Rogues in D&D

The amazing Guillermo de la Cruz, or why vampire hunters should be Rogues

Like everyone who watches What We Do In The Shadows, I adore Guillermo. And I was thinking, the OG vampire hunter in D&D was… the Cleric. Literally, the class evolved from a Gygax home game where someone played a vampire, so to balance things out a Van Helsing type was introduced on the spot. At the time they were already thinking to add a priest type, a divine magic-user, and in the end they bundled the two concepts together. So in a sense, Turn Undead preceded the spells. (AFAIK but I don’t have an impeccable source to show you, so let me know if you do.) In any case, Turn Undead became a defining feature of Clerics, and if you had a vampire to fight, that’s who you’d call.

But in fiction, symbols that make vampires hiss and recoil just work, regardless of who’s holding them, and vampire hunters aren’t spell-slingers. They do their research, they gather their tools, and they fight skillfully and fast enough to stake a fucking vampire. What I’m saying is, by all rights they should be Rogues. Unfortunately, for many editions D&D got stuck on the notion that sneak attack targets “vital organs” and therefore doesn’t work on half the monster manual, and certainly not on undead. So while visual media started portraying vampire hunters as more and more agile and fast, to keep up with their foes’ inhuman speed in action sequences, D&D didn’t follow, and didn’t support or provide lore for vampire-hunting Rogues.

Then 5th edition did away with that pointless restriction, and Rogues can totally sneak attack undead, so by now, friends, players, DMs, we have NO excuse. There are many ways to build a badass vampire hunter in 5e, mind you, and I’m not saying you should pigeonhole anything, but also let’s not ignore the obvious.

A fast (Cunning Action), elusive (Uncanny Dodge), and skilled (a ton of proficiencies + Reliable Talent) bastard, who knows how to aim a stake to the heart (sneak attack). Now that’s a Vampire Hunter.

So as I was saying, Guillermo is a Rogue, and how can someone be so adorable and so badass at the same time, it’s amazing. And that’s what I like most, he’s a perfect example of a kind of Rogue that’s very dear to my heart: he’s unassuming.

That’s better than sneaky. He’s not in stealth mode, you can see him plain as day, and you take one look at him and don’t perceive him as a threat. OH BUT YOU SHOULD.

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An overlooked thieves’ tool: the dark lantern

“Deacon Brodie’s Dark Lanthorn and False Keys. (From the originals in the Museum of The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.)” | The Trial of Deacon Brodie, 1906

A dark lantern was a type of hand lantern with a sliding shutter, so that the person holding it could adjust how much light it shed, if any. In the early modern period, it was very useful for thieves and assorted shady people lurking about in the dark. Court records even mention them as evidence: “he had a Dark-Lanthorn, and a bunch of Pick-lock Keys”, we read in an Old Bailey report from the 1680s. (The variant lanthorn was “folk etymology based on the common use of horn as a translucent cover”.) 

Late 17th century playing card: “The jack (then called the knave) illustrates the discovery of Guy Fawkes in the cellar underneath Parliament – ‘Guy Faukes found at the Celler door with dark Lanthorn and Matches.‘” | British Museum

In 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed under the Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder, a slow match, and a dark lantern, and today that lantern can be seen at the University of Oxford.

Guy Fawkes’ lantern | Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A 1787 fencing manual tells us that the shady people who carried dark lanterns would use them in combat to suddenly blind their opponent. I’m not sure we should take that too seriously, given that you need both hands to open or close the shutter while holding the lantern, which would make a Stab Surprise unpractical. Maybe it was a generic “grab literally anything in your off-hand” move, without mucking about with the shutter, or maybe the trick was “distract them and run”. Or it’s wholly made up, who knows. (I don’t trust anything fencing manuals tell us about the criminal underworld.)

“The Guard of the Sword and Cloak oppos’d by the Sword & Lanthorn” | Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1787)

The other type of people who found dark lanterns useful was cops. By the Victorian era they were more or less standardised, and policemen carried them on patrol.

