Fantasy / Roll Playing question: Thieves Guild

Can someone familar with the genre explain to me about Thieves Guilds? Now I can easily understand that in any culture advanced enough to have cities that there will be organized crime. Theft rings, fences, smugglers, etc. Even a “thieve’s guild” in the sense that territories are staked out, thieves pay a cut to the mob bosses or else, et al.

What I don’t understand is realisticly, how could there be a society that tolerated such an organization operating openly? That is, one with a great big headquarters with “Ye Thieves Guilde” in big letters over the door? About the only scenerio I’ve ever seen that attempted to rationalize this was Terry Pratchett’s comical Diskworld novels.

When I played role playing games, or DM’d them the thieves guild was usually known only by thieves. It was like the mob today, they exist but they dont openly advertise. Unless the city was chaoticaly aligned, I can’t see the thieves guild openly advertising its presence.
I’m not a geek, really! :slight_smile:

(Caveat: all observations based on experiences of a RPG junkie and fantasy-book-devourer. Plus I ran a campaign devoted to a thieves guild for several years, during which time the players gradually assumed control.)

How could there be a society that tolerated such an organization acting openly? I haven’t read much Pratchett (yes, I know, I’m a bad man) so I don’t know if the same rationale was used there, but one argument for official tolerance (not necessarily acceptance) of a thieves guild is that it keeps crime at a controllable level. The law enforcement agrees not to crack down TOO hard on thieves, and in exchange, the guild agrees to keep its activities under control and police itself and keep tabs on independent operators. In this situation, it’s known that there is a guild, and that certain “legitimate businesses” are just fronts. Depending on the society, the thieves guild may wield enough power to openly intervene in affairs of local politics - a seat on a council, whathaveyou.

Of course, the political situation may force John Law to try to eliminate the guild, which leads itself to all sorts of fun.

There’s a very useful D&D handbook entitled The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Complete Thief’s Manual (ISBN 0880387807) or the previous edition Thieves’ Handbook. It’s got good information regarding such thieves guilds: how they come about, how they coexist with society, how they act in various sorts of societies, et cetera. Even if you don’t play D&D or any incarnation thereof, it’s a fun read.

(For future reference - I’m NOT a geek! Just because I played fantasy roleplaying games and got a degree in medieval history and fence every weekend doesn’t mean … sigh. Well, I guess it does.)

It kind of depends really. First of all, how corrupt is your society, how decadent? A society that is corrupt enough might have a very thinly veiled thieves guild, not really ‘officially’ recognized, but everyone knows where it is. Or in a more organized and less corrupt goverment, the thieves guild might be known to exist, and its leaders suspected, but who can prove anything. In a large city, such a guild might be powerfull enough that who leads it is basically common knowledge, but the leader has enough power to be immune to most guard investigations. And a thieves guild might be accepted because as others pointed out, they can bring a level of stability to an area…of course, that is assuming that there is only one ‘guild’ in a city, gang warfare is never pretty, esspecially if both sides can hire mages. :slight_smile:

And of course, remember that in an oppressive regime, such a guild might be better liked than the official government, also because most of its members are of the same class as the majority of the populace.
And unlike the others, I proudly admit that I am a geek, I role-play (yes, D&D lately.) about nine to ten hours every Sat. And online alot as well.

Hey, I fence too! Anyone calls you a geek just slap em’ with a glove and challenge them to a duel!

You also might want to take a look at Raymond Feist. The city of Krondor has a thieves guild, the “Mockers” that is, while illegal, tolerated for the most part by the authorities, because the attitude is that an organized underworld is less violent or dangerous than an unorganized one.

Lumpy, you might try, they have a FAQ &/or message board on just about every known game in the universe of every type of video game machine or PC…

Well, my user name came from a sword in a D&D campaign, so I guess I’m a geek.

