4 Ways to Use the Law in Your Tabletop RPG Game
The last thing players want on game night is to be forced to read a bunch of boring laws. What if the laws are weird, unfair or just plain evil. What if the guards are corrupt or have taken control of the place they swore to protect. What if you visit a place that has no laws, no guards and no crime. I am not a lawyer, but this week’s Campaign Trail will look at 5 Ways to Use the Law in Your Game to encourage acceptable behavior, create adventure hooks, set tone and more!
1) Wrongly Accuse the Adventurers
Are your adventurers perfect visitors when they visit a town and not too eager to grab onto your adventure hooks? Use the law to bring the adventurer to your players:
- Having the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) frame them for a crime for which she is actually guilty.
- Having them mistaken for a similar group who is actually the group of criminals and only by finding and capturing the criminals will they be able to clear their name.
- Calling them in to investigate a crime, with clues and dead bodies setting them up as the main suspects as the investigation progresses.
- Have your adventurers wake up hungover with a dead body in their room at the inn and no memories of the last 12 hours.
- Accuse the adventurers of a minor or frivolous infraction, which if ignored will lead to escalation.
2) Hire Some Bounty Hunters
If you players break the law and escape the town guard or escape from the dungeon, send in a bounty hunter to collect them.
- A bounty hunter (or group of bounty hunters) will move your players from being the powerful enough to easily defeat the town guard to suddenly being faced by a powerful and skilled adversary pursuing them.
- You go the other way and set-up your players as a group of bounty hunters working for a Lord Mayor, Faction or some other organization.
3) Create a Powerful Group to Defend Laws
If your players are murder hobos and love break the law or your world is a lawless mess, you might need to bring in some heavy hitters. There are some interesting options for 5th Edition to create groups to clean up criminals from the streets of your campaign.
- Create a group of Lawful Neutral Paladins who enforce law, judge defendants and execute the guilty right on the spot, like in Judge Dredd. The Oath of Devotion, Oath of the Crown, Oath of the Vengence or Oath of the Ancients can all work well to provide the direction on how the group conducts themselves in the pursuit of justice.
- Develop a Law Domain for Clerics that can be selected as a player option, with spells that focus on investigation, capturing criminals alive and even calming down and dispelling crowds.
- Create a group of NPCs or provide a player option for clerics who use the Arcana Domain to hunt down magic users in a kingdom where magic is outlawed – such as in the show Merlin.
- Set up a group who can step in when criminals go to far, such as D&D Factions and have your players work for that group.
4) Set-Up a Simple Legal System
The typical group of mid-level adventurers could decide to do whatever they like without consequence if there aren’t laws. Even when laws exist, there isn’t usually anyone powerful enough to confront these murder hobos when they drift into town with treasure. In a larger community, players are more likely to avoid breaking laws, and generally know that stealing, murdering and burning down inns is bad and should be avoided (but you still might need to remind them). Enforcing these unwritten rules of behavior with a legal system and a powerful enough group to enforce the laws can help encourage chaotic players to act more lawful. But how?
Create a Short List of Laws.
- Generally, criminal law is fairly straightforward and not much has changed in the nature of criminal acts for centuries, if not millennia. Look to history for examples like the 10 Commandments and Hammurabi’s Code or try out a random generator to get started.
- Focus on the crimes that players might be tempted to break like arson, theft, murder, slander and kidnapping… especially the laws you want they to stop breaking.
- Post the laws on a big sign when they first enter the town or on a billboard in the town square where jobs are posted.
- Don’t forget to set the fine or punishment for being found guilty of the crime in your notes.
Create a Group to Enforce the Laws.
- Make sure your town guards are powerful enough to confront your adventurers or can quickly call on more powerful reserves.
- Is the kingdom at war? What role do soldiers have in enforcing the law?
- You can make this obvious to your players or you can surprise them as they find themselves quickly over-matched and in shackles.
Determine How Trials & Sentencing Works.
- Figure out how the location tries its criminals. Do they dunk defendants in water, burn them at the stake, have trial by combat or even use courtrooms with judges and juries of peers?
- Once someone is found guilty who sentences the guilty party?
- Who executes criminals? Is it the Lord Mayor or an executioner.
Hooks & Ideas
Laws can be used to provide hooks and set tone for your campaign.
- Have the players find out sentences for minor crimes are very harsh, after they are caught breaking a law.
- Show your players what happens to criminals to remind them that they could be next:
- brand, tattoo or maim those who break the law
- stick law breakers in stocks in the center of town
- hang the guity from the gallows or in a cage on the outside of town
- have an interesting device like a dunking chair, stake surrounded by firewood or a guillotine set-up for players to wonder about when they enter a new town
- Throw in some weird laws that standout for fun, to provide clues or create difficulty for players such as ‘No Necromancy Allowed‘, ‘All Wererats Will be Killed‘, ‘All Magic is Outlawed‘, ‘It is Illegal for Livestock to Drive’, ‘No Weapons in Town‘ or ‘Whoever Can Drink the Most Pints is Mayor‘.
- Have some fun with your Ranger or Druid with laws such as ‘All Pets Must Be Leashed‘ or ‘All Animals Must Be Registered at Town Hall‘.
- Make all crimes punishable by huge fines or a visit to the dungeon for those who can’t pay.
- Make the laws really unjust or have fair laws being enforced harshly such as taxation. This may tempt your players to overthrow a horrible regime or even steal from the rich to give to the poor.
- Draw from crazy laws that exist today such as in Britain where it is illegal “to carry a plank along the pavement” and “to operate a cow while intoxicated“.
- You could send a bill or sue your players for damage they caused while stopping invading orcs, making them poor and needing treasure.
- Create a Lawful Evil city for your players to visit, such as JM’s Salt in Wounds setting. Really sell the evil setting with harsh punishments and weird laws.
BONUS – Law Generator
As I mentioned in the first section, here is a random set of laws I generated using http://chaoticshiny.com/lawgen.php
- The penalty for accepting bribes is a loss of social status.
- The penalty for a free man possessing certain alchemical ingredients is a brief term of servitude.
- The penalty for impersonating a craftsman is a brief imprisonment.
- The penalty for an apprentice destroying jewelry is death.
- The penalty for maiming a messenger bird is a few years’ imprisonment.
- The penalty for slandering a nobleman is the stocks.
- The penalty for smuggling metals is a moderate fine.
- The penalty for a member of a lower class wounding a hunting dog is a loss of social status.
- The penalty for breaking an oath is a brief term of servitude.
- The penalty for plotting against a criminal is a considerable term of servitude.