If you approach your fantasy world building with some historical rigour, then you might find that there are a number of well known concepts that are prevalent across fantasy RPGs and literature that make very little sense. One of these concepts is the thieves guild, an entity that appears in Middle Eastern folklore and in a variety of fantasy settings such as D&D’s Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms. In real life, however, there is almost no evidence that thieves guilds have ever existed and there is a good reason for this. Before we explore this, it goes without saying that if you want to create a thieves guild and you couldn’t care less about what a history teacher-cum-role play game writer has to say, then go right ahead RPGs are here to be enjoyed after all. However, if you want to make really compelling crime gangs for your setting, read on and I think we should be able to piece together something interesting by the end of this article.
Ok, so let’s talk about guilds; these were mediaeval organisations in towns and cities centred around particular trades (leatherworking, brewing, weaving). They existed in order to ensure that standards of craftsmanship remained high and that craftsmen were paid well for their work. Using legal and non legal methods, they prevented rival artisans from setting up in their vicinity and creating a ‘race to the bottom’ when it came to the cost of their work. All artisans in a particular trade had to belong to the guild in a town or city. If we are to apply this to the idea of theft, we run into problems. Whilst it’s possible to have a crime syndicate or mafia of sorts (see below for more on these types of organisations), if a thieves guild did exist ie and organisation that encouraged better thieving and ensured members were paid well, even in a large city or metropolis it would rapidly run out of things worth stealing or pockets worth picking. If one looks at life in Victorian or Georgian England, where crimes against property (stealing things) were rife due to poverty and deprivation, the thieves in question were normally the urban poor, those desperate enough to risk the gallows in order to eat. Organised criminals, the likes of which one might imagine forming a thieves guild focus their energies on far more lucrative pursuits than ordinary theft and in a fantasy mediaeval setting there are all sorts of possibilities to make criminal gangs that are more interesting than a thieves guild, simply by applying a bit of social and historical thinking.
What is illegal?
Things become crimes when the state criminalises them. There are things that are objectively ‘wrong’ like theft or murder, but it take a state to create a legal code in order to say ‘this is both wrong and also punishable by law.’ States of course have criminalised all sorts of things that are not objectively wrong and frequently attack the way in which people live in the name of some sort of higher morality. This is a fancy way of saying that your syndicates and gangs will be criminal based on how the state defines crime. This means in a violent theocracy, your crime syndicate might hide sacred scrolls from the Divine Inquisitors, in a state where dragon eggs are the most prized currency, draco-smugglers proliferate, or in a city where the poor are deliberately oppressed and starved by the rich, your ‘criminals’ are actually Robin Hood types.
Criminal Case Study: The Mafia
Long before there were Italian-American crime families, the Mafia existed in the poorer parts of Italy and Sicily. Their role was to prevent Italian peasants from stepping out of line and to prop up local landowner power. It worked like this; If you, an Italian landowner, were having problems with peasants demanding to be better paid for their labours, you would identify the ringleader and then pay a visit to the local Mafia Don. This person would listen to your troubles, ask for a certain payment or favour and then say: “Leave it with me, it’s taken care of.” The following day, the ringleader would be gone, never to be heard of again, and the peasants wouldn’t dare ask for a payrise. These Mafia operated in the open, with little fear of whatever law there was, and in certain parts of Italy operated as a de facto police. They were part of the functioning of the local economy (keeping labour costs low) and made sure that poor people knew their place. When they came to America, along with hundreds of thousands of poor Italians who lived in immigrant communities in places like New York, they quickly came to control those communities using intimidation and were helped by the fact that many Italian immigrants were more scared of the police. How does this example help your world building? You might create a mafia that is in league with nobles, kings or barons to do their dirty work, or which functions as a protection racket (a much easier way to operate than a thieves guild).
Criminal Case Study: The Columbian Cartels
In Columbia, to prevent civil war between the major producers and exporters of cocaine, the major players in the drug business organised their businesses in order to maximise profits and minimise risk. There is an assumption (and it’s false) that crime bosses are somehow less savvy than corporate CEOs, but the drug cartels suggest otherwise. Of course, these arrangements rarely lasted and inevitably broke down into bloody feuds and reprisals. Whilst the drug cartels were involved in different types of crime and eventually became so powerful they threatened to overwhelm the Columbian state, their wealth was possible through the careful control and distribution of a valuable but illegal commodity that not only caused harm to those that consumed it, but also saw wealth pour out of countries where the drug was exported to. All very well, but how does one adapt this to a fantasy scenario? What item, substance or object does the King or his ministers wish to prohibit? Strange extra dimensional crystals that help people see the past, future and other realities? Ground dragon scales that give the user phenomenal strength? Why is the state seeking to control these things? Do they fear they will rip society apart? Do they fear them on moral grounds? Economic grounds? Do they look upon them with fear simply because they are unknown?
Thieves guilds have never existed in the real world because objectively, they don’t make a lot of sense. There might be groups of thieves working together, but this is a gang, not a guild. Major criminal organisations might resort to theft if it is expedient, but racketeering, smuggling contraband, assassinations, rigging elections and getting rid of troublesome individuals is much more lucrative and low risk. If you want to create an original crime organisation for your fantasy world, look at the gangsters and low lives that exist in real life as your inspiration (though try not to be too inspired by them…).