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In various shows, movies, books, etc, thieves often intend to steal from wizards or, if they're lucky, from a treasure horde of long dead royalty or such and, almost as often, either set off magical traps or pick up some ancient artifact that has some adverse effect on them or entire lands. I would think they'd be more cautious, especially when there's, e.g., a purpose built cradle for an unreasonably large gem. (At its most common, picture the gem Abu picks up in Aladdin.)

In worlds where magic is a well known, common mechanic and often feared, would it be reasonable for thieves, at least high end ones, to show better judgement about these things, possibly to the point of studying common tells, if not much more intimate knowledge about their intended bounty (if it's known)? At this point, I'm assuming a professional thief, not just someone who's down, out, and dabbling in a life of crime.

Edit for Clarification:

  • Assume D&D style magic: enchantments, traps, direct magic, etc. Almost anything goes, if the wizard is powerful enough. Traps are simple enough for almost any home owning wizard, so I'd imagine they'd be common. Materials are used in casting, but assume the cost is negligible if an item is worth protecting. An undetected trap could disable, maim, or kill an intruder.
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    $\begingroup$ We'd need to know more about what your magic can do. Is there only direct magic, can you leave traps, can you track people with it, is it only useful for cooking? There's a lot that we can't say simply because "magic" is not a well defined thing. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jul 15 '16 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ In a state where people like to keep firearms, are burglers more cautious? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 19 '16 at 4:16
  • $\begingroup$ I've accepted the most popular answer, mostly because it points out the obvious flaw in my question of, "you only see the ones that try." One thing pretty much every answer infers is the taboo of murder/assault. Most fantasy settings I've seen are pretty lax on killing criminals/trespassers (and, often enough, anyone you want). We can't use automated defense tech, 'cause we'd be charged with murder ourselves. In Middle-earth, gutting a careless thief is probably the expected response. $\endgroup$ – Jason Lefler Jul 19 '16 at 11:00
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One could ask a similar question about our own world: In a world with high technology, would thieves be more cautious? Given the existence of alarm systems, security cameras, etc, wouldn't that prevent thievery?

With that in mind, I think the answer is:

(a) It depends on the nature of the magic. How effective is it? If the nature of the magic is that it alerts the wizard that someone is trying to steal his stuff, like an alarm system, perhaps the thief can steal the stuff and get away before the wizard has time to respond.

(b) If there is magic that allows someone to protect his valuables, is there also magic to neutralize or circumvent this magic? Or are there non-magical ways to neutralize the protective magic?

(c) What chances is the thief prepared to take? If he knows there's only a 10% chance that he will successfully steal the valuable item, but if he succeeds he will be fabulously wealthy for the rest of his life, maybe he concludes it's worth the risk. Lots of thieves in our world take chances like that all the time.

(d) How desperate is the thief? No matter how difficult it is to get away with stealing, unless it is literally impossible and everyone knows that it is literally impossible, someone will try it. If he is living a life of total poverty with no hope of ever improving his condition except stealing, even if the odds against him are long, he may still try it.

Oh, and I'd also say, a work of fiction normally is about people who do something daring, not about people who do the ordinary. Imagine a story that readd, "Fwacbar caught sight of the Pearl of Great Price through the window of the wizard's house. He longed to possess it. He began to hatch a plot to steal it. But then he realized that the wizard surely had cast protective spells around it, and trying to steal it would be hopeless. So he sighed and went back to his job hauling chicken feed to the market. The End." Well that would be boring. The story you want to read is about the person who tried despite the difficulties, succeed or fail.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 - on reading the question, this is what I had in mind. How common is the magic? How desperate is the thief? How smart/lazy is the thief? $\endgroup$ – Ghotir Jul 15 '16 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ While ending there would be boring, a story where he passes that window regularly, always has the temptation to steal it, makes detailed plans on how to do it, but in the end never gets brave enough to actually do it, could be amazing if done right. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Jul 17 '16 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ @celtschk True. Like many ideas in fiction, if done well, it could make a great story, and if done poorly, it could make a really lame story. $\endgroup$ – Jay Jul 18 '16 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ I can sympathize with him. After all, why would you steal some scriptures when you can get your own for, like, a dollar? $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Aug 3 '16 at 14:43
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magic is only something to be cautious about if people use it to guard their things. Most worlds, even where magic is somewhat common, still don't make magic so ubiquitous that everyone is using it. Thus thieves may go their entire thieving carrier without running into magic protection if they are targeting the normal homes and not the rich.

