Crime Scene Sunday: Arson


Picture of Flames courtesy

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 Arson. The Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary defines the term as “the willful or malicious burning of property (as a building) especially with criminal or fraudulent intent.” For a D&D villain, arson is an effective way of depriving an opponent of something, ranging from the basics of food and shelter to more particular needs such as income (if the structure was a business), information (in the case of a library) or even safety (such as a log palisade providing the only fortifications in a militarily active area). It is also extremely useful for destroying evidence of another crime committed by the villain.

During the Middle Ages, the threat of fire was constant, and if a fire was to start in a densely populated area, the likelihood of the fire burning out of control was very high. Recognizing this threat (and operating within the limits of their technology), some Medieval governments passed laws calling for fire safety measures, including:

  • Some communities had groups of citizens that patrolled the streets at night, carrying equipment for signaling trouble and fighting fires.
  • Other towns mandated that sites typically containing fires – kitchens, bakeries, and the shops of blacksmiths or potters – were to be constructed as separate outbuildings, to reduce the chances of a fire spreading into a larger building. People working with fire in these professions often wore wool clothing, as wool tends to smolder when exposed to flame instead of catching fire.
  • During the 13th Century, a law was passed in London that required all citizens to keep fire fighting equipment, and for slate to be used as roofing instead of the cheaper and more cumbustible straw.
  • Although this example isn’t technically Medieval, as it dates to the turn of the 20th Century, the idea is simple enough to use in a D&D setting with higher levels of technology or magic: the fire grenade. These items were made of thin glass, etched to shatter upon impact and filled with flame-retardant materials. Historical examples were filled with carbon tetrachloride, but in a fantasy setting, anything from water to imprisoned water elementals could fill the grenades.

It is against these precautions that a D&D villain seeking to commit arson must plan, so examining a target area for its capacity to respond to a fire is critical.

A few villainous applications for arson in a D&D might involve any of the following:

Destroying something the heroes need. This example is self-explanatory, although it is important to add that, if the site is important enough, one or more heroes may perish trying to save the structure, further weakening the villain’s foes.

Bait and diversion. Few things in a Medieval setting are as frightening as uncontrolled fire; fires inspires almost immediate panic and confusion, and will, from a villainous standpoint, attract and occupy heroes. If the villain intends on undertaking a difficult mission in a town – stealing an artifact from a temple, for example – she may consider starting a fire on the other side of the settlement to draw watchmen and heroes, to improve the liklihood of her success.

Destroying evidence. Consider a monstrous villain, a vampire lord who has taken up residence under a ruined tower within a day’s travel from two or three towns. Obviously, the monster needs to feed, but leaving behind corpses drained of blood with tell-tale bite marks will incite clerics and adventuring parties to comb every inch of the province for a vampire. If the vampire chooses to set its victim’s homes ablaze after feeding, however, the cause of death won’t be readily apparent by examining victims’ remains. in such a case, it is likely that the first few blazes caused by the vampire will be ruled accidental, and subsequent fires will probably be thought the work of an arsonist or flame cult; unless a group of heroes makes a sustained effort to investigate the fires as related, the presence of the vampire may never be discovered.

Participating in religion. This motive would probably only appear in a D&D campaign where various temples and cults worshipping fire exist. Some of these sects may require that sacrifices of combustibles be periodically ignited. Evil versions of these sects may even set occupied buildings ablaze as sacrifices in a twisted effort to glorify fire.

Of course, motives for arson are as widely diverse as villains are. While the heroes may encounter an arsonist as a villain (the fire cult described above may produce an example or two), it is much more likely that the heroes may see arson used in conjunction with another villainous activity.


6 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Arson

  1. Max.Elliott says:

    A word of warning for arsonist PC’s : “Chicago”.

    Assuming that a people knew how fire worked then any element could be used to counteract it. Air to draw off the oxygen, Earth to smother or to erect sudden firewalls. Fire, to control-burn a firebreak, even. A city that’s been burned once will be better prepared as well. Every home with a special-bound water spirit maybe? Spell barriers to keep precious artifacts safe?

    I often wondered why magical settings had indoor plumbing instead of trained elementals.

    One should also be mindful that different fires react differently. A grease fire will spread with water and just get worse. A fire near a granary will cause a massive explosion (Don’t believe me? Google it, it’ll explode). Or remember the Hidenberg? There is a coal fire in PA that has been burning underground for the last 60 years.,_Pennsylvania Feeling comfy about that torch NOW Mr. Adventurer?

    I know, this comment is more a warning of the dangers of fires to PC’s than how a criminal would employ arson. I have a hard time envisioning a villain who wasn’t mainly an arsonist using fire. Possibly one could have a villain who caused arson as a side effect to some mighty or wild fire talent and just didn’t care?

    • Alric says:

      An exploding granary – now *that* has some quality disaster potential. Setting one of those on fire might be a nice way to speed along a siege.

      And the grease fire clarification is useful, too; I wonder how many players would think of that, especially if they’re covered with burning Greek fire?

      Lastly, thanks for mentioning the Pennsylvania coal fire. That would make a cool setting…

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    In many cultures arson was worse than murder. It was rare for only one building to burn. In cities often a whole section fo the city would be engulfed, with many hundreds of deaths. A village or town could be completely destroyed.

    Some more ideas:

    * An arsonist has set several fires that haven’t spread. But the weather has been wet. Now the rain has stopped and they must stop him before he starts a fire that they cannot control.

    *A villain destroys a town that the heroes went through. They find out that more than one place they’ve visited has been destroyed. Soon word comes out that the heroes are cursed and nobody will give them refuge.

    *The heroes come upon a burned out village. If they examine the buildings, they will find that there are no bodies in the wreckage. Did they have warning to escape? Were they taken prisoner?

    • Alric says:

      Very good suggestions, Philo. I particularly like the “race against time with dry weather approaching” angle.

  3. […] as larcenies (if anything was stolen), hate crimes (in the cases of vandalism or violence) or arson (if religious buildings are destroyed by fire). Of course, under  more theorcratic governments, […]

  4. […] like murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson as street […]

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