Honor Among Thieves
They say there is no honor among thieves. That is probably true, but there are rules. There are societies, crews and of course guilds. I have written up a few guilds and there are plenty of others to draw on, but it can be hard for some folks to figure out how to use them.
The easiest use of course is adversaries. They steal the PC’s stuff and the PC’s have to get it back. Either that, or they beat the PC’s to the loot. That is fine but is not always the most compelling answer. Many players are into the whole idea of playing criminals. There is something to the appeal of crime stories. There is a reason why we keep seeing heist films getting made. Gangster flicks are iconic and Robin Hood is an enduring legend. Criminal societies make good stories.
The problem is, not everyone knows how to translate that kind of story to table top. If you will permit, I will offer some advice on that point.
Urban stories have conflicts.
In the city, you are unlikely to face hordes of orcs or dragons. Exploring an ancient tomb might still happen in the city, but you are not in the wilderness any longer. The threats are often more pervasive and less directly evil.
You steal form some evil sorcerer, which is normal adventurer thing to do, but the city guard may not know he was evil, so now you’re hunted by legal authorities. How do you ovoid the law (see also the nominal good guys) and the agents of the evil sorcerer while remaining in the city?
A noble may want evidence that another noble is moving against him, and seeks out the thieves’ guild for that proof. The PC’s have to get this proof, without killing anyone.
One guild has decided to consolidate power by eliminate all the other competitors and free agents, like the PC’s. Do you conduct a war in a city without letting other people in the city know?
The commonality with those examples is to demonstrate that there is a different kind of conflict available in cities. Thieves’ guilds represent an excellent opportunity to provide a vehicle for action. How they relate to it is much like how adventurers related to a wilderness terrain. Are the PC’s hostile to the thieves guild? This can lead to difficulty in traversing the city. Are they on good terms with guild? Then maybe areas of the city will open up to them. The thieves’ guild hall is obvious, but secret tunnels, supply drops, and smuggler havens are also options.
If they are less apt to get along with the guild, then the city becomes difficult terraign to navigate. Rooms at the inn get robbed or cost more. That gear you wanted to buy in the city becomes substandard, more expensive, or oddly unavailable. The effects of an unseen criminal underground can be vast.
How to get people invested?
The player who already is playing a rogue or the Criminal Background and wants to be an archetypal thief is an easy sell. They already want to play with thieves’ guilds and shady underworlds. Approach these characters with a simple introduction and they will likely want to play with this kind of story.
Encouraging players who are not criminal can be harder. The implied fantasy of most characters is nominally that they are good guys. Organized criminals are usually in the realm of “bad guys.” They may still play along because of the PC’s who are invested. There is certainly an out of play attempt to not ruin one player’s fun for another’s choices. Communication solves many sins, so if you have players not buying in, despite the few who are, then you may have to go an extra mile.
There are a few ways to get these others to play in a more morally ambiguous story element.
This is a method that has a built in shelf life. A thieves’ guild can blackmail PC’s. Maybe they know that the PC’s are hunted by an evil noble in the city and will lead that noble to them if they don’t do what they are asked. This kind of motivation is hard to manage. First, PC’s are often encouraged to solve problems by stabbing/chopping/burning them. They may just decide to kill the thieves and worry about the consequences later. To pull this off, you have to make sure that you communicate that the consequences are not worth the short term solution of murder.
Even after that, this is essentially a form of removing choice from a character. It should be only used sparingly, because nothing will anger a player faster.
Enemies of my Enemy
Sometimes, the way to snag the interest of PC’s is to emphasize the mutual benefit found in working with these guys. Sure thieves are hardly known for their scruples but there are worse things in the world. Evil cults bent on destroying the world are not going to spare a thieves guild and the thieves know it. An evil baron who oppresses his people might actually be the reason a guild starts. There are a lot of reasons people become criminals and not all of them are about greed.
Making your guild sympathetic is one path, but it does run the danger of losing moral complexity. That may not be a problem for you, but you should consciously decide so. Nothing wrong with having your thieves be more like Robin Hood than John Gotti. It is perhaps more interesting to make it not so simple. Maybe have the guild do a protection racket on the side, but be integral to helping stop a greater evil like a slave trader. Giving PC’s moral choices helps define them better.
Ties of Blood and Friendship
The PC’s may be tied to a member of the guild. Maybe a favored NPC on the road happens to be a member of the guild. Maybe your stalwart paladin’s little sister ran away and became a thief. Maybe a beloved mentor was a founding member of the guild before going off to become the PC’s mentor.
However you make that relationship, the PC’s are less likely to ignore or murder your thieves’ guild members if it is someone close to them. It is a way to allow the story to be presented in a less adversarial way.
You have them interested. Now what?
Well, assuming that you are not just running a straight up thieves’ guild campaign (which I will write a different post about), then you need to figure out what you want the guild to provide.
A lot of the power dynamics in the criminal underworld is built on favors. You do a thing for me, I will do a thing for you. You want the thieves’ guild to provide a way into the dread temple of Hunah, then they will need you to do something for them. Maybe they will need you to free one of their members from the gallows, or they need the PC’s to retrieve some basilisk poison. Any way you do it, a guild want favors, and favors become quests or side quests.
PC’s often want to know about the trouble they are getting into before they get into it. Are they about anger the wrong noble? Did you need to know the secret entrance to the castle? Want someone to scout the orc war camp for you? These are all excellent uses of a thieves’ guild for information. Sometimes they can also provide information to give your city or world more depth. A thieves’ guild is often embedded in the plight of the common man. They know that the urchin starves, and where the curl up to sleep. They know which noble is cruel and which is kind. They know that the malnutrition in the poorer sectors is leading to an increase in scurvy. The scholars and sages can tell you much about the great powers of the world. The thieves’ guild tell you much about the truly miserable masses of small people the stories have forgotten.
There has always been and always will be a demand for things that are illegal or hard to get. Adventurers may have even greater demands. Poison may be considered dishonorable, but it might give you the edge you need to defeat a bad guy. Thieves’ tools are not exactly going to show up in a local general store. Some places outlaw a particular faith. If your cleric is of that faith, you may need help getting religious texts or vestments. In some settings, arcane magic is considered unholy or unsafe and you need to hide it. Getting components for spells or new spell books becomes more difficult.
All of those examples are things which a criminal underworld can provide. Sometimes you need to get things in secret and the thieves’ guild can get it for you. It might be more expensive, you might owe a favor as well as money, but if it is illegal or hard to get the thieves’ guild may be your answer.
These are a few ways to work a thieves’ guild into your game and how to get your players involved. I think I will do a few more thieves guild posts before all is said and done. Were there any aspects you would like me to talk about?