Monday, September 5, 2011

On Mages and Thieves in My Game

In my in-person game, using Grindhouse rules, here's how I'm handling Mages and Thieves...

Regarding thieves and thieves guilds---Guilds don't exist. As far as thieves go, you have a few basic types.

1. Opportunist---he sees something laying around, no one is looking, he takes it. Not his chosen profession. Usually has a job, and the job is the place he may steal from. Dockworker stealing an extra bottle of rum when no one is looking, for example, or something he can sell to buy necessities, or a bit of bling to make himself feel better about his shitty lot in life. He may even feel guilty later. But he usually has a need for cash. Desperate types of poor people fit this mold.

2. Crack-head type: Has to steal to fill a need---whether food, drugs, gambling, bookie is chasing him down, etc. Usually a loner.

3. Small-time crook---loser, lives on the edge of society, does a job here and there to get by. May have a few friends who do it. Been caught before, in jail before. Probably will never rehabilitate, as they are lazy and stupid and good for nothing. Usually blows his money on cheap women and cheaper booze. Has a big mouth.

4. Struggling professional crook---takes pride in his job, tries to be better at stealing. Largely self-taught, lives in fear of getting caught by both the law and other criminals, as he tries to poach targets others may be interested in. He has enough talent to encroach on someone's territory to be noticed.

5. Group of thieves---those who consider that they have a territory, otherwise same as #4 above. By territory, I mean usual targets or types of targets. They may know people from #1,2, or 3 above who help them out. Usually friends from way back, like they grew up together and know each others strengths and weaknesses well, and have a form of loyalty and trust.

6. Good group of thieves--same as #5, but pull off better heists, and have a lot better contacts in both the underworld, and maybe even among the populace and legitimate society.

7. Organized good group of thieves with some pull---Same as #6 but they know a lot more people, and have a lot more pull. May know judges, police, etc who can get them off. Still a very small group though. Damn near impossible to break into groups 5 6 and 7 unless you hang with them a long time, and prove yourself.

8. Pick pockets---self explanatory, run the gamut from bad to good. Usually those without hands are bad, having been caught.

9. Con men--self explanatory.

Low life society consists of fences, pawn shops, seedy bars, drug dealers, crack head-type  informants, beggars, urchins, seedy bartenders, men who can be hired for a job---whether to rough someone up or to kill them.

What all these people have in common with each other is they have a culture, a shared language, a shared background (knew each other for a while), loyalty of a sort in that they have been tested and either talk to the cops, or they don’t, or do talk only when certain situations occur. They also know each other, if not by name then by reputation. They know who is "them" and who is "us." There is no professional brotherhood of thieves or of the underworld. There is just them and us, on all levels of society. And if you aren't one of them, then you're a target, a mark, or a threat. None of which is good for you.

To the extent that you're not one of them, but you look like you can handle yourself, have lots of battle scars, look like a badass, or have either a reputation somehow that they've heard of that intimidates them, or that you remain a mystery enough that they can't quantify of classify you, if you walk into the dock area with any of the characteristics listed above, then you might, just might, walk out alive and not get killed just on the off chance that you might have something on you worth more than 1 copper.

It's not like in AD&D when a thief walks into town, asks the guard at the gate where the thieves guild is, checks in and registers as a wandering thief, and promises to kick in a share of theft to the guild while in town. In your case, a newb and a rube, right off the farm, with no contacts and no connections, they'll think your a cop, or a target/threat/mark.

Which brings me to Specialists in the Grindhouse ruleset. The way Raggie describes them, and the way I also like to iook at them, is people with skills useful in various things. There are Indiana Jones types for dungeon crawling, hunter/trappers, tinkerers, thieves, fences, assassins, and many more. All are specialists. How you specialize is determined by the skills you select and what you do with them. Now, having grown up on a farm, your stealth comes from hunting and trapping, your tinkering comes from messing with farm gadgets and game traps, your slight of hand comes from card/coin tricks practiced all night because you're bored shitless and have nothing else to do, etc. That's not to say that you can't easily transfer those skills to some other profession, but their base is on the farm. In other words, you're not a thief---YET. But you definitely have larcenous tendencies. :)

If you want to pursue that route and develop along those lines, no problem, have at it. If you want to go the Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider route, feel free. You could also be the best hunter and trapper in the land. All are specialist roles. Where you take it is up to you. But I just didn't want you to go into town thinking specialist means thief, and expect them to welcome you with open arms. You'd most likely be killed the first night, dressed like you don't belong, looking right off the farm, with no backup, local contacts, or reputation. 

