Crime Scene Sunday: Forgery

One regular feature of this Web log is Crime Scene Sunday, in which the author examines some form of criminal activity, considers how a villain may use that particular crime in a Dungeons & Dragons game, and provides one or more examples of that particular misdeed in a D&D campaign setting. As the name implies, one such entry is posted each Sunday.

This week’s crime is forgery. As defined by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, forgery is “the crime of falsely and fraudulently making or altering a document.”

Obviously, investigating forgery as an adventure objective doesn’t make for a particularly exciting D&D quest – most heroes would rather slay dragons than ferret out a pasty-faced, corrupt scribe guilty of forging gate passes. However, since players’ minds are typically focused on more obvious and severe villainous activities, they may fail to notice a “minor” crime like forgery, to their detriment, especially if used for diversionary purposes.

A hypothetical example of how the crime of forgery could impact a D&D campaign could involve a recurring villain, who is attempting to steal an artifiact from a church in the town that the heroes use as a base of operations. Let us assume that the heroes have foiled at least one of the villain’s prior plots, perhaps even capturing or killing one of his lieutenants in the process. Spies in town have been able to furnish the villain with the heroes’ names, some information about their abilities and equipment, and, through casual conversation at the local tavern, the home towns of one or more heroes.

Realizing that the heroes could quite possibly foil the execution of  any plot in the town while they are present, and that the heroes would immediately pursue his forces back to his lair even if the plot succeeded, the villain decides that the heroes need to leave. To this end, he or one of his subordinates produces a forged document: a letter bearing the mayor’s seal from a hero’s home town, located a few days’ travel away. The letter pleads for the hero’s return, stating that a strange evil is affecting the town. The “evidence” of the evil takes the form of whatever creatures, symbols or magical effects related to the villain’s organization. For example, if the heroes hear that townsfolk are disappearing in the middle of the night – just like they were in the plot the heroes just foiled in their present location – they may be motivated to depart at once.

Of course, there is no evil affecting that town – the villain and his minions aren’t operating wtihin 20 miles of that area – but the heroes don’t know that. If the heroes can’t detect that the document is forged, they may leave to “save” the unthreatened town, and by the time they discover the forgery, the villain will have accomplsihed his goal.

In fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons game terms, the forger would make a thievery skill check, with a circumstance bonus of +2 if the heroes have never seen the mayor’s handwriting, and an additional +2 if the heroes don’t know or can’t remember what the mayor’s seal looks like. That theivery check is opposed by a hero’s insight check, which gains a +2 circumstance bonus if she can recognize the mayor’s script and another +2 if she can recognize the seal. If the insight check is equal to or greater than the theivery check, the heroes detect the forgery; otherwise, they have no reason to suspect that the document isn’t genuine.

If the heroes answer the forged summons and the villain’s plot succeeds in their absence, the villain will earn a lasting enemy in the heroes; after all, few things provoke a response in players as emotional as being manipulated by a villain.

As Dungeon Master, you must be careful not to overuse this technique. If most messages are later identified as red herrings, your players will tend to dismiss them, even if they are accurate; it is therefore important to have most communications with the party – be they letters, messages left at a favorite inn, or magical missives – be perfectly legitimate.

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7 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Forgery

  1. Max.Elliott says:

    What about quietly replacing the Party’s official documents with poor forgeries? Once someone inspects their own document, usually at issue, they don’t normally bother to look again, while officials will inspect the document at each use. Caught out with having to explain why they’re traveling on fakes will delay a party for a long while without having to risk many of the villians own people. You can actually make things worse by having the information be NEARLY correct. There is nothing more confusing to a bureaucracy than encountering someone who looks like they are impersonating themselves. I draw this from real life experience. My father and I share the exact same name. He has a long term relationship with the government. I was joining the army…. When they ran the background check, the clerk just entered my name, omitting the SSN. I spent a long time in a small white room explaining why I thought I was a 40 year old man with a clearance, currently working for the Man in a different state. Even with phones, computers, networked databases, and faxes, it took about 24 hours to clear up the error. Imagine having to get the information cleared by a reliable witness with runners on horseback. Unless the party is OK with a jailbreak and becoming actually wanted…

    With some careful deliberation the villain might be able to get away with just switching the documents of ONE party member or NPC. Then making a complaint about their documents.

  2. Alric says:

    @ Max: very inventive angle, and one I never would have thought about. Your players must either love you or hate you for that kind of creativity.

  3. Raolin says:

    Ha. I did that to a group I was Dying for once. Forged a fake map to the villains lair. Boy were they ever Pied after searching a swamp for hours and being constantly attacked. Half the group was diseased during the process and were sick in bed for two weeks before they recovered.

  4. Mike says:

    I recently played a short campaign that ended up revolving around the forgery skill, but as it was used by me as a player, not the GM.

    My background was that I was a spy from a nearby empire, trying to stir up as much chaos in the region as I could. Of course, none of the other characters knew this. Anyway, the town this was set in was ruled by a reclusive king, and he issued all of his orders via letter. Naturally, I got a hold of some samples and started issuing orders all over the place. I practically hijacked the game.

    The highlight of it for me was when I issued orders to my own party saying that there was a band of assassins disguising themselves as paladins, and we were to track them down and kill them. In actuality, they were real paladins that were trying to hunt [i]me[/i] down, but I had my party get rid of them for me without ever knowing I was involved.

    It was really just dumb luck that the GM set up the world in a manner that was so easily manipulated by the forgery skill in the same session that I made a character with this background. Luck or not, though, it was an amazing few sessions.

    • Alric says:

      That is awesome, Mike. At least it was awesome for everybody but the DM, who probably learned an important lesson.

      One of my players can’t wait for his rogue to forge tax receipts; let’s hope that he doesn’t read this and start meddling with governments…

      • Mike says:

        I have to say, our DM rolled with it really well. He does some of his best work on the fly, so when I took things off the rails, he still managed to keep it all engaging.

  5. […] activity. Whether through impersonation, spying or forgery, villains with roguish tendencies could impersonate victims, causing all sorts of […]

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