Friday, 2 October 2015

Of Thieves marks and Hobo signs

 There’s an article that does the rounds every once in a while about how burglars leave secret signs and sigils outside your house to let other thieves (and neer-do-wells) know what’s going on behind your walls, or fences. For example, a pile of little stones means you have dogs. A brick carefully placed outside your gate, means they aim to nick your car. An empty Coke can means they can expect resistance when burgling your joint.
 On the face of it, it could be true, but once you think about…what self-respecting thief is going to help another, in getting your goods? Surely if he, or she, had all the info, why would they broadcast it (albeit secretly) to all their thiefly brethren who might pull the job off before you? I know, right? But, the article always states that this information comes from the cops, so, IT MUST BE TRUE!
 I don’t know, it reeks of urban myth to me, just one more fucking thing to worry about. It’s also not just here in South Africa, I’ve seen it in the British press too. Yes it was The Sun, and no, I didn’t believe it then either, I just thought it was curious is all. And besides, I have enough on my mind when I leave my front door than what a discarded crisp packet signifies, or a half-eaten lox bagel may portent. Maybe, and here’s a crazy thought, maybe it’s just fucking litter? Anyone ever think of that? Apparently not, so the article keeps on popping up wherever there are humans gullible to believe this crap.
However, the same cannot be said about Hobo signs. These were left by the Kings of the Road to help-a-brother-out, when they came into a new town, or village. They would point out if the occupants of a house would give away food, or clothing, or maybe even had some work for them. There was a whole list of them, and they are all pretty cool. I have attached a picture of them at the bottom of the post.
But, all this secret/paranoia/sigils and signs got me thinking how easily you could slot this into your campaign for your Thief players, like thieves Cant, made real. Anyway, here you go, signs and sigils only a thief (or hobo) will understand.

Barrow-Boys, and Rag and Bone Men, often earn a little extra on the side by providing the local Thieves Guild with gen on who lives where and if there may be something worth half-inching from the premises. This is how they do that. By leaving certain signs and items outside.
  • ·         A pile of tiny stones- house is guarded by small yapping dogs
  • ·         Two large stones resting on top of one another- premises is inhabited by two elderly people
  • ·         A spear tip drawn in chalk/charcoal/- owner is armed and not afraid to use it
  • ·         A large eye painted at the top of the street- a house has been targeted for robbing
  • ·         Several stones in a row- denotes how many people can be expected inside
  • ·         An empty wine skin pointing at the house- means that someone is home
  • ·         A tiny piece of white cloth- means the house is an easy target
  • ·         A small sketch of a crown- means the home owners are wealthy
  • ·         A sketch of several swords- means the owners have men-at-arms protecting them
  • ·         An empty, upright, drawing of a bottle- means nobody is home
  • ·         A pair of old boots- indicates the escape path the thieves should follow
  • ·         A small chalk mark of a ring- means the inhabitant is a  jeweller who keeps his wares at home
  • ·         A horizontal zigzag- there are vicious dogs inside
  • ·         A circle of small pebbles- means get out fast, the job is blown and you are at risk of capture
  • ·         Three diagonal lines- not a safe place, protected by magical wards
  • ·         A broken dagger blade- means the owner was once an adventurer but took an arrow in the knee, and now spends his days at home drinking
  • ·         A circle with a hand drawn in charcoal- inhabitant is a fellow thief
  • ·         A small piece of red or green cloth- inhabitant is a priest or cleric
  • ·         A small piece of black cloth- house has already been robbed in the last few weeks
  • ·         A drawing of a cat- means the occupant is a witch
  • ·         An upside-down caduceus- the occupant is a healer and will treat thieves injured on the job


  1. This is pretty cool since I'm prepping for the next chapter of our Beasts & Barbarians campaign that will take place in Jalizar City of Thieves. Food for thought.
    Also, it reminds me of the Savage Worlds setting for Suzerain Noir Knights where hobos draw sigils. It's even a source of magic for them.

    1. Cheers, Eric! Check out the link on the Rag and Bone Men, they work nicely in a City environment too.

  2. City of Thieves! Great Gamebook.

    You might like this about secret signs:

  3. A little late to the party, but - I direct your attention to Mystic Pangolin issue 1, which has a great article with a whole host of hobo signs. Available in pdf from DriveThruRPG at
    Full disclosure - I may know the author really really well.