One regular feature of this Web log is Crime Scene Sunday, where 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 genocide. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the term as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” The term was coined after the Second World War to describe the atrocities inflicted upon Jews by the Nazis. While that is perhaps the best-known instance of the crime, several more recorded instances of genocide punctuate the last two centuries of human history, in such places as Tasmania, Armenia, and Cambodia. Some historical sources would classify the injustices suffered by Native Americans at the hands of the U.S. Government or the practice of Ethnic Cleansing in Croatia and Yugoslavia to qualify as genocide, as well.
In a D&D game, a crime as hateful as genocide is typically committed by the most evil and powerful of villains, those having the most twisted minds and the resources to carry out plots of such size and complexity.
Historically, genocide was most often committed by governments, or at least by groups powerful enough to impose their wills in politically unstable areas. Although governments of evil nations in a D&D world could certainly undertake genocidal plots, the scope of potential villains who could commit this crime in the game is much wider. Any game religion, cult, military order or even prominent non-player character (NPC) with questionable morals could commit genocide, and fantasy literature is filled with examples of various non-human racial conflicts with genocidal goals.
A dungeon master (DM) can alter how the crime of genocide appears in a D&D campaign based upon the heroes’ ability to deal with it. After all, low-level villains with genocidal goals will probably start pursuing those goals in whatever small ways they can, and those small ways can provide a suitable challenge for low-level heroes. More powerful heroes may well encounter evidence of a genocidal plot about to be carried out, and very powerful heroes may be faced with the task of stopping ongoing genocidal practices.
To illustrate how a genocidal villain may appear at different tiers of D&D play, we’ll use the example of Pustulus Myrklust, an evil cleric of Mozir, the immortal patron of disease. Cast out of human society during his childhood due to physical deformity, Myrklust’s hatred for his fellow humans blossomed under the dark tutelage of Mozir’s twisted priesthood. After taking the vilest of final vows to his evil temple, Myrklust was given leave to wander human lands, spreading illness and plague wherever he could.
At heroic levels of D&D play, the heroes wouldn’t encounter Myrklust directly at first. Rather, they would begin to sense his presence as a force behind a rash of rodent infestations, increased discovery of disease-causing molds or fungi, or localized outbreaks of plagues or fevers. After seeing a pattern in the emergence of these public health events, the heroes are able to connect most of the problems with a strange visitor matching Myrklust’s description. The goal of the adventure becomes locating and destroying this fledgeling threat to humanity. Even if the heroes manage to stop Myrklust’s plot, he may still escape their grasp (or be returned from death by his dark brethren) and re-emerge during paragon-level play.
Myrklust is more formidable as a paragon-level villain. He has risen to a much higher level of dark power in Mozir’s following, and has amassed a few dozen followers – mostly trolls and giants, who show a remarkable resistance to human diseases – and several constructs, which are immune to all diseases. The heroes may become alerted to his presence through reports of increased giant activity in plague-ridden areas, activity that is all the more puzzling because it doesn’t involve the raiding and wholesale destruction common to giantish brigandage. As the heroes investigate, they eventually track the followers back to Myrklust’s base of operations to confront the villain.
As an epic-level villain, Myrklust has become the high priest of Mozir’s temple, directing the activities of no fewer than a dozen secret temples in as many human cities. But the conduct of those temples is beneath the notice of epic heroes compared with the fruits of Myrklust’s personal research: he has created a permanent gate to the far realm, through which he is importing shape-shifting, disease-carrying vermin unknown in the game world. These vermin, which can take on the appearance of any creature between the size of a mouse and large dog, are being collected for release in the largest human city in the realm, and humans native to the game world have no resistance to the fatal plague these creatures carry.
The heroes will probably be summoned by a ruling authority to locate the source of a new plague, which spreads more quickly than any other recorded plague and cannot be stopped by any conventional or magical means. The quest placed before the heroes is to identify the various forms of alien vermin, track them to Myrklust, and uncover the secret Myrklust has given to his priests to make them immune to the disease – and time is of the essence, since more innocents die of the plague each day.