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April 11, 2014

Thieves' Guilds

This is a comment I posted on G+ Game Master Tips that I thought deserved to be expanded into a post here.

I love the idea of thieves’ guilds. The way you run a Thieves' Guild should be related to how you color morality in your campaign.

A campaign with a stark black and white morality, or on the Hero or Hunter level of the Horror-Hunter ladder should have a thieves’ guild who represents the poor and oppressed, stealing from tyrannical nobles, jewel-encrusted priests and arrogant wizards. Model them on Jean Valjean and Robin Hood. They would have modern sensibilities, smuggling to avoid blatant mercantilism in favor of free trade, robbing nobles who take all they want by right of birth, conning priests who control their congregation with threats and fear, etc.

Further down the ladder, the thieves’ guild would be better portrayed as a mafia, coming up with price-fixing and extortion schemes, stealing high value commodities like livestock and grain to resell at a vastly inflated price to desperate freeholders, and robbing valuables from less clearly deserving targets in the upper class. Model them on Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Niko Bellic – bad people, but amusingly adventurous NPCs who the PCs can deal with — especially if there is greater evil afoot that takes priority over some racketeering scheme.

At the bottom of the ladder, the thieves’ guild is a collection of despicable people who would rob their own mother, like the despicable bandits of Ken Follett’s amazing books Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. There is a reason the punishment for bandits was hanging in medieval times – they were really awful people. In a full-on fantasy horror scenario, the thieves’ guild is a natural go-to for vampire cults, dark gods, and possessing spirits.

PC Thieves' Guilds

If a PC wants to run a thieves’ guild, match the campaign’s mood and the PC’s alignment or ethics to the level of evil. I had a PC run a spy network, and instead of running scams, blackmail rings, secret interrogation chambers, and networks based on coercion, he paid them quite a lot of gold. His network was not profitable, but it was Good. More like Harper Agents than actual spies.

Remember, the Guild is a hook!  Use it to draw the PCs into adventures.  Thieves encounter challenges and discover opportunities.  Just make sure to convey a criminal theme when you use them as a hook.  No "rescue the princess -- I mean beggar" plots.  Instead, try "cover up the crime" or "steal back the evidence" or "convince the witness that his boss is evil."

What about mechanics for PC Guilds?

Always tricky.  There are downtime mechanics in Pathfinder, so if you play that, just use those.  In non-F20 fantasy RPGs, or in 4e or D&D Next, the Guild could be worth a circumstance bonus in certain skill challenges.  

Otherwise, I would let the Guild collectively achieve one thing significant to the story every adventure.  I wouldn't require a roll; they would just do it.  Maybe it would be to provide the story hook, or to drop an otherwise-impossible to find clue at a crucial moment.

If you can't think of anything else, have them come across a magic item that the Guildmaster PC wants, and sell it to him at a discount.  That way you can use the provenance of the item as a story hook for a later adventure when you figure one out!  

"Wait, you said you stole this showstone amulet from the Schwartzfeld estate?  We just learned that Lord Schrwatzfeld is a lich!  No wonder undead assassins have been attacking me for the past six sessions!  It must be his phylactery!"


  1. I've always wanted to run a thieves guild game after reading the amazing Lies of Locke Lamora.

  2. Some of the most fun I've had as a GM was when a character in my campaign had to prove himself for the privilege of joining the local thieves guild