Crime Scene Sunday: Smuggling

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 smuggling. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the practice as “importing or exporting secretly, contrary to the law and especially without paying duties imposed by law.”

For the purpose of this post, it is important to distinguish between the crime of smuggling and the generic secrecy under which most D&D villains operate as a matter of course. Since unconcealed villainy tends to attract heroes, all but the most powerful villains quickly learn how to move personnel and resources secretly, if for no other reason than to give their evil schemes time to develop and come to fruition. While these villains may use many of the same methods as smugglers, they are not involved in the crime of smuggling; smugglers are villains who break the law by avoiding tarriffs or duties on otherwise legal trade, or by engaging in an illegal trade, through secretly moving goods. Those who smuggle legally tradable goods almost invariably do so to avoid tarriffs, duties or other fees associated with importing and exporting. Usually, smugglers are in the employ of a corrupt merchant, craftsman or guild seeking an advantage; since the base price of goods plus the smugglers’ pay is much lower than the base price plus the  import/export fees required by law, cricumventing those fees allows the corrupt business to obtain its good more cheaply than legitimately-operated competitors. The money saved by employing smugglers allows for a business to sell more cheaply than competitors (but not too cheaply, or the price might raise suspicions about smuggling), or, more commonly, is simply pocketed by the corrupt business owner or guildmaster.

It follows that the most frequently smuggled goods are high-tarriff, luxury items: silk, books, perfume, brocaded fabric, wines and spirits, spices, plants or fungi which can induce narcotic effects, magic items, gems, jewelry, and objects of art.

A subset of smuggling legally tradable goods requiring special mention involves the trading of weapons. Often, lawfully-appointed ruling authorities tightly control local weapon production and impose heavy tarriffs upon weapon imports; doing so helps reduce the chance of a well-armed uprising, and a sudden spike in weapon tarriff revenue will tell any royal exchequer that trouble is brewing. Thus, weapons are among the most commonly-smuggled goods, whether they are intended for rebellion or for a villain to arm her hobgoblin men-at-arms at her secret lair.

Goods that typically cannot be legally traded in good-aligned societies, such as poisons, stolen items, or slaves, must be smuggled if they are to be traded at all. For these goods, the purchaser doesn’t make money by avoiding fees; rather, the money is made through the high price that illegal goods command.

Methods employed by smugglers in a D&D game can be as varied as the conditions under which they ply their trade, but they commonly follow one of two general paths. The first is packaging the smuggled goods in such a way that they appear to be some other sort of legal good, then transporting the goods through legal channels, trusting that the deception will go unnoticed. The second path requires the creation of an illegal transport channel, following a trail well away from normal trade routes and making use of numerous secret storage areas.

Perhaps the best example of a smuggling operation leading to a D&D adventure is the plot line from the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, in the module The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, intended for first-level heroes. An abandoned house, located outside the seacoast town of Saltmarsh and reputed to be haunted, was the focus of most local chatter, as residents had heard strange sounds originating from and seen eerie lights in the structure. The heroes explore the house, to find a secret passage leading to a tidal cave where recently-placed wines and silks were hidden. They also find references to a sea-going side of the smuggling operation, and lie in wait for the smuggling ship to arrive with more illegal cargo.

After a climactic battle on board the smugglers’ ship, the heroes uncover more still more contraband, in addition to a weapon shipment inended for a local tribe of lizardfolk. Before the economic and political consequences of that find are fully realized, the heroes reach the fifth level of experience, showing how a single smuggling operation can lead to several weeks of play.


12 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Smuggling

  1. Max.Elliott says:

    the old joke goes something like this:

    “Back when I was a border-guard for the republic, we had this guy, a known smuggler, coming thru our gate everyday. We knew he was smuggling something, and his clothes kept getting more and more expensive. Everyday we’d search him inside and out. His clothes, his bicycle, the small cart he pulled, but we never did find anything. Years later I ran into him at a cafe while I was abroad, and he recognized me. We had a coffee and talked and he confided to me that he was indeed smuggling then. You wouldn’t believe it, but he was smuggling bike trailers.”

