The other day I was emailing one of my illustrator friends about doing a cover for a story I’m working on. She asked for a photo reference so like most of us, I hopped onto Google Image Search to find something I can send. Typing in ‘Puerto Rican Detective,’ I then hit ENTER, given a barrage of results within less than a second as Google proudly stated As I scrolled through, one of the pictures caught my eye as being kind of gross. It looked like raw flesh being pulled apart, and within the sickly pink meat was something wrapped in plastic wrap. I tried to ignore it and continued my search. But curiosity got the best of me. I clicked on the pic.
It turns out the terrible picture was of a KILO OF COCAINE which someone had attempted to smuggle into the country by hiding it in a LOG OF BOLOGNA. I…I didn’t know what to do. The idea in and of itself wedged itself into my mind. Once seen, never unseen. So gross and bizarre. BIZARRE. I mean, seriously, what was the conversation leading up to this?
‘Hey, I’ve got this kilo of cocaine I need to send to someone. What should I do?’
‘I don’t know. I’ve got this bologna log in the fridge. I’m high, I bet putting it in there is a good idea.
‘I am also high, let’s do this. I’ll get the stamps.’
Now, this story itself is old and dates back to 2010. But it stayed in my brain, both the image and the sentiment. And I thought, to myself, SELF. COCAINE BOLOGNA. HAHAHAHA.
And then I thought, I should do an article about smuggling.
Smuggling items is something that can be as banal as getting your kid’s birthday presents into the house without them noticing to getting slaves from one country to another while avoiding detection by the authorities. It’s an old profession and no restrictions have been able to keep people from sneaking items across frontiers. Astronauts even snuck a corned beef sandwich onto the Gemini III mission (which honestly, if you’re going to die in space from an electrical malfunction, I guess a corned beef sandwich is the way to go. Not the cocaine bologna sandwich).
Bringing contraband from its place of origin to its destination requires the item to be made, the entrusting of the item to a dependable (but not necessarily upright) individual, the safe passage of the item and individual until it finally arrives safely and intact to either another person or the place it was intended to go. How the item is to be transported must be taken into consideration and knowledge of the hazards and roadblocks along the way is crucial.
A group that is willing to deal with issues of class, nationality, availability, economics and entitlement can have smuggling as as one of the focuses of their game and the quarry can be as simple or gruesome as you desire. Just a quick run down of things that maybe are exchanging hands and crossing borders:
Plants/Seeds: Either brought in by bioterrorists seeking to unleash havoc on the land by introducing a new plant, scientists and magic users wishing to grow an illegal substance to research or use for medicine or farmers just wanting something different to grow to help their crops and increase their productivity? Since most seeds are small they can be easily carried, ‘baked’ into fake loaves of bread, used to fill dolls or pillows, sew into the linings of jackets, even sewn together. Some seeds do better with a nick in the outer husk. Plant cuttings or roots can be mixed in with others if you think the guards failed botony, and may be preferable to seeds if germination is a pain or if certain qualities of the plants need to be guaranteed.
Precious Metals and Stones: Most everyone loves a little shine. Metal and stones are generally heavy and a pain to carry around. Depending on how finished the product is though, a guard might just shrug when a lone traveller crosses the border with a bag of rocks. A country that has a monopoly on the mining of the minerals might have insane taxes that people are not willing to pay. But if the gems are bright enough, the rich will find a way to obtain the stones and at any cost.
Animals and Animal Parts: Used for medicine, amusement, exotic pets or for food, everything from tiny hummingbirds to the bones of great beasts may be desired. Live animals don’t spoil as fast but must be kept alive, at least barely. Secret compartments can be used to transport live animals while already dead and processed animals might be labeled something else. Live animals may be drugged to keep them quiet and to lessen their care needs or more might be brought in to mitigate the eventual deaths along the way. Dead animal/animal parts might be illegal to harvest but legal to have, loopholes serving the communities that obtain them.
Illegal Substances: These might fall into some of the other categories but mind and mood altering substances are generally regulated. You could try to hide the cocaine in the bologna. Make it as compact as possible and hide it in other items, try to pass it off or something else or hide it in certain…orifices….
Guns/Weapons: Sometimes the local and legal arms dealer doesn’t have what you need. Sometimes you just don’t want the opposition to know what you have.
Technology/Magic craft: different countries develop at different rates and sometimes the quickest way to innovate is to appropriate. Bits of machinery, operations manuals, used spell components or even human remains affected by the tech can all tip stateside scientists and spellcasters as to what is happening in other countries.
Information: Sometimes this is more important than any amount of items passed from hand to hand. Information can be the difference between being destroyed in combat or knowing the best way to attack. It could help someone know the best way to win someone over or anger them so badly they’re useless. Information can lead to improvements in many of the things listed above and false information can be one of the deadliest weapons in the world. As information is passed, it must also be contained and dealt with, sometimes needing to be destroyed to protect covers. This sometimes comes at the expense of the lives of those trying to keep the signal going.
Other Sentient Creatures: Sometimes heart wrenching, other times simply dangerous, people are sometimes the thing being smuggled. Against their will brings up issues of slavery, cruelty and abuse are often used to subdue the people long enough to get them to market. Other times people must be smuggled in order to save their own lives, such as political dissidents seeking asylum. And some will even try to smuggle themselves, trying to get away from old lives of poverty, willing to do anything to better their conditions. Just try to stay away from the ‘Awesome Naked Chick in a Box’ Trope (I’m looking at you, Outlaw Star and Firefly).
