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I refer, here, of course, to the Thieves' Guild and the Assassins' Guild. Here I will examine under what conditions they may exist on a mud striving for a realistic world, and how to use these guilds in a role play environment.
Made by the Roman glass makers.
As always, I go to history when dealing with role play. I do this because history shows us what has worked and what has not. If something hasn't existed in history, there's usually a good reason for it. While fantasy includes races that are, sometimes, startlingly different from our own, the dynamics of a society usually stay the same, and one can usually find a parallel with any alien society somewhere in the world.
You'll notice that I do not consult the writers of fantasy novels. This is because I hold them in low esteem when it comes to role play. They write what is fun to read, not necessarily what really works for a role play society. In my own experience as a role play-enforced game administrator, I have seen personally what works and what doesn't. If you want to have these guilds and not worry about whether or not they make sense, by all means do so. I don't care how YOU choose to run YOUR mud. I'll talk here to those administrators who do wish to have a little historical ration behind their bad-guy guilds.
First, let us examine guilds. To make a very long and complex history short, guilds evolved in Europe in the late Middle Ages as a way to control quality, prices, and membership. Guilds developed around such trades as glass making, metalworking, weaving, dyeing, tailoring.. you name it. Membership in these guilds was strictly contained; apprenticeships were purchased by families for their children as a way of guaranteeing them a good future. Apprentices went through years of grunt work before becoming journeymen, and then worked for several masters in rotation before applying for his or her own master status. Guild membership was prestigious and costly, in many cases. Guilds could and did demand better treatment for their members, set prices, occasionally engaged in riots, and held monopoly on their livelihoods. Most large cities (particularly French, Belgian, and Italian ones) had large networks of guilds. Consider them medieval unions.
Now let us examine crime in history. Most villages were very small in the Dark Ages, but crime did occur. No record I have ever seen speaks of what we would consider "career criminals". These were ordinary people who saw an opportunity and took it. Lifelong Talen-style thieves and professional assassins simply don't occur. Because locks were not used through most of the Middle Ages, and because most houses were made of branches and plaster (a construction called "wattle and daub"), it was an easy matter to walk in through the door, or punch a hole in a wall, and get what one desired. However, once one had done this, one took a real risk of being seen. Medievals were busy bodies, and considered village security everybody's task, particularly as most villages didn't have formal police or constables. If one stole too often, one got booted out of the village, or just killed by a posse or the local noble's men. The most frequently committed crimes were generally economic -- a beer-seller who didn't keep accurate measuring cups, for example, or a baker whose bread didn't have enough flour in it.
Larger cities had a harder time with criminals in the Middle Ages. However, fines and imprisonment usually captured career criminals. There are records of prostitutes, thieves, and other undesirables being thrown into jail, or forced into servitude, for life to repay their crimes against society. The logs of medieval courts are numerous, and none that I've ever seen indicate that career criminals were a major problem. Gangs of boy thieves might have existed, but since in many places the penalty for thievery was losing a hand, their membership would be constantly rotating.
Next, let us examine the question of assassins in history. In order to be an assassin, one needs access to weapons and possibly armor, and possibly knowledge of poisons, arson, and other destructive techniques. Through history, the majority of assassins one finds are... soldiers. Yes, soldiers. Who else could walk around with weapons, or purchase and store them, without exciting interest? Who else got training in how to fight and kill? We are talking about a society where almost nobody was given serious weapons or training; nobles got itchy when too many commoners knew how to fight, and with good reason. I should also note that there has never, in any reading I've ever done of history, been an assassin who just killed people for a living.
Murder was a fast way of earning a little extra money, and soldiers could always blame their superiors for giving them the order. There's plenty of evidence that even sovereigns ordered soldiers, knights, and other military types to go do their dirty work. However, murder was treating more strictly than in our own time. Murdering someone was serious business, and penalties, if the hirer suddenly got an attack of conscience or was himself discovered, were severe. The penalties of even being suspected of making an assassination attempt, as Queen Elizabeth I discovered, could be lifelong.
Last, let us examine what would need to happen for these "guilds" to exist.