    • Alric says:

      That’s hilarious, Max. Now if we can only figure out a way to smuggle residium…

    • Max.Elliott says:


      Just pack it in buckets, not a lot of kingdoms check for sediment…

      residium (n.): Sediment; Something remaining after removal of a part; a residue.

      If it’s a non-radiating metal, do what the Russians do and cast it into something else, like the core of the tubes used to make…. Bike trailers, for example.

      • Alric says:

        I was talking about that silver powder that is left over when you disenchant an item in 4e, but hiding it in buckets may work anyway.

    • Max.Elliott says:

      I lack a PH for 4e so forgive me any lack of information.

      Ignoring the fact that such small amounts of “dust” would be fairly hellish to measure and use (requiring the assumption that it’s consumption is automagically regulated, and that instruments similar to a modern chemists lab would be needed to handle it otherwise) and that there is rather no real data on it’s properties (can it be smelted and cast? How is it identified? Can it be detected with divination magic?) I recommend the following tactic for smuggling it:

      Mix the dust with an equal measure of pine resin and allow it to harden in the form of a disk. Then cast a lead figure around the resulting disk. Properly constructed, this would allow you to safely smuggle the material thru any detector without fear. The lead will block divinations and detections and the resin is a “living organic material”. Operating on the ‘automagically used’ assumption, the resin disk (once free of the lead container) would allow the powder to be consumed without exposing it to the dangers of a slight breeze. A creative mage could cast it into a figurine. Perhaps a tiny replica of some fantasy creature, like the mythical De-Em. The methodology is so simple and common that it cannot help but be in current use with the smarter villains.

      The result of years of adventuring could be stored in a single chess-piece.


      Residuum is a magical dust that collects, or possibly is formed, in the vicinity of magical lodestones that form at the juncture of leylines that span the continent. Per the PHB, p. 225, “it’s a fine, silvery dust that some describe as concentrated magic, useful as a generic component for rituals.” A coin’s weight of residuum is worth 10,000 gold coins, while a pound of residuum is worth 500,000 gold coins.

      Misc points brought up.

      • Alric says:

        It’s my fault, Max – I didn’t spell residuum correctly, anyway.

        One question I do have, though – and you can decline to answer if you’d like – how do you know so much about smuggling?

      • Max.Elliott says:

        “Back when I was a border guard for the Republic…”

        One of my duties during my service with the U.S. Army (all four short years) was to observe reports for patterns that indicated hostile activity. We learned a lot about how goods and materials are moved ‘quietly’ and how they are acquired from within the local infrastructure.

        For example; During a weekly review of theft reports three of the 20 items are a water trailer, a ton of fertilizer, and a truck of cleaning supplies….. One of my jobs was to realize that these are 3/4 of the things you’d need for a large explosive device. That, coupled with a local resistance threat against the area nuclear power plant, means that we doubled our guard at the up-valley dam.

        My other job was to help maintain national communications systems. Line, Network, Sat, TV, Radio, etc… It was fun except for the not getting any sleep and having to keep pace with those Special Ops nut-jobs. Those guys are impossible.

        So, we dealt with local customs agents, the regional police, and so on and got to know a lot about how these things work. Between that and an unhealthy addiction to the discovery channels…. You can see the problem…

      • Alric says:

        Wow. That’s a cool story. Can I appoint you as our resident expert on border-related topics?

      • Max.Elliott says:

        I’m going to assume you’re asking me…

        Sure, why not?

        Am I correct in assuming you have my email address?

        I also subscribe to any post I comment on and can be summoned that way as well.

        and if you’re not talking to me; Sorry about the reply, good luck to whomever you were addressing. I love crime scene Sundays!

  2. Ameron says:

    Great idea. Have you thought about putting together a smuggling skill challenge? Part 1 could be from the point of view of the smuggler, and Part 2 could be from the point of view of those trying to stop the smuggling. We could always work on it together as a collaborative post? If you’re interested email me.

  3. Max.Elliott says:

    How would a magical society deal with smugglers? In our technological one, we really don;t do much more than using the honor system backed up by a few random spot checks. A lot of our action comes from information from other sources.

    One thought would be a section of flooring with an epic level gease on it and a series of yes or no questions. Compel the truth on that section of floor.

    Customs is a boring thankless job that normally servers to protect the interests of local manufacturers.

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