I’ve been playing a lot of Blades in the Dark recently. I like the setting, the rules are intriguing, and I can find people online who want to play. As I have thought about this game, and tinkered with it, another lesson I learned long ago has nudged at the back of my mind.
Organized crime monetizes suffering. Seeking wealth through crime is collecting on misery.
Let me unpack this a bit.
One mainstay of criminal enterprise is addiction. Feed existing addictions, create new addictions, and keep the whole thing rolling. Profit is the main thing, so as addictions start pulling people down and destroying lives and families, you shrug; more lives and families will feed into the machine. This relates to drugs of all kinds, gambling, sex trade, and so on. Target the broken, and offer them sensation instead of healing.
Intimidation is the beating heart of stability. To keep a protection racket profitable, people must believe the criminals to be willing and able to inflict violence uninhibited by compassion or morality. To keep the forces of law at bay, to silence those who speak for the powerless, and to prove effectiveness to other more powerful factions, you must be able to quell dissent. If enemies prove stubborn, there aren’t many tools in the toolbox to shut them up that don’t descend into violence. For the good of the criminal enterprise, those who resist intimidation and violence must be crushed. Sooner or later, like it or not, you’ll have to eliminate genuinely good people to protect your profit.
Take from the poor and give to the rich. Society protects the rich; they have the attention of the law, and can hire on additional assets to look after the rest of their assets. So, the best and most stable money comes from the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, the broken. Those ruled by pain and desperation will pay to escape it. Whether it is a protection scheme, gambling, drugs, human trafficking, or whatever, the easiest and most lucrative target is masses at the bottom of the food chain. Loan sharks know that the rich can borrow from family or friends, or fend off creditors. The poor live in a much harsher world with fewer choices.
“But wait!” some may cry. “I am a thief who works the rich, stealing from those who won’t miss it! No one gets hurt!”
Perhaps. Sometimes. But it all rolls downhill. Security guards are fired. The help are punished and/or fired. Even wealthy families may face unpleasant consequences for their losses.
But we don’t care about them. And that’s the root, that’s where it starts, and spreads through the criminal enterprises. Who don’t we have to care about? Violence and intimidation have a deadening effect on compassion as they bolster confidence. Boo hoo, some rich people are less rich. They had it coming. Cry me a river for the animals that go to the brothels and taverns along the dockside; no one would miss them if they vanished, and they want to spend coins to get diseases and lose themselves in drugs. At least those who work for us get a place to sleep and some food; better than being homeless, probably even better than being enslaved toiling in a factory. My tribe is my concern, and the rest of the world can burn. They deserve it.
Compassion is dangerous and expensive to organized crime. Reserve it for taking care of the right people, to ensure ongoing loyalty from those safeguarding vulnerabilities.
If you can think of a form of human misery, you can turn a profit on it. The reverse of this is also true; those who wish to reduce human misery will threaten profits. They must be corrupted or taken out of the equation for the good of the criminals.
There are ways for organized crime to appear heroic. An oppressed population is marginalized and powerless, so organized crime emerges to police and protect and provide a kind of social service. Wealth distribution has a yawning chasm between the ultra-rich and the abject poor, so stealing from the wealthy is more like back taxes. Corruption in government and the police is pervasive, so the only justice available is the justice you take by force or guile.
Sure, that all sounds good. But when you scratch the surface, when the pressures mount, the strength and wealth of criminal organizations flows from misery and the vulnerable people.
Sometimes a criminal organization may seem like the least worst option, and sometimes it may well be. Still. Never lose sight of what it is, and what fuels its strength.
ANYWAY, it is not necessary to agree with me! Applying this thinking to Duskwall, what kind of misery is unique to this setting that we could monetize if we were clever scoundrels? Here are just a few possibilities.
Enduring Lockets. Shortened from “Enduring Presence” these lockets are designed to provide an anchor for a ghost. Bereaved families seek out back ally dealers with the skill to bolt a ghost to the locket. This practice is highly illegal, in no small part because the longer a ghost is trapped in this world the less clarity of thought it possesses, and the more dangerous its emotions become.
Ghost Riders. Some people find ecstatic release in being possessed by ghosts. Those with the ability of mediums set up parlors for ghosts to “dip” into people for a brief time, with pre-set expectations of what they’ll do. “Stablers” are mediums who keep a selection of ghosts on hand for this use; favorites include insane murderers, passionate lovers desperate to embrace once more, and artists twisted by their time pressed up against the back of the mirror. This practice can lead to ritual murder, worship of Forgotten Gods, orgies, killing frenzies, and all sorts of other mayhem. It may start off harmlessly enough, but it often escalates when possession-prone people come into contact with meat-hungry ghosts repeatedly.
