Thieves’ Cant: What It Is and How to Use It
Updated: Dec 19, 2018
Thieves’ cant is unique to rogues and the criminal underbelly of Dungeons and Dragons. This skill can provide a great way for your party’s rogue to find out illicit information right under the nose of the authorities. Unfortunately, in many games, thieves’ cant isn’t used to its full potential. Learning more about thieves’ cant can help you come up with unique and memorable ways to utilize it to delight your players and improve your campaign.
Not Just a Language
It’s understandable why most players and DMs (we call them Quest Masters) fall back on using thieves’ cant like any other in-game language. After all, it’s not like we can speak Dwarvish or Undercommon, so the players generally just say “I say in Undercommon” to convey that they are changing languages. We also can’t speak thieves’ cant in real life, so it’s hard to know what to do with it.
Simply put, thieves’ cant is not just another language.
The whole point of thieves’ cant is that it can be used anywhere, in front of anyone, and those who haven’t trained to discern the hidden meaning will be none the wiser. It’s not as if the player will march up to the head of the thieves’ guild and start speaking nonsense, as that would obviously set off alarms to anyone who might overhear. No, they will sound as if they are having a normal conversation, but the words and how they are used will have an entirely different meaning to those who can communicate in thieves’ cant.
For example, your rogue might say something like: “the weather in town has been a little cloudy, but I hear it’s a little clearer out on the roads to the east.”
To any eavesdropper, it’s a perfectly innocuous conversation, but to another character who knows thieves’ cant, they know they’ve just been warned that the town is patrolled heavily by guards and that the roads aren’t watched as closely.
It is also important to note that thieves’ cant is more than just a spoken code. It also involves physical movements and sometimes even drawn symbols. Many people like to use the real-life hobo code, a series of symbols that transient workers once used to alert their fellows about their surroundings. If you’re a QM, who likes making props, drawing out the symbols that your rogue might find in town can be a great way to improve immersion in the game.
When using a visual cipher like the hobo code, you may want to consider meeting with your rogue player out-of-game to let them know what your thoughts are, including what sort of things various symbols might indicate and where they can often be found. If their character knows thieves’ cant involves symbols in the world you’re playing in, the player will need to know as well, so they recognize when to try to look for these symbols with investigation checks.
When it comes to the parts of thieves’ cant that involve physical movement, you have lots of room for creativity. You could describe the movements that the character sees, sure, but if you’re playing in person or over a webcam, why not act it out yourself? It can be something as simple as scratching your left eyebrow or rubbing at an ear -- every little gesture might mean something in thieves’ cant. Like the symbols, this is something to establish with the rogue player outside of the game.
Conveying the Meaning
So how do you incorporate thieves’ cant into the game? Personally, I’m a fan of keeping the other players in the dark if they don’t know any thieves’ cant -- it makes the exchange more realistic because the rogue character will now have to translate to convey any needed information.
Or, better yet, they may decide to hide some of what they learn from their party members -- you have to love that inner-party conflict!
To achieve this, the character can have what sounds like a perfectly normal conversation with an NPC, while you are texting the player what they’re actually learning. If you need ideas on what to say out loud, check out this neat simplified English-to-Cant dictionary designed by tabletop gamers.
When you decide to skip the step of the rogue having to translate everything from thieves’ cant, that doesn’t mean you have to skip the fun discussion in thieves’ cant. You and your rogue can roleplay out the conversation in thieves’ cant, whether that is using symbols, hand motions, or verbiage, and then say aloud what the rogue just learned. Half the fun of thieves’ cant is in the roleplaying, so go all-out, even if you’re going to turn around and explain it in plain English!
Once you have an idea of the words, movements, and techniques to use to make thieves’ cant a more interesting mechanic, how do you incorporate it into your game? What use does it have?
One of the most basic ways your rogue player might make use of thieves’ cant is to get the lay of the land. The rogue can try reaching out into the underbelly of a new city, or one they’ve been away from for a while, to get a feel for its current state. Is the government stable? Have there been any significant crimes recently? Have they discovered any alarming news that might be relevant to the party, or just thieves in general?
To help indicate to your player who their character should reach out to, you may offer a visual cue that often suggests that an NPC may be a part of the thieves’ guild or criminal underworld and open to chatting. For example, maybe they all wear a bronze ear cuff or have a small scar or tattoo on their left index finger -- something tiny that your player could spot with a perception check that might also be overlooked by the town guard as something innocuous.
In most fantasy settings, thieves’ guilds and similar organizations are notorious for trading in information, which is something your rogue would likely already know as a part of their background. That means that any time they need information, they can always check with the local thieves’ guild.
Who knows what rumors they might uncover? It could be something that helps move the plot forward, something relevant to a character’s background, or something completely irrelevant. That much is up to you as the QM -- there’s no limit on what information the seedy underbelly of a town might have to offer.
How have you incorporated thieves' cant into your campaign? Tell us about your experience below!