Do your PCs know what they are doing? Not the players (they have no idea half the time) but the characters that those players operate – are they competent? Do they have expertise – in anything?
Because there’s a type of adventure intro that seems, in hindsight, to be horribly under-used: the expert witness. Why? Because, first and foremost, it involves thinking about laws and legal systems – and most GMs don’t. Second, it only seems to involve the one PC. Third, because the GM himself isn’t an expert in the field, and doesn’t want to expose his limitations. And fourth, because it doesn’t look like being all that much fun to play – courtrooms being such dry and dusty places (in a metaphoric sense). And, more than any other genre, Fantasy is the worst offender.
None of these reasons stacks up very well to a little reflection. Today’s article will bust them all (assuming all goes according to plan). And then I’ll look at the practicalities of implementing this type of plot thread and some of the many ways it can manifest. By the time we’re done, it should be a permanent part of every GM’s toolkit.
Let’s start by poking holes in those four objections.
In most campaigns, there’s a sense that anything goes and that the only things that are outright illegal are the things that the GM can build plots upon. If someone steals, that’s obviously illegal. If you kill someone, the law will be looking for you. If you humiliate or poke fun at the nobility, they take a dim view of it. But you can kill monsters (sentient or otherwise) with gay abandon. You can loot bodies as you see fit. Pillaging dungeons is all in a day’s play.
There’s a sense that writing laws is a dry and boring process and results in a dry and boring game element. but Laws affect everyone, and not every law needs to be spelled out in long-winded legalese. Instead, let’s turn the problem on it’s head: Everything the PCs do should be scrutinized by the GM for possible legal complications. No law should ever enter the “books” in anything other than general summary form, and only when the GM sees a future plotline resulting from it. Players should only need to know what the law is when it becomes relevant, i.e. they are about to break it, see someone else break it, or someone is constrained because of it.
What players (and characters) do need to know is the sort of basic overview that an international tourist might be informed of before entering a foreign country. “These things are forbidden. These things that are usually forbidden are legal under some circumstances. The law is policed by [organization]. If you are accused, here’s an outline of how the legal process works, its flaws, and where it breaks down.”
In most fantasy campaigns, this is never stated explicitly. Absolute Monarchies (where whatever the local Nobility and his superiors says is legal, goes, and anything he forbids is not) abound – but there is also a tendency to implement a lot of very modern legal machinery without thinking too much about it. Talking about your rights for example, especially those preventing self-incrimination, freedom of speech, and representation.
Historically, it was the scale of injury that determined who made judgment on a case. If it injured the locals or the neighbors, they had something in most medieval villages that closely resembles modern jury trials – the accused represented themselves, the head of the village acted as judge, and his primary job was to select a number of respectable locals to serve as the jury. The judge or a bailiff read the accusation, heard statements from witnesses, the accused was then given the chance to defend himself, challenge the evidence or testimony, or throw himself on the mercy of the court; the jury decided guilt or innocence and the judge then imposed sentence. Such courts were usually held on specific days once a week, fortnight, or month, and heard all the cases that had accumulated since the last. In some periods, Judges appointed by the monarchy worked a circuit from village to village to hear more serious cases.
If the rights, privileges, or property of a noble was infringed, justice was simpler and quicker. In most cases, people weren’t afforded any opportunity to defend themselves; the accusation was made to the noble concerned and he decreed a punishment on the spot if there wasn’t one already “on the books”. He didn’t even have to face the accused personally if he didn’t want to. Preventing abuse of the system – in theory – was the fact that each noble was answerable to another of higher rank, all the way up to the King. Justice was generally swift, few cases taking more than five or ten minutes to be heard – think “Judge Judy” with a jury box. Nobles of various rank would periodically send out wandering judges to hear serious cases (murder etc) and check on the way their social/peerage subordinates were conducting themselves.
Some nobles were repressive and firm; others were more lenient and forgiving; some took pride on making the punishment fit the crime, while others sought out ‘object lessons’. Those were their prerogatives. Unjust punishments could only be taken so far, however, before his superiors began to feel they were being damaged, their reputations, nobility, honor, or sanctity harmed by the punisher – thus rendering the excessively punitive subject to punishment.