The dagger you wear might be worth more than any two guys have to their name, and those two guys will likely be waiting outside the inn with a couple wooden planks to beat the shit out of you, take your dagger and all your possessions, and roll your body in the river. Picture a white boy right out of some spoiled rich city going to the worst neighborhood in the biggest shithole city in mexico, all alone, dough-faced and innocent looking, and asking around about wanting to put something on the black market. That's about how it would turn out...


Live by the sword and die by the sword. Once you've killed a few times, you become desensitized to it enough that it becomes easier to do it again. Fighters know that of other fighters, and so are always on guard and wisely trust no one. They always expect the ultimate in violence from any situation---death---and prepare accordingly.

Wizards in this world have a recent dark history. About 2000 to 5000 years ago, it isn't clear exactly, the Pantheon wars took place. As a result, Clerics lost much of their power, as they were blamed for the wars that decimated humankind, and were thus allowed to exist only if they didn't get too powerful. They were allowed to live for their ability to heal, and their ability to be used by the ruling warlords and mages to control the small-minded masses through petty superstitions and rituals. They lost much of their powers, as their pantheon and deity specific spells were lost to them. Many clerics still hunt lost ruins today, looking for old prayer books that may have survived the millenia of destruction. 

The mages became the powers of the land. Of course, about 1000 years ago, the mage wars erupted, as 10 of the most powerful mages vied for power over the world. The mages all had their own plan for power. One mutated animal/human and even /plants into monsters hybrids (hence owlbears, griffins, etc today). One dealt with Demons, one Devils, one elements/elementals, one functioned on charming all humans around him, one gained mastery over the natural world, one in illusions/mind affecting spells, one in necromancy, one specialized in augmenting the powers of the mind through magical means, and one through summoning foul beasts through portals to many planes of existence.

The cleric wars were the equivalent of two kids fighting with sticks as compared to the mage wars. The cleric wears had humans fighting humans. The mage wars had total and complete chaos and anarchy, where the creations and summonings and powerful magics got out of control, slaughtered millions of every lifeform on the planet, and shattered and changed the face of the earth in many places. 

Any animosity people felt towards clerics is pretty much gone now, and the distrust is aimed directly at mages. They don't go around with pointy hats and magic robes to identify themselves. They don't form guilds, for fear of persecution from people worrying they may grow strong together again. Some hide out in small villages and after long periods of time gain the respect of the locals, but only the locals. To them he is "their" mage, to outsiders, he is still something to be feared and mistrusted. Many bury themselves in disguise in cities or in lost places across the countryside, to live in seclusion, for fear of witch hunters.

Because magic is so scarce in this world, the only true power a mage has in his or her spells and spell book. The lessons of betrayal and backstabbing learned by the mages during the war, when one-time mage allies turned on each other, were burned into the DNA of mages today. Basically, it takes a lot for one mage to trust another. They all view the rest as potential competitors for power. The only means of competition is spells and/or magical research and knowledge. Therefore, the sale of scrolls or spellbooks is the act of a weak mage, who doesn't care about his power. He will likely be eliminated and his shit taken. Also, if a mage buys a book of first level spells, it could be considered a sign that he is weak, can only cast first level spells, and he may be attacked by someone who can cast second level spells. Or it could be a trap set by the first guy to lull the second guy into a sense of power, so as to turn the tables on him. In any case, it generally never happens, because, like I said, who gives away their power?

Spellbooks to some mages are like trophies of war. The more spellbooks you have, the more mages you killed to get them, since that's usually the only way a spellbooks passes from one mages hands to another mages hands. Lots of spellbooks have bloody handprints on them.

Thus, unlike most DnD modules of the 80's we were used to, there is no friendly mage in the village dispensing unlimited scrolls and potions to promising adventurer mages of like alignment. To give away what makes you more powerful than someone else to that someone else is foolish. Think the mentality and culture of the Sith Lords, and you're close to the mark. Perhaps even better, think the Highlander movie and TV series. The mages teach apprentices so that magic doesn't die out, they train a newly recognized force practitioners in the dark ways of the Sith, they train newly awakened immortals in swordfighting, but when you hit a certain point, "There can be only one!" (or at best two, in the eyes of the Sith.) It's time to get the hell out of the nest, fly away, and become a practitioner of your own.

Of course, if your teacher was a close relative, and there is a close bond, that may be a reason people group together and trust each other. This goes back to the thief associations thing above. Long periods of trust and loyalty being tested, usually having grown up together in the same family or neighborhood, etc. For mages though it is a bit different, because to gain power, they usually have to travel far and wide and kill other mages or raid places to find lost knowledge. Hard to build long-lasting associations that way. That's also why its so rare to see more than one mage in any group of explorers---they don't want to share a damn thing with another competitor.

