Basement Archaeology: Thieves’ World

Posted: September 20, 2015 by patricksponaugle in Gaming
Tags: , , , , , , ,


Recently, I was digging around in the basement of my house (I have my reasons…) and I came across a bunch of old boxes that probably haven’t been opened since before I moved in to my house in Ye Olde Twentieth Centuree.

They were filled with tons of old boardgames, and some old and quaint role-playing games.

This is the benefit of Basement Archaeology, when the strata of storage and forgotten things are dug into, often some ancient treasure (ancient being a relative term) gets uncovered. This time, I uncovered my adventure pack for Thieves’ World.

Thieves’ World: An Overview

Back in my high school days, I was playing Dungeons and Dragons (I can admit that, I’m already married so it won’t hurt my prospects) and I was starting to read fantasy novels to supplement my gaming adventures against orcs, goblins and other cave-dwelling humanoids.

This was when I read the shared-world short story anthology collection Thieve’s World, edited by Robert Lynn Asprin. It was a unique concept to me, a book of short stories that all took place in the same setting (the seedy and far-from-civilization city named Sanctuary), with authors somewhat allowed to borrow and use characters from the other participating writers to forge a consistent cast and environment.

I recommend you check out the first two anthologies (there were twelve in total, and various other novels spun off.) Why am I only recommending the first two? I’ll get around to that in a moment.

Anyway, my fantasy-reading experience had largely been things like Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara, which are big, classic, parties-of-heroes-against-some-dire-evil type of stories. And my D and D campaigns more or less followed suit, when we weren’t strictly delving into a dungeon, killing and looting.

But once I had read Thieves’ World, I realized that adventures could take place in towns, rather than just during treks across the wilderness or in improbably uniformly-dimensioned caves.


(Subterranean-monsters were big on everything being in multiples of 10 feet and with right angles.)

Then, to my delight, I discovered the Thieves’ World Adventure Pack by Runequest publisher Chaosium.

Adventure Pack Overview

It was unique (at least to me) for an RPG supplement: it wasn’t specifically based around one game system, it had been written to support nine systems:

  • Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
  • Adventures in Fantasy
  • Chivalry and Sorcery
  • Dragonquest
  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • The Fantasy Trip
  • Runequest
  • Traveller
  • Tunnels and Trolls

To be fair, essentially the product provided game-system stats for the major characters, represented in nine different ways. The system comparisons were interesting, particularly when the people applying a particular game system had to fudge the rules to make things work (like The Fantasy Trip‘s restrictions on the number of skills a person could have, based on their IQ. Since the denizens of Sanctuary were very skilled, they all ended up with abnormally high IQs.) But more importantly there were some great essays on the setting.

Some characters were relatively easy to stat out.


Cappen Varra the adventuring bard was mostly a straightforward character. He had a rapier, he could sing songs, he was a good looking guy. Most games had rules for a bard (or a thief character, to stretch a point) so that wasn’t too complicated.

A character like Lythande was more of a challenge, since the Mage of the Blue Star had to have spell crafting consistent with the game’s system and the powers defined in the books.


Or not. The science fiction roleplaying game Traveller just punted the issue by assigning Lythande a numerical Magic rating without trying to invent any rules in the science-based game. Magic-7. Boom. The game referee would just have to handle it.

I credit the adventure pack for a variety of things. I’d owned or played a handful of the games that it supported, and the descriptions influenced me over the years into either picking up some of the games (like Runequest) or at least trying to adapt a game system to work contrary to its setting (like using Traveller rules for a D and D-like campaign.)

But I also appreciated the analysis that was involved in working with the book’s setting. Not just in the individual adaptations to the various systems, but the essays that were put together about the various pantheons represented in the stories (notably the conflict between the ascendant Rankan empire’s gods and the defeated gods of the declining Ilsigi kingdom), the political structure, etc.

Online, I’ve discovered that there are current game systems that are describing the cutthroat cast of Thieves’ World‘s Sanctuary using their game’s particularly idiom. It makes me happy that a setting that was so meaningful to me is still thriving in the gaming community.

The Thieves World Adventure Pack is consistent with the first two books of the anthology series: Thieves’ World and Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn. I mentioned above that those were my favorites of the books, and that largely is based on the relatively low-level scenarios that were presented. There were certainly people with power (wizards and priests, etc.) and prominent people of authority (princes and high priests) but often a story’s focus would be somewhere lower on the scale.


The fortune teller and her blacksmith husband. The thief. The crime boss. The anonymous swordsman.

Somewhere around book three though, there was more and more focus on conflicts among godlike beings. Children descended from gods. Avatars of the gods. Overt supernatural events happening that would otherwise seem apocalyptic, with the rank and file citizenry not necessarily reacting as if that’s a big deal. It was a bit too much,

I preferred the more human-natured stories that I found in the first two books. There was magic, there were gods, but the emphasis to me was more on people.

Anyway, uncovering the adventure pack made we want to dust off my planned (and set aside) Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Looking over my notes and maps I had doodled months ago, I realized that I had included a minor city on one corner of the map, where I’d expected to feature some skullduggery and intrigue.

Hey, at least I didn’t totally rip off Robert Asprin for my planned gaming campaign. I hadn’t called the town Sanctuary.

(I’d called it The Refuge. Because I’m so original…)

Game of Re-reads and Thieves

I really should re-read Thieves’ World and Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn. Anyone who has checked out my blog will have seen that I do a lot of Game of Thrones coverage (including a Dungeons and Dragons focused Game of Thrones article) and in some ways, I feel reading the early Thieves’ World novels prepared me for Game of Thrones. Multiple characters and multiple points of view, an emphasis on shades-of-gray characters, and some pretty nasty things happening to people who probably don’t deserve it. There’s a similar feel…

And George RR Martin’s Wild Cards books were the second shared-world anthology series that really caught my attention, so I feel there’s some kind of connection there.

Maybe I’ll flesh that out more fully. Unless the Boltons get there first.

Images are from the front cover of the Thieves’ World Adventure Pack, which was the original cover from the first edition of the anthology.

The classic dungeon-on-graph-paper image is not mine, nor did I draw it, I found it on the Oubliette Magazine site (technically, Google found it for me, and I wanted to credit where it came from…)

I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2015 Some Rights Reserved

  1. You are, seriously, the only person other than my husband I’ve ever heard of who has ever mentioned Traveller. Therefore I cannot show him this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 🙂 I can keep it a secret from him, Kelly, it’s cool.

      I suspect he must go on and on about the game for you to feel this way?

      Don’t let him see my review of Guardians of the Galaxy – that movie really brought up nostalgic memories for the game (as did the TV show Firefly) and I made some comparisons…

      (Thank you so much for the comment, it really made me laugh!)


      • Once you get him talking about it it takes hours for him to stop. We’ve had to make rules about where he keeps his Traveller books. I’ve debated between a shock collar and traditional ECT but I’m not sure either will work. 😉

        So, yes, it might just be his favorite thing in the whole wide world. And until I read your post I was convinced that nobody else had ever heard of it and, quite possibly, that he was punking me.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Haylee says:

    I’m so jealous of anyone who has/does/can play D&D or any other related role playing game. We started an adventure last year – mainly spurred on from listening to Harmontown and watching Community! But I’m TOO rogue to stick to the rules and quite frankly, we need Spencer as our dungeon master! It’s on the back burner since our looting companions changed jobs, but it will have to be a revisited fad I think 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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