Thieve's Guild
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Basic Information

The Thieves' Guild is organized crime for a fantasy setting. The more family friendly versions seem to be entirely composed of burglars and pickpockets whilst more advanced interpretations involved themselves in extortion, prostitution, drug running (assuming there is such a thing as an illegal drug - which there may not be), smuggling, kidnapping, murder for hire and all the other cultural enrichments that real life organised crime provides, not to mention miscellaneous black and grey marketeering not otherwise specified.

Strictly a thieves guild is a little anachronistic for a tightly medieval setting - populations were small, and crime large enough to be profitable would be excessively high profile and punishment for theft was traditionally swift, brutal and frequently fatal1. The only definitive mention of a thieves' guild in a medieval source appears to be political satire, but given that crime is always with us it's not hard to assume that there was some form of organized crime in the middle ages and the typical absence of anything resembling a police force in most times and places may well have assisted. In any case, the larger, more affluent cities of most fantasy worlds could probably support some form of guild, although whether it would actually follow guild structure or not is open for debate.

A traditional fantasy thieves' guild seems to be some kind of vast, national or even international brotherhood, often communicating in Thieves' Cant - more subversive versions may only control part of their own city. Setting congruence, as always, is important.

Where they exist The Thief will almost certainly be obliged to be a member - or to be in constant trouble. Benefits of membership (besides not being stabbed) may well include access to fences, suppliers of Thieves' Tools, poisons and other black market goods, safe houses, training providers in various covert and criminal skills and an extensive information gathering network (often composed of beggars - unless they have their own guild). Other powers may use the thieves' guild to supply black-ops and intelligence services … with the usual caveats that derive from doing business with criminals.

The guild may or may not operate with the same apprentice/journeyman/master/syndic structure as a trade or craft guild.

In a somewhat divergent example, Terry Pratchett's fantasy city of Ankh-Morpork has a thieves' guild which interacts with the general population almost like an insurance company - for a modest annual payment, the citizen can be guaranteed exemption from any robbery against their person or property by guild members. And the guild reacts very badly to thefts by non-members, expending most of its effort in suppressing them. The guild in question is entirely overt and subject to government licencing so the boundary between insurance, extortion and taxation becomes extremely fuzzy. This would come relatively close to the model of a protection racket.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Rival guilds fighting for control over a city make for a good meta-plot for an urban campaign.
  • Thieves' guilds also allow the direct transfer of most modern organised crime and urban gang warfare plots to a fantasy setting - indeed, a steampunk setting may also include the sort of organised labour plots common to Pulp Era US organised crime.
  • As stated, PCs thieves may need to plug into this network - or avoid it.
  • Other PCs may need to buy assistance from the guild … and they may not accept cash.
    • Actually making contact with them may be troublesome enough.
  • Generally, banging heads with the guild during an urban adventure may lead to hilarity.
    • Ironically, the very nature of the Guild may make it quite a forgiving opponent - dishonest men are liable to be easily bribed and the guild may well be quite open to terms give sufficient compensation … or if faced with sustained losses that cannot be easily stopped by other means, making peace the pragmatic option. The only "principle" to be expected that anything that makes the Guild look weak will not likely be tolerated by them.
  • The guild makes a good corporate villain … but even more interesting is the idea of the guild being infiltrated by something far worse.
  • Conversely, the guild may go a lot further up in society than you think.
  • In an early modern setting, organised crime and state intelligence may be deeply interwoven - prior to fully funded state intelligence agencies, louche gentlemen with friends in low places may be able to accomplish a great deal when covert operations are required.
  • Worth noting the "legality dissonance" of some things - in most of the world, there was no such thing as an illegal drug until the 20th century, and likewise there were no specific laws against buying, selling or owning many poisons.
  • Another, potentially useful, option is to have the thieves' guild being a venue where rival organised crime groups meet to discuss their differences rather than hammering them out (possibly literally) on the street - perhaps a sort of "model UN" for criminals2. Whether or not it will have its own masters and syndics is up to the setting creator - it may be nothing but a round table, or there may be a permanent staff, including a chairman/convener and ushers. The priest of an appropriate temple would be an interesting choice of convener.
  • The TV Series Rome includes several appearances of a suitable Roman form of thieves guild, both in the shape of the individual collegia and in their grand conclave to organise crime within Rome, as sabotaged by the "somewhat erratic" actions of L Vorenus. Details aside, the collegia were very much a thing in ancient Rome and did have a reputation for organised crime.
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