In Kobold Quarterly’s Fall 2008 issue, John Baichtal explores the differences between how rogues live their lives in fantasy campaigns versus how rogues live their lives in reality. His opinion? Most fantasy rogues have it too easy, but a little realism could add to the fun and challenge of playing one.
In the Beginning…
Baichtal’s article paints a bleak picture of all the obstacles rogues have historically come up against. Many real-world thieves turn to a life of crime because they have no other choice; they steal, or they starve. This doesn’t have to be the case for every PC, though. Some might be thieving because of greed, ambition, or pressure to carry on the family tradition. I like the way Baichtal emphasizes the importance of a character history to flesh out a PC’s motivations for going rogue.
The Truth about Guilds
When a PC becomes a rogue, all they need to do is find the nearest thief guild, sign up, and watch the action and coins roll in. Right? Wrong! Baichtal points out that thief guilds are organized crime at its most elite; you have to prove your worth as a high earner if you want to join their ranks.
That can be difficult when you’re first starting out. You’ve got no guards on your payroll, and the guild seems to have all the fences and high-stakes operations tied up for itself. Lacking connections, access, and guild membership, new rogues are easy prey for law enforcement and rival criminals alike.
Living under Constant Attack
It’s sad but true: Nobody likes a thief. Lawful folks detest them. Other rogues view them as competition. Tax collectors hunt them down. Even their own party members might view them as little more than a necessary evil. But DMs don’t tend to play up this fact because it doesn’t add to the fun of the game.
Or does it? What could a rogue do to rise to this kind of challenge? I see an environment of distrust as an opportunity for rogues to become more than mere petty thieves. They could come into their own by honing their fighting skills to deadly efficiency; spying on and then blackmailing a local leader; or raising an army of mercenaries to shoulder out a local crime lord. Sure, any one of those strategies could start a war. But, as Baichtal states, an adventurous spirit is common to all rogues. No risk, no gain!
The Last Necktie You’ll Ever Wear
So what really happens when rogues get busted? Depending on the offense, PCs could catch a mighty beat-down from the guards, or they could find themselves in stocks. Flogging, branding and mutilation are other options. As Baichtal explains, jail wasn’t the punishment for thievery in days gone by; it was merely a layover on the way to the real punishment. For the most unlucky of thieves, there is always the hangman’s noose.
Now, nobody’s advocating killing off your rogue PCs. But imagine the drama and excitement that could be generated by having a rogue get caught. Could he bribe his way out of trouble? Would his friends plan a daring rescue to spring him from prison or whisk him from the gallows at the last minute? If it adds to the role-play experience, toss a dash of realistic crime and punishment into your campaign.
Interview with the Author
I caught up with John Baichtal, who took the time to answer a few questions about his roguish musings.
Janna: In your article, you explore the differences between the rogue life in reality and the rogue life as it’s found in fantasy games. What inspired you to write about the plight of rogues?
John: It seemed to me that there was a difference between the ne’er-do-well fantasy rogue and the life of medieval thieves, or at least my understanding of historical criminals. Seemingly, role-playing-game rogues have no reason for living the life they live, and no logical justification for getting away with all of their crimes. Real medieval thieves are always cold, hungry and desperate, and accustomed to being used and abused. They’re one lucky break from leaving the rogue’s life for something better. But at the same time, they do have a nobility about them. Why aren’t they serfs or peasants? Because they’re too proud to be subjugated that way.
Janna: Do you have a favorite fictional rogue?
John: Conan. He goes against type, because everyone associates him with being a hulking swordsman. However, Robert Howard depicted him as being a thief from the start, with one of his classic Conan stories, “The Tower of the Elephant” having him break into a wizard’s tower to steal a fabulous jewel. This great short story, actually the second Conan story ever published, was one of the influences of the original Conan movie. What I like about Conan is that he’s a thief by circumstance. As a barbarian, he doesn’t fit into civilization’s hierarchy, so he makes do as best he can by leveraging his natural talents.
Janna: Have you ever played in a campaign where a rogue actually did get taxed or harshly punished? (If so, what did those elements add to the game?)
John: Oh, heavens no. Anytime the authorities apprehend or punish a rogue, it seems that absolution is merely a quest away. Getting your character’s hand chopped off or having him get branded cannot be much fun for any player. I have GMed a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign where the PCs ended up in prison, with escape being the goal. However, as I mentioned in my article, unless you were a bishop or prince, imprisonment simply wasn’t the way you were punished in medieval days. Also, I find that ne’er-do-well PCs in roleplaying games tend to run from city to city. Inevitably, it seems, the campaign ends before they run out of cities.
Janna: If you were a rogue adventurer, how would *you* spend your retirement?
John: Taking as little risk as possible.
Janna: How do you feel about red dragons?
John: They have lots of treasure that can be purloined by the right thief!
John Baichtal has delivered a good article that exposes a rogue’s life for what it really is – rough. He also raises some good questions. For example, does a rogue stay a rogue forever, or does he invest in a legitimate business in his twilight years? Retirement planning takes on a whole new dimension when rogues are involved. Of course, one red dragon’s treasure pile can make up for years of bad financial planning. (Sorry, Expy!)
I’d love to hear what you readers think about this study in rogues. Do you think these aspects of realism would add to a campaign, or detract from the fun? Leave a comment and let me know!