In order to be seen to do the right thing, some nobles made a point of confronting those accused and considering mitigating circumstances. Others held open courts in which anyone, regardless of station, could address the noble and have his concerns considered. It was traditional in some places for all prisoners to be pardoned and released when a new king took the throne, or a new heir to the throne was born. In other locations, exceptions were made to this principle. These were not rights held by the accused, they were authority exercising it’s privilege.
This is the sort of thing that every character should know, absorbed simply by living in the society and seeing the way things worked. And none of it sounds particularly dull to me; on the contrary, it brings the society to life by detailing how that society relates to its constituent population – including the PCs.
Experts can be called upon in such courts to testify as to the plausibility of statements made by witnesses or the defendant, when necessary.
If such testimony affected only one PC, then that PC can hold the spotlight, true enough; but the brevity of cases and summary nature of judgments means that this would not be true for very long, and would not give that character an unjust share of the spotlight time. Larger cases, in which more spotlight time can accrue to the character, can be mitigated by preventing the testifying PC from hearing anything about the case except the part that he is to provide an expert opinion on, even though this wasn’t the way things were historically done. If that isn’t enough, consider giving each of the other PCs his or her own little “mini-plot”.
But every expert witness’ testimony will harm someone, and that someone – and his family, friends, and flunkies – have a vested interest in preventing harmful testimony from being heard. In modern life, expert witnesses are a dime a dozen and evidence is considered the primary consideration; the presumption is that getting rid of an expert won’t achieve anything because a replacement will look at the evidence and reach the same conclusion. Experts, in other words, are objective instruments of explanation and analysis. In a fantasy milieu, that will not be the case. Opinions of experts matters more than evidence, which is rarely collected and held. Being of good character means that you are more likely to be believed (and since juries are also men and women of good character, are likely to include several friends. If an expert is to present damning evidence and can’t be easily replaced, preventing that testimony becomes a viable (if illegal) tactic. Being asked to appear as an expert witness can put one’s life in danger, which furnishes a role for the other PCs within the scope of the unfolding drama.
A lot depends on the usage that the GM intends to make of the case. If it’s a side-plot intended to do nothing but be ‘something different’ for the PC to get involved in, it cam be kept short. If the purpose is to serve as a springboard to the main adventure, the same is true. If it is simply to give the PCs a chance to get to know who some of the local ‘characters’ are, let them be in the public galleries to hear the case. If the case is to be a full plot in it’s own right, then it becomes necessary to broaden the spotlight.
The GM has so many options and choices, and is able to tailor them to suit his intended plot purposes, that the ‘spotlight’ problem simply defines the parameters of his plot.
But I’m Not An Expert In…
You don’t have to be. A little advance prep goes a long way. I dealt with this problem (in a broader context) in an article some time ago, The Expert In Everything?.
But here’s another little trick to add to your repertoire: temporary sharing of PCs.
One of my regular players is an armchair expert on firearms, knowing more about them than anyone else at the table. One of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign, owned and operated by a different player, is an ex-cop. If a situation ever arose in which the latter was to appear as an expert on firearms as part of the adventure, I would grant temporary custody of the PC to the first player for the duration of the testimony, while letting that character’s usual owner handle everything else (as usual) and look after the first player’s usual character at the same time.
Each of your players, by experience and interests, is an ‘expert’ in something in which the others are not. Make that work for you.
The Fun Police
In most courtroom dramas, a couple of people do most of the talking – and they aren’t the PCs. That can be taken to mean that courtrooms don’t translate well to an RPG usage, and stated in that way, I would have to concur.
