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One of the current members of our group joined a little later than everyone else. His character's history wasn't developed too well, so I am running a one-off session so that the group can play out his history and get a better sense of the big picture.

I solicited a brief history from the player, and a major part of his story is a trial in which he was falsely convicted. I would like to run the trial as part of my one-off session.

How can I do this in a way that allows the players to actively participate and try to win even though they must lose to fit the story? Or should I just narrate the trial and not have them participate at all?

Note: Only one of the players will know that the outcome of the trial is predetermined, if that makes any difference.

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I would guess the trick is to get them invested in, and to focus on, secondary objectives. The equivalent of "we are going to be overrun, but if we do well we can buy the civilians enough time to escape." I'm not precisely sure how you'd accomplish that, though. –  AceCalhoon Aug 19 '11 at 14:46
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12 Answers 12

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Since he was wrongly convicted, you could use that to your advantage. Have the group argue the PC's innocence (in the flashback), and better yet, give them plenty of time to prepare the defense. Let them totally outshine the prosecutor. Then have the (corrupt?) "Judge" say something like, "well, we can't let him go because then it would encourage everyone to do [crime]. Therefore I find the defendant guilty and sentence him to [punishment]."

But you should also warn anyone likely to get angry at something like this that they may be spitting into the wind with the "defense".

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THIS! This is what I was going to write. Let them totally win, and then "lose" due to villany! They'll be gnashing their teeth at the tragic miscarriage of justice… and now you've got a huge plot hook. Who bought the judge? Who's the real villain? Where do the PCs have to go to pursue justice? –  SevenSidedDie Aug 19 '11 at 17:35
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+1 - This is absolutely the best way to go, especially as 7-sided describes it. You don't want to be falsely accused and convicted because of a lackluster defense--what a lousy background! If that's true, it shouldn't be played. No, it should be dramatic. If the players get too close to making it impossible to lose the defense, the judge should throw up procedural roadblocks--improper admission of evidence, prosecutor questioning the motives of witnesses, etc.; there can be personal relationships, police who don't like their integrity questioned, etc.. So many opportunities for resentment! –  Ichoran Aug 19 '11 at 17:52
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Yeah. You have to be fair as GM—but that doesn't mean the "justice" system has to be fair in the game. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 19 '11 at 18:52
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Yeah, I would go this way over the "understand you can't win" thing. That's more appropriate for flashbacks for an established character and is a necessary evil because the future is set to them, and it sacrifices player investment. –  mxyzplk Aug 19 '11 at 19:34
    
There was a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful... –  Jon of All Trades Jun 9 '12 at 14:43
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Put the players into story telling mode. A situation with a fixed outcome is not fun to game, but it can be fun to story tell.

I had a similar situation two sessions ago. We're fast forwarding through the levels because the game is coming to a close soon. The players had about a thousand miles of travel ahead of them. I figured we could skip that and I'd explain some of the challenges they faced along the road that caused them to gain four levels.

Instead, the wizard reminded me that he had a sigil for a linked portal at their destination. No travel time, no levels. Instead of taking their levels away or coming up with a contrived reason to stop the wizard from being cool, I told them the following:

Well, I didn't plan for that. I was expecting months of travel to justify the levels you gained. You can still teleport there, but you're responsible for explaining how you gained those levels.

They started by suggesting that their destination was under siege and they had to break free. We went around the table and each player suggested a level's worth of obstacles and then the other players explained how they beat those hazards. I complicated matters when they made it too easy. And I tried to steer them away from 'we fight off an ambush in the night' type obstacles.

Anyway, the whole thing went over pretty well. The limitation of 'you must end up at destination having experienced 4 levels worth of obstacles' was taken well because it was something they could tell a story around rather than a limitation on what dice they could roll. Unless your players are in it for bashing down doors and rolling dice, I don't see any reason why this couldn't work for your group too.

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First. Make sure everyone in your group understands that this is a no win situation. I feel like if they know they cannot win from the outset they will not be too disappointed whenever what they try does not work, at least to the full extent they were hoping it would. This does not have to be stated out right, it can be more subtle, but I feel like at least a hint of this should be there.

