"A Thief's Tale," by Gabe Ivan, Guildhouse Games

First published 5/2/2002; last edited 1/5/2005; published to the reviews blog 2/13/2007

Pros: Great use of the small supplement form; good production quality; fun material
Cons: Could use better editing; some slow history
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

As my other reviews of Guildhouse Games’ supplements demonstrate, I place a great deal of importance on where the word count budget goes. Guildhouse Games publishes small, inexpensive supplements. The advantage of this format is that it isn’t a large investment to pick up their stuff. The disadvantage is that if space is wasted on irrelevant or boring material, the book as a whole suffers considerably.

“A Thief’s Tale” is an excellent example of this format of book done right. Amazingly, the book packs in a description of the city Tulinos, the local thieves’ guild, guild members of note, and four miniature adventures. Only one section of the book drags at all: parts of the history of Tulinos. Throughout the rest, the material is engaging. There is a good balance in every section: sufficient detail to make the text useful but enough brevity to fit everything in.

Major Sections

Areas of Interest gives a description of the city of Tulinos. After a column of overview, the rest of the four pages dive into paragraph-length descriptions of sample locations, buildings, and businesses around the city. Only a few were lackluster; most contained just the right details to bring the city to life. It’s easy to extrapolate from these examples and portray the city in a game.

The Powers That Be discusses the political and legal structure of the city. Major city offices, an overview of the tax structure, guilds, and laws are all discussed. This isn’t the most exciting part of the book, but it’s very useful material to have on hand when GMing adventures set in the city.

The Thieves’ Guild covers the organization and operating rules of the guild. The guild is described in considerable detail for a short book. Apprenticeship, sponsoring for membership, and initiation are all described. Information about guild business activities gives a good sense of what a day in the life of a guild thief might entail. Even the guild’s stance toward adventuring rogues is covered.

Each member of the inner circle of the guild has a write-up. Although I found most of the personalities included quite interesting, I was a bit disappointed in the guildmaster himself. Political leaders in roleplaying games are too often completely capable or doddering idiots. It would be nice to see more basically capable leaders with exploitable foibles – more like some of the descriptions given to other inner circle members.

The Four Adventures

Beware, there are spoilers below.

To my astonishment, after describing a city and a thieves’ guild, the book had enough room to contain four adventures. These are, of course, short adventures, due to space constraints. But they are fully detailed and ready to run. Whether or not you decide they might benefit from it, none of them require further fleshing out. Each adventure consumed a single night of play for us: about five or six hours.

Our playtesters had fun with the first adventure, A Day at the Races. The mystery was engaging for the players, and they felt the pace at which they uncovered clues was pretty good. Interestingly, at the end of the adventure, they felt as though the kidnapping they were investigating must’ve been part of a larger plot. They spent a short time looking for clues they had missed as to the greater context for the crime. This adventure would probably make a good lead in to a larger campaign if you give the villain a different motive that leads into a larger story. This works particularly well with this adventure, as some of the personalities are colorful enough to keep around as long term NPCs.

The Big Score also went over well with the playtesters. Upon reading it, I expected the extensive array of traps in the adventure to be excessive. During play, no one had any complaints about the game balance of the monsters or the traps. It was challenging but reasonable. My only complaint, and I’ll try to avoid too much in the way of spoilers, is that the objective can be found early on. My players ended up short-circuiting most of the available area in the mansion by finding what they were looking for too soon. (This problem can easily be solved by moving the location of the item on the fly if necessary, but I hate to do that when playtesting for a review.)

The playtesters also enjoyed The Duronson Monster, although I have some reservations about it. My main complaint is that much of the background doesn’t affect the adventure. The relationship between the members of the Duronson family and how they lead to the creation of the monster does not leave much in the way of historical record for player characters to discover. It isn’t a big flaw, though, because it doesn’t detract from the experience playing it.

With Evil Unearthed, the opinion split went the other way. Of all four adventures, this was my favorite. It had the most intricate setup, all of which came to bear during play, and the mystery appealed to me. My players were not so enamored; there weren’t adequate clues leading to the conclusion. In retrospect, I think they’re right. The mystery the players are set up to solve is almost the perfect crime. The only evidence to follow is a distinct lack of necessary evidence. Re-reading the adventure after the fact, all the actions that lead to real progress seem to be rude or intrusive uses of magic detection. In the end, they did solve the mystery, but I wonder if the deck isn’t stacked too heavily against the party.

Conclusions

I’m glad to have read, “A Thief’s Tale.” I’m particularly thrilled to have seen so excellent a use of the small, inexpensive supplement form. I have some quibbles with a some parts of the book, but on the whole they are outweighed by the fun we had playtesting the adventures.

Production quality is good. The artwork isn’t particularly remarkable, but it is relevant to the text it’s near. Like the other Guildhouse Games products I’ve reviewed, the editing quality could stand some improvement. Consider the sentence: “Some can be as viscous as the Thieves’ Guild in forcing compliance.” Now, if I were a rogue, I might take my chances joining a vicious guild, but I’d stay far-the-hell-away from a viscous one. Most of the editing problems are similar to this, spelling mistakes that a spellcheck won’t find because the misspelling is still a word. Fortunately, these are few and far between, so apart from the occasional hilarity, they don’t detract much from the book overall.

Packaging: 7 out of ten
Inspiration: 8 out of ten
Nuts and Bolts: 7 out of ten

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