I once ran a courtroom drama in which one of the PCs of my superhero campaign was on trial for murder. To compensate for this dryness, I deliberately made the NPCs doing the talking larger than life – you had Perry Mason as a special prosecutor and a younger Denny Crane for the Defense. I made sure that Mason was brilliant and that Crane was brilliantly unorthodox in order to force Mason to use his every wit – in particular, stipulating to all the bits that would have been boring in play. And then I centered the whole procedure around the testimony of each of the PCs on the witness stand. In some cases, Mason won key points; in some cases, Crane shot important holes in the prosecution’s case. Ultimately, this was all about how superheros were going to fit into the law of the nation in which they were then based. Ultimately, what the PCs said on the witness stand in response to intelligent and probing questions, defined the role of the superhero in society; the specific verdict was always pre-determined by me, but the wider issue was entirely in play and could have gone in any direction. It wasn’t something I would do on a regular basis, but as a one-shot, it worked perfectly (even if I had laryngitis for three days afterwards as a result).
So courtrooms can work in an RPG – if you skip the boring bits and inject enough life and color, or project the case beyond the walls of the court.
The secret is to bone up in advance. Look at TV shows of the genre. Watch movies. Look for the things you can do to inject life and interest into the plot. There is a reason why the police procedural is a genre that surfaces in entertainment media again and again; done well, it makes for great viewing, and permits an examination of social issues that could be deadly dull any other way.
Some ‘Pro’s’ to go with the ‘Con’s’
Balanced against those problems are a whole slew of benefits.
You give a PC a chance to show off an expertise that he has been building and which you haven’t yet found an in-game reason to use. Lots of players will take some skills for ‘color’ – this gives an opportunity to put those color elements front-and-center for a change, instead of parking them off to one side.
It also provides relevance to those skills, by showing how they can matter, and integrates the PCs as being part of the world and community around them.
I touched on this when I mentioned social issues a moment ago. But beyond that, you are placing actions by an NPC into social context of what is permitted and what is not, bringing that culture to life.
The court provides a great way to introduce one or more PCs to people who will then become important to one or more later plots. The Judge, the accuser/prosecutor, the victim, the accused, and even the jury – even if the PC doesn’t get to know these people (which he will do to a greater or lesser extent according to their role in the courtroom process), they will get to know the PC – which can be enough for them to think of him or her when another problem arises.
A Different Flavor
As a subplot or plot or even just a means of connecting the PCs to a plot, it’s different and therefore much more interesting than ‘a stranger approaches your table at the inn’.
It’s a great way to show the players that their characters are becoming respected, and introducing the notion that there is a price to pay for that respect.
It can be a great way to introduce additional information about the adventure or campaign background by making it a bit more interactive than the GM simply reciting some narrative.
Because it’s not too far removed from what the players expect in the real world, and is a logical development within the game world, it makes that game world seem far more real and plausible to the players – even if you only roleplay the highlights.
It provides an opportunity to explain how a central element of the society around the PCs works. Equally importantly, it shows that you are putting thought and effort into how the society works.
Just The Beginning
And finally, the court appearance itself can be just the beginning of the adventure.
So, there are lots of good reasons to consider this particular type of event. With the causes for hesitation more-or-less exploded, that leaves an overwhelming list of good reasons to do it and hardly any for not doing it. That means that it’s time to turn our attention to making it practical. There are four essential stages to such a plot or subplot: Validating the PC’s expertise, The call to employ that expertise, the application of that expertise, and the wrap-up of the plotline/subplot.
To start with, you need for the NPCs to have a reason to consider the PC an expert (or something close enough to one for their purposes). Let’s say that the character has “fishing” as a skill, bought to a very high level (as justification for making sure that the character can always find food). You could have him come across a fishing contest with a nice prize (from his point of view – and if you don’t know how to make a fishing contest interesting, check out Ask The GMs: How to set up a fun fishing mini game, one of the reasons why I chose this as an example (the other being that this was both a skill that a character was likely to have, and one that wouldn’t see much ‘action’ in-game). Or maybe there was some drunken bragging in the bar (“I once caught a 14-pound trout, it was this long…”).
Next, you need some reason for this expertise to be needed in a court case. Having caught the attention of the “right” people (from the plot point of view), and established that the PC is an expert in the key subject in the eyes of those people, the logical thing for them to do is to approach the character. The reason for the expertise being needed is their motivation for calling on the PC. Maybe the accused claims that he was out fishing at the time a crime was committed and even caught a 10-pound salmon, but the accuser believes that he’s lying – and wants the PC to prove it on the witness stand as an expert.
