LARP Design: Law and Justice

In response to a question from a reader, I’m tackling what is, in my limited knowledge, one of the great unaddressed issues of LARP-running: the long arm of the law and imprisonment, both by PCs and against PCs. Now, I bet you’re thinking of that one time there was a trial, or that one time you took some NPCs to the Plot cabin to be imprisoned. Imprisoning NPCs is certainly the easy part: the prison can be off-camera when needed. You start to run into problems, though, once you implement in the obvious and release it into the wilds of emergent gameplay.

Now, part of the problem is that LARP setting writers don’t usually put as much thought into constructing a legal system that meshes with the realities of gameplay as they do to other things. This includes me, so don’t think I’m going after any of the other games I’ve played or read about. Another part of the problem is that most setting writers aren’t scholars of medieval jurisprudence or, for that matter, any other past or future era. So let’s look at some general cases.

Quick terminology note: I don’t know of standard terminology to differentiate things players resolve with their out-of-game ability from things players resolve with character stats. To keep this post remotely readable, “material” scenes or challenges use the player’s ability to find clues, solve problems, or otherwise perform the task. “Representative” scenes or challenges are solved with things found on the character card. Situationally, I may prefer one or the other, but let’s take it as read that I’m not making a value judgment or trashing that thing you like.

Investigating PC Crimes

Sometimes PCs break the law of the land – those laws that are so basic and necessary that they didn’t require detailed design thought, like theft and murder. Some PCs are upright citizens, while others are knaves and blackguards of the worst sort – they’re adventurers, what did you expect? Anyway, the odds are pretty good that a PC will run afoul of the law at some point, or if not, will at least be accused of same.

This opens the door to two issues: Investigation and Trial.

In the Marath Suvla criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the Town Guard, who propagate investigate crimes; and the Khedive, who might or might not do anything about it, depending on his mood. (Akathian jurisprudence is capricious.) These are their stories.

(Joking.) Anyway, investigation. Investigation is very much at odds with emergent gameplay (that is, gameplay driven largely by player actions, in which Plot reacts nimbly.) A good material investigation scene takes time and preparation. Tuning difficulty on a material investigation is art entirely without science; this is a universal truth of puzzle creation. Now imagine that the investigation, if successful, would incriminate a PC. How could the Plot-created interchange of player conflict possibly be fair in the eyes of both sides? Broadly, Plot’s sole responsibility in PvP situations is to show no favor and make sure that the rules are obeyed both in letter and spirit. To phrase that another way: to let emergent play be the truth, no matter what.

The realities of LARPing don’t include bloodstains, fingerprinting or higher forensic analysis (remember, a single player might be one of several different characters), torn clothing, shell casings (or ballistic examination), damage to doors, furniture, or architecture… et cetera. I’ve had two experiences with a staff member attempting to establish clues that would have incriminated me or my team. Neither of these were positive experiences, but I’m going to describe them only in general terms.

In the first case, my team had “liberated” some valuables from someone who was definitely off-limits to rob, but we didn’t know that beforehand. Inasmuch as there were no established ways to avoid being tracked, my team made their way back to their cabin staying mostly to hard surfaces (the ubiquitous but anachronistic asphalt). I don’t believe there was a marshal with them to note anything about where they went, so when the NPC hired PCs to track down the thieves, the marshal handling the tracking pretty much led them directly to our door. (Any errors in this story are not mine; this is how the story was represented to me.) What should the marshal have done? I still don’t know. Maybe the mistake was allowing the Tracking skill to work in the first place.

