We have another WFRP blog post to share this week. So, if you missed last weeks you can catch up on The Art of War here. Otherwise let’s hand over to Ben for this weeks post on Crime & Punishment! As always, we’d love to hear what you think on our Facebook and Twitter pages.
Let’s be frank for a moment: most adventurers in the Old World have encountered run ins with the law. In fact, if we’re going off of the Careers which can take the Criminal Talent, a full third of Characters are expected to be known criminals, let alone the successful unknown variety. This air of criminality invariably means the Characters are going to come face-to-face with the law… and I’m not so sure they’re always going to come out on top.
Today we’re going to talk about crime and punishment in the Old World: how to handle it at the table, and how to make the loss of player agency fun.
Getting Set Up
The first thing we need to do before we start locking the Characters up in jail cells is figure out:
- Do we need to ‘punish’ the Characters?
- Do the Players want their Characters to face the risk of punishment?
- What is the end goal of said punishment?
Can’t We Just Get Away With Murder?
Do we really need to punish the Characters for committing crimes?
Honestly? No. In fact, I’d say that unless the punishment is serving a wider story purpose, that we should expressly not punish the Characters. Why take away Player agency without a good reason, right? But that wider purpose can be very broad, and has a lot of facets to it.
Punishments meted out on crimes reinforce verisimilitude — that is, the veneer of believability that the GM attempts to bring about in the shared fiction. Actions have consequences. If you murder a noble in broad daylight, you should get chased by the guards and, probably, executed if they catch you.
Punishment also serves to tell different stories: rise and fall, prison break, or legal drama. Consider which suits the best.
- Rise and fall narratives, where the Characters get everything they wanted just before it is stripped away.
- Prison break stories, where the Characters have to cleverly plan an escape from lock up.
- Legal dramas (or comedies), where the Characters have to fight against the (in)justice system to either dramatic or comedic effect.
If there is a story reason for the punishment, then we have an answer: we don’t need to punish the Characters for committing crime, but we could. Next we need to know if we should…
‘Punishing’ a Player’s Character ultimately means stripping that Player of a level of agency:
- the Character’s movement is limited by cell walls,
- their safety is threatened by risk of execution
- their Trappings are likely taken away (and may never be recovered)
- and their fate is largely out of their hands…
Taking away a Player’s agency is the opposite of what we want to do as GMs. But there’s a simple tool you can use to turn these situations around: ask your Players what they want to see in the world!
As with anything potentially sensitive, it helps to discuss crime and punishment with your group before introducing it into the game. Not only do these discussions help you determine if a topic will make anyone at the table uncomfortable, they can develop enthusiasm for things that Players might otherwise want to avoid!
Maybe your Players really love the idea of some prison break stories, or they want to explore what it’s like surviving as gang members in an Old World prison. They may not have even considered these stories as possible, but by talking with them, you can plant these ideas in their heads, and see if they bear fruit.
This isn’t to say that your Players will then try to get their Characters arrested (though, it might mean that if that’s the campaign they want to play), but rather if they do end up on the wrong side of the law they will still have fun. And fun is paramount — as the Golden Rule says (WFRP, page 149) .
There is no point in punishing the Characters if it means punishing the Players as well!
We know what the punishment is doing for the story. We know that the Players are excited by those prospects. Now we need to know what happens next. Where is all this leading?
Crime, and the ensuing punishment, is one of those things that can fundamentally shift a campaign. Unlike Character death, where it’s the end of a story, getting on the wrong side of the law can be the impetus for an entire campaign in and of itself. It can also drastically derail a campaign that is already in motion.
We can look to our favourite Old World heroes, Gotrek and Felix, for an example. These are two Characters fundamentally changed by their relationship to the law, and their running from and acceptance of punishment.Their entire story begins with a riot with Gotrek saving Felix’s life, and the two of them swearing to travel together whilst they flee the authorities. Throughout all of their journeys, the weight of this running sits on Felix’s shoulders. Gotrek himself is bound by the law of his people to find an honourable death for a grave crime… But, the story exists in spite of that punishment. The threat of punishment looms over their heads, but we as readers also know it’s not where the story is going to go. Felix isn’t locked up by the Altdorf Watch — he runs away with Gotrek and they have fantastic adventures for which he suffers greatly. Gotrek doesn’t just die at the hands of the first Troll he sees — he is cursed to walk the Old World unable to atone for his sins. These are Characters who broke the law, escaped punishment, and then ran into… more punishment?
Folks, if that isn’t dramatic, I don’t know what is.
The Best Laid Plans…
Crime and punishment is a vital part of the Old World, but that doesn’t mean your Characters have to be constantly running from the law, attending court proceedings, or getting their hands cut off for petty theft. Unless everyone at the table wants to play that game. Like everything else, these themes act as tools for the whole group to tell the sorts of stories they want to see, whether as set dressing in the background, a looming but ultimately off-screen threat, a real and pressing danger, or somewhere in between.
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