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How often do you enforce laws in your games?

pemerton

Legend
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

<snip>

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.
In typical RPGing, there are two main ways to work out what happens next. One is for the GM to just tell the table. The other is for the players to declare actions for their PCs, and for those actions to be resolved using the game rules.

I understand @Tantavalist to be assuming that the second method would be used, and - in my view correctly - observing that if it is, then in standard D&D there is no prospect of high-level and maybe even mid-level PCs being defeated by ordinary people, assuming those people are statted up in a way that is commensurate with their established place in the fiction (which includes needing the PCs to help them with their problems).

I can easily imagine a D&D game where the players agree to play their PCs like Superman - ie they agree not to use their powers to disregard or even overthrow the existing social order.

But if the players try to have their PCs do that sort of thing - and it's a fairly obvious fantasy fiction trope (REH's Conan does it by conquering Aquilonia, kidnapping the ruler of Vendhya, etc) - then when we move to the resolution of those declared actions I think Tantavalist is right. I don't see how an abstract notion of fiction before rules is going to do any work. Unless you're proposing that the GM should just ignore those action declarations or declare by fiat that they fail.
 

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Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
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.

Yeah essentially this, which is why I advocate for PCs being part of significant organisations which by level 10 they should be leading in a way that directly influences the nation and the world - essentially PCs don’t break the law because they are the Authority that enforces the Law
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
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.
Why shouldn’t there be NPCs who are on par with the PCs? I find it quite interesting to have people that the PCs need to either be careful around, create alliances with, or plan for a confrontation with.

I don’t have players that tend to go murder-hobo, though, so maybe I’m missing something?
 


doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
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."
Sure there is. The fact that the entire towns guard can take down the PCs, or at least threaten them enough to get them to stand down, doesn’t mean they could take on an ancient dragon, or the Giant King, or The Becoming God, or whatever. The fact that the captain of the towns guard has a +2 sword and adamantine armor and a couple feats doesn’t mean they can take on Orcus.

In 5e particularly, 20-30 NPCs that are individually not a threat to any PC of a given level, can still ambush and seriously threaten a group of PCs. Those same NPCs can’t survive being in a dragon’s lair while it’s very angry.
 

I played in a homebrew setting once where the use of most magic in warfare was outlawed because of how destructive it would be. This ban was enforced by all the other wizards and the academies that taught magic.
 

meltdownpass

Explorer
In typical RPGing, there are two main ways to work out what happens next. One is for the GM to just tell the table. The other is for the players to declare actions for their PCs, and for those actions to be resolved using the game rules.

I understand @Tantavalist to be assuming that the second method would be used, and - in my view correctly - observing that if it is, then in standard D&D there is no prospect of high-level and maybe even mid-level PCs being defeated by ordinary people, assuming those people are statted up in a way that is commensurate with their established place in the fiction (which includes needing the PCs to help them with their problems).

I can easily imagine a D&D game where the players agree to play their PCs like Superman - ie they agree not to use their powers to disregard or even overthrow the existing social order.

But if the players try to have their PCs do that sort of thing - and it's a fairly obvious fantasy fiction trope (REH's Conan does it by conquering Aquilonia, kidnapping the ruler of Vendhya, etc) - then when we move to the resolution of those declared actions I think Tantavalist is right. I don't see how an abstract notion of fiction before rules is going to do any work. Unless you're proposing that the GM should just ignore those action declarations or declare by fiat that they fail.

One of the points I was trying to convey, but I'll try to make more explicit here: The rules of RPG games are rarely (probably can-never-be) comprehensive. The vast majority of actions that occur in an RPG game aren't explicitly defined in a rulebook somewhere, but are adjudicated by the social contract of players based on the shared understanding of the game world.

D&D game rules largely revolve around "combat," and not just "combat" broadly, but a narrow style & resolution of combat.
Oftentimes there are specific rules for other styles & resolutions of combat. For example, grappling often has different rules than "normal" combat. Occasionally you see specific rules for 1-on-1 duels, mounted combat, large-scale battles, naval engagements, etc. These styles & resolution tend to be handled very poorly by the rules that D&D is typically designed for.