Iridescent Oil. A shimmering rainbow on black! Humans try to turn ANY substance into a drug. Leviathan oil, lightning oil, and electroplasm are all used for experimentation. Several stable drugs have emerged over the years. (That warrants its own post.)
Traplite. The name for a practice of ramming a ghost into a physical object involuntarily for the purpose of punishing the ghost. Examples include putting a husband’s ghost in the face on the headboard so he can watch you romance and bed his widow, or putting an inspector in the knife of his killer as the bloody work goes on. Sometimes this is done for revenge, sometimes to distill a person down to a ghost, and further down into that white-hot spark of fury that makes a specter. Infusions of electroplasm during this process can make a truly formidable spirit assassin.
Hollowalker. These experts (usually but not always whispers) use ghosts in hollows as assassins, couriers, spies, and other roles. Even expert whispers working with law enforcement find it extremely difficult to trace their identities (unless the ghost is caught) and even if authorities can guess who is behind it, proof is difficult to deliver. These experts are also often craftsmen who make spirit anchors, spirit masks, spiritbane, and other useful objects. One unpleasant application is for the expert to send a spirit into a wealthy person, who then goes and divests his or herself of all money and jewelry at a designated drop point, then resumes walking and is left by the ghost.
Spirit Bottle Fights. These experts (usually but not always whispers) collect spirits in bottles. They sometimes train them to be extra fierce by tormenting them. On fight night, two (or more) spirits are released into a common bottle, and they do battle like tatters and streams and clouds of smoke. The winner destroys and/or absorbs the loser(s). This is an event where betting revolves around what was known about the spirit in life, what is known about the trainer, and what odds the house lays. It is rare, but sometimes the bottles at a site like this are smashed, releasing dozens of crazed and insane ghosts hopped up on killing power.
Think about who is miserable because of Duskwall-specific elements, and how that can be monetized, and there’s LOTS of exciting new underground enterprises. Here is a selection of sketches.
- Chickers. A corruption of “chicken exit” from a dangerous endeavor. A person agrees to be burned out to a hollow in exchange for a cash payment to family; psychic suicide for money is a viable “out” for those trying to feed their kids.
- Vengers. Th0se who are wronged and cannot get revenge go to experts who help them commit ritual suicide to become very powerful ghosts who have a chance to do what they could not while alive. They are undead curses.
- Radyites. They steal radiant metals and plants (infused with glowing life energy from leviathan oil and used to nurture plants.)
- Sketchers. They make drawings loosely based on portraits of those who died in mysterious circumstances. Then they show the portraits to bereaved families, claim to have seen the body as a hollow, and take a commission to put the body to rest; it’s a con.
- Exorfists. Weirdly skilled boxers who train to attack the energy in a body. They fight hollows occupied by ghosts, trying to knock the ghost out of the body before the hollow (which is immune to physical pain, and extra strong because it is possessed) knocks them out. Heavy betting on these illegal fighting events.
- Charmfish. Forgers who make amulets, charms, and trinkets then put a patina of electroplasmic paint over them so they seem effective. They sell them to the credulous for shameful mark-ups.
- Ravishites. [unsuitable for most campaigns] Unscrupulous and despicable, these experts (usually whispers) cultivate a collection of wanton and powerful possessing ghosts. For a high price, they send a spirit to invade the object of the customer’s crush, to then consummate passionate lovemaking. The customer can often choose whether the victim is conscious of what is transpiring or not during this violation.
- Subscribers. Aristocrats who make secret deals with orphanages and other similar institutions. They keep a spirit of a child, and cycle the child through a new vessel every few days (so it doesn’t get locked in and become a vampire.) Continue educating the ghost, focusing on mental discipline to resist the maddening effects of being pressed against the back of the mirror. Use older bodies as appropriate. When the child is “of age” then the child can choose a body and bond permanently to become a vampire.
- Drowners. Expert butchers with specialized gear; they can take a captured spirit and compel it into an animal, force it to bond with the animal, and kill it. This method of exorcism is illegal for a variety of reasons in Duskwall, but the meat is referred to as “twice killed” and is a delicacy among the decadent. They are called “drowners” because they drown a spirit in animal blood.
- Zingerpriests. These experts (usually whispers) lock spirits into chambers the size of a matchstick or bullet. The “chamber” is carved with maddening runes that feel like constant cacophonous screaming to the cramped spirit trapped inside. The chamber is left for decades, ideally, driving the spirit totally mad and condensing it into a single impossibly focused spark. When the chamber (now a zinger) is struck against a ward or other supernatural binding, it releases all that pent-up insane spirit force in a single disruptive blast, breaking most magic. (You can guess why this is extraordinarily illegal.) Zingerpriests are usually part of a family business with generational supplies of zingers.
Hm. Seems like pretty soon we’ll need some reflections on punishment and how the law sees this sort of crime.