Second. Design your situation so that success does have some kind of effect. Could a persuasive argument lessen the sentence? Could they convince the court that instead of a maximum security prison the convicted player should go to a prison where he can be more easily rescued? I would make it so that if your players rolled/RP'd well enough there was some sense of accomplishment even if the overall mission will inevitably be a failure.

Hopefully the understanding that this is a somewhat on rails plot and back story building should lead to fairly cooperative players.

Finally, have a backup plan. If all of this goes to hell leave yourself a way out. Maybe this is only the first time the PC gets wrongfully accused. If somehow the players manage to change the outcome of the trial then let them continue on but look for a new opportunity to wrongfully accuse/imprison the PC a second time or approximate it in some way that fits the backstory...It might feel a bit railroady, but if you've warned them ahead of time it should be OK.

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This is a good idea. Knowing the outcome up front forces them to think more about how to influence the severity or conditions of the sentence, rather than zeroing in on just winning. –  dpatchery Aug 19 '11 at 15:14
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Even if all the players know that one outcome is pre-determined, that does not mean that there cannot be other sources of either success or failure. The devil is in the details as they say.

Maybe the family of the victim ends up being convinced (or not) of the character's innocence? Maybe the judge ends up being sympathetic but has to give a guilty verdict nonetheless? Maybe, due to evidence in this trial, situation later on will play differently?

This is your time to plant story seeds that will germinate much later on.

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In addition to wax eagle's answer, I have one critical suggestion:

Flashback

These events are all in a PC's past. He's going to have to tell them about it sometime. When he does, play moves to the events of the trial. Other forms of fiction use this technique all the time, precisely to flesh out the details of events whose final outcome is known.

For example - the PCs are driving through their home city on the way to a job. They stop for coffee and walk past an ATM. When they're almost to the job, they see flashing lights and start to pull over. The new guy stomps on the driver's foot, pinning the gas down and shouts, "Don't stop! I'm an escaped convict!" A storm of expletives erupts from his coworkers. "Wait, let me explain! It all started about four years ago...." and then give everyone the character sheets for the people they'll be playing in the flashback.

Now they already know how it ends, organically. And they know that nothing they can do can change that. All they can do is flesh out the story and become more invested in the new guy.

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An extenstion of @gomad's thoughts:

The play's the thing

Rethink outcomes.

You could flip expectations around and not make the verdict the important outcome. The outcome that matters to the new PC is: Length and Severity of the sentence. Change the injustice to being not just about guilt, a decidedly binary result, but instead be all about the nature of the trial and punishment - and the long-term side effects on the new PC and relationships with the party.

You don't mention the era of your game, but if the justice system is "guilty until proven innocent" or is fundamentally corrupt, this trial is an opportunity to meld the team together by having them stand-up for their friend, while creating a few ongoing enemies and NPCs of note (such as the judge, bailiff, opposing council, etc.)

In short, this is game history - use it to full advantage. It's not about the verdict alone, it's about what the trial and the incarceration do to the party (and their futures) that matters most.

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+1 for rethinking outcomes and what's important. –  gomad Aug 26 '11 at 22:02
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The way I see it, I want to say "life is not fair".

If you were Ceaucescu, you tried to fight even though you know the jury was going to convict you anyway.

If you were Robespierre, you talked until coughing cut your speech off to try to turn the tides of history, even though you knew the rich merchants from Bordeaux had bought the Assembly.

If you were Spartacus, you fought against Rome even though you knew that at some point, the Legions would be back, and Rome never forgives.

If your players are really playing the story, they should buy in the trial and try to win. Losing makes them angry? Good! It means they adhere to the game, they bought in, they "feel" the character. In real life, a trial rarely happens in a fair way, as in "the real bad guy loses big time and the good guy marries the princess". Most times, judges will either rule for the best lawyer, or cover their risk by ruling in favor of the least dangerous person to their career (which can mean "the person with political power" as much as it can mean "putting a previously convicted thief behind bars even if the judge thinks he might not have done it this time"). Why should your game be different?

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To get the outcome you want, can you have a set of bigger and bigger obstacles in their way until they give up, with the option that if they don't give up something much worse than simply losing the case will happen. The fun can be seeing when the party realises that there is no way to win and switches from winning the case to saving their skin.

