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How often do you enforce laws in your games?

Li Shenron

Legend
Obviously every group has their own taste for such mundane and boring things, but I am wondering how many groups actually enforce laws in their games, as far as it is appropriate, and how many simply ignore laws or let it slide to keep the game going.
Most RPGs are after all power fantasies (at least thats my impression) and PCs often end up in the role of vigilantes or judge, jury, executioner which is not quite compatible with being a law abiding citizen, no matter what your alignment says (In D&D, but I wanted to keep it a bit more open, thus I post in the general forum).

So, do you enforce laws in your games? And which ones? Only the big ones like murder or do you have bridge tolls, taxes, sumptuary laws, etc.?
Mostly yes, but only at a no-brainer level... if you commit theft, murder or similar, you should expect consequences. Obviously, if you don't get caught it doesn't matter, so the characters are more likely to get away with a crime committed in the wilderness than in a place full of witnesses.

In general, I don't have the fantasy setting follow modern standards at all, not just in law enforcement but also in economics, technology, knowledge etc. So it's not like if the characters commit a crime then there will be an investigation, an arrest, a formal trial... more probably the matter will be handled summarily, or someone is going to make them pay in another way: perhaps a bounty hunter will be hired to retrieve what they stole, assuming it's valuable enough, or to exact revenge. If the victims are poor folks, rumours will spread that the PCs are criminals, and doors will be shut in their faces (although other doors may open, if the players want to go that route). The general principle is you reap what you saw, and if you start behaving like villains, that's what you'll be treated like.

As for taxes and various legal obligations, it's just assumed in the background that everything is in order, and your taxes are already taken into account in "costs of living" expenses, which by the way we usually even ignore... just assume that if you found 100gp of treasure this week, the taxes are already deducted :D Then of course once a while there might be a new city to visit, where they ask for a specific entry toll or document to produce, it can be part of the narrative, but it's not going to be a frequent chore.
 

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GrahamWills

Adventurer
It comes up in a few games I've run. In Nights Black Agents, there's a mechanic called Heat wherein the actions of the PCs can attract unwanted attention from authorities.
Just a quick note on the Heat mechanic. This is essentially a value that can be assigned to a specific area that measures how much the PCs have come to the notice of the authorities. The more heat you have, the harder a lot of actions become, especially those involving avoiding notice. It’s an easy mechanic to incorporate into any system — in a PbtA system you might use clocks to represent heat, for example. Reasons why you might want to use this or a similar mechanic:
  • It is non-binary. Rather than have the GM act on the spot and have to decide if each party action requires a consequence, it slowly escalates, so it’s much less stressful to GM. Fewer discussions about exactly how the Berlin police would respond to a murder ... it’s clearly going to increase heat.
  • Having heat vary by geo makes the game feel realistic. Players at my NBA game would regularly say things like “we can’t just actually go back to Prague, we have huge heat there. Let’s try our contact in the south of France first”. It drove story in ways I had not expected and felt very in-genre.
  • It enhances player agency. The players decide what to do, how much heat to bring on in return for a desired outcome. In my game, plays4d regularly discussed options, most memorably whether to go after and try and stop an out-of-control express train, or let it crash — stopping it would be tricky and could get them seriously injured, but the resulting crash would make international news and increase the heat level across most of Europe ....
  • It’s dirt simple to implement. My default was simply to add to the difficultly of most rolls based on the heat.
My players ended up with a +5 penalty due to heat in Romania, where the finale was situated. Since rolls in Gumshoe are d6’s this meant that even completely trivial tasks, like checking into a hotel, required spending resources and planning to go smoothly. It worked as a fun way to “up level“ basic opposition and absolutely made people feel hunted.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Just a quick note on the Heat mechanic. This is essentially a value that can be assigned to a specific area that measures how much the PCs have come to the notice of the authorities. The more heat you have, the harder a lot of actions become, especially those involving avoiding notice. It’s an easy mechanic to incorporate into any system — in a PbtA system you might use clocks to represent heat, for example. Reasons why you might want to use this or a similar mechanic:
This seems like a good idea and even if you play out when the authorities take notice it can represent how hard the authorities are looking for you. You could have a heat DC you must avoid when doing something where you could be noticed. Maybe you are outright noticed only on a critical failure in some cases.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I enforce the laws when it makes sense in world, which is pretty much in civilized areas but always depends on the particulars.