Furthermore, and likely more importantly, thieves may simply be optimistic and presume the places they hit won't be guarded, even if some places are, thievery is a...short term plan. Odds are your going to get caught sooner or later if you keep it up, and the punishment is usually not worth the stuff you got before being caught. Thus the people who resort to it are usually either so desperate they have no other option but to risk being caught or so short sighted they don't really think through the eventual results and just say this attempt should be easy.

To give an example of what I mean lets imagine some guy living in D&D land asking a world building question for his new "science-fiction" story idea. "In a world where houses could have electronic defenses that warn people and summon police would a thief be more cautious about robbing houses?" The answer, as we know, is not really. Thieves just trust the house the burglar isn't the one protected, or that they can get away in time.

Our D&D world writer might instead ask "In a sci-fi world where anyone can kill with a Gun will a thief be too afraid the person the rob will be armed to steal?" Again, the answer is no. Thieves rob houses that could have armed people that could shot them on site regularly. The thieves just trust the they will survive this theft. Again, robbery is a short sighted plan by those that can't figure out a better means to get what they want, it's usually not something people think through and logically analyze and adopt after a careful risk-reward analysis.

Now a thief robbing the sort of places that usually have magical defenses will be a different story. If your robing a rich nobles house and rich nobles routinely pay mages to cast anti thief charms on their place then thieves will likely know to expect these. Of course this is why most thieves don't rob rich nobles houses in the first place. Any who are brave enough to do so, and aren't so stupid as to get caught first time, likely will learn to protect against these magic charms. For any tactic there is a counter tactic. So a thief who routinely robs rich nobles likely will have learned some anti-magic spells of his own, or to detect spell runes, or whatever tactics allow them to usually circumvent these magics.

So in short, the very rare professional master thief will be cautious and better suited to handle magic traps. The other 99.5% of thieves will be poor, badly educated, fools who are only thinking about the easy money and may not be that intelligent or cautious. The psychology of thievery is not conducive to caution...

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A lot depends on the nature of the magic.

A common trope is that magic is unpredictable, dangerous, hard to constrain once unleashed, almost wilful in its own right. The more powerful the spell, the more risk of it backfiring. Especially so if it is autonomous, working in the absence of the mage who cast it.

In this case a mage will probably not use high-grade magic to protect anything unless it is of enormous value. A thief (risk-taker) will know that the chance of being magically struck dead when he thieves something of lesser value is small. Something bizarrely unpleasant but short term is more likely. A wise mage may well use layered defences around anything priceless. A warning to the mere thief on the outside and a lethal trap for a powerful rival mage on the inside.

A thief will learn what he can of precautions against lesser magics which can be taken by a non-mage. And he will probably have access to some magic even if he has no ability to cast it himself.

There will almost certainly be lesser mages who are not averse to "fencing" stolen property of a magical nature, and providing low-grade wards or healing to the thieves. There may also be mages in whatever form of police or civil authority exists. "It takes a thief to catch a thief" and a mage to catch a mage?

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Like every living creature, thieves would have to adapt. If anything, the number of thieves in the general would be smaller, but they would be more aggressive. Think about it, If booby trapping was easy as saying a chant every once in a while it would get rid of most of the noobs. Thieves that had a couple robberies under their belt and really do not give two flying burgers will figure out how magicians work. Im assuming the it takes a certain kind of person to actually do magic.

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You say, "Assume D&D style Magic", so I'm going to assume as well that magic is learn-able by anyone (with a sharp enough mind and a teacher or tome to learn from) so basically, magic in this system is a bit like technology in the modern world, in that anything that can be used by a Security agent or Locksmith to secure something or legitimately bypass such security can be suborned by thieves to illegitimately bypass security.

Often, in D&D and similar games, when I play any sort of rogue/thief character I take either a level dip or a class feature to allow me some small amount of spell casting. Detect Magic and Knock are very useful for a thief who wishes to burgle a Wizard.

So basically, I'm saying, In a setting where Magic is common enough to be an ever-present concern to a career thief/burglar, they will be exactly as cautious as they would be in a setting without magic, it's merely that the focus of their concern will shift slightly and their tools will change to fit the setting.

Any thief planning to steal, for example, the Eye of Unspecified Deity, a perfect princess cut diamond the size of a regulation Fifa Soccer ball from whoever the heck owns it is going to take the same basic precautions.

1) Scout the building, know the layout.

2) Learn the security measures.

3) Prepare countermeasures and an escape route.

If the setting is high tech and the security is laser grids and pressure plates that means canned fog and a suspension rig. If the setting is high Magic and the security is a chained gorgon, some contingency triggered Lightning bolt spells, and a poisoned arrow trap, that means a mirror shield, some resist lightening charms, and a couple healing potions and antidote potions.

The basic setup is the same, just the details vary with the job.

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