Crime Scene Sunday: Embezzlement

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 embezzlement. The Merriam-Wester Online Dictionary defines embezzle as, “to appropriate (as property entrusted to one’s care) fraudulently to one’s own use.” In practical terms, it is the disguised theft of resources one is supposed to be watching, guarding or overseeing, usually in the form of “creative” bookkeeping.

By definition, it is necessary for an embezzling villain to be entrusted with resources to steal, whether it is from a business, manor, religion or government. Since the forensic accounting necessary to uncover an embezzler doesn’t exactly make for exciting, sword-swinging adventure, the crime is best employed in one of two ways by the dungeon master: a secondary activity of the adventure’s primary villain, or as the primary activity of a subservient villain.

At low levels of play, it is possible for embezzlement to be a secondary activity of a major villain. High-level villains typically have grander schemes than dubious accounting practices, although they almost certainly have minions that find creative ways of financially supporting their activities. Low-level villains are often lacking in resources, however, and need to find ways to finance the furthering of their ends.

An example of this type of embezzlement might involve a corrupt clerk whose romantic advances were spurned by a local beauty; perhaps the clerk has a vengeful streak, and decides that she will eventually obey his will, one way or another. He decides that the most effective way of doing this involves paying an evil cleric to turn her into an undead creature subservient to him, in exchange for funneling some of his employer’s resources to the coffers of the cleric’s evil religion.

While the heroes probably wouldn’t respond if the merchant who employs the villain complains about his profit margin, they would probably want to investigate the abduction of the teenage girl from town. In the course of rescuing the maiden, the party discovers the clerk as the true villain behind the plot, and players will dearly enjoy cornering and intimidating the clerk after the battle with the evil cleric.

An important consideration to remember when using this technique is that the low-level villain can be in greater danger from the source of his embezzlement funds or the legal consequences of his stealing than he is from a low-level party of heroes. This reality can provide a powerful negotiation tool for a clever party. An especially satisfying twist on this idea is for the party to force the villain to sleep in the proverbial bed he made; if the heroes detect the embezzlement early enough, they can expose the crime and destroy a revenue stream for the evil group supporting the villain, then watch while that group exacts its revenge for the villain’s not fulfilling his side of the bargain.  

More often, embezzlement is a primary activity of a minor villain. In this case, the minor villain is a cog in the major villain’s schemes of mutually-supporting evil plots. These plots have price tags, and unless the major villain is supported by a very wealthy organization, such as a religion or government, he will need to engage in cash-generating activites to support them. Embezzlement is one such activity.

Typically, this variety of embezzlement isn’t as important to the game as the plot it supports; instead, it serves as a device to point the heroes in the direction of the major villain. Of course, the heroes will likely mete out whatever justice they deem appropriate to the embezzler and / or intimidate the embezzler to reveal sensitive information about the villain’s plot, but the adventure’s focus immediately becomes stopping the major villain.

Lastly, embezzlers make great recurring villains, even if they are minor in comparison with the sword- and spell-wielding villains with whom the party crosses swords. Typically, embezzlers aren’t physically intimidating specimens. They make their way in the world by subtle deception and relying on the power of others, and react with cowardice in the face of personal danger. In short, they are a type of villain players love to hate, and if they have to pursue one for a few adventures before finally apprehending him, the sense of player satisfaction can rival that of slaying a giant.


5 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Embezzlement

  1. Max.Elliott says:

    Ah, another excellent installment!

    I’d like to suggest casting the embezzler in a more innocent light. For example, the villain (of any stripe) owns a gambling hall, cat-house, or simply is very scary to an accountant. Then you have someone caught in the middle. Someone not wholly guilty, but who’s cooking the books anyway, and being forced to pass the cash along. What does a PC do then? Suddenly you can have a “let the small fish pass to catch the bigger fish” thing going.

    Or for an extra twist, the not-quite-totally-evil embezzler HIRES the PC’s to come and get him/her out from under the thumb of the villain. Remember, here be one with money and a deadline, perhaps being blackmailed into wrong-doing.

    PC’s might also be tempted or pressured into embezzlement themselves. We’ve all heard about the party “treasure mule” who keeps an extra share back for himself. Perhaps the priest follows a god who finds that kind of thing amusing? Or the Fighter who’s wife back home doesn’t know about the romance of the road, and blackmail leads to embezzlement?

    And often people who commit criminal acts, even if they’re aware of the immorality or illegality of their actions, are convinced that they’re doing the right thing! Imagine cornering the guy shaving the kings taxes a bit and taking that money back out to those suffering the tax the most. They might not truly NEED that money. Exposing that kind of motivation could be interesting for the players.

    Do you punish Robin Hood? What about the accountant scamming a villain?

    Well, that’s me after a night without sleep… What do you guys think?

    • Alric says:

      Very astute observations, as usual, Max. I tried to keep the post focused on villainous activities only, due to the nature of the feature, but the “sypathetic embezzler” you describe has tremendous story potential.

      While a evildoer the players can sympathize with isn’t really a true villain in my eyes – I try to make villains people who players truly hate, not empathize with – your questions about punishing Robin Hood or passing over lesser villainy in favor of stopping the greater could create some fascinating in-character discussions about morality. I can see a lawful good paladin and good ranger nearly coming to blows over this one…

      I suppose there doesn’t need to be a actual answer to any of those questions; it would probably be more fun to put the question before the heroes, sit back from the screen and watch the show.

      • Max.Elliott says:

        Sorry about pulling the focus away from villain there. The lesson here is: Max should preview his comment in a text editor _then_ post 🙂

        I do have a tendency to make the pawns in my games really pawnish. Little everyday evils influenced by the real villain from a layer or two away. I think that on a subconscious level I associate an embezzler with someone too small and opportunistic to be truly evil. To me it feels like something someone normal gets forced into, either with extreme financial pressure or by external forces.

        A different light to put the villain in is to assume they’re so completely corrupt that they cannot help but betray trusts, and that embezzlement is simply daily operations for the villain. So the villain who is perhaps otherwise difficult to ID can be tracked by the string of “suddenly reduced profit”/”Missing resources” left behind them.

  2. […] Crime Scene Sunday: Embezzlement ? The RPG Athenaeum By Alric 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 … The RPG Athenaeum – […]

  3. Alric says:

    Nay, Max, I like your posts just fine without the text editor. You brought up a valid point that someone could use in their game, and any reply that does that is worth its weight in gold.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that the discussion should be contrained in any way – just that _ didn’t include that idea in the original post due to space constraints, and going further would have put me past my personal limmit of 1,000 words per post.

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