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Vintage Treasures: Chaosium’s Thieves’ World

Thursday, April 18th, 2013 | Posted by John ONeill

Thieve's World Chaosium-smallThere was a time when shared-world fantasy was brand new, and taking the genre by storm. That time was 1979, and the man at the helm was Robert Lynn Asprin, a midlist novelist who had never edited anything before in his life.

Robert Lynn Asprin was the guest of honor at one of the first science fiction conventions I ever attended, Maplecon 2 in Ottawa in 1979. He was a spirited and self-deprecating guest, telling stories of Joe Haldeman and Poul Anderson gently correcting his spelling and grammar (“These are the people I’m supposed to be editing?!”) as he midwifed the birth of what would become one of the most successful fantasy franchises of the 20th Century: Thieves’ World, the Ace paperback anthology that triggered an explosion in shared world fantasy over the next two decades. Thieves’ World eventually encompassed thirteen collections and over half a dozen original novels, published between 1979 and 2004.

It wasn’t the only new trend to emerge at the end of the 70s in fantasy fiction — in fact, it wasn’t even the biggest. The influence of Dungeons and Dragons was cresting at the same time, and with the publication of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first DragonLance novel, in 1984, the two genres finally collided, and neither would ever be the same again.

As fantasy fiction and gaming gradually blended throughout the 80s, it didn’t just mean that bookstores were flooded with gaming novels. Gaming stores likewise were invaded with a new generation of book-inspired titles, from Iron Crown’s Middle Earth Role Playing to Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, and TSR’s Conan and Lankhmar properties, just to name a few.

These two juggernauts of 20th Century fantasy, Thieves World and role playing, came together in 1981 with the release of the Thieves’ World boxed set from Chaosium, a singular accomplishment that has been called the “Rosetta Stone of early roleplaying.”

One of the hallmarks of Robert Asprin’s Thieves’ World was his incredible talent in gathering some of the biggest names in fantasy under his tent. His first two anthologies included contributions from Lynn Abbey, Poul Anderson, Marion Zimmer Bradley, John Brunner, David Drake, Philip Jose Farmer, Joe Haldeman, Janet Morris, and A.E. van Vogt.

Thieves World box contents-smallEditor Lynn Willis and Chaosium knew they had to accomplish something similarly daring with the game adaptation, and so they invited virtually every major creator in the small RPG industry to contribute — including Greg Stafford, Dave Arneson, Steve Marsh, Midkemia Press, Marc Miller, Steve Perrin, Lawrence Schick, Ken St. Andre, and many others.

The result was virtually unprecedented. The Thieves’ World boxed set was fully compatible with no less than nine major RPG systems: AD&D, Adventures in Fantasy, Chivalry & Sorcery, DragonQuest, D&D, The Fantasy Trip, RuneQuest, Traveller, and Tunnels & Trolls.

It was also a completely furnished adventure supplement for gamers who wanted to open up the city of Sanctuary for their players to explore, and for readers who wanted to see the city laid bare before them, with detailed maps, stats for the personalities of Sanctuary — and even floorplans for the Vulgar Unicorn, the tavern that was frequently the heart of the action.

Chaosium’s Thieves’ World made me a fan of Robert Asprin’s Thieves World books. It was a beautiful product that rose above the gimmick at its core. Sanctuary was the city where anything could happen, where characters created by some of the best fantasy writers of the generation crossed paths and shared adventures. Chaosium’s Thieves’ World became the setting where gamers of every stripe could likewise gather and share a beer… and perhaps an expedition into the caverns beneath The Maze together.

I haven’t thought about Thieve’s World for years, but I stumbled across a lonely copy at the Windy City Pulp & Paper show here in Chicago last weekend. It was on a table with a large stack of Judge Dredd comics, and I managed to purchase it for ten bucks. Flipping though the books and maps has rejuvenated my interest in the fiction of Sanctuary again. It’s a fine product, and it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

It may take effort to track down your own copy, but it’s worth it.

