Author’s note: this edition of Crime Scene Sunday is published a day late due to constraints on the author’s personal time during the last weekend. The feature will resume Sunday publication next weekend. Please accept our apologies for the inconvenience.
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 hostage taking. Wikipedia offered the best definition of the practice, defining a hostage as “someone who is seized by a criminal abductor in order to compel another party such as a relative, employer, law encorcement or government to act, or refrain from acting, in a particular way, ofter under threat of serious physical harm to the hostage(s) after the expiration of an ultimatum.”
In a Dungeons & Dragons game, there is a wide variety of applications through which a villain can use this particular crime, all of which involve furthering the villain’s plans by threating to harm others, which will doubtless attract wrong-righting heroes to adventure.
Applications for hostage-taking, presented here as story archetypes, include the following.
Hostage-taking for financial gain. As previously written at the RPG Athenaeum, every villain needs a paycheck. Taking hostages for money is as villainous a revenue stream as any other, particularly if the villain plans to leave the region immediately after collecting the ransom. This is fairly straight-forward villainy, and needs no illustrative example.
Hostage-taking for political purposes. High-level heroes are powerful, and are often involved the the political intrigues of the lands they inhabit. Perhaps a villain isn’t interested in money, but is very interested in political power. The abdution and indefinite detainment of pivotal ruler, heir or diplomat can seriously impede the formation of alliances, the development of peace treaties (especially if the villain can make it appear that one side of the conflict is responsible for the abduction) or the prevention of war.
For example, consider a villainous merchant, made wealthy by trading in weapons and armor. He is delighted to hear of increasing political tensions with the neighboring kingdom, and happily begins increasing his stock in preparation for the inevitable war to come. Unfortunately for the merchant, the king plans to send one of his most trusted advisers: a cleric of sterling repute, known for his great wisdom and fairness, whose religion has temples in both kingdoms. Realizing that this diplomatic cleric could very well find a peaceful solution to the problems of the two nations, the merchant hires a gang of rogues to abduct the cleric, not for the purposes of collecting money, but for detaining the cleric just long enough for the war to start.
Hostage-taking to further a completely different villainous plan. Sometimes, a D&D villain needs assurances that one or more phases of a complex plan will succeed, and she may resort to hostage-taking to gain that assurance.
Imagine a master jewel thief who, at the pinnacle of her career, decides to attempt the most daring theft ever known: stealing the king’s crown from his bedchanber. Such a plan requires several sub-plots, beginning with obtaining passes to the city’s noble quarter, ranging through bribing guards about the layout of the castle and watch shifts and planning the theft, and ending with getting out of the castle and immediately selling the crown to a fence for disposal outside the kingdom.
Getting into and out of the castle presents one of the most formidable challenges of the caper. Knowing this, the thief abducts the family of the guard sergeant responsible for the overnight watch shift. She tells the sergeant that if he dosn’t do as instructed for a certain number of nights, he will never see his family again; one of those nights is the night of the intended heist, and the sergeant will have arranged for no dogs to be patrolling the inner bailey and for the greatest concentration of guards to be at the wrong end of the citadel, responding to a diversionary distrubance outside the castle at the time of the theft.
For role-playing purposes, hostage taking is one of the easiest practices with which to involve heroes. People being held hostage for ransom are in need of heroic rescue; the heroes may need to protect our cleric on his diplomatic mission; the heroes could secretly be recruited by the sergeant to rescue his family.
In rare cases, it can be the heroes who take hostages. What if a power-mad king wants to wage war against an overwhelmingly powerful nation, and the heroes set out to stop the king’s envoy from delivering a declaration of war? Or perhaps the heroes know of good-aligned people held hostage by a villain; in such a case, the heroes could abduct some of the villain’s lieutenants, and trade their hostages in exchange for the good-aligned hostages.
Whether used as a primary crime or supporting crime, hostage-taking presents unique role-playing opportunities when hostages survive. Good-aligned hostages saved by heroes can become powerful allies, and evilly-aligned hostages live to antagonize the heroes on another day, in additino to having a score to settle with the heroes for being held hostage.