Rarely have I seen a Thieves Guild that I could believe in. I know that we’re talking about a game – in a fictional world – in a fictional setting, and I know that a lot of concepts in the game come from real-life origins, but something about the Thieves Guild just rubs me the wrong way. Count the Assassins Guild in there for good measure, too. So, in this article, I’m going to talk about an alternate way of representing a Thieves Guild.
What IS a Thieves Guild?
A Thieves Guild is a collection of assassins, thieves, and other criminals who must pay an operating fee to a local (usually clandestine) criminal organization, in order to gain permission to ply their craft. The fee may either be paid in regular dues, or as a cut for individual jobs. Failure to pay the guild (and getting caught) results in punishment “up to and including death.”
One might say that a Thieves Guild is like any other guild in that its purpose is to spread the work fairly among those in the trade. In reality, though, it’s more akin to a crime syndicate seeking money and power.
~~~ Rewinding time down memory lane… ~~~
“No Tourq, you can’t cut his purse and expect to get away with it – you’re only level 1.”
“But I have this Pick Pocket ability, and my bonus is +10%.”
“Look, you can do it, and you might take his purse, but the Thieves Guild is more than likely to take notice and hunt you down.”
Say Wha…?! Perhaps you’re unlike me and have had a better time dealing with this part of the game. Back in the early days I swear this was the one issue that made me hate the idea of playing a thief, rogue, or assassin. Why would my character have to be part of a guild, or at least be on the run from a guild? I don’t remember my character class description ever really warning me of this issue, so why make it a big deal in the game?
Some possible rules of a Thieves Guild:
- You must pay a fee to become a member of a guild.
- The guild has a hierarchy of bosses that must be obeyed.
- 10% (or 20%) of everything you steal must be paid to the guild.
- You may never steal from a guild member.
- You may never steal from beggars or the poor.
- You may never steal from merchants or nobles who have paid a guild exemption fee.
~~~ annnd 26 years of gaming gives way to the hissing coming from my brain…~~~
The other day I was reading the news about how it is now illegal to pay blackmail, ransom, and extortion money to the Yakuza. Forget about the fact that the victim can now be taken to jail, and focus on the term Yakuza. The instant I read the word Yakuza was the exact moment I realized my problem with Thieves Guilds.
Yakuza, Triads, Mafia, cartels, even street gangs are the modern equivalents of Thieves Guilds. Thinking of a crime syndicate in such a manner reaffirmed my problem with Thieves Guilds, while simultaneously helping me believe in the possibility of a Thieves Guild.
My problem is that I think of a Thieves Guild as the absolute most basic, undefined, vanilla crime syndicate, interested only in money. When I think of the Yakuza or Mafia, I instantly have a vision of a well-defined criminal organization, one that has identity and purpose. Of course, that well-defined vision of modern criminal organizations comes easy, if not from the vast media portraying the subject, then the centuries of documented history. Real Thieves Guilds, on the other hand, are few and far between – there’s only speculative documentation of actual Thieves Guilds in late medieval France, and not much else…
~~~ and that is why I challenge the common notion of a Thieves Guild ~~~
Yes, I know this is a game with dragons and fireballs and voluptuous, promiscuous barmaids, but that isn’t enough for me to believe that a vast criminal empire is out to make sure I don’t steal from some visiting merchant, traveler, or tourist. I simply can’t believe in a setting where I have to pay to steal.
Thievery is a crime of opportunity, not a privilege. Will the Thieves Guild be there…
- when little Timmy steals a piece of jerky from his brother?
- when the beggar pockets a trinket while in the back corner of the market?
- when the thug holds up a drunk merchant in a dark alley?
- Hell, will they be there when the rogue sneaks into the manor and lifts the stack of gold from the master’s coffer?
I would certainly lose immersion in the game if they did. I doubt that members of the Guild would (or could) maintain control of all, most, half, or even 10% of all thefts in their town or city. I severely doubt they would expend the man hours needed to investigate such crimes.
I find it far more likely that a Thieves Guild would operate more like a common street gang or modern criminal syndicate. Take a few pointers from the Yakuza, Triads, Mafia, and Cartels. For instance:
- First and foremost, the Thieves Guild is interested in money and power. When it comes to gaining more of either, the Guild does not discriminate; it will employ whatever illegal means that have proven to get results. Stealing, gambling, blackmail, prostitution, contract killing, extortion, and even the old standby “protection racket” are all fair game.
- The highest members get paid dues by those that are directly underneath them, who are paid in dues by those directly underneath them (and so on), all the way down to the lowest members. This is like a group of guys who, together or not, commit crimes and give a cut of the score to their boss. It’s your typical pyramid scheme.
- Typical members include bosses, money-makers, and enforcers. Since the bosses make the most money, members typically strive for upward movement. Generally, those that are good at both making money and enforcing make the strongest, most successful bosses.
- Members typically have a special dialect or cant that is difficult to detect and/or decipher by common folk. Marshals and inquisitors who specifically target the guild have an easier time following or noticing the language.
- Many times the Guild is largely left alone by nobles and politicians. Such people usually have a use for the guild, or are themselves targets of the Guild.
- The Thieves Guild does not worry about local thieves and low-profile dealings, as that can never be truly regulated. It’s the certain members who have their small territory or niche infringed upon that get antsy. That becomes less of a Guild issue and more of a personal attack or war.
- The Thieves Guild might have an actual name (like Yakuza, Triads, or the El Cortez Cartel), or it simply may just be known as “The Guild.” Membership is usually exclusive, as opposed to simply allowing just any thief to gain membership.
- The Guild (or individual members of the Guild) aren’t going to go after every petty crook that’s trying to make a living; they’re going to go after those big time movers and shakers who make a splash in their town.
You can see obvious differences between Thieves Guilds and crime syndicates, and similarities. I simply can’t believe in a group of thugs who have to pay membership fees in order to steal or commit crimes in their town or city, with the repercussions of not doing so being injury or death. Sure, members would pay dues to their superiors, but it’s to a specific person (one boss higher), not the Guild as a whole. Your “boss” is someone you know, have known, and spend time with on a daily or weekly basis. Having to gain permission and pay dues to begin a “safe” life of crime is what drives me nuts.
I’m not saying that a Thieves Guild is not exactly believable; I’m saying that to make it believable, I need to inject some realism into it. Thieves Guilds are largely works of fiction, whereas crime syndicates are largely works of history. Telling me that I have to deal with the Thieves Guild is one thing, telling me that I have to deal with the damn Yakuza is something else entirely. I think that if you blend the two, you’ll add a much more plausible and potent element to your game’s story.