But for instance in the last campaign we completed the player of the rogue always asked when meeting a new race "are they considered 'near-men'", basically are they considered people by the law? For orcs (which were more like Uruk Hai and bubbled up from the evil deep within the earth) the answer was no. For many others, the answer way yes. And he never killed anyone who was a near-man except in self defense - regardless if he would have been caught. Because you don't kill near-men.

If the characters ended up having an urban adventure where they left a trail of bodies, unless they or someone else hid the crimes you can bet there would be an investigation.
 

Shroompunk Warlord

Archdruid of the Warp Zones
Generally speaking, I don't "enforce the law" when it comes to PC behavior-- this isn't because I'm lazy, though I certainly am, but because my worldbuilding is based on NPCs behaving rationally unless otherwise specified.

Law enforcement is inherently a form of violence, and PCs inherently, practically by definition, have a greater capacity for violence than lawful authorities. If the local militia could take down the PCs without losing half the town, they could have taken out the nest of trolls themselves instead of hiring the PCs to do it. And if the king sends his armies against a force that can tear his armies apart, he knows he'll have new enemies and no new armies.

The law is no longer a concern for heroes, but reputation is everything. Heroes who help the common folk and seek justice are beloved by the populace and just rulers. Heroes who prey on the weak may not be subject to the king's justice... but they can expect no accolades, no gratitude. Heroes may not be under the law, anymore, but they are also outside of it-- noble or corrupt, they don't enjoy the law's protection, and must rely on the value of their word and the honor of their name to move in society.
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
The fact that Waterdeep has competent (and powerful) law enforcement put a crimp in my group's style during Dragon Heist. Usually we operate in a frontier / Wild West -ish environment ('do unto others as you would have them do unto you' is the highest legal principle), or we are troubleshooters taking down villain groups.
 

Tantavalist

Villager
Law enforcement is inherently a form of violence, and PCs inherently, practically by definition, have a greater capacity for violence than lawful authorities. If the local militia could take down the PCs without losing half the town, they could have taken out the nest of trolls themselves instead of hiring the PCs to do it. And if the king sends his armies against a force that can tear his armies apart, he knows he'll have new enemies and no new armies.

That's actually a very valid concern in D&D and similar RPGs. A lot of GMs fall into the trap of assuming that "Of Course" there will be some powerful NPC in the same leagues as the PCs that will suddenly appear out of the woodwork to slap them down for upsetting the Status Quo but as you point out- not always.

It does depend on how powerful the PCs are versus how much trouble they've caused. A party of 5th-level PCs can, as you say, get away with nearly anything in small rural settlements. Probably not so much in a major city where there is likely some higher-level NPC to object to their actions. By 20th level they ought to be treated as nuclear superpowers by the various rulers of the setting.

This does assume the game is D&D or something inspired by it (Pathfinder/retroclones etc). A lot of other RPGs and settings won't have players accumulate that much power. Traveller PCs will never get to ignore the Imperium, for instance. But it's a factor that many GMs overlook.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
I run an AD&D1e city police campaign. That deals with enforcing the law, and sometime involves very odd crimes. Powerful NPCs sometimes create problems: there was a witness who asked the police to legally compel him to provide information, because he was afraid of reprisals from a wizard, and thought he'd have a better chance of avoiding them if he'd been compelled.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
That's actually a very valid concern in D&D and similar RPGs. A lot of GMs fall into the trap of assuming that "Of Course" there will be some powerful NPC in the same leagues as the PCs that will suddenly appear out of the woodwork to slap them down for upsetting the Status Quo but as you point out- not always.

