Tuesday, 22 November 2016

'a world of dissolving walls and pop-up entryways'

I'm not sure if I've ever read a book more relevant to D&D, and more shot through with its spirit, than Geoff Manaugh's A Burglar's Guide to the City: a book which at no point mentions, directly or indirectly, D&D or role-playing games (though it does touch on computer games) and yet seems like a gift from Gary himself. Buy it, read it and then buy up all the copies so that your rogue can never get their hands on one, or else you will find DMing a nightmarish challenge from now on.

Manaugh is an architecture critic and blogger and the book, as you would think, is about the ways burglars use, misuse and abuse architecture and urban planning to do their dirty work. Burglars specifically: it's very thorough on the definitions of burglary ('the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft', per the FBI) and then on the the ways this definition can be warped and exploited: less my criminals than by law enforcement, who have successfully expanded burglary from its original, narrow meaning of robbing a private residence at night to the one quoted above that encompasses, say, cars. As an architecture book – or, really, an urbanism book - it's breezy, joyous, maybe a little repetitive of its central thesis but forgivably so.

But as an RPG sourcebook, it's a treasure trove of how you ought to think about designing buildings and cities to be adventurable: on the one hand, a guide to how to make them thief-proof and how to think one or two steps ahead of the party, but on the other hand also a doorway to thinking about how to make a city maximally adventurable, maximally challenging, maximally entertaining. Is your setting city – like LA, whose freeway network is uniquely useful to escaping bank robbers with getaway vehicles – the kind of place with wide boulevards and lots of vehicles (whether they be cars or horses or sedan chairs or hoverboards): or is it like Berlin, where the sandy soil is unusually accommodating of tunnels under buildings and where the wealthy would be well-advised to reinforce the undersides of their estates? These are not things you might have thought about before, but you will now: just as you'll think about whether there's a central repository of buildings plans that your
Marm Mandelbaum, who ran a truly
amazing burglary school in 19th
century New York City.
party could bluff their way into (there should be! But it should be hard to access and a lot of the documents there should be out of date).

It's equally full of details on heist plans (some brilliant, some farcical) that are maybe more useful to players than DMs, but maybe not: maybe your players could get approached by someone promising work and asking that they wear a certain uniform and show up outside a certain bank at a certain time, at which point a master thief will pitch up dressed like everybody else, rob the bank, and flee, using the fact that they arranged for the presence of a dozen duplicates of themselves to cover their escape (this happened. Dude used Craigslist).

But that – and many other such anecdotes, enough to make a decent d20 table of heist plans - is also a taster of why you must never, ever let your players get hold of this book. It is full of knowledge they could use to absolutely gut your carefully planned campaign, and it must be guarded from them like the Book of Vile Darkness.

Unless, of course, the book exists in the game, and the prize for successfully finding and stealing the Manual of Master Burglars is that you give your players an actual copy of it to read...