Crime Scene Sunday: the Confidence Game

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 confidence games. The Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary, upon which the Athenaeum regularly depends for succinct definitions about criminal activity, didn’t define conficence (“con”) games, but suggested the related term of scam, meaning, “a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation.”

There are at least two players in any con game. The first is the mark, or intended victim, and the second is the con man, who attempts to win the mark’s confidence, so that the mark may invest his money in whatever fraud the con man is proffering.

Additional players, called shills, may also be present. They act in concert with the con man, but the mark doesn’t know that. Shills play roles that add credibility to the con man, such as satisfied former customers, fellow potential investors who allay the mark’s uncertainties with their enthusiasm, or even posing as agents of law enforcement or government agencies that are tasked with preventing con games in a given area of operation, who appear to investigate and approve the con man’s activity.

All con games appeal to and exploit basic human characteristics, such as being compassionate, greedy, honest or naive. Since well-developed con games tend to favor one characteristic over another, finding an appropriate mark is critical to the success of a con game.

At a glance, it appears that applying this sort of crime to a Dungeons & Dragons game would be difficult. The specifics of investing money, determining rate of return and navigating administrative and tax channels don’t usually pass for heroic adventure, especially considering that the heroes can always go adventuring to find more wealth if they want it.

The purpose of this posting, then, is to apply the idea of the con game to non-monetary ventures in a D&D campaign. At its core, the con game relies upon motivating the mark to act. Who says that a D&D villain couldn’t appeal to the heroes’ collective sense of compassion, justice, greed or revenge to motivate the party to do something it wouldn’t normally do?

Imagine a villain: a mid-level rogue who is interested in establishing a bandit gang along a particularly active trade route. His plans are thwarted by the existence of another, more powerful gang already operating there. While brooding about the state of affairs over an ale in the local tavern, a group of nauseating, do-gooder heroes stomp in the common room, and regale the townsfolk with tales of their latest adventure, tales punctuated with magic, bravery and combat prowess.

An idea begins to germinate in the rogue’s mind as he quietly exits.

Two days later, after the heroes have recovered from their adventure, they are approached by a “merchant” (the rogue) dressed in rags, accompanied by a couple of wounded “guards” (shills) similarly dressed and bearing wounds. The merchant claims that his small caravan was attacked by bandits operating in the area, and he and his guardsmen were stripped of all possessions, even their clothing,  and left to beg for sustenance. The merchant offers a third of the value of his lost caravan (insert whatever amount would appeal to the heroes) and anything else the heroes find that doesn’t bear the (fictional) mark of his trading house in exchange for the party’s finding and rooting out the bandits. The merchant may even offer to pay an additional bounty for the head of the bandit leader, if the heroes’ motivations are more mercenary.

If the players take the bait – which they most likely will, especially if the dungeon master has never used this device before – they journey down the dangerous road and find a staged ambush scene where the con man and his shills wrecked a wagon or two and left tracks leading in the general direction of the bandits’ lair. The heroes probably succeed in finding and rooting out the bandits, perhaps even capturing or killing the bandit leader.

They return to town to find no trace of their employer. Asking the locals where he went gains nothing but confused reponses: no one has heard of a merchant by that name, and none of the town’s craftsmen do business with him. Still, good has been done, since the road is now safe for merchant traffic; until a few weeks later, when a new bandit gang, under the leadership of our rogue/”merchant,” begins operating there.

Similar plots can be used by villains to remove rivals, or even misdirect the heroes into attacking good-aligned groups, if the con man can convince the heroes that such groups are unwittingly helping the forces of evil. The venues a con man can use to motivate the heroes are as widely diverse as the characters; any value or belief can be turned into a motivator, if the con man or shills listen closely enough.

As with most entries of Crime Scene Sunday, be careful not to overuse this device. If con games are employed too often, players will spend valuable game time making sure that the dungeon master isn’t trying to trick them, which isn’t particularly fun for anyone. It is also helpful to provide the heroes with an opportunity to find and confront the con man at some future point, so that the heroes can repay the con man for his lies.


4 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: the Confidence Game

  1. Max.Elliott says:

    Specific “modern” cons that will apply:

    1) 419 scams (you get them in your email every day) — I’m a princess whose treasure is locked up in a far away kingdom, and if you help me travel there….

    …and protect me from me foes who hunt me even here! (who are a special sub-set of official local law enforcement, perhaps dealing in oath-breakers)

    …and I’ll pay you back for any travel costs of our great journey when we arrive (by ditching you people the day I reach safety)

    …and you’ll receive a cut of my vast wealth once you have disposed of the pretender to the throne (you know, the actual rightful king, and payment will be rendered in my most expensive toxins)

    2) Penny Stocks (You’ll only know this one is you’re into the stock market) — I’m planning on recovering the lost Horde of Drackamoor the Black Dragon via a hidden cave that even the drake knows nothing about!! It’s path crosses directly under the vast horde and will allow us to take much of it without his notice!! All I require is some expensive magical items, armor, and a few 1,000 GP diamonds!!

    There are variations here, but the end result is that the leader heads off to get the horde that he’ll gladly share out to anyone who invested, and meets the tragic end of never coming back to that town. If he’s cleaver he’ll take a witness or two and magically stage his crews horrific death.


    One note about cons though, is that the people who fall for them, no matter how smart, rich, or wise, tend to continue to buy the lie. There are a couple of theories about this, including emotional investment and the inability to believe that one is so easily fooled. I’ve seen it in action, twice in real life, and once in a game. The players all believed that they had done the right thing for a while after the evidence surfaced and it took the GM explaining that they’d been had (and promising it was supposed to be that way) for them to accept they’d been conned. In the real life cases, one was a victim of the 419 who believed his loses were due to an evil government and the other an elderly lady who thought that the guy feeding her unprescribed medications and asking her to sign papers while she was high still loved her. It was just some horrible mistake.

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for the examples, Max – I hadn’t heard of some of those, and I bet other folks hadn’t, either.

      And I bet there’s a way to work that messed-up romantic angle – the one with the lady and the meds – into a game somehow. I’ll make a note in my inspiration file about it.

  2. Ameron says:

    As much as I like a good story about con artists (The Sting, Catch Me If You Can, Ocean’s 11, and the upcoming Brother’s Bloom — which was excellent) I’ve found that when used in D&D they tend not to go as expected – which is not necessarily a bad thing. The reason most of my attempts to run cons against PCs failed was because I made the cons too complicated. I like your suggestions here. They’re pretty simple and straight-forward. And you’ve hit the nail on the head by cautioning the DM not to overuse this angle. Nothing slows the game down like PCs trying not to get burned a second time.

    • Alric says:

      Welcome, Ameron, and thank you for your kind words on this and the other posts.

      And the cautionary note about con complexity is an important contribution to this discussion; it wasn’t part of the original post but certainly should have been.

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