Crime Scene Sunday: Treason

One of the most prominent traitors of the American Revolution was Benedict Arnold, who plotted to surrender the military installation at West Point, New York to the British in 1780.

 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 treason. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the term as “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance, or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family.” 

Reviewing past and current treason laws from several nations identifies other acts which might be considered treasonous apart from overthrowing a government, such as assault on high government officials, rape of or adultery with female members of the ruling family, giving over of national territory to foreign powers, destruction of public property and providing aid or comfort to those committing treason. In some Islamic nations, conversion to another religion is considered treason. 

For the purposes of this Web log, treason in a D&D game can take two forms: adventures in which the villain engages in traitorous activity, and those in which the villain can accuse others of treason.  

Traitors are among those villains that players love to hate, especially when the dungeon master (DM) uses personal gain as the villain’s motive, such as money or comfortable position with whatever entity inspired the treason. Villains who commit treason for other reasons, including “freedom fighter” types who seek to avenge wrongs suffered at the hands of  current rulership, are more sympathetic to players; they should only be used in a D&D game if the DM wants to entice the heroes to join the revolutionary (and treasonous) cause. 

Villain as Traitor 

Obviously, not all treasonous acts are substantial enough to merit D&D villain status. While an angry merchant who assaults the king’s tax baron might be a traitor according to the letter of the law, his actions probably won’t require the intervention of a band of D&D heroes. It is therefore important that the traitor have not only a willingness to support an enemy of the state, but that the traitor also has something that the enemy needs, such as: 

  • Authority that can be exerted in a manner that would allow a treasonous plot to succeed;
  • Influence with a governing body or other “power player” that could facilitate treason, either by inaction or wrong action; or
  • Access to information about a nation’s weaknesses.

As an example, consider a nation ruled by hereditary, patriarchal, feudal monarchy. A young prince recently inherited the crown after his father’s death, according to the law of the land. Unfortunately, the young king has made some unpopular decisions, including increasing taxes and increasing the financial and service obligations of his vassals (the important word there is unpopular; those decisions may have been absolutely necessary). 

The former king had a younger brother, who is a prominent duke. Unlike the king, who has only ruled a short time, this duke has known and served with the other vassals for years, and could use his influence with them to incite rebellion against the young king. After all, the duke is a direct heir in the royal family’s lineage absent the young king; if he can persuade the other dukes and barons to back his claim to the throne  – through promising less demanding feudal relationships, threats, bribes or even exerting peer pressure – he can overthrow the young king’s monarchy. In his own twisted interpretation of this behavior, the duke might even see his treason as necessary for the survival of the kingdom. 

 Depending on how developed the treasonous plot is when the heroes come in contact with it, they may be asked by the young king to investigate rumors of rebellion, to carry messages or gifts to key nobles to secure their loyalty to the young king, or even take part in the inevitable civil war that is brewing. 

Heroes as Traitors 

Whether intentionally engaging in “traitorous” activity or not, heroes may find themselves accused of treason; in such cases, clearing their own names and /or evading capture by the accusing authorities becomes the goal of an adventure. Usually, heroes accused of treason have been wrongfully accused (possibly by the real traitor), committed the crime by accident or have willfully adopted freedom fighter roles on behalf of an oppressed populace. 

In situations where the heroes acted in good faith, such as a wrong accusation or accidental actions, it becomes necessary to prove their good intentions, usually by secretly gathering witnesses and support while avoiding the law, or by proving that someone else is the real traitor under the same conditions. 

Other situations, such as when the heroes are freedom fighters or if a paranoid ruler is wrongly convinced that the heroes are traitors, the heroes must choose between leaving or overthrowing the ruler.


One comment on “Crime Scene Sunday: Treason

  1. max.elliott says:

    Another point to keep in mind is that some nations do not require you to be a citizen to commit treason! Betraying the national interest within the borders is enough. As a point of clarification, we’d do well to recall Benedict Arnold is a celebrated hero in England. In the U.S. his name is synonymous with betrayal and treason.

    It is possible that the PC’s are committing some well-intentioned and “good” action the is treasonous within an evil nation who’s interests are affected. I suspect that our current cadre of PC’s are about to fall into that trap when we face the slavers supplying the labor pool of our very own city.

    I have to quit watching ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’, it’s affecting my writing style.

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