Thieves’ Guild as Stationary Bandit

Among the most familiar tropes of D&D is the thieves’ guild, one of many ideas D&D inherited from Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. In a lot of D&D-related material (e.g., Gygax’s Saga of the Old City) you get the sense of the guild as, well, a guild, where apprentices train under master craftsmen to achieve journeyman status. At first glance this is a ridiculous concept, based on a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the sense that everything in the middle ages was based on guilds, so why not thieves. However on reading Anja Shortland’s Kidnap, I changed my mind and came to see a thieves’ guild as an institution that is both realistic and eminently gameable if you move away from the idea that they’re constantly picking pockets.

Kidnap is a great book and if you enjoy this post I highly recommend you read the whole thing. I read it as a social scientist and it’s a very good scholarly work. However non-academics who just want ideas for intrigue and adventure will find plenty of gameable hooks beyond what I’ve summarized and riffed on here. The central thesis of the book is that the kidnapping insurance markets and their associated negotiators at Lloyd’s of London are awesome and governments are a bunch of amateurs who mess things when they ban ransoms, pay ransoms much higher than is standard, or both. However, I want to focus on a secondary point in the book, which is the role of a “protector,” an issue heavily inspired by Olson’s stationary bandit model.

Kidnapping for ransom is difficult because it assumes you have a place to keep the hostage, a way to safely collect the ransom, can credibly commit to releasing the hostage and seeing them to safety, etc. All of that assumes a monopoly of force in a territory by a faction she abstractly refers to as a “protector.” This can be a state, a mafia, a rebel army, or a tribal clan. In fantasy, it would be a thieves’ guild in an urban setting and pirates, bandits, or some type of rogue state in a hexcrawl. The thing is, the protector doesn’t want to kidnap you. They want you to pay protection money against being kidnapped. Kidnapping for ransom as a direct revenue generating activity is for amateurs. Pros use kidnapping as an enforcement mechanism for extortion. In equilibrium (economist-speak for “when things settle down”), nobody will get kidnapped and everyone will pay protection money. And it’s not just kidnapping — an effective protector will keep those who pay protection money free from other types of criminal predation, and indeed, will use theft and vandalism as escalating enforcement tactics against those who refuse to pay protection. So you shouldn’t think of being in the thieves’ guild as like Oliver Twist making his quota of thefts for Fagin, but as like being a property tax assessor, but for the mob. A truly powerful thieves’ guild would hardly ever commit any thefts.

On the other hand, you will see lots of kidnappings when you are not in equilibrium and a criminal/rebel/whatever organization is contesting authority with either the state or with rival criminal/rebel/whatever organizations. If I, as a local burgher, don’t believe the thieves’ guild can kidnap me with impunity, I won’t pay them protection money, which means they actually have to do it to set an example. Likewise, if I’m getting shaken down by lots of criminals, I can’t pay protection to all of them and I may not want to pay protection to any of them if they can’t guarantee my safety from their rivals. All of this suggests that a protector organization will need to ruthlessly suppress not only rivals but also freelancers. Shortland quotes friends in Naples or Palermo who will say ironic but sensible things like “It’s perfectly safe here, it’s mafia territory.”

All of this suggests treating a thieves’ guild (or pirates or bandits or rebels) as a faction with lots of gameable hooks.

Rescue. The most obvious game hook is the player characters get sent to rescue an important NPC who has been kidnapped. This would make Shortland very upset as she stresses that real life kidnappers typically treat hostages well until there’s a rescue attempt, at which point they murder them. So the challenge for the player characters would be to treat the rescue as a stealth mission, which should be feasible with enough hide in shadows rolls and silence spells.

Revenge. An alternative to rescue is revenge. First you pay the ransom, and then you come back and slaughter the hostage takers. Plutarch recounts a story about Julius Caesar being kidnapped as a young man, paying an ample ransom, and then returning with a bunch of dudes to crucify the pirates who kidnapped him. The player characters can be that bunch of dudes sent on a punitive expedition.

Bag man and negotiator. Shortland has great admiration for the ex-special forces bad asses who work as consultants for Lloyd’s insurance companies to actually handle ransoms. These guys are total player-characters, but they’re mostly player-characters in a story game even if they used to play in an action-based game. You need some bad asses to handle the negotiation and to deliver the ransom without it being intercepted by rival criminals. Your PCs could take on this task and finally use those language skills they have in speaking goblin.

Punish rivals and freelancers. If rival gangs or freelancers start doing kidnappings, thefts, etc, this is bad for the protection business. The thieves guild needs to put down any threats to a monopoly on miscreancy. The player characters can serve as enforcers for this purpose, most obviously if they are gritty cutthroat members of the guild, but this plot hook can work even if the party is entirely lawful good paladins. “The brotherhood recognizes that you don’t approve of our line of work but we live by rules and we have a common interest in punishing the animals who kidnapped that child and sent her ears back with the ransom letter. That kind of behavior is not just despicable, it’s bad for business, and someone needs to make these desperados disappear.”

Freelancers. The PCs themselves could easily be seen as freelancers in need of guild discipline. The PCs probably aren’t going to get into the kidnapping and extortion business themselves, but the thieves’ guild might take an expansive view of what activities they claim as jurisdiction. Just as mafias tend to shake down pimps, pushers, and thieves in real life, in a fantasy campaign, murder hobos might be expected to pay a hefty tribute to the guild. (If you really want to make this painful in an OSR game, make any treasure paid as tribute not count for XP). Alternately, the PCs could be minding their own business doing murder hobo stuff and learn after the fact that the snake cult whose tower they just sacked had itself been paying protection to the thieves’ guild and so the adventurers’ quarter is now a distinctly unsafe place to be.

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  1. John

    It is telling that these adventure hooks would work equally well as premises for a Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story. I’ve often heard that the Lankhmar stories are the closest Appendix N analogues to actual D&D play, which – in the case of Sword & Sorcery, Gold-for-XP style play – seems plausible to me.

    It would be interesting to see what sort of PC personalities result from a campaign which starts with a Lankhmarian “Revenge” or “Punish rivals and freelancers” hook as compared to a more heroic fantasy “Rescue” or “Bag man and negotiator”. Unless you are running a bring-your-two-page-backstory-to-the-first-session sort of game, a lot of a PC’s character emerges from play, and I suspect in the first few adventures the DM has a lot of leverage on how “neutral” they end up being.

    Liked by 1 person

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