Crime Scene Sunday: Defamation

Author’s note: the title of this post originally identified the crime-of-the-week as libel, but astute readers noted that there could be confusion between libel and slander; the post was therefore edited to identify the crime as defamation. Thus, comments to this post on the slander vs. libel concern were very relevant when posted, even if they seem unrelated at present.

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 defamation. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines defamation as, “to harm a reputation by libel or slander.” Futher definitions include libel as, “a written or oral defamatory statement or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression,” and slander as, “the utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation.” In short, defamation is unjustly making another look bad in the eyes of the public.

Since most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns take place in a technological age predating the printing press, most defamation in the game is likely to be spoken instead of written. In the hands of a thinking villain, defamation can be a highly effective weapon, and players typically don’t see it coming until well after it was used.

Of course, few villains engage only in defamatory activities; it is a crime best-suited to speed the development of or to ensure the completion of other villainous ends. Essentially, by spreading mistruths about the heroes via gossips, marketplace orators or charming minstrels, a villain can sway public opinion heavily against the heroes, making it far more difficult for the party to find safe lodging, provisions, pack animals, and any number of services. It can also cause local law enforcement to pay extra attention to the party’s actions, for local priests to refuse healing and similar magical support and, in exceptional cases, cause local religious figures to consider expecting heroes to explain their reported misdeeds, or risk expulsion from their churches and/or knightly orders.

The most common form of defamatory agent is the minstrel or bard, whose music comes as a welcome respite from the struggles of daily life. Even a good-aligned minstrel would hesitate to bite the proverbial hand that feeds him; if a wealthy patron – either the villain herself or someone in her employ – wants an unflattering song written and performed about someone he’s never met, the music will probably appear in the taverns that night.

Heroes confronting the minstrel would probably be told the truth: that some mysterious person, who has since left town, paid handsomely for the work to be commissioned and performed a certain number of times, and the minstrel is merely fulfilling his contract. An opportunistic minstrel would probably add that he would happily compose a song that flatters the heroes for a similar fee.

Other defamatory agents can include the town gossip (who probably needs no compensation for the work), government agents speaking in an official capacity, leaders of trade and craft guilds, and even religious figures, depending upon the villain’s sphere of influence and the nature of the defamatory statement.

The dungeon master must carefully craft the defamatory statement. Typically, the heroes’ pride is a primary target, although any statement that runs contrary to the party’s motives can work well.

While not technically intentional defamation from an evil villain, an example of how misinformation can damage a party’s reputation emerged in the 4e Dungeons & Dragons campaign I currently run. The party’s first expedition was to locate a wizard who had disappeared while exploring some ruins near the town in which the heroes were staying. The wizard’s family offered a handsome reward for his rescue or information about his fate.

The party did locate the wizard, but was overcome by the villain’s forces before they could return to town; only one hero escaped. The rest of the heroes were imprisoned, destined to be turned into undead servants  as soon as the villain could acquire the necessary ritual components. The hero who escaped returned the next day with a group of non-player characters (NPCs) from the town to rescue his comrades, and arrived in time to prevent the rituals from being performed.

Technically, the prisoners escaped just as the rescue party arrived, so the rescue mission didn’t actually rescue anyone, a point of fact which becomes important later. The group decided to press further into the dungeon, but it was clear that the wizard the heroes originally set out to rescue was critically ill and needed to return to town at once.

A member of the NPC rescue party, a paladin by profession, volunteered to return the missing wizard back to town. The heroes went on exploring and defeated the villain.

The heroes were welcomed back to town, but not as heroes. The bare facts the the heroes heard were:

  • The paladin returned to town;
  • He brought the missing wizard to a local church, where he was healed only moments before being lost entirely;
  • He explained to the town reeve and constable that the rescue mission succeeded, and that the party chose to continue exploring; 
  • The wizard’s grateful family had presented the paladin with the reward, as he was the one who brought the wizard back to them; 
  • The paladin wouldn’t accept the money, and instead gave it to a local almshouse; and
  • The paladin then heard rumors of a strange evil affecting a nearby town, assembled an adventuring party and immediately set off, missing the banquet scheduled that evening in his honor.

This is where the agreed-upon facts end and the fun begins.

