Cities are made up of various classes of people ranging from nobles and upper end merchants to beggars and street urchins. Within all of those ranks though, the profession of thief is one that players need always beware of.
Thieves have a long history in fiction. The old anthology, Thieves World for example, covered initially in role playing games by Chaosium and more recently by Green Ronin, is a testament to the urban master. Way back in the day, as a counter or add on, I was never really sure which 'cause I never had the whole thing, there were Thieves' Guild modules and adventurers and Haven, a city to play them all in. Truly old school.
Thieves have a long history in the game as being masters of skill. Well, not necessarily masters, but the only class that had opportunities to overcome obsticles like traps, secret doors, climbing walls, and other mundane things that didn't necessarily involve stabbing people. Oh yeah, thieves were also really good at backstabbing people. Well, maybe. Depending on how the Game Master ran it. As the editions have moved on, their skill sets have become less important, more integrated into the game, and their combat survivability and ability to inflict damage, especially with the back stab, he increased greatly.
But for me, one of the greatest theif resoruces came out in the second edition era through the Complete Thief's Handbook. It wasn't that it took the thief abilities and made them goodly, unlike say the Complete Book of Elves, but rather, it brought different dimensions and ideas about what the thief could be in the game in a way that I felt only the Complete Bard could compete with.
In gaming, it made you thing of things that might not necessarily just effect the one character, but thinking of a whole campaign of thieves. This was a common theme of each Complete book, discussing how a campaign could be run with one type or theme of class. In thieves, there was a lot of rich material.
Smugglers: Players may come to a city where weapons are not allowed. Where magic is not allowed. Where other bits that they may need, such as different components for spells, are not possible to find. Smugglers are a vast help in overcoming these standard obsticales, perhaps even using the sewers.
Fences: Sometimes the players accomplish the mission and retrieve an item of fame and fortune. Other times the players stumble upon an NPC that talks too much and wind up finishing him off in a manner that would do fans of Mortal Combat pround. In any case, the players have now come into ownership of a very unique, very easily identifable item of some sort ranging from distinctive gems or jewerly, to objects de art or even magic items.
A few other other varieites of thief, might fall under other bits and only be allied, or perhaps even rivals to the thieves guild such as a beggar's guild or an assassin's guild. Others, might be representing different aspects of the guild. Some jobs might require second story men who are masters of stealth and disguise. Others, like roughing up the dock workers and shops, might require mere brute thugs. Roles that were once perfect for the half-orc in 1st edition.
Thieves are also a good counter to adventurers, or a good source of adventure material because they don't necessarily run only as individuals. Thieve's Guilds are a very popular guild in fantasy fiction and even the Twain of Fafrd and the Grey Mouser ran afoul of them a time or two. The other benefit? Being filled with various rogues and thugs, the players won't have any problems mowing through them, and because their role, when not fighting against players, is society based, will quickly be replaced. Perhaps the next guild won't be after the party, but perhaps there to reward them? There are many stories in Usagi Yojimbo where thanks to his friendship with Kitsune, he finds himself facing gangsters and other thugs.
The thief has a lot of potential as both a player class and plot device regardless of the edition of the game you're playing and for those who hunt down the old Thieves Guild adventurers, you've got a lot of material to run through.
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