Crime Scene Sunday (on Tuesday this week): Racketeering

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 racketeering.

The free online dictionary defines a racketeer as “a person who commits crimes such as extortion, loansharking, bribery, and obstruction of justice in furtherance of illegal business activities.” defines it as “a person who obtains money illegally, as by bootlegging, fraud, or, esp., extortion.” Thus, we can view racketeering as a “parent crime” to more specific forms of illegally generating cash. 

Unlike some other forms of crime, a racket requires organization of people and resources, and large rackets may employ dozens of participants, some of whom may not even know that they are supporting an illegal enterprise.

The classic thieves’ guild is often behind racketeering found in Dungeons & Dragons games, since such guilds can embody the organization and criminal intent required to commit racketeering in a Medieval fantasy setting. While there is nothing wrong with a dungeon master (DM) deciding that campaign thieves’ guilds are engaged in racketeering – especially if the thieves are to be enemies of the heroes – it is important to note that players will usually conclude that a guild is behind racketeering upon seeing evidence of the crime. Since every villain needs a paycheck, a more enterprising DM may decide that any villain who needs money to fund her evil enterprises may be involved in racketeering. After all, lawfully-gained income can be taxed and traced by ruling authorities, so a steady source of illegal income – a racket – is preferable for financing most villainous exploits, if for no other reason than to prevent tax agents from uncovering villainous activities.

For example, consider an evil wizard who is seeking to open a planar gate to the abyss in the catacombs beneath a major city. Clearly, such a plot requires extensive research, the acquisition of a library of tomes and scrolls, the location and retrieval of exotic ritual components and the creation, outfitting and ongoing concealment of a magical laboratory. Although a DM could reasonably decide that the wizard is subsidizing her enterprise through her personal fortune acquired through adventuring, the DM could also place the wizard at the top of a racketeering pyramid, operating in a sphere related to her field of expertise.

Imagine that, in the city where the wizard lives, material components for rituals are heavily taxed, say, to double the prices listed in the Player’s Handbook. Such taxation is an easy source of revenue for the city council; very few city residents will ever have to pay the tax, and those that do are paying taxes on items much more expensive than a typical citizen’s yearly income. The taxes have the secondary effect of limiting and tracking the number and magnitude of magic rituals performed in the city.

Through judicious use of bribery, subtle threats, granting favors and calling upon favors owed, the wizard has been able to impact the traffic of ritual components into the city. As a high-level wizard, she knows what components are required for certain rituals and how to obtain them. She regularly bribes the city harbormaster to “overlook” certain vessels she hired when reviewing cargo manifests; a group of corrupt teamsters are in her pay to carry the overlooked components to a warehouse; the warehouse owners accept her bribes to allow customers offering a secret password to enter, and one of her apprentices handles the exchange of coin for the components.

Through this secret market operation, ship captains, merchants and the harbormaster all receive bribes, the teamsters get tax-free pay, those who utilize ritual components can purchase those items at standard pricing, and the wizard is able to sell the components at a significant profit by avoiding the tax. Everybody wins – except the lawfully-appointed ruling authorities.

The funds from the enterprise go to the wizard’s coffers, to cover the expenses of her villainous plot.

At this point, the heroes come into the story. The DM may have dropped a few hints in-game that someone is trying to open a planar gate in the city, but even if he hasn’t, the heroes will probably seek to replenish their supply of ritual components when they arrive. After reacting to the high prices, they may get a tip about the secret market; heroes with a lawful streak will seek to locate and report the market, resulting in the party making contact with the villain’s servitors, or they may seek to shop there, again making contact with the servitors. Either way, the DM has used racketeering as a vehicle to bring the heroes into the adventure.


2 comments on “Crime Scene Sunday (on Tuesday this week): Racketeering

  1. max.elliott says:

    Being a house-husband allows me the luxury of sometimes believing Tuesday IS Sunday.

    Excellent post! You did a perfect job explaining Racketeering. I’d always hear that term in gangster movies, and now I understand it.

    I’m going to have to pass this along to my current GM, he’ll like it.

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