A dark lantern with an advertisement for “Bull’s Eye or Dark Lantern, with Signals” | Dark Lantern Tales

Here’s a detailed description from Dark Lantern Tales: “Typical dark lanterns were about the size and shape of a small modern thermos bottle, and had a fount for oil in the bottom. A cap with a wick (or wicks) was mounted directly to the top of this reservoir, and in most models the cap also served as a port to fill it. In the cylindrical body of the lantern, a shutter could be rotated to block light from coming through a large “Bull’s Eye” lens on the front. At the top of the lantern was a vent that allowed exhaust from the flame to exit but retain the light. These distinctive vents were usually made with two metal disks that were stamped into flutes that taper to the middle. The effect is sort of a ruffled top to the whole device. At the back of the lantern were wire handles to protect the user from the hot sides (policemen and watchmen kept them lit for upwards of six hours while on patrol), and usually a clip to hang the lantern on the user’s belt. There are anecdotes that describe patrolmen keeping a lit lantern on their belt beneath their great coat to stay warm in very cold weather.”

“An 1890s Dark Lantern showing shutter open and closed” | Dark Lantern Tales

Dark lanterns found their way in D&D too. In 5e, the list of adventuring gear includes “hooded lanterns” which do something similar, though you can only reduce the light, not hide it completely. Of course, for the groups that even bother with lighting conditions, the problem is more often solved by asking your friendly spellcaster to cast Light on a pebble or something, and hiding it or holding it at your convenience. And earlier, in 3.5, “Dark Lantern” was an Eberron prestige class (a modified assassin), and also a magic item from Tome of Magic which created shadowy illumination.

Tome of Magic: spoooky Dark Lantern illustration by W. England

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What’s a Thieves’ Guild and where did it come from?

In a nutshell, Fritz Leiber invented the Thieves’ Guild, and D&D pilfered it. As for where Leiber got the inspiration, we can certainly speculate.

Thieves’ House

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser #1: “Ill met in Lankhmar”, art by Mike Mignola

The OG Thieves’ Guild is located in the city of Lankhmar, where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (the OG fantasy rogue) operate. It’s first mentioned in the short story “Thieves’ House” (1943), which was later republished in the collections Two Sought Adventure (1957) and Swords Against Death (1970). Ankh-Morpork and its own Thieves’ Guild (which hilariously operates like a proper historical guild, recognised and regulated by the state) is inspired by Lankhmar, too.

“The house had a bad reputation. People said it was the den in which the thieves of Lankhmar gathered to plot and palaver and settle their private bickerings, the headquarters from which Krovas, the reputed Master Thief, issued his orders—in short, the home of the formidable Thieves’ Guild of Lankhmar.”

The Guild is powerful, merchants pay tribute to it, and Krovas the guildmaster just hates it when independent thieves attempt to make a buck, too. In the story, said independent thieves are our (anti-)heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. And that notion of a trade monopoly obviously comes from historical guilds, whose entire point was that no one was allowed to practice a trade unless they were members of the relevant guild.

Rogue Literature

So where did Fritz Leiber get the idea of a Thieves’ Guild? We can’t know for sure, but his parents were Shakespearean actors and he was into Elizabethan theatre, and do you know the book The Rogues and Vagabonds of Shakespeare’s Youth? If Leiber did, he knew rogue literature, and that explains both Thieves’ Guilds (not the term, just the content, the term is all his) and Thieves’ Cant.

English rogue literature is an early modern (rather than anything medieval) and largely urban genre, which appears around 1600 with pamphlets describing the wicked ways and language of beggars, thieves, and conmen, all out to get the upstanding, respectable, and all too gullible good people of (usually) London. Around 1700, the first cant dictionaries appear, and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) is probably the first novel of the genre. Meanwhile, there are a lot of plays that are at least inspired or informed by it, from Shakespeare himself to John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera.

1600s

Now, if we take the early Elizabethan pamphlets at face value (and we should NOT, since all our sources were outsiders who aimed to shock – and titillate! – their law-abiding audience), thieves and beggars were organised in associations or fraternities with strict hierarchies. There were ranks and offices, and elaborate initiation rites and oaths to the devil, and codes of conduct and chains of command, and even kings of thieves with prima nocta privileges. And lots and lots of greed.

Most of that is bullshit, it’s made up or wildly exaggerated. Some of it makes a lot of sense, though, if you take out the fanciful stuff. A certain level of organisation is necessary for urban crime to work. After all, thieves need fences and beggars need real estate (I mean, they need to call dibs on their spots and somehow ensure that other beggars will respect that). And we should keep in mind that rogues (people without masters) and vagabonds (people without homes) were a world apart from respectable society: not only did they not enjoy whatever protections the state extended to its subjects, but they were considered criminal elements merely for existing without masters and without homes. So their only recourse was each other. A fraternity where all the thieves of London somehow worked together is mere fancy, but there was certainly a lot of mutual aid (if you were lucky) and internal exploitation (if you weren’t).

