Monday, 30 April 2018

Crime and punishment in freeforms

Policemen, detectives, and investigators are arguably are the least fun characters to play in a freeform - particularly a weekend long game. While the bad guys are generally getting up to mischief, the good guys have to follow due process. And while the good guys will probably win (because the bad guys know they are the bad guys and are destined to lose), it’s actually not much fun for the good guys.

The problem is that some crimes are unsolvable unless you happen to get just the right clue, or talk to just the right person. And in a 70 player weekend freeform, it’s highly likely you won’t manage that.

Crimes in Edo City

Here are examples from Shogun, where I played the mostly-honest moneylender Kinyu.

Before the start of the game, my offices had been burnt down. I never found out why, and I never found out who did it. (At least, not during the game.) I reported it to the authorities, but nothing happened.

Similarly, my brother's corpse went missing just before the game. Nobody seemed to know much about it, and again, I didn't conclusively find out what happened.

In both cases it seemed to be virtually impossible to find out what had happened, and who had done it - and that seems a shame because finding out would have added to my game as I would have confronted the guilty parties and who knows where that would have led.

In a third instance at Shogun, I was questioned by the authorities and I didn’t want to tell them what I knew. As a result the trail went dead (for them, at least). I was questioned again when I think the GMs had given the police detective a “detect lies” skill, but unfortunately they failed their skill roll. I would like to think that my game would have become more interesting had my mendacity been found out, but I didn’t know that: my worry was that it would become a lot worse...

Investigation Skill

In 2013 I posted some investigation rules on the uk-freeforms wiki. I don’t think they’ve been tried out yet. The original rules were aimed at solving the problem of pickpockets - the problem being that it is really annoying to spend quite some time getting an important item, only to have it stolen putting you back at square one. So I developed a system where in-game crimes could be solved (requiring a small bit of admin on the part of the GMs).

My thinking has evolved a little since then, but the fundamental idea remains: give some characters an Investigation skill.
Detectives, amateur sleuths, private eyes and reporters might have this as a skill.

Investigation slips look like this:
This goes in the GM Research Request box and is dealt with by a GM who finds the investigator and goes through the crime with them.

Some rules on how this works:

  • GM has absolute authority on the amount of information provided.
  • The investigation skill may be used both for events set up pre-game, and for those taking place during the game.
  • Resolution mechanics will depend on the system being used. But the results are likely to be:
  • A clue or hint.
  • The identity of the perpetrator.
  • The identity of the perpetrator and evidence. (Evidence would be an item card that the GM would complete that the investigator could take to whatever court system is used.)
  • On Friday evening only clues will be given out (no “solutions”).
  • The older the crime, the less likely that evidence will be available (and may require a higher skill roll, or whatever is being used).
  • Pickpockets may only be investigated within the same game period. (See below for more on pickpocketing.)

GM’s have authority on what clues they give out, to avoid players abusing this to shortcut the big crimes. So for example, if I used this in one of our murder mystery games, you couldn’t use it to shortcut the main murder investigation.

Arrest and justice

Note that this keeps the investigation separate from any arrests or justice system. The idea is not necessarily to punish the wrongdoer, but to create more plot for the players by exposing secrets and shining light on dark deeds. Even if the culprit is known, the investigation doesn’t necessarily result in hard evidence that you can take to a judge.

Even if it does lead to a formal conviction, the punishments need to fit the crime. Some suggestions:

  • A warning.
  • A small fine.
  • Community service (however that might work).
  • Repaying the victim.
  • A large fine.
  • A short time in jail.
  • A long time in jail (very rare).
  • Execution (exceedingly rare).
All punishments should, if possible, improve a player's game rather than detract from it.

Jail: Jail takes players out of the game and is arguably punishing the player for the character’s actions. One way to make time in jail more palatable is for there to be benefits such as:

  • Increasing your crime skills.
  • A new ability taught by a fellow inmate such as learning to pick locks or open safes.
  • A favour owed by a member of the underworld.
  • Knowledge leading to a new plot: “Before he was executed, your cellmate told you that Yellowbeard’s treasure is hidden in an old silver mine north of Tombstone.

Pickpocket skill

Many people don’t like the pickpocket skill. On one hand it’s a useful mechanic for replicating a real-life skill (one that is thankfully rare); on the other hand it can be particularly demoralising to have spent all game trying to get hold of something only to have it stolen by someone unknown. (I’ve written more about this here.)

But with a bit of thought, the main downside of pickpocketing is that it has no repercussions for the thief - and no way for the victim to find out who has pickpocket them.

First, pickpocket needs to be changed to be a one-use ability:
The Investigation skill above can then be used to solve pickpocketing crimes like any other. And the only record keeping the GMs need to do is to write on the pickpocket form what was actually stolen.

(In terms of punishment, I recommend returning the stolen goods combined with either a warning or a fine.)

Investigation in freeforms

So that’s my thoughts on investigation in freeforms. They might work, they might not - but let’s try them and see if they work.

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