Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Scofflaw's ABC [Secret Santicore]

So here's the piece I did for Secret Santicore this year.  Gentleman wrangler Erik Jensen was kind enough to put a link to it on his blog, but I thought I'd re-post it over here, given the total lack of posting lately.  Looking at it now, I think it's definitely a mixed bag.  There's a few entries I think turned out well, and a few where my procrastination and last-minute scrambling to complete it are painfully obvious.  Still, I hope it's at least somewhat useful, or at least amusing, for someone out there.


If the stars are right, I'll be running a campaign with evil, or at least very selfish, PCs. They will be some kind of criminal organization starting out in the big city. I would like some kind of game aid in running such a campaign.

A Scofflaw’s ABC
Being in the Main Twenty-Six short segments of advice, observations, useful color, and points to consider when running and playing a Criminal campaign.

Assassination: Murder-for-hire, while it has the potential to be vastly lucrative, offers unique challenges to the independent contractor which are seldom considered by those resorting to such methods for political or ideological ends. Conflicts between clients are bound to arise, and, unless clear bylaws and guidelines are set, the whole affair can collapse into internecine chaos and confusion. In one notable example, an agency of some repute was assigned the task of eliminating its own Chairman. Technically, this order did nothing to conflict with the agency’s bylaws in this regard, and as the client’s credit was impeccable, the agency was professionally bound to carry out the contract, against the protestations of some of the senior members. Today, that august body of trained killers lies in ruins, to serve as an example to like-minded entrepreneurs.

Burglary: Even adventurers outside the criminal classes have dabbled in burglary from time to time, and there are few escapades more satisfying than a well-planned heist, successfully executed. Specialists such as Yeggs and Second-Story Men will demand a larger cut for their services, but this is to be preferred to dealing with amateurs who will drop lanterns, fail to staunch their nervous laughter, and bring the whole delicate operation crashing down upon your heads. When targeting a wealthy home, Keep an eye out for disgruntled servants, their livery indifferently worn and a curse for their masters on their lips.

The Competition The PCs, of course will not be the only game in town. Whatever the Racket, odds are someone in the City is already hard at work to the same purpose and will resent the intrusions of upstarts and newcomers. Perhaps there will be an offer extended to Join or Die, or perhaps this established concern will lash out at once in full vigor, the better to maintain its reputation. If the PCs are indeed newcomers, they will be vulnerable from the very beginning, and their arrival on the scene will disrupt the delicate web of alliances, feuds, etc., as each faction and concern scrambles to work this new situation to its advantage. It may be advisable to join such an organization from the beginning, only to play on the cupidity, ambition, or grievances of its members, and arrange a coup from within. While this has the benefit of providing the PCs with an existing infrastructure, the loyalties of your co-conspirators will forever remain in doubt. How long, after all, before some other brash young upstart makes a similar attempt?

Doxies: Trollops, jades, and filles de joie, as well as the gigolos, catamites, and rent-boys who call them sister, are an invaluable resource for the criminally ambitious. Like their cousins on the stage, they mingle and co-mingle with all classes of society, and for a small consideration may be relied upon to provide all sorts of carelessly-provided gossip or relate events to which they were an unnoticed or unremarked witness. They may sometimes be privy to even weightier matters, as their clients may often let slip some secret in a moment of unguarded candor. This last phenomenon, often the cause of great sorrow to the employers, superiors, and co-conspirators of such blabbermouths, has given rise to the occasional practice of deliberate misrepresentation, in which an agent will seek to confound or discover his enemies by passing false information along this network.
A few other means by which they may be employed:

1. The obvious. While the office of bawd, as has been noted, is far from easy, the burdens of generalship are seldom appreciated by those unfortunates serving on the front lines.

2. Theft. Depending on the specifics of their arrangement with a client, a quick-fingered jade may be given ample opportunity to pick pockets, search saddlebags, steal or make impressions of loose keys or signet rings, etc. If given clandestine access to the client’s apartments, so much the better. These items may be procured for their own sake, in service of a larger scheme, or as a means to…

3. Blackmail – If the client stands to lose favor, position, reputation, marital harmony, etc.; if their indiscretions become known, the theft of a distinguishing possession, piece of clothing or jewelry, or simply the recitation of certain physical characteristics visible only in a state of undress may well provide the necessary leverage. If the act of patronage itself offers no opportunity for shame and entrapment, the loss of some object vouchsafed to them by a third party can be quite efficacious in holding such an agent in thrall, particularly if the third party is not known to be of a forgiving disposition.

