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, such entries are posted on Sunday.
This week’s crime is robbery, which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as, ” larceny from the person or presence of another by violence or threat.”
It is important to distinguish robbery from the related crime of burglary. By definition, a robber approaches a victim and forcibly takes something; a burglar, on the other hand, enters a building with the intent to commit a crime (such as theft), preferably when the victim is absent and without the victim’s knowledge.
The most common forms of robbery in a Dungeons & Dragons game are banditry and piracy, which are essentially land- or sea-based versions of the same thing: taking stuff from people at sword point.
Classic literature would have us believe that robbery pays well. The tale of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves describes mountains of stolen gold secreted in a cave, and nearly every tale of seaborne raiding, from sections of Beowulf to Treasure Island, contains references to great wealth. Historically, however, robbery wasn’t so lucrative. During the Dark Ages in Western Europe, the use of minted coin had declined so much that barter largely replaced the exchange of currency. And although minted currency returned later in the Middle Ages, it was rare for large sums of coin and treasure to be transported without a military escort.
Robbers on land or at sea were therefore dependent upon whatever valuables crossed their paths, assuming that those valuables weren’t too well-protected to attack. Nearly everything stolen by robbers was trade goods which, although valuable, were also easily identified as stolen, forcing the robbers to sell their ill-gotten gains for a fraction of their real value to fences and other unsavory folk.
Another element of robbery often overlooked in literature was the robbers’ propensity to steal rations and personal items. Pirates of the 18th Century, for example, commonly took food, fresh water, spare sailcloth, ropes, carpentry tools, cooking utensils and medicines from their prizes, in addition to any valuables. The reason for this was clear: as fugitives from the law, pirates couldn’t simply sail into port to careen their vessels and resupply such common items. In rare cases, these pirates would not only take a ship’s carpentry tools; they would also take the carpenter, and force him to join their crew. Bandits faced a similar problem: although there were tracts of land sufficient to conceal a bandit gang indefinitely, entering towns plastered with wanted posters to replace a broken kettle wasn’t a viable option.
In a D&D game, bandits and pirates are very common foes for player characters (PCs), especially at low experience levels. And while it is certainly within the DM’s discretion to bestow as much monetary treasure as he or she deems fit upon these scoundrels, changing the treasure – but not the value of the treasure – to reflect historical reality can create unique role-playing opportunities.
For example, the PCs may be sent to stop brigandage on the King’s Road. After the players repel a bandit ambush, track the routed bandits to their lair and defeat the bandit chieftain, imagine their surprise at finding the bulk of their “treasure” to be trade goods. Although each bandit may have a few coins and the chieftain may have some special items and lower-denomination coins in a strongbox, most of the treasure is in the form of bolts of cloth, tinware, wine or ale (most of which has been drunk), dried medicinal herbs, ironware (horseshoes, hinges and nails), spices, clothing, a wagon or two and several draft animals. Although the PCs are entitled to a recovery fee equal to a tenth of the treasure’s value – with the fee equal to what the DM had in mind as a treasure reward for the quest – the PCs must find a way to return the valuables to town safely in order to get their gold, creating an adventure in itself.
And what if the heroes don’t overpower the bandits? A DM might consider playing the same cards the 18th Century pirates did. Imagine if the bandit gang needed a cleric to minister to them, or a bard to sing for them, or a rogue to teach them stealth and camouflage? An entirely new adventure could develop as the PCs, forced to join the gang, find a way to escape without jeopardizing the safety of the other party members.