A Thieves' Guild would need a moving meeting house, because it isn't hard to figure out where the bad guys live. Most muds are based in medieval times, and medieval people were nosy. They knew everything about their street and their neighbors. If a gang of thieves set up shop on any street, it'd be about two days before neighbors knew that larcenous types had moved in, and another hour or two before they were turned in -- nobody likes having criminals near their families. Most muds put this Guild underground, but even the entranceways would be known. One cannot ever operate in secrecy in a medieval city; streets are narrow, houses are crunched together, and neighbors are extremely nosy, what with having no television to burrow into at night. Even a movable meeting house would be constantly discovered.
It would also need a very corrupt city government, which might be hard to find. With the above information that people would most certainly know where the Guild house was, it's equally certain that law enforcement would need to turn a blind eye for it to continue to exist. Most governments in history were headed by idealistic monarchs who believed they were given the right to rule by God. Some governments were actually very corrupt, notably those of Henry VIII in his early years and several boy popes in the late Middle Ages, but most monarchs would have reacted badly to the idea of thieves operating with knowledge of the police. Bribes were accepted and even tolerated for spying, smuggling letters, and other minor infractions, but serious crimes wouldn't have been tolerated for long. Stability is important for governments, and as Americans are discovering now, excessive crime, and perceived tolerance of that crime by government agencies, is a fast way to destabilize one's society.
Last, it'd need a way to keep the citizens quiet. Medievals were fairly brave when it came to raising the hue and cry against criminals. Since most families were craftsmen or laborers, they'd have every reason in the world to want these people out of the neighborhood. Fear and bribery can be effective, but few groups in medieval times could really use these tools thoroughly or effectively.
So, to recap, for a gang of thieves or assassins to exist, one needs a society that has broken down and become a victim of corrupt government and law enforcement. One needs a way to control the populace, because they will certainly know where the criminals are hanging out. One needs fairly lax laws that allow career criminals to get convicted of the same crimes over and over again, yet not remove them from the picture entirely.
When did these situations coincide to produce organized crime? Mostly modern times. The Victorian age's Jack the Ripper stalked through a neighborhood that did, in fact, boast career criminals of all stripes, from whores to thieves to muggers. Progressing further, Bolshevik Russia boasted many gangs of thieves and cutthroats, some of which survive to this day in post-Communist Russia; Africa is also filled with gangs of criminals. Italy and the United States enjoy the attentions of the Mafia and other crime families. And in my own United States, street gangs perform much the same function as fantasy's Thieves' Guilds and are probably these writers' inspiration.
An Assassins' Guild would require even more stringent conditions. These are not just boy thieves and prostitutes; these are murderers. There's no indication that an Assassins' Guild has EVER existed in history, simply because there wasn't ever enough work for them to pursue the end full-time. It also doesn't make sense psychologically; it's lunacy to think that any assassin would associate with another, for fear of discovery. One might also bear in mind that most guilds were groups of people working together toward the same goals; what in the world would an Assassins' Guild work toward? What possible benefit is there to belonging to one? How do they work around the tremendous cost of being discovered? How do they recruit, and how do they train? How do they control competition? How do they work with authorities? How often does each member work, and how do they set prices? How does the Guild afford a house and other accouterments?
The questions I've raised can be answered, and have been, on some games, but others just assume that Assassins' Guilds exist, like they assume their readers walk upright and breathe air, and the Guild sticks out like a sore thumb, begging for rationale and reason. To be truthful, I don't remember ever hearing about a formal Assassins' Guild at any point in medieval (or modern history). There's got to be a good reason for this, and that good reason is probably that it just wasn't possible, given the societies that existed then and now.
One might see from this article that I'm not a real fan of bad-guy guilds. I'm not. I see them poorly, shoddily implemented, filled with compensation-fantasy characters who are two-dimensional and twinkish (you love seeing them back stab rats, don't you, administrators?), and placed in settings that scream unbelievability. Making bad-guy guilds more believable can only produce more fleshed-out and realistic characters, and encourage good role play. On the other hand, I love seeing a good bad guy character, and believe strongly that good guy-bad guy conflict is a powerful one on muds. I'm not against thieves and assassins. I just want them to make a little sense, just like the rest of the player base, and I know other administrators are with me on this. Maybe you are, too.
April 2001 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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