Explosives: Volatile, expensive, and dangerous to operate and procure, explosives should be employed as frequently as possible.

Fences: Often glossed over, the difficulty of disposing of obviously stolen loot should be brought to the fore in a Criminal campaign. Sumptuary laws may be enforced with more vigor, creating a black market for what could previously be sold openly, driving up the risk and the fence’s cut along with the potential reward. Some items are of little value to all but serious collectors, and the PCs must decide whether the payoff is worth the time, trouble, and expense of arranging such a buyer. The arrest, murder, or disappearance of a fence, particularly one with an established relationship to the PCs, invites new complications and difficulties to be overcome.

Grave Robbing: This venerable industry has two distinct branches, and its practitioners will generally stick to one or the other by virtue of opportunity and inclination. The first involves theft of grave goods – everything from jewelry, cerements of costly stuff, weapons, and other personal effects of the deceased, as well as the furnishings of the grave or tomb itself. Grave-mounds, mausoleums, the barrows of barbarian chieftains, and the half-submerged necropolises of antediluvian kings are generally held to be most fruitful for this kind of work, though not without their attendant dangers. When not engaged with lantern, sack, and pickaxe, they may be found seeking out and poring over ancient histories and crumbling maps. They will have developed contacts with established Fences, and may count academics, antiquarians, and wealthy eccentrics among their acquaintance, though neither would acknowledge the association openly.

The second branch is the domain of body-snatchers and resurrection men. Here, speed and opportunity are the watchwords, and intelligence is to be gained by loitering in gin-shops and execution yards. The cadavers themselves are the prize, though a gold tooth, locket, or finger ring is always a pleasant bonus. Their efforts supply the needs of a clandestine clientele of anatomists, surgeons, artists, necromancers, alchemists, and necrophiles, many of whom are known to the resurrection man only through a third party. Some enterprising scamps in this trade are so scrupulous in their desire to provide fresh and unblemished product to their clients that they will readily employ a pair of strong arms and a pillow rather than trust in the vicissitudes of Fortune.

Hell: The Final Reward of all those who make their living by vicious and dishonest means. Sages, savants, and theologians imagine this abode of the forsaken as anything from a sort of double-sided griddle or waffle iron in the hands of a vengeful Deity, to the state of a soul for whom the absence of said deity is felt with severe and unexpected keenness, to a chaotic, formless nightmare realm of pure thought and sensation existing parallel to our world, to an inverted and exaggerated representation of the Metropolis itself. Such metaphysical considerations and barely-disguised Social Commentary is beyond the scope of this primer. We concern ourselves here with Hell’s Native Denizens—in particular those grotesque and fantastic worthies who serve as Courtiers, Impresarios, and Middle Management in that Sorrowful Country. Many of these are said to take an interest in the affairs of mortals, and to aid and inspire acts of malice, cupidity, and vice among Men, for such is their delight and pastime. The rascal who attracts the attention of one such may aspire to outrages that will keep the moritat-printers and snatch-singers in capons and gin for months, though he may in consequence grow careless, and find himself face-to-face with his Patron earlier than he had anticipated, following an appointment with the Noose or Flensing- Spoon. There is a prolific and cut-throat trade in the criminal demimonde for scraps of lore, rituals of summoning, rites of appeasement, etc., that will secure even the fleeting attentions of these entities.