1700s

As we move on to the 1700s, London’s criminal underworld booms as much as the city itself, and the pamphlets (and now the newspapers!) have plenty of material to talk about. And for a hot second, there arguably is a thieves’ guild, run by a sinister guildmaster, a criminal mastermind who controls the thieves of London with one hand – and with the other, serves law-abiding people and retrieves their stolen property for but a small fee. His name is Jonathan Wild, and like Lankhmar’s Krovas, he hates it when independent thieves try to make a living in his city. And also he’s an utter bastard.

The infamous Thief-Taker General and his elaborate organisation may have been an inspiration for Fritz Leiber’s Thieves’ Guild, or perhaps it was second-hand from Professor Moriarty, who was also partly inspired by Jonathan Wild.

The Court of Miracles

La cour des Miracles” by Gustave Doré, illustration for Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

In 1939, four years before “Thieves’ House” was published, a very important film came out: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It included a colourful depiction of the Court of Miracles “where the scoundrels of Paris collect in a lair”, to quote another version. That must have been an influence, so let’s see what it was about.

The Court of Miracles really existed in Paris, and it wasn’t just one, there was a whole mess of them in the general vicinity – except that all this was happening in the 17th century and Victor Hugo took some liberties and projected it back to the 14th. And what he described was a heavily mythologised version of the real thing.

The real thing was, more or less, a collection of slums. It’s where the excess of people went in a city whose population had just exploded. Paris had become a sprawling metropolis again, coming back from the disasters of plague and war, and attracting people from all over. So where will all the rejected and marginalised go? It’s quite simple: if there’s no housing they’ll make a shanty-town and shack up there, and if there’s no jobs they’ll resort to begging and petty crime. What else are they supposed to do? Meekly starve? Fuck you, they won’t.

Out of that reality, we got a mythologised literary version of the Court of Miracles, much like the rogues of England were treated in the pamphlets. Again we read about complex hierarchies, a Prince of Thieves and a King of Beggars, elaborate initiation rites, and a secret thieves’ cant – the argot. And crucially, this underworld has a space of its own: a lair, a den, a headquarters. This feature doesn’t appear in English rogue literature, but Leiber’s Thieves’ Guild has it (it’s in the title!), and so does any D&D-related or inspired thieves’ guild, so I think it’s not a stretch to attribute it directly to the Court of Miracles.

The 1939 film, inheriting Victor Hugo’s anachronisms and liberties, portrays the Court of Miracles as a single, fixed, and secret place in the middle of medieval Paris (which had abruptly become the largest city in western Europe in the 1300s, but then the Black Death hit). The portrayal is stunning and memorable. The scene where the hapless Gringoire is asked to demonstrate his thieving skills by balancing on one leg on a stool and pickpocketing a mannequin full of little bells is iconic. This is the stuff that inspires whole genres, and I believe it did exactly that. The roguish side of Sword & Sorcery and Dungeons & Dragons owes a lot to English rogues and vagabonds, but we shouldn’t overlook their enormous debt to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939, dir. William Dieterle)

Elsewhere

Meanwhile, in 17th century Istanbul, the Thieves’ Guild (“the corporation of thieves and footpads who… pay tribute to the two chief officers of the police”) and the Beggars’ Guild (which had a “sheikh”, i.e. a leader, a guildmaster) once joined a very official procession of the guilds on the city streets. Or at least, that’s what The Book of Travels says. But all the research I’ve read about Ottoman guilds considers this passage uncovincing. There certainly may have been thieves and beggars in the procession, but they didn’t have a legally recognised guild – an esnaf.

Spanish picaresque novels had been around since the mid-16th century, and Cervantes describes something like a thieves’ guild in Seville. A French jargon of thieves, along with assorted poetry and literature, is attested from the 15th century. Rogue characters/anti-heroes appear in Arabic literature from the 9th century, and the early emergence of big cities in the Islamic world leads to various associations of thieves and beggars in places like Cairo and Baghdad. A loose co-fraternity of rogues, the Banu Sasan, pops up in every corner of the Arabic world, from al-Andalus to India.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of material out there, and I barely scraped the surface. Our earth is big and rogues are the salt of the earth, and wherever there’s property there’s also thieves, and whenever a city raises domes and spires to the heavens, that city’s outcasts will converge to its underbelly and mingle and, well, associate. It’s only natural. If you decide to include a Thieves’ Guild in your D&D setting, your character backstory, or your worldbuilding, you can draw inspiration from anywhere, as long as you know where to look and are willing to do a bit of digging.

