An Alternative to the Thieves Guild

I’m not a big fan of gangster movies outside of the first two Godfather films. Yet I can’t help but think that many D&D locales are suffering from the institution of the Thieves Guild that has become ubiquitous, found in almost every village and town.

The idea of the single, monolithic criminal organization obviously comes from Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, which featured a thriving and politically powerful Guild of thieves in the alleys and palaces of the great city of Lankhmar. The Guild brooked no competition and drew a tithe of its members loot, presumably to buy political protection offered by the Guild for its members.

While this is a wonderfully inventive idea, it just doesn’t seem realistic enough to be enshrined as a condition to be found throughout every city and village in every D&D world. I’m no expert on crime and criminals, but it seems to me that thieves and assassins would be more likely to associate in gangs, mobs, and families, akin to what is portrayed in films like Gangs of New York, The Warriors, The Godfather, and The Sting.

Such gangs would be focused on a particular leader. Depending on their size, they may or may not self-perpetuating after that leader is removed (either killed or imprisoned for his illegal activities). They would not be exclusive to thieves, but would include all sorts of character classes, particularly fighters and assassins but not exclusing magic-users and clerics, in much the same way that gangs of the 1930’s would have not only “muscle”, but accountants and bootleggers as well.

If you use mountebanks, I would personally set them apart from this element of criminal society and place them in their own sub-culture, one that co-exists at varying degrees of tension with the more violent gangs (a la The Sting).

I find this a much more engaging and dynamic situation to encourage urban adventuring based on underworld activities. Rather than the once-in-a-few-decades attempt to usurp the power of the Thieves Guild by some upstart, cities would see a constant hum of gang violence based both on retribution for previous attacks or slights as well as power struggles to add territory or new criminal enterprises (Marcus the Stirge controls all of the prostitution in the River Quarter, but the Red Kobold Gang from the Foreign Quarter is trying to muscle in on the action, etc.). The regular constabulary (or the PCs!) would then find itself in a much more difficult position as they attempt to solve crimes, as they don’t simply have the dualistic option of “Guild or rogue thief” to consider.

Certainly, singular cities such as Greyhawk or Stoink may buck the trend and have well-established “conventional” Thieves Guilds, but the very fact that such a state of affairs is highly unusual would be enough to add to the uniqueness of the places.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

5 thoughts on “An Alternative to the Thieves Guild

  1. In real life history, there have been VERY few actual thieves guilds, organized crime families have been the norm, this fits better in gaming anyway.

    Rival mafioso families warring in the alleys and such, even the tongs and triad are a collection of familial organizations that evolved into an almost corporate structure.

    good call, thieve’s guilds are silly 🙂

  2. Makes it more interesting when the players get into thieving, too. It’s not quite as big of deal if they don’t want to join an organization, and there’s more options to choose from if they do. Not to mention the interactions of intra- and inter-guild politics.

  3. The standard D&D thieves’ guild always seemed hopelessly artificial to me. I like the idea of modeling it on crime families or gangs.

  4. The classic D&D thieves guild is nonsense and mafia / gang structure is far more realistic.

    That said, the Thieves Guild, with its own language and secret skills always has it appeal. It fits into a high fantasy campaign far better than a handful of gangs.

    One possible way to make the Thieves Guild more realistic would be to base it around a particular racial group or religious belief.

    Maybe the thieves guild appears to be a community centre for descendants of an obscure tribe all of whom speak an obscure dialect and have unusual handshakes.

    All the could all be worshipers of a obscure, possibly banned god. Again with their own language and secret signs.

    A thieves guild does not have to be as literal as it is in Lieber's or Pratchett's work. All you need is three ingredients:

    1) Some common ground amongst it members, e.g. racial background, religion, or rescued from the street by a suspiciously well funded orphanage.

    2) Benefits for membership. Knowledge and support that cannot be gained elsewhere.

    3) A creditable threat of punishment for anyone who breaks the rules.

  5. Chris, the one thing you leave out of your list is exclusivity. That is what makes a Thieve's Guild (in the A/D&D sense of the term) a Guild and not a gang. If there can be more than one bunch of thieves (or assassins for that matter) in a given locale, it's edging further from the guild and more to the gang.

    I don't think you need any explanation for the thieve's cant and thieving skills other than common membership in a particular sub-culture and economic class. Much like Cockney, if you throw in enough specialized words (especially ones designed to obfuscate the meaning for anyone not "in the know") then you've got your thieve's cant.

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