Incarceration is little employed, except a perfunctory stint prior to flogging, placement in the stocks, branding, mutilation, execution, or in some societies, sale (see Just Desserts, below). Someone suspected of possessing valuable information may well be detained for a considerable time, during which their only respite from the lonely gloom of the cell lies in their captor’s periodic attempts to Persuade and Extract. Princes and other individuals of high estate will often find themselves held captive – in varying degrees of comfort—by their enemies, who weigh the expense of their lodging against the expectation of ransom. If there is a significant public-minded spirit of reform, lesser offenders (especially minors) may be set to some improving task, instructed in an honest profession and in the precepts of religion. All too often, the proximity to other young people of like disposition proves too great a temptation for mischief, so that likely boys and girls become apprentices, and apprentices become journeymen in some loathsome trade or other. Persons in search of eager young recruits, already well-schooled in the ways of petty evil, will find plenty of newly-idle applicants on the steps of such institutions, tossing prayer-books in the gutter and pawning their tools for gin.
Just Desserts: As few malefactors merit prolonged Incarceration, their punishments will most often be meted out soon after arrest, on the spot, or after a perfunctory and largely symbolic trial. These may consist of time in the stocks or pillory, branding, flogging, mutilation, amputation (hands, fingers, ears and noses are popular), or execution, with or without preceding torture. Most of these will take place as a public spectacle for the edification and entertainment of the citizenry. Executions afford characters an opportunity for gallows speeches of pleading oratory or vulgar contempt, and the planning and carrying out of daring escapes. If a PC is not the star attraction, or if their associates are of a particularly practical or vindictive cast of mind, there are additional opportunities for profit and diversion. Souvenirs of personal effects may be sold, along with tickets to balconies, roofs, etc. (whether or not the characters own the building in question) refreshments, impromptu skits or puppet shows depicting the prisoner’s career of sin, ballad-sheets and replica gallows, flensing spoons, etc., for the children. In addition, opportunities for purse-snatching and pick pocketing are legion, and the PCs may wish to take the opportunity of such a city-wide distraction to commit some new outrage in another part of the metropolis when vigilance will be relaxed.
Kidnapping: A venerable and storied pursuit among brigands of all nations since time immemorial. It is not an enterprise to be entered into lightly, and each aspect of the scheme – choosing a target, contacting the family or guardian, the amount of ransom demanded, selecting and securing a safehouse, and the transfer of ransom and hostage itself must be considered in great detail. Even then, fresh complications may arise at any point, and the unfortunate kidnapper may find themselves saddled with a burden too valuable to dispose of safely and too unpleasant for company. By all means, avoid becoming entangled in the schemes of husbands to squeeze money from wealthy but recalcitrant fathers-in-law by kidnapping their wives and splitting the ransom. It seldom ends profitably for anyone.
Loot: At once a driving motive and a logistical nightmare. A few points to consider after counting that sweet, sweet lucre.

1.  What form is it in? Coins and jewelry, while cumbersome in bulk, will be much easier to get rid of than an exquisite antique chest of drawers. Those bottles of excellent wine will be worthless unless stored properly. Kidnapping the duchess’ lapdog seemed like such a good idea at the time, but now it’s yapping its head off at all hours and you’ll have to move safehouses again, or risk discovery. And you can’t stay at Vassik the Eel’s place again after that incident with his rug.

2.  How are you going to spend it? Conspicuous consumption sure is fun, but each new purchase makes it harder and harder to act in secrecy, which is how you were able to acquire it in the first place. Perhaps a some changes are in order…

3.  The more you acquire, the more time, money, and energy you have to devote to guarding all that loot from everyone else.

Magistrates: Eventually, a PC or associated NPC will find themselves dragged before one of these. It should soon become apparent whether you are dealing with a pinch-faced censorious type whose sentences favor the Draconian, and who may or may not carry on a double life of utter depravity in private, or the usual ruddy faced drunk from a Hogarth etching with a gouty leg, a terrifying social disease, and whose wig is conspicuously askew. Either way, courtroom drama should be indulged in shamelessly and with indifferent regard for the niceties of the law. Your players probably don’t have an intimate grasp of your campaign world’s legal system, you may not have considered the problem in great detail yourself, and there’s a good chance their legal representation is a bit shaky on the subject as well so theatrics and bombast are your friends.

Narcotics : When dealing with wacky fantasy drugs in your campaign, ask yourself the following:

1.  Why is it illegal? There must have been pressure at some point from some commercial, political, social, religious, medical, or philosophical concern for there to be an all-out ban on it. Is it purely a matter of economics? A moral panic? A combination of these factors?

