranks, not chaos. Sure, when they saw another ship, they stole and kill and whatever, but they worked together towards that goal.

    It’s an evolution imperative that human beings have to work together in order to survive, so people who end up screwing their own group for no reason end up being outcasts and ultimately dead. And IF they screw one of their own, it’s usually for some reason, be it power, ascending among ranks, or switching sides. No matter how evil the organization is, there’s always going to be rules, rules that must be respected and if you get caught breaking them there are going to be consequences.

    Playing a thief who steals among his group for no reason is just shitty roleplaying, and the group shouldn’t put up with it. You steal FOR us, not FROM us. I never understood why is it ever justifiable to deal with a thief who can’t understand that difference. In a real world scenario that attitude gets you at the bare minumum expelled from the group. In others cases it’s perfectly justifiable in a medieval scenario that the warrior pull out his sword and deals with him like that. Adventuring is risky, you’re putting your life on the line, so anyone who isn’t trustworthy would be immediatly expelled unless there’s a VERY GOOD reason not to. If that particular thief can’t work with you, you find another one who does.

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