Justice for all?

Wednesday, 13. October 2010

It’s an interesting question to see how most storytellers implement justice for player characters. Players have a tendency of killing everything in sight that might or might not be an opponent, and then usually walking around like they own the place. When questioned about the carnage, a simple response of “We saved you all” or “They were the enemy.” tends to get them off mostly scott free, particularly if you’re in some sort of authoritarian society and are friend with those in power.

Likewise, a similiar situation exists if you’re running campaigns of forces of good versus forces of evil. Picking off the opposing side is usually the right thing to do. These are fun campaigns to play from time to time, but also can get stale relatively quick.

A more interesting problem is that of settings in semi-modern or modern setting with a good amount of forensics to determine who did what, and a government that wants things relatively calm. Do you have them argue it out in court cases, or simply on the run? They’re going to have to do a lot of work to stay ahead of authorities, particularly of they did a good job of stepping on toes.

Futuristic settings can vary wildly as well. In an outlaws type setting, nearly everyone is charged with something or another and virtually everyone friend and foe is on the run from someone. It’s a feature of the setting. In anything less than this, the players are going to have to work real hard to stay ahead of those that would seek to bring them to justice for havoc caused.

How do you handle such situations with your players?

(On a side note, I’ve been absolutely killed this week in between work and travel trying to keep up with everything.)

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6 Responses to “Justice for all?”

  1. runjikol Says:

    I’ve not often had PC’s pursued by the law. On some occasions they’ve fought their way out of it and fled. On others they bribe their way out of it with gold or gems. My most favoured way of using the law is to turn it into an adventure.

    “Tax Evasion” was the premise and the new lord mayor rounded up all the itinerant mercenaries and adventurers in the portion of town under his jurisdiction. In return for getting their hard won gear back they would get rid of the personages attempting blackmail on the lord mayor. As added incentive, and time limit, their wanted posters would be put up about the major city and roads after a set time. It worked very well. :-)

  2. Grey Says:

    Part of this is basically to see how much time justice is bought, versus a situation where we would likely be totally screwed in regardless of responsibility. It probably happens far more with the hack and slash types.

    Hahah, I like your tax evasion premise. That seems to work pretty well and can just as easily work against the players. It also provides some good revenge plots for later!

  3. Don Says:

    I put my players in what was a pretty severe situation from a role playing perspective.

    They had just found out the local lord had many of their parents imprisoned as slave labor in a gold mine (he wasnt reporting the gold to the King).

    The group found out, then the lord found out they knew and had them declared outlaws. As some of the more impoverished families began to hunt the group for the reward money, the group was faced with killing their townsmen to escape, or preserving their townsmen’s lives by subdual and risking getting captured.

    They cast a Sleep spell on one group of pursuers and discussed amongst themselves what to do. I quietly started a stopwatch and when the spell was over, their opponents awoke. (the players hated me for that…!) They had no real choice but to kill a couple of them, and managed to tie a couple others up to a tree and make their escape.

    Point is, with a good background and backstory, and with talented and immersive role players, the “kill them all!” mindset can be avoided many times.

  4. Grey Says:

    Thats definetely between a rock and a hard place but is a good way to get some good roleplaying out of them even in a group that really wants to bust heads. Would you say your group naturally defaults to that or are they pretty diplomatic?

  5. a shadow on the water Says:

    In the days when I used to play more frequently I always despised two kinds of narratives: those in which a typical “good vs. evil” theme was obviously dominant and those in which an “everyone really is evil” theme was obviously dominant. Both of those are boring as hell (to me) because they don’t reflect the more complicated (and interesting) reality that there’s a lot of gray out there. Infusing a campaign with those kinds of narratives makes it easy to predict what’s going to happen too, and thus diminishes the enjoyment of surprise. Plus, as a player, I liked the challenge of acting the part, and there’s nothing interesting about playing squarely on the side of good or evil–even if you do have a kick-ass battle axe.

    When I ran games I’d therefore intentionally build a lot of ambiguity into the story-lines by having trusted characters sometimes make questionable decisions, or by seeding authorities with characters who worked at cross-purposes to their mission or the authority’s values–sometimes out of noble but counter-productive motivations. False trails of clues, and settings with barely functional institutions (think of some sections of Southeastern Russia or Subsaharan Africa as a model) are also a plus. So is adding range to your stock of NPCs. I always challenged myself not to have white hats and black hats, but to have guys who mean well but can’t really help the players, or people that follow the authority even though they don’t have any reason to do so apart from the fact that it is an authority. Yes-men, corruption, indifference, crusaders who talk big but can’t help, and characters who don’t seem like much but have that magical thingamajig the party really needs in the top drawer of their desk are also ideas that worked well for me in muddying up the norms of justice in the setting. You have to add an extra level of complexity to your characters to do this, and that can be a storytelling challenge, but those kinds of character flaws are interesting. I used to find that they would encourage players to get a little more invested in thinking about what their character would “really” do, too. So I think it’s worth it.

    Whether you’re going for this added level of realism as a storyteller or as a player I’d recommend investing some time in the back-story to what you’re doing and the characters and institutions within your setting. Even if (as the story teller) you don’t plan to reveal all or even any of it, you’ll still get the benefit of knowing where all your characters are coming from and what your world is really all about–especially in terms of the basic value system of the NPCs with whom your players will interact. Players will pick up on that and respond to it–especially over time as they come to understand how the institutions you put in your setting and the NPCs in them function.

    $.02 ;-)

  6. Don Says:


    A couple guys in my group are die hard combat gamers and to them the campaign is a “flavored Miniatures” battle. Another is a good roleplayer and tries to RP things. Unfortunately, he is the least Real Life charismatic guy at the table so it limits the RP’ing a bit.

    Still, they are ALL problem solvers, so I simply insist that they Problem Solve in character. This has worked very well thus far, and sometime the problem is solved through diplomacy and sometimes through combat. Since they seem to keep showing up on Game Day, I’d say it’s working. =)

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