The argument being made is that because the D&D combat system works a certain way, that this should therefore dictate the rules of how narrative works in other respects.

To bring this around to your example, Conan might be represented in a D&D rules system by a mid-to-high level Barbarian. If he wins gambling one night and is awakened by a grudge-holding guard with a dagger at his throat, he can disregard it per the metagame knowledge that low level guards are never going to pose a significant threat to him.

Discussions about HP and description of wounds are an almost archetypal example of divergence between rules and narrative. In D&D you might describe someone as getting their "throat cut by a dagger." Yikes! That's a vicious attack. But, barring specific types of class & level dependent abilities this would deal insignificant amount of HP damage to a sufficiently leveled character.

Should we extrapolate from the mechanics that this isn't a dangerous injury? In most groups, I hope, the consistency of the narrative outweighs the poor, low-resolution mechanics. D&D's HP system isn't designed to represent getting your throat cut. Just because the game system has poor rules for this doesn't mean we must throw out our intuitive understanding of what getting your throat cut means.

There are countless other examples to illustrate the same point. Mechanics of games are an imperfect tool, and should only be used to drive the types of stories that you & your players want to tell. For myself, I have no problem creating "Level 15" Guards if this is what it takes to create a compelling conflict in a game and a consistent narrative, even if this might seem absurd from a specific metagame / mechanics perspective.
The big picture is asking: What poses a more substantial issue for my game? Assigning "too-high" numerical values & mechanics for NPCs, or assuming that we can only tell narratives that align with the implicit logic of the rules system?






I understand @Tantavalist to be assuming that the second method would be used, and - in my view correctly - observing that if it is, then in standard D&D there is no prospect of high-level and maybe even mid-level PCs being defeated by ordinary people, assuming those people are statted up in a way that is commensurate with their established place in the fiction (which includes needing the PCs to help them with their problems).

Even though I feel this is a non-sequitur to my broader point I wanted specifically to respond to this since I think this is the crux of the argument being put forth, but it's actually quite clearly untrue on multiple levels.
In the real world people hire others to do work that they could do themselves all the time. I am certain that I am technically capable of fixing a roof, for example, and I am certain I would do a better job of it than most contractors. However, my risk tolerance for climbing up onto high places is much lower.
There are a lot of reasons that a local authority might hire a group of 'adventurers' to do a particular task that have nothing to do with them mechanically having the highest +bonuses. While undoubtedly most D&D style games want to create a feeling of heroism and special import to player characters the conceit of being literally the best <InsertClass> in the game world is unnecessary and, when driven by low-resolution rules systems, reductive.

Simultaneously the argument is that higher-level PCs can't be threatened by fiction-appropriately statted-NPCs. At least in the editions of D&D I'm familiar with, that's not true at all. In fact, due to how Action Economy & d20+Criticals work, it can be quite dangerous to run into a large number of relatively weak opponents. Particularly if you (as GM) were to play such characters intelligently, using tactics that are used to bring in dangerous outlaws, as well as systems like the aforementioned Heat to represent ways in which running afoul of the law makes life more difficult.
 
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Sithlord

Adventurer
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
Not something I want in my typical d&d game. But I love this for a planescape or high magic setting like eberon. Nice.
 

pemerton

Legend
D&D game rules largely revolve around "combat," and not just "combat" broadly, but a narrow style & resolution of combat.
Oftentimes there are specific rules for other styles & resolutions of combat. For example, grappling often has different rules than "normal" combat. Occasionally you see specific rules for 1-on-1 duels, mounted combat, large-scale battles, naval engagements, etc. These styles & resolution tend to be handled very poorly by the rules that D&D is typically designed for.

The argument being made is that because the D&D combat system works a certain way, that this should therefore dictate the rules of how narrative works in other respects.

To bring this around to your example, Conan might be represented in a D&D rules system by a mid-to-high level Barbarian. If he wins gambling one night and is awakened by a grudge-holding guard with a dagger at his throat, he can disregard it per the metagame knowledge that low level guards are never going to pose a significant threat to him.

Discussions about HP and description of wounds are an almost archetypal example of divergence between rules and narrative. In D&D you might describe someone as getting their "throat cut by a dagger." Yikes! That's a vicious attack. But, barring specific types of class & level dependent abilities this would deal insignificant amount of HP damage to a sufficiently leveled character.