However, I don’t think Leiber or Gygax were too familiar with… most of that. So as far as the D&D origins of Thieves’ Guilds are concerned, I believe we should stick to Fritz Leiber, English rogue literature, the Court of Miracles, and whatever kernel of historical truth lies behind them. And there you have it.

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Parallels: Olidammara the Laughing Rogue / The Cynics Diogenes and Menippus

 
Olidammara the Laughing Rogue (Deities & Demigods, 2002, illustration by M. Cavotta) / Diogenes bites Plato (Existential Comics #219)

1. Hecate’s Supper

Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412 – 323 BCE) was like the Oscar Wilde of his time. His snark was immensely popular, and for centuries after his death, if you wanted to say something sarcastic and make people pay attention, you’d just go ahead and say it and attribute it to him. (Which is why it’s so hard today to determine what Diogenes actually said and what he didn’t.) Alternatively, you could write a book with Diogenes as the protagonist, maybe another Cynic as well, and use them as your snarky mouthpieces.

That’s what Lucian of Samosata (c. 125 – 180 CE) did, in his Dialogues of the Dead. These take place in Hades, and feature the philosophers Menippus of Gadara (3rd century BCE) and Diogenes, now dead, snarking from the Underworld and pumping the cynicism to eleven. And I remembered this wonderful satirical work while I was reading an old article in Dragon Magazine about Olidammara the Laughing Rogue, the classic D&D deity (in the Greyhawk pantheon) of thieves, beggars, and bards. It says:

“Shrines of Olidammara’s faith are far more common than temples and may be found in urban or rural areas. Usually the shrine is just a pile of stones or an outdoor alcove bearing his mark where worshippers can pour an offering of wine or leave a bit of tasty food and a few copper coins. It is not considered an affront to the god for someone truly poor to take these coins, although stories exist of misers being punished for daring to take what is not their due.”

A humble shrine to Olidammara, illustration by Andrew Hu (Dragon #342)

This bit about poor people pilfering offerings from a god’s shrine was familiar. In Dialogues of the Dead, when Menippus dies, he gets immediately in trouble with Charon, the boatman, because he’s supposed to have coins for the fare and he emphatically doesn’t. (He’s a Cynic, being penniless is his thing.) When Charon insists to be paid, Menippus wisely explains that he cannot give what he doesn’t have, and when he gets frisked, all he has to show are lupin beans and a “Hecate’s supper”. Now lupin beans are basically livestock food, humans only resort to them when destitute. And Hecate’s supper? Well Hecate was the goddess of roads among other things, and she had shrines in street corners (particularly where three roads meet). People left offerings there every month “and these offerings were at once pounced upon by the poor, or, as here, the Cynics.”

It’s not clear what Hecate thought about this plundering of her shrines, or what people imagined she thought. It’s abundantly clear that the hungry didn’t particularly care. But Olidammara approves as much as Menippus (and Lucian), which is pleasing. And that’s not the only parallel.

Diogenes Sitting in His Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860)

2. The rich remember

Olidammara drops some aphorisms

“Hoarded gold is no treasure. A man who lives alone with all of his money in a vault is poorer than a penniless man surrounded by merriment. What is the point of money and fine things if you cannot use them to bring you happiness? Better to spend your gold on food, wine, and music than let your mouth, ears, and mind go numb from nothingness.” 

“A cage of gold is still a cage. A man surrounded by valuable things may think he is happy, but if he cannot leave his home for fear of his possessions being stolen, and cannot touch them for fear they might break, he is not actually happy. Take the man’s things so he is no longer bound to them and can be free to live as nature intended.”

Meanwhile in Hades, Diogenes messages the living

To Menippus the Cynic: If mortal subjects for laughter begin to pall, come down below, and find much richer material; it is the best of sport to see millionaires, governors, despots, now mean and insignificant; you can only tell them by their lamentations, and the spiritless despondency which is the legacy of better days.

To the rich: O vain fools, why hoard gold? why all these pains over interest sums and the adding of hundred to hundred, when you must shortly come to us with nothing beyond the dead-penny?

