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 impersonation. The Merriam-Wester Online Dictionary defines impersonate as, “to assume or act the character of,” thus, a villain involved in impersonating is manipulating people’s perceptions into believing that he is someone else, presumably to the villain’s benefit. Such benefits may be concealment of a villain’s identity, deceiving heroes or law enforcement about the villain’s activities, or causing confusion between the villain’s enemies about their respective activities and motives.
In a Dungeons & Dragons game, villainous impersonation can be achieved in a variety of ways, including:
Taking advantage of ignorance. If the villain is in posession of a few tabards bearing the royal duke’s livery or an identity-concealing suit of armor scribed with a well-known heraldric crest, it is certainly possible to fool people vaguely, but not extremely, familiar with the symbols into believing they are genuine. After all, what woodcutter would question the motives of a man dressed in the Duke’s colors? While this ruse becomes increasingly harder to conceal with the passage of time, it can often provide an opportunity for a villain to further her plan or to escape detection long enough to find safety.
Putting on a little makeup. It isn’t always necessary for a villain to pass himself off as a specific individual; sometimes, it is only important to not be recognized as himself. In the tradition of the Scarlet Pimpernel, a villain could use various non-magical disguises that could enable him to move freely about under the proverbial noses of heroes and local law enforcement alike. Bards, minstrels, rogues and actors are best-suited for this sort of activity, although there are numerous examples in both fantasy and historical literature of warriors posing as simple pilgrims.
Spreading untruths about oneself. Contemporary politicians aren’t the only people who can “bend the truth.” Creative villains can employ agents to spread inaccuracies about their identities or weaknesses, so that heroes trying to foil their plans are unprepared for the true threat. It is helpful, but not entirely necessary, for these agents to believe the inacdcuracies.
An example of this tactic could involve a lich that uses a ritual to appear as a “vampire queen” to her minions or to parties of adventurers she drives away from her lair. Upon hearing of this menace, the heroes may dutifully equip themselves with wooden stakes, garlic and holy water, only to learn – possibly too late – that they face a different threat entirely.
Use supernatural abilities to appear identical to someone else. This option is usually only available to creatures with innate chapechanging abilities, such as doppelgangers, or those with access to form-alering magic. Such a creature could cause considerable damage in a densely-populated area; imagine the difficulty a city guard would have in locating a doppelganger prowling the city. The beast could take a different form every time it attacked and fed, so any physical description of the beast provided by witnesses is only a minor action away from being irrelevant.
One of the most dramatic ways for a villain to employ inpersonation is impersonation of the heroes. Depending on how well-known the heroes are in a given area, any of the methods previously described may convince the locals that the villain is one of the heroes, and any villainous acts will be attributed to that hero’s reputation. Imagine a cleric or paladin returning from a long adventure to discover that she has been excommunicated due to atrocities commited by a villain disguised as she; not only must she avoid the villain and try to stop him, but she must also dodge all agents of her church and every bounty hunter within 500 miles while she attempts to clear her name.
As with most dungeon mastering techniques, it is important to use impersonation in moderation. If any plot device becomes overused, the players will begin to suspect that every townsman may be a villainous agent, and that every prominent NPC is a villain in disguise.
Such suspicions can slow a game’s pace for no useful reason. Unless it is the dungeon master’s intention to run a cloak-and-dagger campaign, rife with shifting alliances and perpetual social and political uncertainty, the heroes should usually be able to get a clear understanding of who the bad guys are, where they are located and how they can be stopped. That understanding is what makes for a fast-paced and more exciting game, so clouding that understanding with impersonation should be used sparingly.