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.