Thief In Law
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Basic Information

Vory v zakonye is a Russian term that roughly translates into Thief-In-Law. The term is sometimes shortened to Vor or Vory. The Vor are the elites of the Russian Mafiya. To become a Vor, you have to have spent many years in prison, and you must live by a strict code. Rather than being a single family or tightly-controlled network with a hierarchy like other mafias, the Vory are loosely organized in small groups with a lot of independence.

The home for angels is Heaven and the home for a Vor is prison.
- Russian saying

Vor spend a lot of time inside prisons. Having served multiple prison terms is a requirement to be "promoted" to full thief-in-law status.

Russian prisoners have a tradition of tattoo art with special meanings. By looking at the tattoos on a Vor, you can tell his entire past: how many times he's been arrested and for what, whether or not he's respected the other inmates, whether he works alone or in groups, etc. Every major type of crime has a corresponding tattoo. The location of 8-pointed star tattoos on the body indicate the Vor's rank. You can tell a Vor in a crowd by the tattoos on his hands - there's a variety of ring-like tattoos common on the fingers, and cats or devils on the backs of the hand.

The Vory commit to a strict code called the Vorovskie Ponyatiya. A Vor:

  • Cannot have a family. No marriage allowed, and they must renounce their relatives.
  • Cannot cooperate with authorities in any way. They can't testify in court, can't do what a prison guard orders, and can't join the army.
  • Cannot own major property or earn money via legitimate commerce. They can skim protection money off of smugglers and drug dealers, but cannot be one themselves as that's too close to a legit job.
  • Cannot lose control, neither as a result of emotions nor whilst drunk.

The code varies a bit and is apparently less universal after the fall of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era, the code was so strict that a decades-long prison-war (called the Bitch Wars) broke out between the Vory and the "suki" (those criminals who accepted the government's offer of amnesty in exchange for fighting against Hitler during World War II).

The Vory have their own special thieve's cant called Fenya which is a hybrid of Russian, Greek, Yiddish and code words.

Sources

Bibliography
2. article at jumping polar bear dot com - has example photos of prison tattoos
3. Movie: Eastern Promises - chronicles one aspiring Vor's rise up the ranks, and really shows off the prison tattoos
4. RPG Sourcebook: The Zalozhniy Quartet - this Night's Black Agents RPG campaign pits the PCs against a Vor, his organization, and vampires

Game and Story Use

  • A Vor would make for a particularly bad-ass Mob Boss or Big Bad Evil Guy. He's done plenty of hard time, so you can't break him or make him back down. He's proven himself, and expects utmost loyalty from those around him. This is the sort of hard-hitter that you haul out when you want the PCs to sit up and pay attention.
  • On the other hand, having done so much prison time would imply that the Vor isn't all that good at the actual crime thing - given that he keeps getting caught…
  • Vor as Social Bandit could work as well. They aren't likely to be Robin Hood, but they could lead a revolutionary cause.
  • During the Cold war, they are some of the few people you can pretty much garuntee won't be KGB agents or informers… and taking bribes from a foreign agent probably doesn't count as co-operating with the state.
  • Introducing such a character can be done somewhat subtly. Have a completely normal scene with your new NPC about something with no criminal overtones whatsoever, but call for some sort of "notice" or "spot hidden" roll for the PCs to realize he's got tattoos all over his hands and running up his sleeves. Even better, don't roll for it, and only have them notice when they're shaking his hand at the end of the meeting. (The sudden reveal of who they've been dealing with may prompt a morale or sanity check, in systems where that's appropriate.)
  • In a cold-war era game the Vory are mostly restricted to the Soviet Union (and it's prisons), and the code is very strict and precise. In a more contemporary game they have diversified and spread to most major cities, but may have relaxed the code a bit. Russian mobsters have their fingers in everything these days, so you can justify dropping a Vor and his crew in to places and stories where it will be a real surprise.
  • A murder mystery (or other mistaken identity) plotline might involve someone targeted for killing when a Vor spotted their (innocent and ignorant) tattoo. The victim thought it was just some killer ink they could wear to make their hand look cool, which they decided to get because they saw that same awesome tat on some guy's hand at a club. The fool had no idea real hitmen would be offended by a civilian accidentally wearing a gangster tat they hadn't earned.
    • Or, the body of an actual Thief-In-Law could be a major clue. His tattoos indicate who he worked for, and thus who might want to kill him.
    • Equally, a corpse that turns up covered in post-mortem full thickness burns - or just missing the hands and various bits of skin: someone is trying to conceal (or suggest) the fact that the deceased was a Vor.
    • Alternatively, the hands of a Vor could turn up on their own - possibly undead in the right sort of game, possibly as someone's necklace of ears - an NKVD commissar, for example, might collect the hands of Vors that he has killed during counter-rackettering operations.
  • A recording or notes vital to a mystery might be in the Fenya cant, and the PCs have to contact a Russian mobster to get it decoded. First you have to prove to them that you're not working for the government at all, or else they won't help no matter how fat a bribe you offer.
  • Vory v zakonye and their code, cant and tattoos could serve as a model for a thieve's guild or similar organization in a fantasy game. Maybe wizards or anti-paladins of a certain type tattoo themselves to signify that they've literally been to hell and back.
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