In the second case, I killed a character by means of a Blindside and a Killing Blow. My confederates and I disposed of the corpse expeditiously and made a point of not being witnessed anywhere near the scene of the crime. The marshal on the scene did not inform me at the time that I needed to do anything else to clean up evidence, and the marshal would have to do so, since as I pointed out above evidence doesn’t naturally come into existence in a LARP. The marshal decided – and this part is definitely not what should have been done – to then create evidence, in the form of Cyalume bloodstains. A marshal (same? different? I have no way to know) then informed me – and this is the closest thing to a saving grace – that I had “forgotten” to clean the scene, and I would need to get some Solvent to do this. Which meant that I returned to a (thankfully still undiscovered) crime scene to clean up, and got spotted by another character. At this point, the whole situation was mightily close to a complete screw job (and one that would have probably removed my character from play). The character who spotted me, though, didn’t know what was going on and didn’t think anything of it.

The point of these anecdotes is that it’s incredibly hard to know what should happen with investigations against a PC, and the stakes for the player are exceptionally high. All of this presumes you could create a material investigation scene with the props that Plot already has on hand, on a short enough timeline that the facts of the matter are still relevant and narrative interest hasn’t moved on. (It’s hard to think about the game’s main plot when the emergent plot of a murderer on the loose holds players’ attention.)

Okay, so material investigations are problematic. What about representative investigations? (NB: FoD and Fractured are the games I know of that have representative investigations, and I don’t know how or if they use them in situations that could incriminate a PC. The rest of this paragraph is theory based on not knowing their approach. Since several of them will read this, I invite their commentary as always.) The problem I have with representative investigations here is that, as before, solving a murder feels more important than other B-plot or C-plot encounters or modules. If the players have to spend a resource to use their investigative skills (perhaps as per GUMSHOE’s investigative spends) or need to collaborate, there will basically always be enough of the investigative “currency” to make sure that discovery occurs, unless Plot forces the issue by pricing it quite sincerely out of reach. I haven’t tried to design a representative investigation system that would resolve this issue, and I’m not sure how I’d go about it.

A PC Stands Trial

That’s probably a sufficient discussion of the police-work stage. Let’s talk about what happens when a PC is on trial. It’s a LARP, and I strongly favor keeping arguments material rather than representative. But this is another place where anachronism really runs amok. Is that bad? Either no, or doubly so. On the one hand, LARP isn’t primarily re-enactment, and it should be more dedicated to fostering strong, compelling scenes than other causes. On the other, present-day trial formats are far from appropriate to a medieval setting, and I think most setting-writers love their settings and their fantasy history enough to care about being faithful to them. I was involved in Mock Trial in high school, so I do have some familiarity with how trials could be an interesting part of gameplay. But then, famously, television shows don’t do a great job of presenting trials as they actually are, preferring to enhance the drama – and they have it easy because they get scripts and multiple takes.

Anglo-Saxon England, medieval Germany, and ancient Greece all had customs comparable to juries, though it’s interesting to note that for settings based on Europe up to 1215, the Church still sanctioned trial by ordeal. Now, it’s a LARP, so trial by ordeal may not be as terrifying as it should be, but there is a certain appeal in completely ignoring the facts of the case and throwing the player(s) into an almost impossible challenge (or, perhaps even better for mood, posting a list of the nigh-impossible challenge used as punishment for each major offense). There’s a danger that the nigh-impossible challenge starts to look like enjoyable high-difficulty content; I’d suggest that the way around that is for the “adventure” to have no opportunity for treasure and a high risk of picking up new long-term drawbacks, a high cost in consumable items just to survive, and not worrying too much about making the encounters fair.

One of the bad sides to a LARP setting where litigation is feasible is that a smallish community has a really easy time turning into Salem, MA, circa 1692. Americans that we are, just about any accusation that stands a real chance of coming to trial in a LARP is going to trigger the courtroom cousin of Godwin’s Law: “This is a witch-hunt!” This is especially ironic in settings that have witch-hunts, as in Shattered Isles’ first arc. The danger of any trial is that it becomes such a central part of the action that it completely changes the tone of the event, and possibly the whole campaign, for some time to come. On one hand, that’s how it goes with emergent plot, and you must embrace your players’ choices and carry them through to their logical conclusions. On the other, Plot is obligated to entertain more than just the players directly attached to the trial. I should hope it’s obvious that nearly all of the officers of the court will be PCs, but you still need other things going on, and once you’ve been derailed enough to run a trial, the peripheral material becomes harder to stage. God help you if there’s any allowance for appeal.