Menippus (detail) by Diego Velázquez (1638)

and Shades of rich men file a complaint against Menippus

CROESUS: Pluto, we can stand this snarling Cynic no longer in our neighbourhood; either you must transfer him to other quarters, or we are going to migrate. Midas here, and Sardanapalus and I, can never get in a good cry over the old days of gold and luxury and treasure, but he must be laughing at us, and calling us rude names; “slaves” and “garbage,” he says we are. And then he sings; and that throws us out. In short, he is a nuisance.

MENIPPUS: All perfectly true, Pluto. I detest these abject rascals! Not content with having lived the abominable lives they did, they keep on talking about it now they are dead, and harping on the good old days. I take a positive pleasure in annoying them. Well, you scum of your respective nations, let there be no misunderstanding; I am going on just the same. Wherever you are, there shall I be also; worrying, jeering, singing you down. Yours was the presumption, when you expected men to fall down before you, when you trampled on men’s liberty, and forgot there was such a thing as death. Now comes the weeping and gnashing of teeth: for all is lost! You do the whining, and I’ll chime in with a string of KNOW THYSELVES, best of accompaniments.

3. And then they diverged

Of course, Olidammara isn’t all Cynic. Cynics rejected wealth and luxury altogether and snubbed everything not necessary for survival, in the name of (basically) independence. The Laughing Rogue, on the contrary, wants you to grab all the finer things in life with both hands, and have a good time.

“The kernel of Olidammara’s philosophy is that life should be enjoyed, for a life of misery and boredom is a life wasted. Mortals should laugh, enjoy the company of friends and the playing of music, taste good food, and drink good wine. Although he is not a hedonist and doesn’t believe that mortals should be, he knows that a lifetime of meat, fruit, wine, and song is better than a a life of bread, water, and silence (unsurprisingly he has no ascetic or monk worshippers). His faithful should treat music as the art it is and strive to be as skilled at it as their patron. People should make jokes and laugh when the joke is on them, and try to avoid misery, temperance, and solemnity, for they are the greatest poison to the soul. He encourages people to practice occasional mayhem not for its own sake but to add excitement to boring lives and rattle the self-built cages of materialists.”

And, to return full circle to Hecate’s supper, Olidammara is something more than that. He discovered a source of fulfillment, joy, and bliss that all the squabbling philosophers in the time of Diogenes somehow failed to grasp. That shifty thieving scoundrel is sharing.

Olidammara’s Aphorism: “What is good alone is better with others. Any pleasurable thing is greater when you can share it with someone else. A fine wine is sweeter when raised in toast to a friend. A romantic song is stronger as a duet. A good meal is more savory when shared with a hungry man. A memory is richer when reminiscing with someone who was there.”

And you know what? I’ll drink to that.

Illustration by Andrew Hu (Dragon #342)

[All excerpts about the Laughing Rogue are from the article “Core Beliefs: Olidammara” by Sean K. Reynolds (Dragon #342, 2006). All excerpts of Dialogues of the Dead are from The Works of Lucian of Samosata, transl. Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler (1905).]

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The Wish spell: anything your heart desires

genieofthelampjoinedpng.png

The Genie of the Lamp, illustration by Himmapaan

I really like what D&D 5e did with Wish. The flavour of this spell didn’t originate in D&D, it directly evokes fairy tales, so it’s supposed to be insanely powerful. However, any insanely powerful resource is bound to cause problems in game, knock things out of whack, disrupt combat and storytelling. So you need to rein it in somehow. If you nerf it (like Pathfinder), that problem is solved, but… it doesn’t feel like a Wish any more. If you can’t wish for anything, what’s even the point.

The traditional D&D method was to turn it into a word game, where the DM is free, and generally expected, to fulfill the letter of the request but subvert the spirit. (This also directly evokes fairy tales, it’s great.) The classic version is “I want a pile of gold!”, “You are immediately buried under a pile of gold, you take 100d6 damage and suffocate.” And it can get VERY elaborate, and the goal is basically to come up with a full-proof wording. Of course, how that plays out in game depends entirely on the DM.

In addition to that risk, and in exchange for turning certain standard uses of the spell “safe” by RAW, 3.5 added the XP cost. However, RAW (and rules-lawyers) also provided several ways of bypassing XP costs, and you could easily have a character with infinite wishes, aaaand it wasn’t D&D any more, it was “I do what I want lol”. And nobody wants that.