Should we extrapolate from the mechanics that this isn't a dangerous injury?
Conan can't be killed by a guard with a dagger at his throat. He'll escape in some fashion! Even when he was crucified (in A Witch Shall Be Born) he didn't die.

More generally, if a D&D character hasn't suffered a debilitating condition, we can infer with confidence that his/her throat wasn't cut by a dagger.

Mechanics of games are an imperfect tool, and should only be used to drive the types of stories that you & your players want to tell. For myself, I have no problem creating "Level 15" Guards if this is what it takes to create a compelling conflict in a game and a consistent narrative, even if this might seem absurd from a specific metagame / mechanics perspective.
I prefer to play games with mechanics that deliver appropriate fiction. In the D&D family of games, my preferred version is 4e. Successfully putting a knife to a (NPC) victim's throat renders that NPC a minion (in mechanical terms). PCs in 4e aren't vulnerable in the same way because they have luck and divine favour on their sides.

If I don't want to play game in which PCs reach paragon tier and are not liable to being hurt by guards, I don't play D&D!

 

meltdownpass

Explorer
Conan can't be killed by a guard with a dagger at his throat. He'll escape in some fashion! Even when he was crucified (in A Witch Shall Be Born) he didn't die.

More generally, if a D&D character hasn't suffered a debilitating condition, we can infer with confidence that his/her throat wasn't cut by a dagger.

Sure, from a metanarrative perspective we know he won't be. But it's extremely common in fiction for heroes to be caught with their pants down and our narratives are better when characters in the narrative treat that as a possibility. Things like levels, HP, dice, and other mechanics don't actually exist, so if we're reasoning about them as a means of driving how our narrative world should operate, that seems like a problem.

I prefer to play games with mechanics that deliver appropriate fiction.

"Appropriate" is meaningless here. If you wanted to examine D&D's mechanics, then we could make a case that none of the official game settings for D&D are "appropriate" with the world implied by those mechanics. I recall many a good chuckle reading threads that really explored the implications of some D&D subsystems. Stuff like using crafting to create infinite-gold generating factories, or diplomacizing your way into world domination. It is very easy to use the logic of the game mechanics to achieve consequences that are inappropriate for the setting unless you have a social agreement that disallows this type of disruptive behavior.

I prefer to play games with mechanics that deliver appropriate fiction. In the D&D family of games, my preferred version is 4e. Successfully putting a knife to a (NPC) victim's throat renders that NPC a minion (in mechanical terms). PCs in 4e aren't vulnerable in the same way because they have luck and divine favour on their sides.

I do like your example. This is actually a great illustration of my point and how I'd prefer to play things. The D&D ruleset doesn't really cover what happens when you introduce a narrative scenario like attempting to slit a character's throat. Instead you've created a rule on how to cover this that supports the narrative you'd like to tell. This is exactly how we should be doing things.

When we talk about how much more powerful D&D characters "should" be than guards, what we're doing is extrapolating across two disparate areas of the rules system. One is the level system that D&D uses to gives player characters a sense of progression. The other is sociological data about the population of given settlements and their makeup. Should there be a <Challenge Appropriate> guard? The rules are actually silent on this issue. Should we extrapolate that there should only be such-and-such composition of the settlement ergo it's absurd to face a <Challenge Appropriate> guard?

Maybe, maybe not. We can apply similar logic elsewhere. Why not look towards ecological data about a given region and use that to determine the absurdity of dragon inhabiting areas without the biomass to actually support them? If we want to tell a story about a dragon terrorizing a small village, we probably don't care. And if a game is one where we want to tell the story of adventurers running afoul of the law, I see no reason why we should care either.

For anyone intent on seeing this as a major lapse of internal logic, rather than an inevitable and unavoidable consequence of imperfect rules, it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to bring mechanical expectations in line with narrative:
  • The locals know this area better than you, they gain +X bonus on checks on their favored terrain
  • The militia trains and uses organized tactics. They gain +X bonus to AC and attacks fighting as a unit
  • Characters suffer fatigue -X penalties per day spent in territory where they are wanted by the law
  • etc.
Most of this is the type of thing I would argue GMs should be doing all the time, but the overall mechanical yardstick of "level" tends to be leaned on far more heavily since it's simpler and easier to use.

