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 Murder. The Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary defines the term as “the crime of unlawfully killing a person, especially with malice aforethought.”
This posting will emphasize the malice aforethought portion of the definition, since many court systems use the element of premeditation to separate the charge of murder from that of the lesser crime of manslaughter. By contrast, manslaughter is the killing of another absent this premeditation, such as a crime of passion or sudden rage.
The crime of murder can serve multiple plot functions in a Dungeons & Dragons game, including:
The removal of important non-player character (NPC) allies from the game. In most D&D campaigns, the heroes align themselves with various leaders, both secular and religious, who tend to beg the party for aid or send the heroes on missions. As play progresses, the relationships between the heroes and these authority figures often become increasingly reciprocal, to a point where heroes in need of aid feel comfortable returning to said leaders for help.
Villains and villainous organizations capable of opposing the heroes are aware of these hero-leader relationships as well and, recognizing that the heroic job description often calls for the party to be away for extended periods, may choose to strike at a leader sympathetic to the heroes while the party is off adventuring. Indeed, a particularly devious villain may deceive the party with a false adventure lead for the express purpose of making the heroes leave and render the target leader more vulnerable. Imagine the heroes surprise when they return to a province to ask their old friend – the baron for whom they’ve completed a half-dozen missions – for advice, to discover that the baron is murdered, the investigation of the crime has stagnated and a new baron, one more sympathetic to the heroes’ enemies, has replaced the party’s strongest ally.
Weakening good-aligned groups that oppose the villain. Campaigns that have relatively high levels of technology or culture are often populated with large, bureaucratic, good-aligned organizations, such as governments and religions. These organizations are immensely powerful, but rely upon the wisdom of highly-placed leaders to direct the countless “worker bees” that actually exert the influence of their respective organizations.
If one of its leaders is murdered, an organization can be weakened or paralyzed temporarily at all points beneath that leader’s place in the organization’s heirarchy. Thus, if a villain is planning to attack a temple to steal a relic, murdering the local prefect will limit the temple’s ability to hinder her plot.
Of course, the best use of murder as a plot device to create a mystery for the heroes to solve. If the party had any sort of relationship with the victim, they will likely be inclined to find and punish the villain responsible. In such a case, it befalls the party to examine the crime scene, collect evidence, interview witnesses and try to interpret the clues they assembled, while enduring the murderer’s attempts at derailing their investigation or physically harming them.
Murderer as villain. Thus far, the crime of murder has been discussed in the context of its use in furthering other villainous goals. Sometimes, the villain may be a “full-time” murderer who engages in no other sort of villainy, such as an assassin or criminal mastermind who wants to commit an unsolvable killing. These villains must almost always be ferreted out through careful questioning and exhaustive investigation; typically, learning the identity of such a villain constitutes an adventure in itself, with secondary adventures dedicated toward locating and confonting him.
Lastly, it is important to note that failed murder attempts can provide adventure hooks as compelling as successful murders. Few things will make an adventuring party change course more quickly than an attempt on the life of a friend, ally or family member; about the only thing that will is an attempt on the lives of the heroes themselves. After piecing together whatever information they can about the attack, the party will almost certainly seek out the miscreant responsible, and that is the stuff from which adventures can be made.