Thieves’s World was published in 1981 by Chaosium. It is a boxed set with three books and three separate maps, and was published in at least two editions (the pics above are from the first edition – click on the images for larger versions).

33 Comments »

  1. The box set has been on my wish list for ages. I think I need to start looking about in earnest. Interestingly enough I just happen to have picked up a few of the early books at a second hand bookshop recently. Looking forward to Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn etc.

    Another “similar” publication that’s also worth a mention is The City State of the Invincible Overlord published by Judges Guild and later by Mayfair (I think).

    Comment by Tiberius - April 18, 2013 4:35 am

  2. One of the best boxed sets for a roleplaying game ever made.

    I wish I still had my copy from years ago!

    Comment by Princejvstin - April 18, 2013 6:17 am

  3. Agh! I wish I still had mine as well. There was a stretch that no matter what campaign I was in the middle of, there was Sanctuary parked somewhere in the middle of it.

    Comment by chrislatray - April 18, 2013 10:30 am

  4. > Another “similar” publication that’s also worth a mention is The City State of the Invincible Overlord
    > published by Judges Guild and later by Mayfair (I think).

    Tiberius,

    Right you are. The City State was a fabulous early resource for numerous gamers.

    Speaking of Mayfair, they did alright by Thieves’ World and Sanctuary themselves, publishing two highly regarded boardgames set in the city in the 80s:

    http://www.waynesbooks.com/ThievesWorld.html

    (Scroll down to see the Mayfair titles)

    Comment by John ONeill - April 18, 2013 11:29 am

  5. > I wish I still had my copy from years ago!

    Princejvstin,

    I’m glad I finally have one again. There were at least two editions, so copies aren’t rare. As of this morning I found four on eBay, varying in price from $35 to $100 for a sealed copy.

    The $35 one is in great shape… I’m almost tempted. :)

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/THIEVES-WORLD-COMPLETE-SANCTUARY-ADVENTURE-PACK-FOR-AD-D-D-D-CHAOSIUM-/151024449558

    Comment by John ONeill - April 18, 2013 11:35 am

  6. > There was a stretch that no matter what campaign I was in the middle of, there was Sanctuary parked somewhere in the middle

    Chris,

    Perfectly understandable. When you’ve got a city as dynamic and as filled with intriguing personalities as Sanctuary, it makes a great home base. :)

    I found an intriguing Thieves World website after I wrote this article, with a lot of pics to the various extra supplements, including the Green Ronin version of the game:

    http://www.thievesworld.info/roleplay/index.htm

    A fine place to waste an hour or two. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - April 18, 2013 11:40 am

  7. I gave away my copy since I doubted I’d ever have a chance to run a game. Regrets? I have a few.

    Comment by Ken Lizzi - April 18, 2013 5:53 pm

  8. Never had this one but I do have my TSR Lankhmar module on a shelf somewhere, so there’s that.

    Should also revisit the books at some point — that was some fine fiction.

    Comment by Joe H. - April 18, 2013 6:20 pm

  9. Oddly enough I read two pieces of Thieves World fiction last night while my son was at hip-hop, as well as three editorial notes from Asprin and Lynn Abbey. Thieves World, Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn, Shadows of Sanctuary, Storm Season, Wings of Omen, and The Face of Chaos sit not three feet from me as I write this. However, I DO NOT own the RPG, which vexes me greatly, also because it has Walter Velez art in it.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - April 18, 2013 7:17 pm

  10. Yep, I have the first three (Thieves World, Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn, Shadows of Sanctuary) sitting on the shelf about ten feet away. Alas, at that time both my mind and my money were on different things, so I never got any more of them.

    Comment by Gruud - April 19, 2013 7:39 am

  11. So in the Thieves World RPG, does level progression go 1, 2, 3, 4, godhood?

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - April 19, 2013 1:27 pm

  12. I not only have the Thieves World box, but also the Thieves World Companion, which expanded the setting to include the Beysib period of Thieves World.