For example, maybe they try to find witnesses to prove the characters innocence. But the locals aren't talking. So they patrol the streets at night, meet a gang of intimidatory thugs and get beaten up by them. They see the leader of the thugs in court the next day, but the local lord tells them the person (his trusted lieutenant) was with him all yesterday evening.

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When we started a new campaign, we (the player as an individual) were to build a back-story that could justify starting at around 5th level. While we were free to build it as we saw fit (largely undeveloped world), we had to work with the DM to make it fit what he had already created. If this is back-story, why role-play it? Just have the player(s) define what happened and why the outcome was as it was. Or if this back-story is important for future events, set the story yourself (or just fill in the blanks). Another option would be to just work with the individual(s) involved off-line.

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Note I use "accused" here to mean the character who is on trial in the flashback.

Have the group (maybe even the "accused") play the prosecution and/or witness(es) against. Then it becomes the party's goal to see that injustice happens. This way the players "win" by achieving the historical result. Maybe different people have different goals... if the "victim" really did it they want to see justice abrogated so that they can get off scott-free. Friends and family of the "victim", "witness" may have some collusion or may genuinely think that the "victim" is innocent and the "accused" is guilty. If you are playing a game with an alignment system (EG D&D) a fun twist could be giving a lawful character sufficient doubt that they switch sides mid trial (but still too late).

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I’m confused. The other players are also part of this event or are not?

What people are trying to express here, is the concept that your event becomes flat and dull if the focus is overly on getting to the end.

Your question is bothersome for its lack of details. Since we have no clue as to the importance of this event to the character, we’re left only to guess as to which parts of the scenario can and should be played with.

This is only a no win situation if you insist it be so. Presumably this has to be a negative event to the player (generally why such an event would be included). But the entirety of the event does not have to consist of only negative events.

  • Did they go to jail? Maybe he made useful contacts among the underworld/thieves guild or other allies.
  • Did they uncover some deeper plot that will affect future events?
  • Did they have a drug habit and this allowed them to ‘get clean’?
  • Did they take the rap for someone else, who owes them a big favor? These are the types of things you can consider.

If you do go to trial, consider that trials don’t have to be based on the US model. If you want to make it interesting, make it a bit unfamiliar to the players. If they’re expecting a judge, jury, prosecutor, and court appointed lawyer, they should be in for a rude shock.

What I would do, tribunal. Tribunals are more fun. Multiple judges, which don’t even have to be judges. They can be political appointees, military, council of elders, and on and on.

  • Imagine the half-wit in-law of the local Baron holding lives in their hands.
  • Imagine two of the judges hate each other so much that they always vote opposite to each other.
  • Can other party members influence these multiple judges (can they try to bribe the judges, do tasks to gain their favor?).

If the character hasn’t been played yet, then this doesn’t have to be a lose/lose situation. Maybe the actual lose is ‘if you blow this’ life imprisonment and roll up a new character. Maybe the win is less jail time (not saying this is enough, but along with other risks/rewards it might be something to consider).

Winning is defined differently to different people. For some a good story is enough. For others an objective gain is required. If you can rethink win as the endpoint, and convert the scenario to a series of wins and losses (perhaps even simply making it count on how well the situation is dealt with), then the scenario automatically has more depth from a game theory standpoint.

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As a player, I really hate being thrown into situations where the outcome is predetermined. If a situation is going to have a specific outcome no matter what, I prefer the gm to just narrate it instead of giving us the hope that we can do our thing just to get denied at the end.

As a gm, I'm lazy and I'd just narrate it to save the time and hassle of trying to set up an event that happened in the past.

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As a player, is there anything that would make it fun and/or engaging to participate in a situation even though the outcome is predetermined? What if you didn't know it was predetermined? –  dpatchery Aug 19 '11 at 14:56
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I disagree with @DFork42. For example, while the end result of "How I met your mother" is set and known (I'd hazard that he meets his kid's mother), the story is not exactly known, and is in fact the interesting part. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Aug 19 '11 at 14:57
    
the adventure is in the how not the what. –  wax eagle Aug 19 '11 at 14:59
    
@dpatchery, i actually kind of like AceCalhoon's suggestion. Have the event/trial happening but things keep happening that trip up the players trying to save him. –  DForck42 Aug 19 '11 at 15:01
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