It’s Anecdote Time Again

King’s Gate wound up with opportunities to show off how different cultures and organizations handled trials. There may have been others, but offhand I recall two cases: a Dechainnais lord listening to evidence in camera and sentencing the accused, and the Order of Knowledge setting up what was basically an ecclesiastical court, once its inquisitors-errant (Preceptors) had already attempted and failed (er, not the NPCs’ fault) to bring the matter to a firm resolution. The Dechainnais lord had no concept whatsoever of an appellate process, though I suspect that if the supporters of the accused had stated an intention to appeal to the King, he would have stayed the execution. (I was one of a trio of investigators in that case, and we were definitely hindered by the fact that there was no such thing as evidence.) Even with the NPC making all of the decisions, there was a substantial amount of bad blood following the execution, though I think that was mostly political gamesmanship.

The ecclesiastical court of the Order functionally was the appellate court, as a number of rulings had already been handed down for the situation at hand. The real-world equivalent of the case would be something like a charge and counter-charge of blasphemy, though the Order was not technically a religion in-setting. (It was based very closely on the Templars, Hospitalers, and some combination of Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans, though. If a relatively-low-corruption pre-Reformation Church is a fun time for you in a game as it is for me, it was ideal.) Anyway, three senior Order officials – one from each of the three branches – heard arguments and handed down a decision consonant with the prior rulings. It mostly brought an end to a long-term squabble involving several players, but didn’t resolve bad blood stemming from the issue; in a community of 50-100 people, good luck with finding that kind of resolution.

In short, I liked how KG handled those trials, because I felt like they supported the historical verisimilitude of the setting. The preferable solution to the question of how to stage a trial, I think, is to double down on staging and exposition, in order to present something richly accurate to the cultures in question. If your settings are based on real-world cultures, do the research between events.

I just realized that I’m arguing for an inversion of the principles of gamification. Instead of adding a game to a topic you want to teach, I’m saying that it’s well and good to teach history as part of a game. This isn’t revolutionary, but it is relevant to a bunch of recent conversations, and thus amused me.

PC Sentencing

Another thing that modern audiences are likely to believe is that our modern system of prisons and long-term jail time as punishment for crimes is common. It’s not exactly right, though it’s not 100% wrong either. Shattered Isles was an interesting case of a game that published a rough-justice kind of criminal code, including its sentencing guidelines, very early and very publicly; it’s clear to me that its inimitable creators put some thought into the same questions that inspired this post. The Arinthian code of justice had very little concept of jail time, as I recall, but went in big-time for fines, up to and including divesting the convicted of all property. There was also a concept of legally-mandated costuming, a tabard that marked the convict for all to see, for a certain duration. I don’t know how much of the criminal code got used, though; by the time I started playing, war and the Occupation had swept the old order aside.

Many games have used “a” death, or “multiple” deaths, as deterrent punishments, essentially embracing the setting conceits found in almost all LARPs that death is a curable condition, but one with limitations on how many times it can be cured – often an unknown number of times. This is a pretty good punishment as far as deterring both player and character go; you’re talking about increasing the risk of permanently taking away the player’s right to play that character. KG also used execution-without-resurrection as a punishment on at least one occasion.