    Green Ronin also put out a D20 Thieves World Role Playing game with some supplements a few years ago, timed, I believe, to the release of the new Thieves World novel/anthologies edited by Lynn Abbey.

    And of course, my interview with the new TW authors appeared on SF Site when the new books came out: http://www.sfsite.com/11a/la139.htm and http://www.sfsite.com/11a/ct139.htm.

    Comment by shsilver - April 21, 2013 5:27 pm

  13. > I gave away my copy since I doubted I’d ever have a chance to run a game. Regrets? I have a few.

    Ken,

    Understandable. But it’s only because people are willing to part with their copies that new players have a chance to discover THIEVES WORLD. That’s true for both the books and the game, these days.

    So you did a noble thing. And there are still a few copies in circulation, if you’d like to get your hands on one again.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 22, 2013 2:02 am

  14. > Never had this one but I do have my TSR Lankhmar module on a shelf somewhere

    Joe — another really fine fiction property that ended up with a terrific game conversion. Though it didn’t have THIEVES WORLD’s stellar list of star contributors, it still managed to be very popular.

    In fact, TSR did two editions of Lankhmar over the years, and the second one was boxed and supported with around a dozen adventure modules – which kept it in print far longer than the Chaosium edition of THIEVES WORLD. I hope to have the time to do it justice here some day.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 22, 2013 2:06 am

  15. > Oddly enough I read two pieces of Thieves World fiction last night

    Scott,

    I envy you — I realized as I was writing this article that I haven’t read any of the fiction in decades. I’ll have to remedy that.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 22, 2013 2:08 am

  16. > Alas, at that time both my mind and my money were on different things, so I never got any more of them.

    Gruud,

    I’ve heard that the energy and vigor of THIEVES WORLD were best displayed in the early collections. But I’ll leave that determination for those who’ve read all of them.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 22, 2013 2:14 am

  17. > So in the Thieves World RPG, does level progression go 1, 2, 3, 4, godhood?

    Jeff,

    LOL. I wondered the same thing!

    For those not in on the joke, the guardsmen of the city of Sanctuary (known as the Hell Hounds, among other things) are described as fighters par excellence. They are feared and respected by virtually all.

    The boxed set made the determination that the Hell Hounds should be fourth level, relatively modest by D&D terms, which caused some howls of outrage among THIEVES WORLD purists.

    As for me, I’ve always run low-level campaigns, so 4th level fighers are not to be trifled with. I never had a problem with it.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 22, 2013 2:20 am

  18. > I not only have the Thieves World box, but also the Thieves World Companion, which expanded the
    > setting to include the Beysib period of Thieves World.

    Steven,

    Drat! I don’t have the COMPANION volume. I’ll have to track that down now.

    And this is obviously betraying my ignorance, but what is the “Beysib period?”

    > Green Ronin also put out a D20 Thieves World Role Playing game with some supplements a few years ago, timed,
    > I believe, to the release of the new Thieves World novel/anthologies edited by Lynn Abbey.

    I was a fan of the Green Ronin release. It was the first proper THIEVES WORLD game… the original Chaosium boxed set was just a setting, for use with other game systems. The product line was also beautifully done, like much of Green Ronin’s work, and I wish it had been more successful.

    I suppose I could say the same of the Lynn Abbey volumes. Although I’m assuming they weren’t successful because there were only two of them — it’s possible there were very successful, and Lynn simply chose to discontinue the series for other reasons.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 22, 2013 2:25 am

  19. another really fine fiction property that ended up with a terrific game conversion.

    I owned TSR’s Lankhmar setting and was pretty disappointed with it. Among other things, wasn’t magic-user casting time measured in turns instead of segments?