Ditto on guilds being secret, in most of the campaigns I’ve played in. In the ones I’ve run, I could never get around the point that D&D has these neat spells called locate object, detect lie, commune, find the path, etc., which make the task of tracking down missing objects of great value fairly easy.

So, in my campaigns, Thief is a job description, like Warrior or Cleric. You don’t have to steal things if you’re a thief, you don’t have to be a sociopathic killer if you’re a warrior, and you don’t have to try to convert people if you’re a cleric. The guilds provide open training for anybody who wants to learn (this works better under D&D Third Edition, when anybody can learn to pick locks).

Oh, and I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd & Grey Mouser stories…

This is also assuming that thieves’ guilds advertise in the open. I doubt that most tg’s hang a sign on their front doors for the convenience of government agents.

If you want a good look at how a thieves guild works in a D&D, see if you can dig up some of Gygax’s Gord the Thief Greyhawk novels. The first one is the most relevant I believe.

Gawd. I can’t believe I just posted on an rpg dork item. :slight_smile: Somebody slap me.

For an interesting, and partially tongue-in-cheek, look at a thieves’ guild in fiction, check out Jack Chalker’s novel “And The Devil Will Drag You Under”. One segment takes place in an almost stereotyped medieval fantasy world (why would take too long to explain), and one of the leads visits the guildhall. It’s an… interesting take on the trope.

– Bob

The Thieves’ Guild is an anachronistic concept imposed on a medieval setting by some fantasy writer back in the days of yore. Fantasy fiction is prone to modernism, probably because modern readers can’t accept characters who don’t have modern knowledge and sensibilities. That’s why you’ll rarely see healers who don’t know about washing their hands or using moldy bread to break a fever. And from a modern sensibility, it would seem only natural that a criminal underworld would be highly organized.

Obviously, there was never a Thieves’ Guild, as such. The Mafia is the closest analog in terms of organization, though the character types in your typical RPG/Fantasy Thieves’ Guild are drawn from Charles Dickens.

There has probably been some sort of underworld in every culture ever since civilization arose. In many ways, it’s practical for thieves to associate with eachother, and not with squares. But these associations were probably quite loose. Although in the middle ages, craftsmen formed guilds which allowed them to set prices and gain influence, there is no evidence that such a thing ever occured among criminals before the 19th century. Some loose organization would have naturally risen around fences, recievers or panderers.

As to how open a criminal organization could be, that will vary according to time and place. One thing to keep in mind is that the institution of professional, organized policing that we’re used to is only about 150 years old. England, especially, was late in developing a police force. Under the frankpledge system inherited from the Anglo-Saxons, citizens were bound by pledge of honor to pursue and punish criminals. Even after the establishment of a constabulary, which was an unpaid position primarily responsible for overseeing watching the city gates and lighting lanterns, investigation and enforcement was largely the onus of the victim. In the late 17th century, England passed laws that legalized professional enforcement by private individuals who were empowered to collect money for capturing thieves and returning stolen goods. But these `theif-takers’ quickly learned to maximize their profits by working with thieves. This is perhaps where the closest paralell to a fantasy Thieves’ Guild arises, with thief-takers like Johnathan Wild, who in the space of seven years managed to keep the underworld of London in his thrall by organizing robberies, for which he would be rewarded when he recovered the stolen goods, and arranged for thieves who would not co-operate with him to be sent to the gallows. It’s not as though no one knew what was going on, but the law as it stood allowed him to operate with his hands clean (until he was caught and hanged, that is). But Wild changed the way crime was done, and those who came after him were more careful, and so was the state.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that professional policing arose just behind organized crime. But it was too late to stop the Camorrah from rising to power in Sicily. They were a secret organization, but their existence, their activities and their membership was pretty well known – not unlike a Thieves’ Guild in a roleplaying game. And the same is true today of the organization that has become the Mafia – we know who they are, what they’re doing and how, but we can’t quite get rid of them. If a modern professional police force can’t wipe out the mob, what chance has a medieval one got?