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 really a classification of several offenses collectively called “street crime.” As the name implies, street crimes are offenses that typically take place on the street; the Federal Bureau of Investigation classifies property crimes and personal attacks like murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson as street crime.
While many modern street crimes don’t have a fantasy Medieval counterpart – unless the dungeon master (DM) decides to invent them – these crimes are generally as old as the streets they are named after. In Dungeons & Dragons adventure design, the practice of street crime can impact an adventure in three basic ways: individual crimes committed by low-powered villains, patterns of criminal activity directed by high-powered villains, or crimes committed by the heroes themselves.
Low-level street crime
Street crime may seem minor when compared with the global threats presented by high-powered D&D villains, but these crimes aren’t considered minor by their victims. Fortunately, the perpetrators of these crimes are ideal foes for low-level heroes, since street criminals tend to be more powerful than typical townsfolk, but not more powerful than a determined band of adventurers.
Adventures dealing with low-level street crime can involve the heroes in a variety of ways, ranging from a friend or relation of the heroes being victimized to a summons from the local constable requesting aid against a particularly powerful and resourceful criminal. These adventures usually require the heroes to conduct some investigation into prior crimes, then anticipate where and when the criminal will strike next or confront the miscreant in his or her lair.
Directed street crime
At higher levels of play, heroes may encounter groups of street criminals acting in concert, in a D&D fourth edition equivalent of what legacy editions called thieves’ guilds. Such organizations are loosely hierarchical, under the direction of a guildmaster thief or rogue; depending on a guild’s power and sophistication, it may influence its community in much the same way as modern organized crime reportedly does, including bribed officials, corrupt judges, protection rackets, and ruthless suppression of dissention in the ranks.
Adventures involving directed street crime aren’t usually as concerned with solving specific crimes individually as they are with identifying patterns in their commission. Heroes can use that information to ferret out who or what is behind these crimes and put a stop to the villainy. While the wealth acquired through successfully organized street crime may be a villainous goal in itself, it’s important to remember that every villain needs a paycheck – the street crimes may simply be an income stream that finances another, even more sinister villainous plan.
‘Heroic’ street crime
The D&D game assumes an interesting paradigm with regard to heroic activity. For example, when heroes enter haunted catacombs and recover treasure, they are stamping out undead and enjoying the spoils of their labor; when a villain does the same thing, it’s called grave-robbing.
At almost any level of play, a DM can shift that paradigm in two ways. One way to do so is to acknowledge that it is possible to do a bad thing for a good reason. If the good-aligned heroes are operating in a city governed by violent, oppressive, totalitarian leadership, they may engage in some types of street crime to improve the lot of the suffering masses. In this case, the heroes are effectively making the moral argument that the end justifies the means.
A second way to shift the paradigm is to remember that one man’s hero is another man’s villain. In environments where adversaries aren’t conveniently labeled as evil – such as two rival human baronies experiencing diplomatic tensions – heroes aiding one side will be villainized by the other. Perhaps the heroes observe guardsmen from the opposing barony mistreating their own baron’s subjects, and drive those guardsmen off by force of arms. The other baron’s law states that an assault on his men is tantamount to an assault on himself, irrespective of what his men do; as a result, the heroes are guilty of the street crime of assault under the other baron’s law, drawing the ire of all that baron’s men and every bounty hunter within ten leagues.