So 5e did, I think, the sensible thing. You can use the nerfed version of Wish (i.e. duplicate an existing spell) with no drawbacks. This is a renewable resource, you can do it 1/day for as long as you live, and it won’t blow up in your face. OR, you can use it to wish for anything, like in fairy tales. And like in fairy tales, your wish might get subverted, especially if you aim high. And more importantly, like in fairy tales, you can’t keep doing it forever. An actual Wish is a HUGE deal, it simply should NOT be a renewable resource for player characters. So you can try it, but you run the serious risk of losing the spell forever.

This trick keeps the open-ended version of Wish on the table as an option, a very powerful and very dangerous option. And that’s good: it can lead to amazing, memorable games. At the same time, it keeps it from becoming a perpetual win button. You can risk it, sure, but statistically you’ll only risk it a few times in your life, perhaps only once. So players with Wish will keep that option as a last resort, or for when the stakes are impossibly high, or perhaps for a painstakingly organised plan. They won’t use such a powerful spell willy-nilly.

And at least in my book, that’s what the ability to Wish for anything should look like. It’s not a renewable resource, it’s a storytelling device! A once-in-a-lifetime (or a few times in a lifetime, if you’re lucky), life-changing, nay, world-changing boon. Which might still blow up in your face if you don’t word it carefully.

I understand why some people find it harsh, but I DIG that. I think all gamblers dig it. High risk, high reward, what’s more exciting than that. 😀

Addendum

In fairy tales, it’s almost never the person wishing who is casting the spell to grant the wish: it’s either an enchanted object (e.g., a well) or a magical being (a genie, a fairy, whatever). […] Which begs the question: why is it available to players as a spell that can do basically anything they themselves can cast when they want to on themselves for themselves instead of only accessible via complicated tasks they have to perform or items/beings they have to track down in-game (who may or may not be able to fulfill the wish anyway)?
~ wearesorcerer

Because then a true Wish (i.e. one where you can wish for anything your heart desires, as opposed to anything the game designers thought to make possible via an existing spell) would be a storytelling device that ONLY the DM can provide. Whereas making it a normally available spell gives the reins of the story to the players, with all the potential wonder and mayhem that entails.

D&D is like, if you’re a lvl 17 Wizard or Sorcerer, you’re allowed to have a reality-bending nuke. As a treat. It’s not safe or stable by any means, and it’s in very short supply, but here it is if you want it!

Isn’t that cool? I think it’s cool. Think about it. Anything your heart desires. Oh, the potential!

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Locks, Rogues, and Thieves’ Tools

Studying the history of locks puts the rogue class in Dungeons & Dragons in sort of a new light because it turns out that prior to around the mid 1800s, the idea of a mechanically secure lock wasn’t really a thing. Basically, the best pre-1800s locks tended to rely primarily on security through obscurity – that is, on implementing elaborate puzzle-box bullshit in order to make it difficult to determine how to access the keyhole and/or withdraw the bolt; with that knowledge in hand, picking the actual mechanism typically required very little skill, to the point that simply having a lock’s maker describe its “secret” to you could be enough to defeat it.
~ prokopetz

Everything I’ve read points to warded locks and spring padlocks being prevalent before the Yale lock, and that was decidedly not “security through obscurity”. There was no puzzle, even if it looked like one. You could construct the most comically complicated warded lock, and a random key with the wards filed off  – a.k.a. a skeleton key – would still open it, as long as it was roughly the right size. (It’s the lockpicking equivalent of Indiana Jones shooting the swordmaster. Impressive swordplay, mate, what form, what skill, what grace, what– oh, you’re dead.) As for padlocks, literature suggests they could be picked, and common sense suggests they could be very easily forced open.

If we’re not talking about warded locks that look fancy, the closest I can think to “elaborate puzzle-box” is a flood of ~18th century novelty locks, mostly British and American, which were impressive in their… novelty, but usually came with fatal flaws security-wise, were unsuitable for mass production, didn’t catch on, and were summarily rendered obsolete by the Yale lock, the modern pin-and-tumbler that we use to this day, which is actually secure. They look very cool, though.

