Crime Scene Sunday: Conspiracy

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 conspiracy, which is a secret agreement between two or more people to perform an unlawful act. Often, this crime is committed in a political context, but any plot c0uld be considered a conspiracy and, at least in U.S. Courts, conspiracy is separate charge and can therefore be considered a crime in itself.

Conspiracies in a D&D game can take as many forms as they do in real life: assassinations, robbery or burglary, smuggling, tampering with legal proceedings, corruption and “framing” others for criminal acts are all examples that readily translate into a D&D game. Since the crime’s definition is so broad and its concept so basic, however, this posting will address the particulars of how a dungeon master (DM) can create a conspiracy within a game and design an adventure around it.

There is one distinction that must be made before proceeding – and it is a purely arbitrary one, applied here for discussion pruposes – in D&D terms, we need to separate the concept of conspiracy from that of general villainy. This distinction is applied because few D&D villains act alone. Even low-level villains tend to have a gaggle of unsavory followers who agree to join their leader in unlawful behavior, which is conspiracy in the literal sense, albeit an open-ended one. For our purposes, we will apply the concept of conspiracy toward a villain actively recruiting conspirators to accomplish a specific objective.

Designing a conspiracy adventure, then, is largely a matter of :

  • Determining the objective. For game purposes, be certain that the objective is specific in nature, can be accomplished in the near future and has a definable state of completion. “Fight until the elves are exterminated” is more of a villainous mission statement than a conspiracy. “Steal Sparth, the holy dwarven axe, from the Temple of Moradin, and carry it across the border to our citadel” makes a much better conspiracy.
  • Evaluating the villain’s ability to carry out that objective. Villains who can single-handedly carry out an entire objective are rare, if for no other reason that they would need to be of such high level to do so that the heroes would have difficulty facing them. Most conspirator-villains can play a partial role in executing their plot, but need to recruit allies to complete other parts of the plan.
  • Identifying co-conspirators who have the disposition and ability to do what the villain cannot. After deciding how much of the plan the villain can perform alone, decide where the villain will find help to carry out the rest of the plot. Part of identifying these co-conspirators involves providing some form of motivation for them to help the villain. This motivation can be anything from offering gold to holding as hostages the family members of otherwise unwilling conspirators.
  • Involving the heroes. In order to make a conspiracy the center of an adventure, the heroes need to be involved. Typically, this involvement happens at some early point in the execution of the plot, and the heroes must try to find more information in time to stop the plot from being carried out. A variation of this involvement is to have the heroes discover the conspiracy after its successful completion, leaving the party to unravel the mystery and restore the status quo.

To develop the example of stealing an artifact/weapon from the temple, let us assume that the villain is a mid-level priestess from an evil religion tasked with depriving the Temple of Moradin of that artifact. She has been given a great deal of information about the item, false papers identifying her as a member of a minor noble family and a large pouch of gems to support her mission.

Dressed as a nondescript traveler, the priestess travels to the city where the temple is located and rents three small rooms in different city quarters: one as a primary residence, one as a meeting place for her conspirators, and a third to be used as a secondary residence if the first is compromised.

Realizing that she cannot break into the temple herself, she begins frequenting the taverns where the temple guards spend their leisure hours. Eventually, she notices one guard in particular who is very unhappy there, to a point where she senses he’d betray the guard captain just to dishonor him. The priestess recruits this fellow for information about guard shifts, passwords and traps guarding the artifact.

The priestess also frequents the rathskellers and dive taverns in the Rogue’s Quarter, eventually learning of a smuggler who would carry the item out of the city for her without any legal entanglements. In those same taverns, she meets a rogue who leads a small gang known for second-story work, who she advises about the temple, its passwords and traps and retains for the theft itself.

Lastly, she needs to hire some armed guards to escort her to the meeting with the smuggler and thence to the border, using her cover as a noblewoman to travel cross-country to safety.

The heroes can become involved in any number of ways. They could be members of the Temple of Moradin asked to spy on the disgruntled guard, or perhaps they are asked to investigate a rumor about the priestess’ religion being active in the city. They might intercept a letter intended for one of the conspirators, or one of the heroes may be mistaken for a conspirator and the party may be accidentally invited to join!

Regardless of how the heroes become involved, the DM has already done enough homework to answer most player questions about goings on, and to improvise responses based upon who would know what and at what time. Players love unraveling conspiracies, since they can be detected and subverted in many different ways and, while a campaign of consecutive conspiracies would probably be dull, they present a fresh alternative to traditional action adventures.


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