Crime and Punishment (and Games)

Advice Crime gming Ideas Mayhem

San Juan Capistrano Jail CellI was reading through my woefully neglected RSS feed, and I came upon a post over at Dungeon’s Master about teaching young players. Bauxtehude, the author, describes the progression of the players from sheer detached self-satisfying mayhem toward more interest in the character.

Having once been a young player, this brought back all sorts of memories. Specifically, I remember the other GM of our group complaining that every bartender had to be a 14th level fighter to keep the party from rampaging through the tavern like a herd of rhinos. Give some people a chance at power and wish fulfillment (however imaginary) without consequences, and you’re asking for trouble, especially when those people are teenage boys.

This behavior certainly isn’t limited to prepubescent males, however. We all sometimes fall under the temptation. I think that the problem starts when players get detached from their characters. Once that happens, what do you care if your PC uncharacteristically goes on a spree of destruction at the local innkeeper’s insult?

This post isn’t about the cause, however. It isn’t even about the solution. This post is about the aftermath.

The shoe has dropped, the fat lady has sung, and the players have spent their fury on the poor tavern. You’re now in the position of figuring out how to get the game back on track, and, simultaneously, what to do with the perpetrators. These characters have just indulged in a bunch of acts that were at best antisocial, and at worst highly illegal. What now?

Do the Time?

This whole “public enemy” thing may throw a wrench in the game if they were supposed to be the heroes of the land. Does the local law enforcement pursue them? If they’re high level in a game like D&D, it’s unlikely that the locals could do much more than inconvenience them.

If they are within the long arm of the law, do you go through with it? It’d be a pretty boring game if half the characters spent it in jail. Still, it would be really unrealistic for society to just let them get away with everything.

As long as this is an isolated event, I’d suggest not getting them stuck in prison, unless you’re angling for an escape scene. Instead, I’d probably go for making the punishment fit the crime. Maybe word gets around about the tavern vandals. The PCs then find themselves banned from every local tavern, and hated by the patrons, protective of their favorite establishment.

You might even have the PCs get caught. Then you could fast forward through a year of incarceration. Their plans have withered, and their enemies have grown in strength. Now the group has to pick up the pieces. Bet they won’t see that coming!

If this is an ongoing problem, however, you’ve got two choices. If this is one or two players disrupting the game, then you’ve got a player issue. In this case, you probably need to talk to them, and iron it out from that end. If it’s the whole party, however, you should think about changing the game itself. Maybe they’re looking for something more raucous and chaotic.

Delayed Ramification

I’m a big fan of having the results of player actions coming back to haunt them when least expected, especially in a long term game. It’s a great way to let the players affect a game, even if you have a plot planned out. You don’t even have to make clear the causes. In our Shadowrun campaign, I doubt the players even knew all the events that happened because they’d drawn the wrong attention with previous bouts of mayhem. That game was a little different, however, since mayhem was half the point.

In our tavern example, the players’ actions in breaking up the establishment should definitely affect the game. Maybe a source of information they need is reluctant to help them after seeing their earlier violence. Maybe they even end up needing the help of the tavern keeper. Did I mention that I like irony?

Game Justice

As a GM, you have a mission of steering the group through a story in which everybody can have fun. When the players go all medieval on your society, there has to be some response. The difficulty with all this is that you have to figure out how to make that response entertaining yet believable. Hopefully these ideas will give you an edge.

Have you had to deal with PC mayhem? Has your character caused a tavern brawl? Do you have ideas for fun game consequences? Let us know in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. Posted 11/02/2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    You can spot a well balanced system if an advanced character is effective but a decent size party of villagers bringing them to justice is a threat.

    If you want a system that makes a higher level character invulnerable to those a few levels down then why not let them trash the tavern. If they really are that tough, treat them like that and have everyone treat them with terror. Most fully outfitted characters wouldn’t be treated as a mysterious stranger. The villagers would be hiding in their homes, the tavern would instantly clear out just like if you were at your local Applebees and five or six guys with flack jackets and AK-47s walked in and started demanding service.

    • avatar Chase
      Posted 11/03/2011 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      Both good points. It’s always bugged me about D&D that high level characters may as well be gods.

      It would certainly have to be intimidating dealing with a group of guys you know could wipe out your whole village without breaking a sweat.