Crime Scene Sunday: Sabotage

This World War II poster illustrates the military connotations of sabotage, but there are other meanings of the word which can also be applied to a D&D game.

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 sabotage. Beyond he term’s typical usage to describe saboteurs acting on behalf of one side of a military conflict, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the term as “an act or process tending to hamper or hurt” with added connotations of “deliberate subversion.” Wikipedia’s definition focuses still more, calling sabotage “a deliberate action aimed at weakening another entity through subversion, obstruction, disruption, or destruction.”

Based upon these definitions, sabotage appears to be a very versatile crime. It can be committed by directly performing a subversive act, or even by failing to act. In some cases, sabotage can be committed without acting outside of one’s vocational responsibilities, simply by the perpetrator opposing an initiative that he knows needs to move forward.In a Dungeons & Dragons game, the crime of sabotage is best suited to three types of villains:

Those employed as saboteurs in an ongoing war. The conventional use of the word sabotage has military connotations. In D&D games where an ongoing war is a central plot element, saboteurs will probably be employed by both sides; if the heroes are playing an active role in the war, they are likely to encounter enemy saboteurs in the course of their adventures.

Good candidates for this type of saboteur/villain include corrupt officers, double-agents and disgruntled segeants who can undermine operations at unit level. A crafty foe may even employ shape-shifters or illusion to assist sabotage.

Patient, scheming villains.  Villains prone to making long-term, elaborate plans, such as evil clerics, aboleths, liches, wizards, vampires, devils, or illithid, would certainly employ sabotage to improve the odds of success for other portions of the grand scheme. This type of villain enjoys outwitting adversaries almost as much as achieving goals, and sabotage is a great way of eliminating a foe’s options without the foe’s knowledge.

For example, imagine a vampiress who knows that a nearby temple of Pelor holds an artifact that can channel true sunlight at any time of day in any setting. Not surprisingly, no vampires have claimed the surrounding area as a vampiric feeding ground. Undaunted, she arranges for the item to be stolen in secret and replaced with a non-magical copy of the item; the true item is brought to her, where it is stored safely away from heroes. In this case, the act of sabotage – deliberately weakening the temple’s ability to respond – is essentially a contingency plan, to be used in case the clerics of Pelor learn that a vampire is active in the area and decide to employ the artifact.

Passive-aggressive types. Not all villains have the temperament or ability to take on foes with open conflict. The dungeon master (DM) should look for people who suffered real or imagined slights from the villain’s foe that can be motivated by vengeance; such persons are ideal passive-aggressives with respect to sabotage.

Most often, this type of saboteur is a pawn of one of the aforementioned scheming types. In such cases, the passive-aggressive will typically perform sabotage within the boundaries of his job description, doing his small part in helping the villain’s greater plot to harm the foe.

A more interesting way to use a passive-aggressive saboteur in an adventure is to use such a villain as the major villain in a D&D adventure. For players accustomed to objectives requiring toe-to-toe combat to solve, an adventure where the primary quest is identifying the villain offers an interesting change of pace.

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4 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday: Sabotage

  1. max.elliott says:

    OK, I’m going to pass along some general information I was given by a VERY biased source.

    Sabotage wasn’t originally a war effort crime. It was a French concept for dealing with abuses of power by businessmen and royalty. When a boss refused a raise, the workers could engage in “work stoppages”, “work slowdowns”, “destructive delays” and catch the “blue flu” in order to reduce the income of their bosses until it became apparent that the only way the honchos were going to make any money was to Share it with their peons. It wasn’t until the American Industrial revolution and the rise of workers unions that our industrial leadership changed the definition of the word to mean a criminal or resistance action during a time of war. Those men wanted it to be punishable under the law instead of just something you had to carefully investigate and deal with in an up front manner. In a very accurate manner, sabotage also means “strike” and “protesting” by the newest definition.

    My favorite sabotage story comes from the NY Dockworkers guild at the beginning of WW2. The Dockworkers guild were angry that the Navy was allowing anyone who could wield a tool to work on rebuilding the fleet. They believed that mere World War wasn’t enough to allow the Dockworkers unions hold on the docks be lessened. When they approached the Navy, they were rudely rebuffed and told that if they didn’t like it, they could disband. So the Dockworkers went to the Dons of New York and the Mafia agreed that it was very rude indeed to have treated the unions like that. In exchange for a cut of member dues, allegedly, the mafia, so it was rumored, sank (there’s pictures of the destroyed ships) several of the nearly completed ships in the docks. The Navy happily agreed to the Dockworkers terms in return for the return of a small number of sailors who had suddenly gone AWOL and the good will of the unions. The sinkings were attributed to “Axis Agents of unknown origins” and no follow up investigation occurred.

    I don’t know if that story is true, but that doesn’t really matter.

    As a PC tool, sabotage is difficult to engage in. The problem being that by the time the PC’s get there, people are pretty much swimming in a vat of fecal matter. All kinds of evils existing in the world, with magically enhanced mind reading baddies wandering around. To add to that, PC’s rapidly become famous and well known. Unless you’re a trained US Special Operations Green Barret, setting up a school for gorilla fighters and agents-saboteur isn’t normally in the PC skill-set. However, there is the possibility that a resistance exists that could help OR harm the PC’s efforts. It might be interesting to get c&&k-blocked by someone trying to interfere with some infrastructure that the PC’s were using. Like, cargo hauling or taxi service, maybe a giant random anti-magic field in the magically enhanced manufacturing district.

    • Alric says:

      Wow, that is an interesting set of sabotage stories. Wikipedia, citing no fewer than five possible origins, including one about 15th Century Dutch textile workers, who would throw their sabots, or wooden clogs, into the machinery when disgruntled. All of the potential origins listed are labor-related, as you suggested.

      After reading your comment about PC-committed sabotage and reviewing my post, I concur. That part of the post wasn’t well-developed; the device wouldn’t work well in the game due to the formalized training required and due to PC popularity/celebrity. While it could work well in a more modern RPG setting, it’s pretty bad D&D advice, so I deleted the last paragraph.

      Thank you as always, Max, for your keen insight.

    • max.elliott says:

      For a while now I had thought you might be ignoring me, but it turns out there has been a change in the email notices sent out and I have to verify on each post in order to get them. This is not happiness, please change it back.

      The clogs make more sense. I got my explanation from an Anarchist Library, so I didn’t really expect any backup on the labor-movement origin point.

      I thought about it some more, and I have to disagree with myself. While PC’s wouldn’t do well in a walk-on-leadership role, I think there are other situations that WOULD work nicely with PC’s beyond being an inconvenienced witness.

      1) The campaign is built with this in mind, where the characters overcome evil from beginning to end as revolutionaries.

      2) The characters are hired to quietly do some damage. Or loudly. It might take some convincing, and perhaps a couple failures to work within the system for those LG in the party.

      3) The PC’s are on the receiving end of the sabotage! Higher in levels, with keeps and whatnot of their own, often unattended, the PC’s might fall prey to the abuses that give rise to sabotage. Through neglect or maybe an evil house-manager.

      Sorry to 180 on you like that.

      • Alric says:

        Hi again Max,

        About the Email thing – it’s a WordPress widget and I don’t know how it works. I forwarded the part of your comment related to subscriptions to their tech support people, and asked them to fix it.

        And don’t worry about diagreeing with yourself. I do it all the time, largely because those are the only arguments I can win…

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