Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Been Caught Stealing

From Deities and Demigods - TSR, WOTC, 1980
One trope of D&D style fantasy that has always annoyed me is the existence of "Thieves' Guilds".  Now I always assumed that these were the result of the Grey Mouser's influence, and as much as the The Thieves' Guild in Lakhamar makes sense ... not every fantasy city is Lankhamar.  One particular element that struck me about the difference between Leiber's world and popular heroic fantasy is that Lankhamar is highly hierarchical and controlled. Additionally the Lankhamar guild is not strictly a criminal enterprise, but a religious and social one, with a basement of bejeweled undead thief liches.  Additionally Lakhamar's thieves assumed police investigative and enforcement functions. Finally the Thieves guild in the Gray Mouser books is a bunch of semi-competent thugs, an underworld power, but not a world spanning empire of crime.

This sort of organization might work in a game focused entirely on thievery in an urban environment, or a game of social mores and intrigues, but doesn’t work casually in the rough frontier environment of most D&D campaigns.  The criminal underworld should not be the wealthiest and most well organized organization with the best contacts to the rest of the world.  If the criminal underworld ends up as the most powerful or organized hierarchy somewhere then they will no longer be the criminal underworld, they will be the government.  Lankhamar may be like 1940’s Vegas in this sense, a city run by a criminal kleptocracy that has been forced to assume the reigns of government in order to best protect its profit.

Still thieves and assassin’s guilds have a mechanical benefit – offering a simple way to have PC thieves to have access to training, supplies and underworld gossip.  Still they ring incredibly hollow to me - especially given the wide variety of Thieves.  What are fantasy thieves exactly: actual criminal thieves, scouts, peltasts, swashbucklers, general practioners of the 'adventuring' arts?  If thieves are any and all these things, an urban thieves guild devoted to plundering merchants for money and jewels makes no sense, certainly not as a general fixture for all thieves.

 So I've been thinking about thieves, and Thieves' guilds.  Specifically I recently posted a list of criminal organizations in Denethix, of which the party has already become involved with three.  This creates a set of factions in rough balance and the party can enjoy themselves by making trouble and starting gang wars.  A party thief could theoretically get all things thieving related from one or more of the factions if she cried out for structure, or wanted to play the classic D&D power consolidation end game.

In my slowly evolving megadungeon/derelict ship crawl the HMS Apollyon, I don't think a variety of criminal underworlds will work, given that it's a classic light in the darkness campaign idea, with a tiny 'civilized zone', totally cut off from any other society, and a rigidly totalitarian government.  Still Thieves are an important part of any fantasy campaign, and there needs to be some kind of organization to sponsor PC thieves, train them and feel properly criminal.  That's where these guys come in - the Russian "voř v zakone".  Thieves in the law.

Russian Criminal Tattoos 60's - Danzig Baldeyav
Apocryphally the Russian underworld during the totalitarian period had a distinct criminal culture based around a clear criminal code and existing as far outside normal soviet culture as possible, but it was not an organization, it was more of a caste. The code of arcane rules and attitudes, and a hierarchy of how well one exemplified these attitudes and lived up to the code was codified tattoos (many involuntarily applied) so that any Vory could know another, and know his status.  This makes an interesting game element, thief status is always apparent to other thieves/authorities, and an almost monastic code of conduct must be followed to remain respected within the thieves' community.  The alleged Thieves Code of the Vory is as follows:

1. Forsake his relatives--mother, father, brothers, sisters...
2. Not have a family of his own -- no wife, no children; this does not however, preclude him from having a lover.
3. Never, under any circumstances work, no matter how much difficulty this brings-, live only on means gleaned from thievery.
4. Help other thieves -- both by moral and material support, utilizing the commune of thieves.
5. Keep secret information about the whereabouts of accomplices (i.e. dens, districts, hideouts, safe apartments, etc.).
6. In unavoidable situations (if a thief is under investigation) to take the blame for someone else's crime; this buys the other person time of freedom.
7. Demand a convocation of inquiry for the purpose of resolving disputes in the event of a conflict between oneself and other thieves, or between thieves.
8. If necessary, participate in such inquiries.
9. Carry out the punishment of the offending thief as decided by the convocation.
10. Not resist carrying out the decision of punishing the offending thief who is found guilty, with punishment determined by the convocation.
11. Have good command of the thieves'jargon ("Fehnay").
12. Not gamble without being abie to cover losses.
13. Teach the trade to young beginners.
14. Have, if possible, informants from the rank and file of thieves.
15. Not lose your reasoning ability when using alcohol.
16. Have nothing to do with the authorities, particularly prison authorities, not participate in public activities, nor join any community organizations.
17. Not take weapons from the hands of authorities; not serve in the military.
18. Make good on promises given to other thieves.
19. Never deny his status as a thief directly. A highly ritualized response allowing only lying by omission is the norm.
  - From "Professional Crime Past and Present", Gurov, A. I. (1990),  Moscow.

Now some of these offer interesting game opportunities, especially the "never deny your status as a thief" and the injunction always help other thieves. That a thief should never work is great, because obviously plundering demon haunted ruins, goblin forts and ancient tombs is not work! Making a player thief live by another set or run afoul of other thieves might be interesting.  It also offers an alternative to the "Thieves Guild", a sort of collective criminal memory and society that a thief can tap into, but where resources are limited by reputation and the nature/resources of the other local thieves.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I’m a bit more tolerant of the concept of a Thieve’s Guild than you are, though I think of it more as any old organized crime gang adopting the trappings of a guild, an institution that would be familiar and comfortable to people in a fantasy-medieval town than as an actual guild. That said, replacing organization with subculture is a very cool idea.