It remains to be seen if the law won.
(It will be helpful to read my previous post, as part of the story is the law and courts as a plot device.)
While what happened to Garmos in the story is far too heavy-handed for the table, it does illustrate the potential for the characters to have run-ins with the law that don’t lose them all their gear. That’s something players tend to be very afraid of, sometimes with justification. I know I’ve been at tables where being captured was just as bad as being killed.
Here are The Evil GM’s guidelines for putting them in the pokey:
- Don’t be a douche. Simply put, you can’t create the crime, then punish them for it. Let the characters actually do something wrong before you punch them in the giblets. Springing an unknown law on them is one of the worst kinds of gotcha. Also, if the characters didn’t actually commit the crimes they are accused of, they should have a decent chance to avoid a conviction.
- Use the “Terry Stop.” If the PCs are getting rowdy or look like they might cause trouble, have the town guard stop by and remind them to play nice. Getting involved with the law should be about escalation – unless the characters do something really stupid.
- Let boys be boys. Most people don’t think about this, but towns in the American west were very much used to (and prepared for) cowboys acting the fool. You had single males flush with cash who had been out herding cattle for months. They pretty much defined drunk and disorderly. As long as they pay for what they break, there’s nothing wrong with letting the characters blow off a little steam.
- Civilized places have laws. That’s sort of what defines civilized. While frontier towns may exist in various states of anarchy, larger cities usually should have the benefit of laws. One of the rules people are generally pretty fond of is the right to keep their stuff. This means that, assuming the PCs are someplace that rules matter, those rules should protect them from all but the worst screwups.
- Scale the penalty with the level. Sometimes players will try to trivialize fines and fees by arguing the “real world” cost of restitution. Don’t let them. A “slap on the wrist” should amount to 5-10% of their income for the level. More serious offenses should range upwards of 50%. (This is a deliberate number, because it is the value of an at-level magic item. By setting the fine this high, you are taking away a magic item.)
- Not all punishments involve money. If you’ve ever read Starship Troopers, you know that the protagonist spends a lot of time worrying about being whipped, because the scars will mark him for life. Captain Jack of the Pirates of the Caribbean series has been branded. Obviously, these are both very extreme punishments and you should be careful about when and how you use them, but there are other options. A day or two in the stocks might be just the thing to make a lawbreaker think twice about continuing down that path.
- It’s not always a prison break. I swear, every time the concept of jail time comes up, the first place my players’ mind goes is to digging tunnels or knocking out guards. To be fair, that is the cliche.
- It’s okay to “box text”… within reason. It’s possible to have time pass very quickly, if it suits you and your players. I ran a game in college where the characters were sentenced to five years of hard labor as punishment for using fireball in a street fight (a bunch of civilians were killed). Roleplaying that experience took about 30 minutes and everyone had a good time.