If I don't want to play game in which PCs reach paragon tier and are not liable to being hurt by guards, I don't play D&D!

Generally I think most players enjoy progression mechanics in games, but I don't think this has much bearing on game narratives. Either way, you're pretty likely to find yourself in a D&D game for reasons that don't have to do with wanting to play out the ascend-to-godhood power fantasy.
 

DrunkonDuty

Adventurer
Why shouldn’t there be NPCs who are on par with the PCs? I find it quite interesting to have people that the PCs need to either be careful around, create alliances with, or plan for a confrontation with.

I don’t have players that tend to go murder-hobo, though, so maybe I’m missing something?

Sorry, I could have been clearer in my post.

Absolutely no reason why there shouldn't be NPCs on par with the PCs. I'm all for the sort of scenarios you outline. In fact they're my favourite. I feel we get the best drama out of closely balanced conflicts. And I like drama in my RPGs.

I was just responding to the implication that PCs* can present a narrative problem if they decide to flip the script. Not that that means it must be a problem, just that it can be. It all comes down to campaign, play styles, group expectations, etc. etc.

I haven't had to deal with murder-hobos in a long ass time. I think the last time I had someone (1 player out 5) who was that way inclined was more than a decade ago. I handled it by saying "Sorry, we're not playing that sort of game." But back in my youth I struggled with how to deal with it and did err on the side of bigger NPCs laying the smackdown. It was unsatisfying all round and I recommend not doing it.

* I was thinking specifically of high level PCs in DnD et.al. but honestly it can happen in any game where the PCs are expected to be the best of the best.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Sorry, I could have been clearer in my post.

Absolutely no reason why there shouldn't be NPCs on par with the PCs. I'm all for the sort of scenarios you outline. In fact they're my favourite. I feel we get the best drama out of closely balanced conflicts. And I like drama in my RPGs.

I was just responding to the implication that PCs* can present a narrative problem if they decide to flip the script. Not that that means it must be a problem, just that it can be. It all comes down to campaign, play styles, group expectations, etc. etc.

I haven't had to deal with murder-hobos in a long ass time. I think the last time I had someone (1 player out 5) who was that way inclined was more than a decade ago. I handled it by saying "Sorry, we're not playing that sort of game." But back in my youth I struggled with how to deal with it and did err on the side of bigger NPCs laying the smackdown. It was unsatisfying all round and I recommend not doing it.

* I was thinking specifically of high level PCs in DnD et.al. but honestly it can happen in any game where the PCs are expected to be the best of the best.
Okay, that makes sense.
 

Whenever the player actions and attendant consequences suggest that I should. Not enforcing consequences is lazy DMing. That said, the minutae of things like tolls and taxes need to be used sparingly. Like many other things they are annoying in great quantities. So murder, theft, and destruction of property are laws almost everywhere. Things like taxes and sumptuary laws are things I would introduce an evocative detail for a particular culture, at which point it gets enforced fully.
In a magical society, a zone of truth is an ideal method for tax checks. Enter the market, and you're asked if you paid your whole assessed tax. Get caught lying, get branded and barred from the market, after as much of what's owed is seized.
Otherwise, yeah, much the same.

In re the D&D levels of locals issue... 3.X has pretty explicit rules for what level NPCs can be expected by the size of the local population center.
I found it useful enough to use the a similar mechanic in my 5E homebrew.
 
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Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
I enforce laws when it matters for story or setting.

In a supers game, one PC had his super-gun confiscated after a battle because he didn’t have a permit. In England. In the early 1900s. (And I had reminded him of the setting during ChaGen.) He got it back...eventually. After he got a permit.

Same group, different GM, different player: NPC quasi-theocratic ruler warned party about prosetlizing in his domain. Player’s cleric PC started “spreading the good news” with vigor, and got exiled for his trouble.
 
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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.?
Depends on the setting entirely. Anywhere from barely-interacting to constant issue.