By the time the party returned, these bare facts had been transformed by tavern gossip into a tale of the paladin rescuing the weak, helpless heroes, who owe their lives to their rescuers. And even though the party was motivated by greed for gold, the selfless paladin donated all the money to feed starving orphans. Some townsfolk were even glad the paladin was the one who saved the wizard, so the reward money would ease the people’s suffering, instead of being squandered by selfish adventurers on finery, wenches and wine.

Since some of my players read this blog, I won’t reveal here how involved the paladin was in the evolution of these public opinions.

While these events had no effect on game mechanics, they certainly affected the players. The only thing harmed was their reputations, but they now have a palpable hatred for and have established a rivalry with not only this paladin, but against the paladin’s entire adventuring party. I thought the rumors might slightly bother the heroes; it turned out that they actually bother the players.

Of course, a villain who undeniably intends to destroy a party’s reputation can do far worse, especially if there is a grain of truth in any of the defamation. Consider typical adventuring activities: exploring ancient tombs (grave robbing), stopping humanoid raders (whose treasure was taken from area townsfolk), questing for lost magical items (that belonged to the ancestors of at least one local person) and stopping slavers (whose treasure was gained by selling local townsfolk, and the heroes typically keep it). The answer to whether or not an activity is “heroic” depends on who you ask; ask the party that lost out, and you have your almost justifiable defamation.

If you do decide to have a villain employ defamation in your game, consider using the “Contact us” tab in the upper right corner of this Web page. We’d love to hear how it turned out.

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5 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Defamation

  1. Citizen Keen says:

    Great blog so far! Love it. Excited for more Crime Scene Sundays, and this one was clever and insightful.

    That being said, 😉 (there’s always a “That being said”), what you’re describing is slander, not libel.

    But I love it, and good luck!

    [Alric’s subsequent edit: the post title and contents were changed to describe the crime, or more appropriately, the tort, of “defamation,” in order to reflect the astute observations of site readers]

  2. Max.Elliott says:

    You might also consider the “flip side” of libel, Marketing. The group I play with normally regularly used Spin to meet the following goals:

    1) Drive our prices for service up.
    2) Just introduce ourselves to a new town.
    3) Locate information by driving informants to us.
    4) Destabilize the local religious group. (once, it was truly libel)
    5) Announce a nation-wide celebration of the forming of our new town (Epic level party, having an Epic Level Party. We even paid for “news coverage” of the event.)

    Our normal tacit is to hire a bard to do the job and leave it all up to him, except for #’s 4 and 5. For 4 we had a specific message we wanted to spread, “No, they’re NOT at all sacrificing children.”. For 5 we hired a TON of bards. By that time it was a matter of S.O.P. to hire bards via our ‘on staff’ NPC bard as we moved around.

    Also of note: The difference between slander and libel is only really important in a U.S. court of law and relates to how we handle newspapers and books. Many legal systems handle libel differently than we do, from one extreme to the other. (IANAL)

    [Alric’s subsequent edit: this post initially named the crime of the week as libel, which had unintended connotations. The crime of the week was later changed to defamation, in light of Max’s observations. Thank you for making the site better.]

  3. oooh very cool post…..yay for crime scene sunday 🙂

  4. Alric says:

    And a very early good morning to you all. Thank you for your comments; I had commented to a new friend that this blogging exercise was starting to feel like talking in an empty blimp hangar!

    @Citizen Keen: Thanks for the kind words, and for the correction on the terminology. I’ll update the post title to add ‘slander’ along with ‘libel,’ so that both your concern and that of Max will be addressed. One would be given to think that I’d have that nomenclature figured out, since my day job is an editor…Doh!

    @Max: The marketing angle is pure genius. While I’ve had player characters use bards for public image damage control, I’ve never seen a group engage in active branding. Absolutely brilliant.

    @Peasant Butcher: thank you for the encouraging comment. I hadn’t seen anything like Crime Scene Sunday anywhere else, and I didn’t know if it hadn’t been done before for a reason – sort of like nobody has produced pizza-in-a-can before, but for a reason. I’ll be sure to keep it up.

  5. Max.Elliott says:

    Thanks for the edit, changing our crime from libel to defamation fits so much better. I wish I had to option to edit my comment, to make myself look less…. randomly argumentative. I still stand by the fact of the statement, even if it is now kinda redundant feeling.

    I LOVE crime scene Sunday, so don’t stop writing it. I’m recommending you to some friends for regular reading. We would have been here sooner, but Robot Viking didn’t cover you till recently. 😉 Trust me, the hanger fills up, it just takes some time.

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