Thieves' guilds are the common name for organized criminal groups around the world, though the members would not use that name themselves. The term arose from parallels between the different criminal organizations and the trade guilds of the Principalities. Rumors indicate that thieves' guilds have on occasion had members in the proper trade guilds as well. Both groups deny this, of course, and no one who ever looked for such a link ever found one.
The thieves' guilds of each country have their own names for themselves, as well as unique hierarchies and traditions. That said, they do have some common heritage. They share some traditions, legends, and practices, and claim a common origin from which their traditions are derived. The universal tradition of leaving a marker is a remnant of the First Age, and it was an old tradition even then. There are other traditions as well, but they are known only to members.
Almost every guild justifies their work as protecting the smaller folk from the excesses of the mighty and noble. To some extent, this is true; many a nobleman has had his riches stolen shortly after having someone publicly flogged or raising taxes to pay for a war. The guilds often pay for the care of the absolutely destitute, or feed the starving. This should not be taken to mean that they are truly altruistic. Protection rackets are especially common; shop owners, small farms, and even some low-ranking nobles give money to the thieves' guilds to avoid theft, damage, or public humiliation. Very real "unfortunate accidents" happen to people who do not pay up.
Thieves' guilds also have a reputation for being able to get into and out of places, no matter how well guarded. A few scholars have hired thieves for just those skills when seeking entrance to lost tombs or collapsed old buildings.
Every guild seems to share the tradition of the marker. It dates back to long forgotten times, and there are many conflicting stories of its origin. Any thief working under the auspices of a guild creates a marker. Each marker is unique to the thief in question. Thieves working outside the guilds don’t last long, and count themselves lucky if they are only handed over to the law.
When a thief or band of thieves robs someone, they are obligated to leave their mark. The mark is a way for those who were robbed “unjustly” to sue for the return of their goods. Injustice is subjective, but most guilds believe that it is wrong to steal from those who can’t afford the loss. Suing for the return of stolen goods is handled in varying ways. Sometimes one may pay for the return; other times, they are invited to issue a challenge for ownership. A challenge might be a contest of arms, wit, or skill, depending on the guild's traditions. However it is used, the marker is the key to reclaiming items stolen by a thieves' guild.
Some guilds, particularly in the Principalities and Athral Isle, have an agent one may seek out to reclaim the goods for you. The agent is usually available if you have already paid protection money to his guild, but he often requires a price as well. The price is usually a favor, but it may be something else depending on circumstances.
Assassination is almost universally looked down on by all the guilds. Sometimes people get killed in a robbery or the attempt to flee a failed robbery, but it is an act of true villainy to kill for money. It goes against the cultivated image of the guilds being on the side of the people. Many a would-be cutthroat has met with justice from his own guild.
There are assassins' guilds in the world, but they are small and very rare, save for the Rat's Castle of Akathia. Hidden somewhere in the Sunbreak Mountains, the Rat's Castle is famed and dreaded throughout Akathia and lands beyond as the home of the Farenen Disi.
Magic and the Guilds
The guilds use any tool they can. Many a small-time ritualist or alchemist finds employment with the guilds. The Broderskab of Oresund are notable for the number of ritualists in their ranks. While wizards in the employ of the guilds may not command as much respect at large as they might in other circles, they are valued highly within their guilds.
Izlemek Birkha is the traditional name of the thieves' guilds in Akathia. More often, though, they are just called the Lemeki. They are numerous and powerful in the cities, but rare outside them. They have also been known to travel with trade caravans. The Lemeki are only tolerated as long as they are not too bold. Akathian punishment is pretty harsh as a rule and prudent Lemeki would prefer to keep all their appendages...and their head. They are all but unheard of outside Akathia.
Athral thieves are the only ones in the world that name themselves "guilds." No one is sure why they started this, but rumors say that almost every member is also a member of a legitimate trade guild. They refer to it as the Guild, or sometimes the Travelers' Guild. The countryside holds a few groups, the largest of which is the Firstborn Sons. Despite their name, their leader is a mysterious woman. They tend to rob the Gauntish on the Athral Isle, and are very popular among the people.
Schaduwen is the name of the Gauntish guilds. Their favorite targets are the Redwood Throne and foreigners visiting Gaunt. They are rumored to steal a small number of children every year, for reasons unknown, but this has not been proven. The challenge to reclaim stolen items from Schaduwen is almost always single combat. The fights are often entertaining, and they rarely kill a person if they did steal his goods.
Broderskab is the name of the Oresund thieves' guilds, though they are fewer in number here than in any other country. They do not have much power, given the character of Oresund. They still perform the usual crimes, but are very cautious about it. Strangely, some clans believe that it is good luck to pay protection money. The Broderskab speak at times of ancient traditions and tales dating back to the time of Druma.
The thieves' guilds in the Principalities are legion and have many names. The groups are local to an area, and each city has a few different groups divided by neighborhood. They have colorful names like the Blackwater Creek Society or the Golden Hand Brotherhood. The name “thieves' guilds” was started in the Principalities. A rather foolish noble called them that in an edict which outlawed them in his city; this did not go well for him.
The traditions among the various guilds are very similar, though, and they refer to each other by familial titles like cousin or uncle. At a few times of crisis, there have been conclaves of the guilds, and these are always followed by dramatic, unified action. Once the crisis is resolved, they return to their separate rivalries.
Fratia Meritul is the name for the Tarsikkan guilds. They are very tied to the Tharici, but most of the Fratia Meritul are not Tharici themselves. Membership in such a group is a capital crime in Tarsikka, and has been for centuries. Despite this, they are the largest and most active single group of thieves in the world. The Fratia Meritul regards grave robbing as taboo, and they have been known to kill grave robbers and leave them where they will be found.
In the First Age, during the Great War of Shadow, a group of people known as the Shido Linar went places and did things others could not. They were essentially the first multinational thieves' guild, and operated on a grand scale, trading in secrets and stealing from the forces of the Most Foul. They were less focused on defeating the Most Foul, and more on protecting the people being crushed in the war. Through them, the tradition of leaving markers spread worldwide, and they claimed that it was an old tradition even then. When the war ended, the Shido Linar lost much of its cohesion and purpose. As time went on, the current, smaller guilds formed, several keeping the dimly-remembered practices of the Shido Linar.