Historically legal systems tended to be enforced to incredibly varying degrees with wild levels of flexibility. Stuff which people take for granted often absolutely wasn't. For example, when the police were introduced in London, they were not greeted with open arms by any segment of society, not even the Establishment. People kept killing them (sometimes whilst they were trying to make arrests) and getting off with "justifiable homicide" (a total defense). Some societies had basically little-no temporally-bound enforcement mechanisms - they weren't built for dealing well with people "just passing through" who were heavily armed and armoured. Tax systems tend to strongly oriented towards land-usage or land-ownership, and to living in a specific place and having a specific profession. Booty/looting was often simply outside the scope of such systems. Where it wasn't, it tended to be still extremely hard to enforce and more like ensuring the ruler of the land got a big enough bit of loot that he wasn't inclined to look into it further. Laws themselves were often extremely flexible even when, on book, they were inflexible (you can see this basically wherever both a legal code and actual punishments are listed before the 1700s or so - often people will be getting penalties that are simply not what the law says). Except sometimes they aren't. The very notion of a "law-abiding citizen" is in many ways a pretty modern one.

So it's all about the specifics. And specific places may have very specific laws, too. Which they may well be reluctant to attempt to actually enforce on the sort of people who are adventurers, but there is usually a limit. Anyway, re: specifics, if for example, you look at the Code of Hammurabi, you see it has an awful lot of laws which are clearly aimed at specific societal ills, or forcing prices to stay in a certain range for goods and services, or ensuring that laziness and greed didn't cause their agricultural system to collapse (they even basically invent squatting because it's more useful to them, as a society, than having a house or land go empty/unused).

I mean, if you're playing CoC 1920s and in Chicago or something, laws will be a constant issue (as will organised crime and corrupt or just really violent police), but if you're playing D&D in a Dark Ages-ish setting, most of the laws societies will have aren't likely to interact with adventurers much, unless people are dumb enough to get in their way, and even those are generally likely to end up with "just pay a fine" (or the adventurers fleeing).
 

Grendel_Khan

Explorer
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:

I've been using a version of the Heat mechanic from Blades in the Dark in another system (that's not PbtA-related at all), and it's really amazing how it nudges the gameplay in a slightly more realistic direction. Just the existence of Heat points means the PCs are incentivized to cover their tracks, to avoid using guns where possible, and to generally be a little more cautious, but without being paralyzed. It also makes it feel less arbitrary when one situation generates more Heat than another, because they've been told that certain factors (like killing people) up that count.

It's hard for me to imagine not using Heat, in some form, in future games where law enforcement is a thing, and where the players aren't law enforcement themselves (the latter being less and less appealing as things go).
 

Always.

I don't welcome players who need power trips, and having to stay within the rule of law and social expectations add a layer of interest and depth to the setting.

Of course, it cuts both ways: in civilized areas, the NPC enemies are under the same constraints.
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
Mostly it is a plot/story point in my games as there are SO many types. I have city/town, country, religious and guild laws, which overall is just too much for the players, they just know the basics; don't murder (without reasons) and don't get in trouble and don't get caught.
 
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Tun Kai Poh

Adventurer
I run Blades in the Dark, so the Bluecoats and the legal system are a constant threat. We've even had a situation where the players ran back-to-back heists of the same prison which was pretty audacious.

The system uses Heat and Wanted Level to track how much the law is pursuing the PCs, and it's a good abstraction that makes consequences a thing that is always om the table. "Yes, you can have an extra die from the Devil's Bargain, but the consequence is that some bystanders witness the attack and your Heat goes up by 2. Does that sound like something you want to push?"

Keep in mind that there are supernatural authorities (the Spirit Wardens) who know when deaths occur in the city, making murder a much more risky proposition. The party's Hound finds it a safer task to engage in a sniper duel with a gunship during a high-speed chase at sea than fire at a living human (although she's still killed plenty).
 

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.?

It depends on the setting. But laws are pretty important in my campaigns. I like to know what the laws are, who enforcers them, etc. In my current campaign, officials can come up on random encounter rolls and when they do I generally assume it is to do things like check for passports, inspect goods, etc. I know what magistrates are responsible for adjudication of what types of crimes, what the penalty ranges are for crimes. I make rolls when crimes committed by players are investigated
 

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