Smuggling isn’t always about international intrigue. Sometimes people just don’t like the laws and taxes placed on things and sometimes the diverting of items is within a country’s borders. If there are rules regulating or banning an item, someone or something is going to try and circumvent it, either to meet the challenge or to meet the needs of others. Of course, having the monopoly on something means you can set the price. If the substance or item is illegal, the lack of legal recourse means not everyone is willing to take the plunge.
-What is banned/regulated in the region? Is this everywhere or are there areas where items or substances are allowed? Are there loopholes?
-What are the punishments for being found with illegal items or substances? Are the punishments the same for everyone involved or is it different for the supplier, dealer and/or consumer?
-Are the smuggled items brought in in their final forms or in various states of completion? If the item is being brought in parts, do all the parts come through/from the same person? If the items are coming in a rawer form, who is doing the finishing of the product on the receiving end?
-How does the region find contraband coming into the country? Is there a border patrol? What tools do they have at their disposal to find pilfered items? Do they routinely check for the same things? Do they have dogs or other animals available to help them find things? Magic items?
-Does the region do anything to keep items from leaving the country, things that may be illegal elsewhere? Do other countries complain about their nonchalant attitudes or their porous borders?
-Are there groups of people allowed access to certain things which are otherwise illegal to the rest of the population? Is this because of a cultural need? Religious requirement? Class entitlement?
-Are some items okay in some cases (such as for medicine, frontier colonies where the conditions are rough and the laws more lenient, etc.)?
-How are people smuggling the items in question?
-How are the smugglers vetting the people involved in the illicit trading?
-Is the smuggling being done for the sake of making money, for helping people when the local lawful body won’t or a combination of both? How do the smugglers see themselves? As businessmen or philanthropists? Or maybe entrepreneurial philanthropists?
-How much does each smuggler know about each stage along the way? How well are they connected to each other? What do they tell to the people buying the items about how the materials are obtained?
-Is any of this allowed to slip by? Is there an ulterior motive from the powers that be that allows substances and items to make their way into various populations?
-The PCs must escort an important lawmaker who is going to bring his case before the government to place stricter controls on an already illegal substance found to be beneficial in treating certain ailments. Who doesn’t want him to make it to the capitol? Do the PCs come across people who would benefit from a more lax approach to the substance or item?
-The PCs are part of a religion that requires a banned substance for their Sacred Rite. A high ranking member of the clergy bids them to travel to another country in order to obtain and smuggle back the substance. One trip would supply the temple for generations, if they do it right. How do the PCs pull it off? Does the clergy member have any advice? What equipment are they given to perform this task?
-War in the country has made the population easy pickings for neighboring slave traders who quickly take advantage of the instability. When several individuals of the village are taken in a raid the PCs must travel through the war torn land to find them. What are the PCs connections to the kidnapped? How do they avoid being abducted themselves? What is the involvement of the country the abductors are from in the war? How are kidnapped people not noticed by populations of people? And what happens to those kidnapped once they cross the border?
-The PCs are all employed in a warehouse. Opening one of the shipments reveals a tired and weary individual within a pile of goods who claims to know the owner of the establishment. Except that the owner mentioned is dead; a relative is now in control of the company. Seeking political asylum, they turn to the PCs for protection. Why did they flee their country? What do they expect the PCs to do? And who is looking for them?
-When people are waking up missing digits or appendages but no recollection of how it happened, the PCs are charged to investigate who is doing this and why. Is the menace fae? Outsider? Or human and just very good at surgery?
-Released from prison, the PCs all leave with the information from a man on death row that located somewhere is a certain item that would fetch a lot of cash if taken to the right person. Are the PCs looking to get rich? How do they feel about each other? Is there anything to find or is it some kind of very messed up revenge or plot to get them together?
-When the government begins to persecute and speak against a minority population, the PCs all help in the underground effort to get them out of the country. Why are they helping? How do they smuggle people? Who is getting information on how the country watches the borders so they can stay one step ahead? Where are the people taken? Are there double agents in the resistance?
-The PCs are charged with cleaning up a recently abandoned building. As they pick among the litter they find some very strange writings that seem to be related to government secrets. What do they do with this information? Do they tell anyone? What are the results of them confessing or not telling? And who knows they were in the building that day?
-A clandestine group that performs a theatrical reenactment of a story banned from the religious texts or lawful histories travels from town to town to let people know what happened. What role do the PCs have in the play? Actors? Tech? Advertisers? How do they get the population to know about the play without giving away their cover? How much do they believe in what they are portraying? Where do they perform? And what are they trying to inspire the audience to do?
-How do you feel about the banning of items and substances? Are you aware of the smuggling of items in your country? Do you partake of or shun such practices?
-Do you smuggle on the side? As an occupation? If you need to get an item quickly, no questions asked, do you have connections?
-How do you feel about the local authority?
-If you try to prevent things from being smuggled, why do you do this? To uphold the law? Do you believe the banning is for the safety of the country and/or the population? Or do you blindly follow the rules? Are you afraid of breaking rules? Are there exceptions to the rules?
-If you are a smuggler, why do you smuggle? To make some money? For the danger? To defy the establishment? To help people in your own way on your own terms? Because you have to? Are there items that you believe should definitely not be in the hands of the population at large?
-Does your character carry contraband on them? What would they do if one of the other PCs was found to be carrying regulated items?
What say you? What other things can be exchanged in the dark shadows and back alleys of the campaign?