The domino pieces then fall inevitably until the PC appears on the witness stand. It’s critical that their testimony not hinge on their success at a die roll; you want to make the quality and depth of information that they have available to them be a reflection of their skill, not their success at rolling dice. The LAST thing you want is for the so-called ‘expert’ to be asked a series of questions and have to make a series of die rolls in order to be able to answer them, especially if the knowledge is fairly fundamental. In other words, this is to be a Role-playing experience, not a roll-playing experience.
Unless the player in question happens to be an expert in the subject himself, you will therefore need to arm the player with a ‘fact sheet’ to represent things that the character knows.
Here’s how it might play out: “The accused claims that he was fishing at the time of the crime, and even caught a 10-pound salmon. Could you, as an expert witness, examine the fishing gear found in the accused’s home and tell us whether it supports his story?”
“Certainly.” (is given a list of the fishing gear prepared by the GM, compares it to the cheat-sheet). “I’m afraid it doesn’t look very likely. The strongest line here is jute-and-elderflower and has a best-possible breaking strain of four pounds; it’s the wrong season for salmon; and these hooks are all too small for a fish of that size.”
“That’s not my fishing gear! Someone’s pulling a fast one on me, I bin framed!”
“I lost the line and hook I was using.”
Either way, the expert witness has done his job; the entire nature of the case has changed as a result of his testimony and is now all about the credibility and character of the accused – if the jury believes that he is honest and that someone might have reason to substitute for the real fishing gear, knowing that it was important to the alibi of the accused, (option 1) or that he might have lost the fishing line etc that he was using and had only the one hook of the right size for salmon of that weight, they will let him go; if they don’t, then he will be found guilty.
I think it is always important to have an “afterwards” phase to any encounter of this type, to show consequences and tie up loose ends and bring the subplot to a close (or use the subplot to launch the main plot). That would normally consist of the verdict, the punishment, and maybe some conversation. Money might also change hands if the character is to be paid for giving his opinion in court.
Applied Expertise Plotlines
There are lots of plotlines in which a character can be called upon to render an expert opinion, i.e. to use the principles stated in a real-world game. Here are just some of them:
The PC is called upon to judge a contest relevant to the field of his expertise. It could be a fishing contest at the county fair, or submissions to an architectural contest, or an amateur poetry recital, or whatever.
Someone might want to obtain the ‘expert opinion’ of the PC – it doesn’t have to be in a court-room.
The PC might be challenged over his expertise by a rival. Or a Doubting Thomas. Or a braggart. Bets, anyone?
The PC might be considered superior to local experts because he is an outsider without a vested interest or axe to grind. This is sure to put the noses of those locals who do have a vested interest, or an axe to grind, out of joint.
The PC might simply be passing by and taking an interest in some event when he spots someone cheating. What does he do? Or maybe it’s architecture, and he spots a room that is too small relative to the outside of the building – a secret room that even the building owners might not know about.
The PC’s testimony exonerates the person accused of a crime that touches the PC in some way, encouraging him to solve the mystery of who the real criminal is.
The PC’s testimony is going to cause the accused to go free, but the PC is convinced that the accused is guilty. It’s up to him and his friends to prove it – before the damning testimony has to be delivered.
Or perhaps the crime is just the tip of a very much larger situation, the hook that involves the PCs in what will turn out to be the adventure.
Take that fishing example: The accused is found guilty because of the PC’s testimony, but as he is being led away, he cries “Amagoth! I have failed you – take me now, I sacrifice myself in your name,” and erupts into flames or turns into a puddle of liquid goo right in front of the PC. All of a sudden, there are more questions than answers, and the PC is already in the adventure up to his neck…
The Expert In His Place
I’m not suggesting that this plot template be used all the time. But, as characters advance in levels and skills relative to those around them, it should definitely occur occasionally – and a lot more often than it usually does. Well, at least in my opinion – and hopefully, I’ve both convinced you and given you the tools to add “Consequential Expertise” (i.e. the consequences of having a particular expertise) to your repertoire.
I Hope this article is coherent, I’m suffering heavily from a head cold and having trouble concentrating.