And of course, since magic is so rare, you'll never find any for sale, or find a buyer for your shit you loot. There simply is no black market THAT YOU'RE AWARE OF for such items. The scarcity of all magic makes any magic very powerful, therefore you either have to have the means to protect and guard your shit against the most powerful beings of the world who want to take it from you, or you keep your mouth shut about it. Waving around a flaming longsword in a bar fight is a sure way to attract unwanted attention from dozens of people much more powerful than you.


  1. I ended up mechanically enforcing wizard's working in the same manner. If a wizard knows the same spell as you they may counter it. This isn't some sort of contested roll either, if a 1st level apprentice gets Elminster's grimoire then Elminster is powerless against the apprentice. Witch Hunters who learn counterspells have the same effect.

    Thus its not enough that you don't share your spells, wizard's will actively hunt down others who know the same spells.

    I find cultural reasons not to do something don't dissuade PC's, mechanical reasons not to? like a holy commandment then.

  2. The mages became the powers of the land. Of course, about 1000 years ago, the mage wars erupted, as 10 of the most powerful mages vied for power over the world. The mages all had their own plan for power. One mutated animal/human and even /plants into monsters hybrids (hence owlbears, griffins, etc today). One dealt with Demons, one Devils, one elements/elementals, one functioned on charming all humans around him, one gained mastery over the natural world, one in illusions/mind affecting spells, one in necromancy, one specialized in augmenting the powers of the mind through magical means, and one through summoning foul beasts through portals to many planes of existence.

    I may be misinterpreting your approach to DMing here, but does this mean you had a bunch of school-of-magic-themed dungeons? And if so, could you arrange them in level-appropriate order?

  3. The mansions of these 10 wizards would certainly be viable high level adventure sites, and their lesser laboratories and libraries and safehouses for lower levels.

    As for Thieves, typically I figure the Thief PC started as a street rat type and was picked up as a likely Guild member (like Garret in the Thief games) or else was born into the Guild. Thieves Guilds work like street gangs. Some cover just a small town, others span a whole region, while others are so small there are multiple Guilds in a city. There is fighting between them, mainly in the form of ratting each other out to the cops, their common enemy.

    You get into contact with the Thieves Guild by knowing someone who is (your longtime friend Paulie who you used to run the docks with, not "I walk into the tavern and buy that shady guy a drink"), or spotting a low-level thief and catching him in the act. The second is dangerous, because you need to show that you have the thief skills to notice his thievery, without making it seem like you're a threat of spoiling his thievery. One choice might be planting a note on a lowbie pickpocket using your own Pick Pockets skill. It's really tough if you're not already a member.

    Part of the problem is that the local Guild has little to gain from a traveling Thief. So he picks a few pockets and gives far less than the Guild's split. He buys a level of training, most of which is actual costs not profit. He buys a new set of lockpicks - whoo. But they stand to lose information about their operations, possibly revealing them to the authorities, stealing from the Guild, stealing from the wrong people in town, or just looting all the good stuff and leaving.

    So the local Guild will need assurances that the foreigner will be moving on soon, that he will do no thievery in town or highway banditry without the Guild's permission ahead of time, and that any operation will include low-level Guild members to monitor the take so the Guild gets the split it demands. Anything the foreigner buys from the Guild will be inflated to at least double. The Guild will fence goods for the foreigner at a worse rate than he would get at home (say, 25% of item value instead of 50 to 75% at home).

  4. That's just the cost of doing business. If the PC Thief doesn't want to pay out the nose and kowtow to the local bosses, he just has to keep his nose clean. No pickpocketing, no burglary, etc. and he can't buy special tools (except rarely, say 1 in 30, at a pawnshop or something) and he can't train. If he operates in town without Guild permission there's a 1 in 6 chance per operation that the Guild gets wind of it (Guild member notices the act, or they get wind of a notable foreign Thief coming into town, or the victim complains that he was robbed despite paying his protection money).

    The Guild then approaches the PC by messenger and lets him know the score, levies a nominal fine, and demands that he leave or accept Guild authority as earlier described. If he refuses, he might get a knife in the back or poison in his food, sabotaged equipment, purchase fake spell components, his horse gets killed, pickpocketed, henchmen kidnapped, etc.

    Because the Guild is hidden, and is native, knows the terrain, and has unknown resources, and the element of surprise, and typically higher level members and greater numbers than the PCs, it's a force to be obeyed or avoided.

    Note that this doesn't put an iron boot on the PC Thief. It just means he has to not be a jackass to Guild members, can't mouth off to Guild officials, and has to pay his money. Or, he can keep his thievery in the dungeon.


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