It does depend on how powerful the PCs are versus how much trouble they've caused. A party of 5th-level PCs can, as you say, get away with nearly anything in small rural settlements. Probably not so much in a major city where there is likely some higher-level NPC to object to their actions. By 20th level they ought to be treated as nuclear superpowers by the various rulers of the setting.

This does assume the game is D&D or something inspired by it (Pathfinder/retroclones etc). A lot of other RPGs and settings won't have players accumulate that much power. Traveller PCs will never get to ignore the Imperium, for instance. But it's a factor that many GMs overlook.

It also assumes crimes by powerful PCs are dealt with my low level mortals. However I think that once a PC gets powerful enough to be beyond normal control firstly they also dont need to be doing normal crimes but also DnD worlds have access to more than just low level commoners.

In one of my homebrews the worlds banking is controlled by the Elder dragon Bishnagar, who has his lair in a deep cavern under the city of Bishnagar, which is the worlds largest trade center.
The Acolytes of Bishnagar accept treasure and coin and add it to the Dragons hoard, he exchanges the items for enchanted notes of exchance called DragonMarcs. In order to steal from the bank, a theif must be willing to infiltrate the dragons hoard

Equally while its true that murderous PCs wont be stopped by town guards, the world has Paladin orders who can call in Celestial Avengers to seek justice.

D&D level mechanic means that as PCs advance they become Superheroes but that also means that the World needs to have a response that can deal with them if required
 

Tantavalist

Villager
D&D level mechanic means that as PCs advance they become Superheroes but that also means that the World needs to have a response that can deal with them if required.

This is the problem I have with established D&D worlds.

Why do they need to have such things? The only reason they have to exist is so that PCs can achieve godlike levels of power but at the same time not be able to upset the Status Quo and significantly change the world. And I suggest that this is very bad world design- either don't allow your PCs to become that powerful, or accept that they will eventually start re-drawing the map of the campaign world.
 

Emerikol

Adventurer
Generally speaking, I don't "enforce the law" when it comes to PC behavior-- this isn't because I'm lazy, though I certainly am, but because my worldbuilding is based on NPCs behaving rationally unless otherwise specified.

Law enforcement is inherently a form of violence, and PCs inherently, practically by definition, have a greater capacity for violence than lawful authorities. If the local militia could take down the PCs without losing half the town, they could have taken out the nest of trolls themselves instead of hiring the PCs to do it. And if the king sends his armies against a force that can tear his armies apart, he knows he'll have new enemies and no new armies.

The law is no longer a concern for heroes, but reputation is everything. Heroes who help the common folk and seek justice are beloved by the populace and just rulers. Heroes who prey on the weak may not be subject to the king's justice... but they can expect no accolades, no gratitude. Heroes may not be under the law, anymore, but they are also outside of it-- noble or corrupt, they don't enjoy the law's protection, and must rely on the value of their word and the honor of their name to move in society.
Wow. My PCs have never gotten that high level. In my world there are adventuring bands all over the place and if a King felt threatened he'd call in his archmage advisor and ask him to send a force to kill these upstarts. And if the PCs don't clear out a nest of trolls any number of other groups passing through town will do the job. Humanity is surviving. This "everyone is 0 level" nonsense (and yes I'm looking at you Gygax on this one) doesn't really work and no world I've ever seen developed would ever develop that way with such an assumption.

So sure if the group is high level, then the local village elders are not going to be able to handle them. If they act with impunity though, eventually someone will come for them.
 

meltdownpass

Explorer
The premise that mid-high level adventurers are incapable of being threatened by conventional challenges is definitely at-odds with the type of game & fiction I'd like to run. That might be true if the totality of the game world comes down to numbers on a sheet, or if you run a campaign for literal demigods, but for other styles of game I feel like that really does a disservice to roleplaying and the integrity of the game world. Even Batman takes off his suit, can be caught unawares, and is otherwise vulnerable.
 

