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.