A Look at Thieves’ World

In Sanctuary someone is always awake especially when others are sleeping.

Thieves World Boxed SetMost people that play RPGs have a favorite setting.  Mine is the city of Sanctuary from the Thieves’ World Anthologies.  It is a series of twelve books with short stories by different authors all taking place in the same setting of Sanctuary.  The first was published in 1979 and the last one was in 1989.  There was a short revival done in 2002 but I’m going to talk about that in a later blog post.

A friend of mine gave me the first book to read about 1988.  So, I was not on the cutting edge of Thieves’ World and barely being a teenager did not help.  It was not until 1996 that I learned there was RPG material written for it.  Since then I’ve more than made up for it.  I played in two Thieves’ World campaigns and ran a third.  I have copies of each of the original books plus the novels that some authors continued to write about their characters.  I have the collected graphic novels and the not so great board game.  I have multiple copies of many of the role playing supplements including the original Box Set.  Now, as much as I love the setting and the books I will say they are not always great.  Some of the stories are pretty poor, especially by today’s standards.  But overall it forms a great setting and one of the best for low magic gritty fantasy role playing.

Sanctuary is the city and it is founded by runaway slaves and pirates.  Depending on when during the novels one uses the setting, it may be conquered by a far off power or free.  Either way the place is a dump.  There are inconsistencies in the stories about the city.  It is described as a place full of crooks and thieves but at the same time is an operating city.  The map makes the city seem a lot smaller then I envisioned in the stories.  There is a character named Cappen Verra who is called the only honest man in Sanctuary.  While the saying is in jest it does help set the tone that few people in the city are trustworthy.  When running a game in the setting I feel the DM and PCs need to sit down and decide just how cut throat the city will be from the start.  There were times the PCs would travel around the city with their pots and pans for fear of having them stolen in my games.  When I say our games were gritty and dangerous they really were.

The Thieves’ World Box Set is a great product for people familiar with the setting.  The box set does not provide a lot of setting information and only covers information in the first two Anthologies.  It does have a player’s guide that contains some basic essays, some written by the authors of the short stories that detail information the players should know.  It has good information in it to help get the feel and some understanding of the city and its history.  However, today it does seem like gamers would want more than the books provide.  I would use it as a good starting point and allow the players to also read the short stories to help get a solid feel for everything.  The GM’s book is filled with additional information and tables for random encounters.  There are tables for the different districts but more specifically for major or minor streets and then for day, evening, and night encounters.  There is a third book in the box set of the many personalities.  It gives a small paragraph on the many characters from the books. The bulk of the book is devoted to the stats of the characters in many different game systems.  The box set is not written for one game system.  It is kept purposefully generic so almost any fantasy game can easily be used.

The maps in the box set are the main reason I have multiple copies.  There is a large map of the city I had laminated.  It allows for a wet erase marker to be used and then wiped out.  It also allows everyone at the table to see the map in front of them and to understand where the different districts are and the different places.  There are very few defined buildings in Sanctuary.  There are tables so if one needs to know what a specific building is it can easily be determined randomly.  We had year long campaigns were the PCs never left the city so the maps were an important feature.  One area of the main map is left blank, a place called the Maze.  It is the most dangerous section with no main streets just side alleys that twist and turn around buildings.  No one knows the entire Maze so the area is kept on a different map so the players won’t know where they are going and can get easily lost in there.  The third map and another one the players should not see is of the sewers.  The sewers can be used to get around in secret if one knows the way.  Knowledge of the Maze and Sewers is important and a potential opportunity for the PCs to can earn money as guides.

Thieves World TraitorThere are also a few modules and supplements that came out for Thieves’ World.  I don’t have them all but I will talk about the ones I do have.  I’ve only run one of the three modules, the one titled Traitor.  The module is made to use with the pre-made characters.  Each works for Jubal, a local and wicked crime lord.  One of the characters has stolen something but Jubal does not know who.  He wants the characters to figure out who it was and return the item or he will have them all killed.  Each character has a write up of them being innocent and of them being guilty so it could be any of the characters.  This is the first RPG adventure I recall seeing this type of set up and I like it.  The first time I ran it though some of the players got frustrated with the mystery and decided to just kill one of the group and claim that he is the criminal.  I found a perfect resolution for Sanctuary.

Other modules include Dark Assassin in which the PCs are trying to stop an assassination and Spirit Stone which focuses on the S’Danzo a human race of travelers attempting to get back a sacred artifact of their people.  The main use we got from the adventures was more information, more NPCs, and maps of different places in the city.

In addition to the modules there is a Supplement called Under the Beysibs.  It covers books three through six and events that I hear the most people complain about.  There is a city book called Carse which I think is supposed to be the same Carse mentioned in the Thieves World books but honestly I’ve never seen anything that confirms or denies that.

This is just the first in what I plan to blog about Thieves’ World.  Next up I will talk specifically about the campaigns and the how using different rule sets altered the feel and expectations of the game.  We played just three campaigns but each campaign used a different rule set.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

One thought on “A Look at Thieves’ World

  1. I loved Sanctuary!
    My uncle gave it to me after learning it contained Robert Lynn Aspirin as a writer. He wrote one of my favorite books called “Myth Adventures”
    I need to go back and re-read it but I do remember it being fairly enjoyable setting.

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