Before that, all common locks could be basically jimmied. Jack Sheppard, famous thief and folk hero, who sensationally escaped 4 times from prison before the bastards hanged him for theft in 1724, was chained with extra care the 4th time he got caught.

jacksheppard

But all the same, he managed to pick his own manacles and free his hands, and proceeded to open 6 barred and bolted prison doors in succession before escaping. He was 22 years old, small of stature, and not particularly muscular. So did he use tension wrench and hooks and rakes, and fiddle with each pin to pick it? Nah, the locks weren’t made like that. Did he cleverly solve a puzzle? No, there was no puzzle to solve. Did he use brute force, then? Nope, if that were the case, history’s sensational prison breaks would be the work of the big and strong. How did he do it, then? Well, he had the forethought to smuggle in a small jemmy. And that was all he needed. An improvised tool, a bit of skill, and a lot of nerve.

And baby, that’s a Rogue. That’s a PERFECT summary of a Rogue right there.

I would also like to note that lockpicking is only one of the MANY methods of breaking and entering, and “thieves’ tools” (in D&D and real life) aren’t just lockpicks. They can be:

  • picks, hammers (early descriptions of burglaries, from Rome to Baghdad, mostly involve digging tunnels and breaking walls)
  • skeleton keys (again, warded locks are hilariously vulnerable to these: you try a bunch of them, and one will fit sooner or later; in English they were called “pick-lock keys” at first, then just “pick-locks”, and later in Victorian slang “betties”; not be confused with modern lockpicks)
  • copied keys (another time-honoured tradition, requires that you make nice with a locksmith, or, alternatively, ARE the locksmith)
  • crowbars, jemmies, chisels (it’s called “breaking and entering” for a reason: forcing a door open was VERY common, second only to slipping in unnoticed from an unlocked door or window; padlocks can also be forced open with such a tool very very quickly)
  • “lockpicks” (generic term for various iron tools, usually hooked, with which you can jimmy several types of locks and padlocks; a jemmy can serve as an improvised lockpick)
  • string, wire (I speculate that you can open a spring padlock if you insert a loop in the lock, direct it around the spring and pull, though I have no evidence if this method was historically used)
  • rope (bars in windows could be bent with rope and a stick: you tied the rope between two bars and placed a stick in the middle; then you twisted the stick round and round, the rope basically contracted and pulled both bars until they bent or got dislodged)
  • auger, awl, brace and centrebit (by the Victorian era, serious burglars carried carpenters’ tools and straight up cut holes in wooden doors; they also cut glass panes, instead of breaking them like their more amateur colleagues)
  • modern lockpicks (tension wrench plus small hooks and rakes: the iconic tools everyone has in mind when they think of thieves’ tools; they are for the modern Yale lock – the first lock in common use that’s actually a puzzle to solve rather a thing to jimmy or force open – and they are mostly worthless vs older, more era-appropriate locks)

With that in mind, I think it would be great for players and DMs to stop imagining “thieves’ tools” like a set of modern lockpicks, which are logically useless versus anything that’s not, very specifically, a modern Yale lock. Instead, try picturing Thieves’ Tools like a proper toolkit, with different tools for different jobs, all serving the general purposes of going where you’re not supposed to go, grabbing what you’re not supposed to grab, and tinkering with traps and devices you’re not supposed to touch without exploding on the spot. It’s helpful for your Rogue AND good for verisimilitude!

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Define “Rogue”

we-are-monk asked: What do you think really is the core of rogue? Ungentlemanly tactics? Affinity for the city? Willingness to do crime? Or is there something else that defines them, when you take away the daggers and sneak attack and leather?

At the end of the day,
the Rogue is simply the one who strays.

Who abandons the straight highway
and takes the crooked road,
who slips through the window and turns a back alley,
who veers off the path and hops over the fence,
descends to the gutter and climbs up the roof.

The stray sheep,
the wayward daughter,
the vagabond son.

They aren’t where you left them,
they aren’t where you assumed they’d be,
and they sure as fuck aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

Where are they, then? Who knows.
The lookout is ahead, the craven behind,
the daredevil above and the devil below,
while the rambler has fucked off to nowhere at all,
but in their right place?
Nay, none of them, never.

And maybe it’s for gold, maybe for the thrill,
maybe for the sweetness of the forbidden fruit,
maybe it’s for love, or for lack of choice,
maybe it’s an itch, a desire, an ache.

