Crime Scene Sunday: Sacrilege

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 sacrilege, an act which isn’t formally a crime under American penal law; typically, American law tends to prosecute acts of sacrilege as larcenies (if anything was stolen), hate crimes (in the cases of vandalism or violence) or arson (if religious buildings are destroyed by fire). Of course, under  more theorcratic governments, sacrilege can be a criminal offense.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary offers two definitions of the term: (1) “A technical and not necessarily intrinsically outrageous violation (as improper reception of a sacrament) of what is sacred because it is consecrated to God,” and (2) “gross irreverence toward a hallowed person, place, or thing.”

Both definitions are included here, since the distinction between them give rise to two possible methods of using the crime of sacrilege in a D&D game. The first definition implies what we’ll call “lesser sacrilege,” an act of irreverence that doesn’t carry a criminal punishment, only the displeasure of various religious authorities. The second definition describes “greater sacrilege,” what could be considered criminal sacrilege in a typical D&D game, or an act that would be considered a serious crime under secular law that occurred in a sacred area.Lesser sacrilege has little effect on a D&D game – unless a player character (PC) commits it. While role-playing specific observances of in-game religions can slow game play, simple prohibitions like, “unbelievers must walk down the outer aisles of the temple, not down the center aisle” can lead to some interesting game situations. Since most PC adventuring parties represent a variety of different campaign faiths, there’s usually at least one “unbeliever” in any group; imagine if a particularly avaricious PC spots a few platinum coins dropped about five paces down that forbidden center aisle, and can’t resist temptation. The greedy PC may find himself performing some sort of penance, and the PC cleric has some explaining to do before her superiors about the company she is keeping.

Greater sacrilege is typically the purview of villains, who seek to hinder the advancement of the various good-aligned churches arrayed against their plots. Sacriligious villains are a busy folk: there are temples to burn, artifiacts to steal, holy sites to profane, sacred tombs to plunder and high-ranking clergy to defame.

While villains with purely sacriligous motives are certainly possible – single-minded evil clerics and turncoat-types seeking vengeance are common examples – acts of sacrilege in a D&D game are just as often incidental to a greater villainous end. Consider a villain that learns of a powerful, holy actifact secreted in catacombs beneath a prominent, good-aligned temple, which could be used as a power source for a villainous ritual. Numerous magical wards are in place to prevent evil beings from approaching within 100 feet of the artifact vault, and three sacred keys, entombed with the remains of three high priests, are required to open the door. In order to obtain the artifact, the villain may need to tunnel into the catacombs, defile at least three tombs and profane a sanctified ward en route to stealing the holy artifact, committing four sacriligious acts in one, fell swoop.

Another view of greater sacriliege – and one that can have lasting implications in a D&D campaign – involves remembering that sacrilege can be commited against villains, too. Although the D&D game applies “good” and “evil” labels on creatures and characters for ease of reference, only the most depraved D&D villain would admit to being evil; rather, most villains feel justified in their villainy, often through personal philosophies or religious views.  This justification is fortunate, since in the D&D game, the acts of sacrilege, murder and larceny are only called by their appropriate names when villains perform them. For heroes, the proper term is “adventuring,” which apparently has no consequences if a good-aligned ruling authority supports the activity.

When PC heroes storm a lair full of cultists, slay everyone present and deface the image of the cultists’ fell deity, are the PCs not committing sacrilege in the eyes of the evil temple to which those cultists belonged? Are the valuables and religious trappings taken from the dead cultists not stolen wealth from that temple? The answers provided by the leaders of the cult dictate the campaign consequences of the heroes’ actions, which can range from the attempted recovery of the stolen items, through similar raids upon good-aligned temples, to assassination attempts on the lives of the heroes.


3 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Sacrilege

  1. max.elliott says:

    One campaign we were unwittingly playing the cover for a Temple Raider of Olidammara. This PC joined us posing as a cleric of a different god, and proceeded to rob temples in the cities we visited. It took a while, as our group moved from city to city fairly rapidly, but the thefts were eventually connected to our crew. We thought we were being followed or perhaps just on the same path as the thief. We “caught” the fellow when he ripped off the very temple we were guarding against him. That was when we realized we had a criminal in our midst. The rest of the game was spent tracking someone who knew our every move, weakness, and power in the midst of political influance and hacked-off high powered clerics. It was pretty awesome. Sacrilege for fun and plot-advancement.

    • Alric says:

      Wow, Max. This is a first for Crime Scene Sunday: a plot example where a villain committed the crime from within the party! Good form!

  2. […] and the song tells the singer when various landmarks are reached. In some cases, it may be sacrilegious to travel the path of a songline in the reverse […]

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