I know the 3.5 DMG said to assume that the king or local lord had some champion or mage on retainer that could deal with uppity/misbehaving PCs.

And if the PCs get too powerful for mere mortals, there's always the divine. Perhaps some lowly farmer calls out for the goddess of justice and law to avenge him. Now the PCs have inevitables, angels, and more after them. And there are plenty of tales of powerful individuals being cursed and losing their abilities, only to regain them after redeeming themselves. I'm not sure how well that would work in an RPG. Level loss I guess. But there's nothing stopping your PC from just switching sides and making a pact with the bad guys.
 

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
Well, I don't do the D&D thing, so, all the time!

A dozen town guard is a substantial threat. PCs tend to tread lightly in places where the law is enforced.
 

DrunkonDuty

Adventurer
Well, I don't do the D&D thing, so, all the time!

A dozen town guard is a substantial threat. PCs tend to tread lightly in places where the law is enforced.

Good point. The concern of "PC's as high level demigods" is not a universal constant of RPGs. I too prefer a game where this sort of thing isn't baked into the system. It allows for certain types of games that DnD et.al. does not.

But Tantavalist brings up a good point. Either have high level NPCs who can smack down "uppity" PCs (which I feel is a bad design choice and to be avoided if possible) or just let them have the power and influence that a demigod should.
 

pemerton

Legend
Traveller PCs will never get to ignore the Imperium
I GM Traveller for a group that would dissent from that assertion!

Their ship took a hit from an imperial vessel fleeing interdiction on the world of Ashar, and they took shelter in a secret Psionics Institute outpost on a nearby moon.

Subsequently to that they took possession of an abandoned alien space ship in disregard of the direction being issued to them by an approaching Imperial cutter.

They then suborned an Imperial official who joined them - somehwat unwittingly - in the exavation of an ancient pisioncially-attuned site on a frontier world, and are now tin the process of hiding from an Imperial patrol cruiser that is looking for them.

A lot of GMs fall into the trap of assuming that "Of Course" there will be some powerful NPC in the same leagues as the PCs that will suddenly appear out of the woodwork to slap them down for upsetting the Status Quo but as you point out- not always.
It seems to me that the point of playing PCs in a RPG is to upset the status quo, but in any event I don't think there is any issue having peers of the PCs in a D&D-type game. It's just that when the PCs become archmages or demigods and the like, the NPCs in question are not mortal.

This is how D&D 4e works, for instance, and it produces pretty good play in my experience.
 

Tantavalist

Villager
I GM Traveller for a group that would dissent from that assertion!
OK, so perhaps it was badly worded.

Traveller was used as the example because PCs don't tend to become superhuman with experience. As in real life, they can absolutely evade the law. It's just that they have to use a combination of quick wits and good luck to do so. At no point do Traveller PCs become powerful enough that they can turn around and tell the Imperial Navy where to stick it.

As in real life- maybe they can take down a lone patrol ship just as criminals can kill off a single car's worth of police. But that results in escalation that the criminals can't match forever.

In D&D or Pathfinder? If law enforcement can take down a high level party then why the hell didn't they also take down every single threat that the PCs have dealt with throughout their adventuring career up until this point? There is no answer that doesn't just boil down to "Because this is how we want things to work, so that's how it does work."

It's like in superhero settings where somehow anything that would change things from the real world are plot-hammered away. Why isn't the reaction of someone as powerful as Superman to being given demands by a government to reply with, "Or What?"

That should in fact be something that all settings worry about. At any point the GM should have an answer to what happens if the PCs are told to obey the law and they respond with "Or What?" And more important, this answer should be consistent. It should also apply to NPCs. Why didn't the GM's answer to "Or What?" also apply to the bandit gangs, roaming monsters or evil wizards that the PCs have fought?