2.  How is it manufactured? Are the raw materials readily available, or must they be imported? Is the process of its manufacture a closely-guarded secret, known only to a particular group or faction?

3.  Has the substance been legal (or at least unofficially tolerated) within living memory? Until very recently? This will have a huge impact in how its manufacturers, users, and purveyors are seen in society at large, and the respect or contempt in which efforts to enforce its ban are regarded.
The Occult: Even when not attempting to enlist the aid of the dignitaries of Hell in their pursuits, superstition is rampant in the underworld, and the use of amulets, talismans, “lucky” tools of the trade is widespread. Spells and charms of dubious efficacy are sold and traded, strange rituals are observed before heists and murderous rendezvous, cobbled together from half-remembered childhood observances, bits of stray gossip, popular music-hall routines, and desperate, muttered blasphemies.

Peaching: While those partial to romantic novels may hold some notion of “honor among thieves,” and this fiction may be of use when practicing on the inexperience of the young and foolish, it is best dispensed with by those who wish to get about the business of lining their pockets with backs unpierced. Informers, finks, rats, stool pigeons, snitches and squealers riddle the underworld like maggots in meat. Though held in the strongest loathing and contempt by their peers, greed and self-preservation will out, and it is a rare scofflaw who will hesitate to inform on his fellows if the reward is large enough or the hangman beckons. The fear and suspicion that an associate has turned informant is a powerful motivator, and may send the campaign spiraling off in any number of entertaining directions.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? Some thought should be given to the size, quality, and disposition of the Police, Night Watch, etc, which are in turn informed by the character of the City itself. Does the City even retain such a force, and how common are outbreaks of lawlessness? In Republican Rome, for example, there was no police force to speak of, and no one of sufficient means braved the streets after dark without an armed escort of slaves, clients, and retainers. Is the force large or small—well-funded, or shabby and struggling against a vastly superior force of thieves and cutthroats? How are they viewed by citizens? More to the point for committed criminal types, how corrupt are they? Is there a level of “honest graft” that any officer can be expected to more-or-less adhere to? Public outcry against laxity or corruption on their part may trigger sudden brutal crackdowns and shows of force, and your malefactor will find themselves made an example of for behavior that last week was pardonable with a wink and a small consideration.

The Racket: The chief means by which the PCs’ organization makes its dishonest living. At first, this may be confined to one particular activity in one particular area – running a protection racket in the Plaza of Drowned Men, for example, or supplying Purple Lotus Powder to a string of brothels, gambling houses, and cabarets along the Waterfront. There may be an initial struggle with The Competition, but once secure in their position, they can begin to expand geographically and/or in the scope of their influence as they grow in wealth and power. It’s up to the players whether to “diversify their portfolio” or focus more narrowly on a particular activity over a broader area, but either choice is sure to invite conflict as the PC’s sphere of influence threatens to encroach on those of the existing factions.
The Sporting Life: Whatever sports, games, and public spectacles are available in the City, there should be plenty of opportunity for the PCs to claim a piece of the action for themselves. Murdered bookies, crooked fight promoters, Halfling-doping scandals, sabotage in the hippodrome – something for everyone!
Thugs: Of great necessity when kneecaps need breaking, protection money paid on time, and interlopers discouraged, the PCs will want to acquire the services of a few of these at the earliest opportunity. If at all possible, try to find a short, verbose, almost offensively polite guy and partner him with a hulking brute with fists like Parma hams and a tendency to speak in monosyllables. I love those two.

Unforeseen Complications

1.  War! Martial Law is declared, sudden influxes of refugees, once common items become incredibly scarce as rationing goes into effect.

2.  Plague! Families shut up in their homes, the dead are stacked up like cordwood, and no one’s allowed in or out. If only some altruistic soul could be found to smuggle people and goods past the guard patrols…

3.  The City is hosting a great exhibition! The population will swell by tens of thousands, fantastic inventions and creatures are on display, and a countryside’s worth of well-scrubbed rubes is steadily trickling in to see what all the fuss is about.