So… imprisonment is definitely the least desirable (from the game-runner’s perspective) of all punishments. Even a pre-trial holding cell is kind of terrible, since the player can’t do much of anything and you probably need someone to stand guard. Implementing imprisonment as “extra monstering time” may be beneficial on one level, but I’m uncomfortable with even implying that time spent supporting the game staff is punishment. Instead of jail time, consider remanding the character to the custody of a player aligned with the in-game force of law. In games with magic or super-tech, consider a binding that prevents the character from fleeing, and possibly makes them subject to a niche Voice Effect so that they are easy for the force of law to find and control. It’s a magical or super-tech ankle monitor; sure, it might prevent the player from going off on modules, but that level of punishment allows for a much wider range of entertainment for the player than being confined to one cabin. If there’s an encounter or module where the whole playerbase has to leave the main area of town, well, make sure your monitoring effect is able to make exceptions, perhaps because violations are parsed by a sapient entity.

In Dust to Dust, the use of Binding Contracts is an available and effective, if expensive, way to constrain the accused or the convicted. They take the essential form of If X, then Y, where Y is any number of different Disadvantages or undesirable effects. Now, this also opens the door to the whole nightmarish field of contract law; I recommend consciously designing for a “shallow” implementation.

Fines, especially those that extend to specific items the character has acquired, are a pretty good idea, though famously players get more upset about losing gear than any other negative consequence. The benefit here is, well, hitting where it hurts, without eliminating the possibility of future entertainment. If you want to tell stories about how power corrupts, come up with a way that fines are funneled into an opponent player’s or team’s purse. (Within a year, the campaign will become radically litigious, I can just about promise.)

Using public service as a punishment might be feasible, though be careful about any public service that translates into modules. There’s a principle of LARP-running that states that all Plot attention is desirable for players, though. This is why Disadvantages like Hunted/Wanted aren’t disadvantageous: they are a promise of future Plot attention. This gets to the heart of the whole problem of PC sentencing: how do you punish the character without either rewarding the player, or unduly punishing the player? Keep in mind that in a lot of cases, the player was just engaging with the content of the game as presented. I don’t have a final answer for this, but the comments field is definitely open for suggestions as to other kinds of punishments.

Justice and NPCs

So I’ve talked a whole lot about PCs and the justice system. Let me touch briefly on the intersection of these topics and NPCs. A lot of the problems are resolved by the fact that NPCs are meant to be used efficiently, rather than entertained. If it makes for a better experience, any of investigation, trial, and punishment can be off-camera – presumably crime and punishment happen all the time without PCs even hearing about it. Agile staging of crime scenes to investigate is also a non-issue most of the time, and if a material or representative investigation is too easy, no one cares. There will be others! If they’re too hard, that’s unfortunate, but if one NPC’s trial goes awry because PCs couldn’t complete the task, it’s probably not the end of the world. If you do stage the trial, you’re doing so because it’s the story you want to be telling – you don’t have to feel like it’s a distraction from your event schedule and narrative flow.

The thorny patches arise chiefly in jailing NPCs before and after trial. It would be great if an NPC could be available (and under guard) all the time. Let’s not kid ourselves, though: that is just not how staff-side manpower works. This has been a significant part of Dust to Dust for the past half-year, as an unexpected player decision led to the capture and imprisonment of a major NPC. There’s a whole lot I can’t say about this ongoing situation, but suffice it to say that we would love to make Varas continually available for questioning, but Paul has to do other things with his time, and we can’t perpetually leave the module building open for use as a holding cell.

In brief, the main problem is getting an NPC back in costume and available to players once an arrest has taken place. This might range from minor NPCs (“that bandit we captured last month”) all the way up. Players are typically understanding about this, which is good; on the other hand, they usually don’t see a lot of benefit to making arrests and tossing those NPCs into their jail of holding. Administering a Killing Blow and moving on is a standard practice that goes back to the origins of LARPing, where the verisimilitude of a society with law and justice wasn’t particularly of interest to anyone. (For all I know, you may be asking yourself why anyone cares about every single thing I’ve mentioned in this post. What can I say? It takes all kinds, and I care about DtD and settings I play in feeling as real as possible.)

Well, I think I’ve hammered out justice all over this blog post enough for one day. If your game has done something innovative and awesome on this front, by all means add it to the comments below.

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