I tend to play games where PCs are larger than life but not superhuman. Hence my original post in this thread. In those games, the PCs would inflict a lot of damage before they went down but could probably be handled by the authorities eventually. But said authorities also tend to consider just how badly they want to take the PCs down before doing so. In many pre-industrial settings the local lord is likely to start cltivating the PCs as an ally if he doesn't crush them as a potential threat.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
The law is no longer a concern for heroes, but reputation is everything. Heroes who help the common folk and seek justice are beloved by the populace and just rulers. Heroes who prey on the weak may not be subject to the king's justice... but they can expect no accolades, no gratitude. Heroes may not be under the law, anymore, but they are also outside of it-- noble or corrupt, they don't enjoy the law's protection, and must rely on the value of their word and the honor of their name to move in society.
In the high-level D&D I've run and played, which is not so much Old School Revival as Old School Never Went Away, characters have usually acquired some sense by the time they get very powerful. They don't go around wantonly killing or robbing; they tend more towards building and ruling the countries, temples or colleges they've founded. Some find crime irresistible after a while, but if their crimes become large-scale, other PCs tend to step in.
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
Doing the "not fantasy" answer that I do so often to these types of questions.

We mostly play superheroes, and we tend to play goody two shoes supers in general. So really the only laws that get broken are the ones that are part of the genre - vigilantism and such - which really do not have repercussions.

If a hero does something extreme (like kill a villain) they get arrested, prosecuted and sentanced (if guilty).


When we play fantasy - if the characters are in town/city and break laws they get the appropriate reactions (thieves stealing stuff, any murder or major assault). The stuff that goes on in the wilderness, ruins or at war are not generally looked at like that. In fact when I GM D&D ish stuff, I tell everyone that I only allow Good aligned character (as per 3.x/pathfinder) not even nuetral. And as we mostly play supers, that kind of attitude tends to go with us into fantasy.
 

meltdownpass

Explorer
In D&D or Pathfinder? If law enforcement can take down a high level party then why the hell didn't they also take down every single threat that the PCs have dealt with throughout their adventuring career up until this point? There is no answer that doesn't just boil down to "Because this is how we want things to work, so that's how it does work."

It's like in superhero settings where somehow anything that would change things from the real world are plot-hammered away. Why isn't the reaction of someone as powerful as Superman to being given demands by a government to reply with, "Or What?"

That should in fact be something that all settings worry about. At any point the GM should have an answer to what happens if the PCs are told to obey the law and they respond with "Or What?" And more important, this answer should be consistent. It should also apply to NPCs. Why didn't the GM's answer to "Or What?" also apply to the bandit gangs, roaming monsters or evil wizards that the PCs have fought?

I tend to play games where PCs are larger than life but not superhuman. Hence my original post in this thread. In those games, the PCs would inflict a lot of damage before they went down but could probably be handled by the authorities eventually. But said authorities also tend to consider just how badly they want to take the PCs down before doing so. In many pre-industrial settings the local lord is likely to start cltivating the PCs as an ally if he doesn't crush them as a potential threat.
Do PCs in your game world ever sleep?
Do they put down the vorpal longsword +3 to eat meals?
Do they have hobbies or interests or obligations other than whatever specific issue is at hand?

While there is a lot to be said about the social contract & expectations of players, your particular objections seem to be driven by extrapolating a powergaming playstyle of D&D should be applied to fictional settings of D&D. This is a fairly fundamental question: What comes first, the rules or the fiction?

I don't really find a rules-over-fiction gaming style to be particularly compelling or even well-evidenced. Every D&D rulebook, setting, novel published over the history of the game features quite a lot that contradicts the view that rules should take priority over fiction. In fact, this is itself a social contract issue that should be hammered out prior to a game. A game "set" in an established world like Eberron, Forgotten Realms, etc. has certain elements to it that players can and should expect to be present. Local & national powers in these worlds must have some means of keeping control over their territory over years, decades, centuries. If players can easily upend the existing order this is almost breaking the social contract of the game since, regardless of what the specific numbers & rules may say, this isn't something that is in accordance with the common expectation of the setting.
 

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