4.  An important foreign personage and their sizeable entourage is visiting the City. New suppliers, new customers?
Vice: What’s seen as a vice in a particular campaign setting might be wholly innocuous in our world, and vice-versa. Perhaps there is no taboo attached to imbibing any substances, but certain fabrics are considered indecent when worn against the skin. Prostitution might be a wholly legal, and without any stigma of impropriety, but eating meat is regarded as decadent and depraved. Novels, plays, vocal or instrumental music, the display of certain colors or subjects in works of art – anything that gives pleasure could potentially be regarded as a vice and be subject to laws and restrictions which will be the PCs’ business to exploit. Watch as the PCs claw their way up through the vicious cutthroat world of trafficking in purple dye, or rise to become chocolate kingpin of Waterdeep, or whatever.
Some Weird Crimes:

Stealing the sense of worth from money.

Performing the office of Psychopomp without a valid license

Grimoire forgery/boobytrapping

Creating a Tulpa

Distilling nostalgia-moonshine from memories with all unpleasant facts boiled away.
Xenophobia: Many criminal organizations in the City are divided along ethnic and cultural lines, holding sway in certain neighborhoods and providing protection and a sense of continuity for recent immigrants, in exchange for support, acquiescence, and noncompliance with the Law. PCs blundering into these spheres of influence may unwittingly re-ignite centuries-old feuds and grievances between historically opposed groups, which may in turn bring reprisals as representatives from the Old Country arrive to sort out the affairs of their soft semi-assimilated cousins. Fear, mistrust, tragic misunderstandings, and plain old fashioned bigotry erupt as the City’s melting pot boils over. Or not. You may ignore this side of things all together. X was a tricky one. Is it time for Y yet?

Yegg, or Yeggman – a species of Burglar that specializes in cracking safes and strongboxes. They tend to be lanky and long- fingered or short and plump, with small, supple hands unadorned by rings. They take little care with their appearance, often going about their work in greasy shirtsleeves and stained trousers, though their leather satchels, glittering with the tools of their trade, will be well-worn but scrupulously maintained. They affect an air of lofty indolence and will demand exorbitant prices for their services. They will be insulted if you do not dicker at least a minute or two over this fee, but once agreed upon, always pay in full. A Yeggman will never forgive a slight, and will spend months or years constructing an elaborate and frightful revenge.
Zeal: Inexplicable and unpredictable, this is perhaps the quality the PCs should fear the most. As cynical, selfish entrepreneurs, they will be accustomed to dealing with other cynical, selfish entrepreneurs. Everyone can be relied upon to look out for number one, everything’s for sale, and everyone has a price. The Zealot throws all of this out the window, then lights himself on fire and leaps after it. Zealots are what remains when the acolytes throw off their purple robes and flee. They are the steely-eyed vigilantes who will not be paid off, will not see reason, and will gladly die before compromising an inch. They are the ambitious Watch Captains whose promising careers are over if they ignores their superiors but have dedicated their lives to seeing you hang and will bring you in anyway.


  1. "finger ring is always a pleasant bonus."

  2. There's some great writing in here - I especially like your lists, and this:
    While the office of bawd, as has been noted, is far from easy, the burdens of generalship are seldom appreciated by those unfortunates serving on the front lines
    is beautiful.

    I don't know if the in-character, Mayhewan voice or the frank, DM-to-DM voice is more useful, but I enjoy them both. And I had to stop for a few minutes at Narcotics, first to consider what you were saying and then to reflect that there is no better preparation for running a criminal campaign than to watch the first season of Breaking Bad.

    Also, because I'm currently in Rio, it seems to me that everyone who wants to run a lowlife city campaign should watch City of God and Tropa de Elite, as well as reading GURPS Goblins. And the xenophobia entry made me think of Boardwalk Empire and how everyone says the Polish guy is stupid to change his name to Doyle. It took me a while to realise why this was so very stupid: it's because it shows every other crook that he's not supported by the Polish community - that he's alone. That nobody will come and avenge him.

  3. This is just great! I've sent it on to my "criminal contact" pc in my Setine game.

  4. Well done, Jeremy. It does make me miss Galbaruc.

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