    For those not in on the joke…

    No, it’s that so many characters in the books ended up gods, which was one of the reasons I gave up on the series around book 5.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - April 22, 2013 9:55 am

  20. John-In the fifth anthology, in an attempt to reset the balance of power issues they were seeing, Asprin and Abbey arranged for Sanctuary to be invaded by the Beysib, a semi-human race. Unfortunately, this just added yet another power to the city which could be exploited by the authors to advance their own characters.

    Comment by shsilver - April 22, 2013 10:04 am

  21. Jeff,

    > I owned TSR’s Lankhmar setting and was pretty disappointed with it. Among
    > other things, wasn’t magic-user casting time measured in turns instead of segments?

    Sure, but wasn’t that more in keeping with the way magic was portraying in Leiber’s world?

    > so many characters in the books ended up gods, which was one of the reasons I gave up on the series around book 5.

    You weren’t the only one. I believe sales on later books were never close to the first two.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 25, 2013 11:39 am

  22. > Asprin and Abbey arranged for Sanctuary to be invaded by the Beysib, a semi-human race.

    Steven,

    Ah, thanks. I forgot all about this.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 25, 2013 11:41 am

  23. Coincidentally, I was just in The Source this evening (comics/games shop in St. Paul, MN) and they had both the Green Ronin Thieves’ World hardcover and an assortment of old TSR Lankhmar modules on the shelf. Sadly, I didn’t buy any of them.

    Comment by Joe H. - April 26, 2013 12:39 am

  24. […] Vintage Treasures: Chaosium’s Thieves World […]

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  25. […] It shouldn’t have. Chaosium had had some early success with two fantasy roleplaying games in the late 70s: Steve Perrin and Greg Stafford’s RuneQuest, and Sandy Peterson’s Call of Cthulhu, based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. By 1981 it was quickly establishing a great rep for high-quality, innovative titles in distinctive oversize boxes, starting with the groundbreaking Thieves’ World. […]

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  26. […] adventure modules — including Cthulhu By Gaslight, the award-winning Masks of Nyarlathotep, Thieves’ World, and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth — and the unfettered imagination of Ray Harryhausen is as good a […]

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  27. […] RPGs and RPG supplements ever created. Published in handsome boxed editions, they started with Thieves’ World and continued with Stormbringer in 1981, Borderlands (1982), Worlds of Wonder (1982), […]

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  28. […] as well as a host of other board games and products, including Arkham Horror, RuneQuest, Thieves’ World, King Arthur Companion, Stormbringer Companion, Carse, Tulan of the Isles, Atlas of the Young […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Vintage Treasures: Shadows of Yog-Sothoth - December 18, 2013 12:32 pm

  29. […] you an understanding of his energy and ability: Dragon Pass, Raiders and Traders, Arkham Horror, Thieves’ World, Ringworld, RuneQuest, Borderlands, Pavis, The Big Rubble, Questworld, Stormbringer Companion, […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » R.I.P. Lynn Willis, Game Designer Extraordinaire - December 18, 2013 12:41 pm

  30. […] James hasn’t been the only one to delve into Appendix N scholarship for us. Pete Nash, co-author of RuneQuest Sixth Edition, followed up on James’ “The Other Appendix N” post with “Appendix N: Carrying on the Flame,” a thoughtful look at the literary influences of his new edition, which lean towards “darker, more mature Sword and Sorcery” of the last several decades, including the novels of Glen Cook, David Gemmell, and Julian May, as well as Thieves World. […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Margaret St. Clair, Andrew Offutt, and Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D - January 20, 2014 2:29 am

  31. […] of city settings became less pronounced. Chaosium released a boxed set outlining the city of Sanctuary. where all the action in the Thieves World books took place, and TSR did an entirely respectable […]

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  32. […] pulp reprints — and a surprise collectible: a copy of the boxed edition of Chaosium’s Thieves World, published in 1981, in great shape. I paid $10 for it, although I didn’t mange to get away […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Tales From Windy City Pulp and Paper - April 23, 2014 4:26 pm

  33. […] Thieves’ World Pavis and Big […]

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