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.