But whatever it’s for and wherever they stray,
no matter how selfish or selfless they are,
all Rogues prove the same thing,
simply by virtue of existing on the same plane as you,
surrounded like you:

There’s another way. There’s another path.
When the walls close in,
you can take the crooked road

and escape.

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How to run the original Tomb of Horrors

tomb of horrors death spray.jpg

  • Do NOT insert it into your long-running carefully crafted campaign taking place in your elaborately homebrewed setting where your players have lovingly and laboriously weaved their characters’ backstories and further fleshed out their personalities in-game.
  • DO run it as a one-shot, explaining it’s a classic dungeoncrawl meat-grinder where cardboard characters are perfectly adequate, death is extremely probable if not certain, figuring out the correct solutions is extremely unlikely if not impossible (though they might stumble into some if they’re lucky), the goal isn’t to defeat the bad guys and get the gold bur rather survive as long as possible (the longer they stay alive the more they win!), and although it’s 100% escapist nonsensical fantasy, it’s exactly as fair as life, i.e. it ain’t.
  • Have fun! In my opinion, the best tone to use for this module is black comedy. Make every death ridiculous, unceremonious, and undignified. Don’t take it seriously. Laugh at death. (It’s therapeutic!)
  • Embrace Death of the Author and ignore Gygax. He later claimed that Tomb of Horrors isn’t difficult for “smart players” but I assure you this is bullshit. Well, parts of it are like that: a reasonably cautious player wouldn’t walk head first into the dark unknown, they’d poke a stick in first and therefore wouldn’t discover the Sphere of Annihilation by dying hilariously, but would instead announce that something ate the stick. But most of it is completely random, and the best course of action isn’t something that can be deduced. All you can do is randomly try things, knowing fully well that in this dungeon, trying things kills. So what you do is: take all precautions you can think of (before D&D had a Thief class, it had a 10-foot pole), and gamble your life away. And that’s the fun of Tomb of Horrors.

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Rogue deities

We’re mostly into deities of trickery, thievery, mischief, and travel. And booze, come to think of it.

  • The classic choice is Olidammara the Laughing Rogue, patron god of thieves and bards in the Greyhawk pantheon. Mischief and hedonism, what’s not to love?
  • Another classic is Lady Luck (Tymora in Forgotten Realms, aka Our Smiling Lady). We’re not getting anything done without luck. Trust me on this.
  • Brandobaris the halfling is hilarious, he’s a prankster, trickster, thief, and daredevil extraordinaire.
  • The Moonweaver (the adaptation of Sehanine Moonbow for Critical Role), goddess of moonlight, misdirection, love, and trickery. If she’s good enough for Molly, she’s good enough for your rogue.
  • Fharlanghn the elf wanderer, aka the Dweller on the Horizon. I just LOVE gods of travel. “What do you worship?” “The road.” It’s so poetic!
  • If we’ve got anything like a greco-roman setting, Hermes is a no-brainer, though the truly classic choice would be Athena. I’m also super fond of Dionysus.

Honourable mention #1: the Crooked Warden, aka the Nameless Thirteenth, aka the Thiefwatcher, aka the Benefactor, aka the Father of Necessary Pretexts. From Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series. A bit thin on the lore, but 100% on point on the mission statement. “Thieves prosper, the rich remember” is all I ever wanted from a creed.

Honourable mention #2: the Many-Faced God from A Song of Ice And Fire (but NOT from Game of Thrones, all the best stuff is missing in the show). So the standard stuff is valar morghulis, right? But the best stuff is some tantalising hints: That this god’s original followers not only led a massive slave revolt/escape from Valyria (which would eventually lead to the founding of Braavos), but caused the Doom of Valyria itself. And that the role of this weird spooky death cult in the city is, oddly enough, checks and balances: the rich and powerful will think twice before fucking over people’s lives too much, because if one of the exploited gets indignant enough, he’ll make a donation to the House of Black and White and they’ll mysteriously depart from this world. (It’s SO important that the donation is relative to the donor’s fortune, and therefore even paupers can make one.) In summary, this god is like the dark twisted twin of the Crooked Warden, and I love it.

See the archive’s tag #patron deity for more ideas.

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Thieves’ Cant Masterpost

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Thieves’ Cant by Jessica Trevino

D&D resources

English Thieves’ Cant and Slang

French Argot

Other Languages

Profanity makes everything better

Bits and pieces and other

Bibliography here.

Archive tags: thieves’ cant, slang, argot, words of the trade, profanity makes everything better.