Last evening I had the priviledge of seeing quite an ... interesting ... adaptation of Kafka's The Trial.

I am wondering if the community has any suggestions on the best ways to adapt it (or other plays) to a game. The sense of surreal fatalism would be difficult to evoke and would almost certainly be more frustrating to the players than fun. The question is: are there any elements that would serve well in games? If so, which?


4 Answers 4


As I remember The Trial, the protagonist (K) bounces almost randomly between surreal situations. There's a big theme of dystopian authority, which closes in gradually until K's execution.

Here are some systems which would do that well. These systems will, I think, highlight the elements of The Trial that might serve well in games.

The most obvious system is Paranoia, which often refers to itself as "Kafkaesque". You can play it darker and more straight-faced than normal, so that the comedy builds gradually. (The latest version, Paranoia XP, has a "Straight" style to do this).

In fact, many of the elements in The Trial could almost be Paranoia missions: for example, being told to show an Italian dignitary around the city. Certainly, Paranoia does dystopian authoirty and bouncing around between surreal locations very well.

Another system is Lacuna. This plays a bit like Paranoia, but does the building of tension well. It's set, like The Trial, in an anonymous, dreamlike city. The Static mechanic means that, as the game progresses, the authority turns against the PCs and everything becomes more surreal.

A third system is Dying Earth. More than anything else, Dying Earth does bouncing around between surreal locations. Unlike the other systems, it also handles the embarrassment and pomposity that you get in The Trial.

So, to directly answer your question, the elements that I think would serve well in games are: the surreal situations; the gradual building of tension; the city; the authority turning against the PCs; and the pomposity and embarrassment.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Just for a thought, this answer could be improved with links to the systems' homepages, or information pages, or Lite Rules pages \$\endgroup\$
    – Maurycy
    Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 19:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Time for some offtopic Knowledge! A professor from UNAULA has compared "The Trial" with Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" (Kafka was apparently a big fan of Fyodor) and decided that, among other things, the intended order of the chapters should be different - goo.gl/wZRdWp \$\endgroup\$
    – Maurycy
    Commented May 14, 2014 at 7:22

I guess that if you want to adapt the Trial as a scenario, you'd have more than one player at the table. I'd also venture that you'd like to go for a bad ending. So here are a few pointers, out of the top of my head

  • Don't tell! At no time should the players be forewarned that they're going to play through the kafkaian nightmare. If you do inform your players, they'll be contaminated by the surrealism and won't fight the system as hard as if they thought they stood a chance. Keep them in the dark about the context
  • Don't tell, take two! Since nobody knows what's the offense is in the Trial, your players shouldn't either. If you want to play in a larger universe (is this one-shot?) let them agonize over which of their petty (or not so petty) crimes brought them in this.
  • Sever the ties! If your PCs have relationships outside of the PCs, cut them off one after another after another. They're sliding off the face of the earth and each point of support should give
  • Offer redemption. If you want to add to the "alone" feeling, you could introduce at two thirds of the session a kind of prisoner's dilemma to destroy the group's unity; ok, you're not going to get out of this... not all of you. But if somebody were to... dirty somebody else... That could add tension and paranoia, and you could weave a system of PCs secret inside....

Obviously the "Paranoia" universe could be used, especially in its masterful examples of non sequitur in Justice (or inn whatever's the funniest). You could play Paranoia very straight and dark, the latest edition offers such options.

Now, on another completely different note, it's a bit hard to say if players would enjoy playing a game with no hope of success. Be sure that your players are ok with "failing". I know i prefer the story to my character, but YMMV...

Good luck!


Kafka places the protagonist of The Trial in a situation where he can either succumb to terrible circumstances or attempt to build a new life around them. Joseph's major mistake is his refusal to take into account the idiosyncratic rules and inhabitants of his new world ultimately leaves him isolated and forced to take the only way out left. One can argue that the only difference between The Trail and an average roleplaying game is the happy ending and the quality of Kafka's writing, but I do agree that there are stylistic elements that can be played up.

Run it in GUMSHOE. The story would involve Kafka himself, in particular the fact that he burned over 90% of his own work himself. Brod's suitcase would offer an excellent story spine.

I'd base this spine on Joseph's three major actions and mkistakes. Accepting the Case, Unraveling the clues and finding help. My players would be a group of corporate spies/private detectives commissioned by a rich someone (just who would be important) to ensure that Brod's suitcase ends up out of the hands of the state of Israel and go from there.


Here are suggestions in two RPG formats for a "Trial" type game:

In an espionage game, suddenly one morning a character is almost assassinated....by his own agency! He cannot get any effective answer why this happened after contacting his higher ups, who advise him he is now on a "shoot to kill" list. He is told that it is probably a misunderstanding and that it will be cleared up shortly, but until then, there is nothing the agency can do and the assassination attempts will continue. His allies/friends are told that they are not to assist their friend (they can choose to ignore this advice or not as they wish) and as a matter of fact they are also told to "shoot on sight" their friend (even though they cannot tell them exactly why the order has been given)!

This can continue in a series of adventures in the vein of movies like "North by Northwest" or "Mission Impossible 1" where the character, while being pursued by shadowy assassins, tries to discover who ordered his death for what reason. His friends can choose to aid him covertly or directly,or even attempt to kill him themselves! The final denouement after a series of adventures should lead to some surrealistic ending....the "kill" order was a computer glitch for someone with a similar name (whoops!) or the person issuing the command was a higher up that wanted revenge on the agent for some ridiculous slight years ago (a school rival that resented the character or a jilted girlfriend from high school), the more petty and absurd the reason the better.

You could even use this sort of scenario in a fantasy RPG game (like D&D). Much as in "The Trial", one morning while sleeping in a local inn someone knocks on the character's door. A notice is slipped underneath saying he is to appear for "final judgement" in front of a local lord in one week (or whatever time limit the DM wishes) or face death at the hands of his knights. Any attempt to find out what the character is accused of, or what this is about, is met with the same sort of situation as "The Trial".....lots of passing the buck, with no one sure what is going on, and handing the problem off to various other NPCs, with no useful advice ever given. To top it off everyone in the village starts avoiding the character, he gets kicked out of wherever he is staying with no one willing to put him up, no one will serve him in the local bar, no one will sell him anything, associated with him, etc. (this will also happen to anyone unfortunate enough to be identified as the character's friends or allies). NPCs will act like the character is "doomed", and tell him that everyone that has been summoned by the lord ends up executed. Soon the character and his friends notice they are being followed and spied upon by shadowy figures, who if they are captured or killed turn out to know nothing of why they were hired to follow and harass the character! Divination attempts of all sorts fail to reveal the nature of the character's dilemma, as time ticks away for the character to appear in front of the local lord for a reason he cannot fathom.

This would work especially well with lower level characters with few resources, and ones who would be justifiably afraid of a high level lord and his knights. Since the setting is fantasy, there could be unusual reasons behind the summons....perhaps the summons is a fake and instead an old enemy is using gold from a treasure trove to pay people to drive the character bonkers, including hiring random thugs to shadow the character and attempt to kill him. Perhaps the summons is real, the result of a jilted lover who is now the lord's consort and has persuaded her new beau to make the character's life miserable (or a hag or magical succubus that has enthralled the lord and sees the characters as future problems to her plans). The summons could be because of a mistaken identity, or a misinterpreted order ("Oh, sorry sir, the lord has summoned you here to give you a reward for that group of bandits you and your friend's stopped, not to execute you for treason! Silly scribe must have gotten these two proclamations mixed up, funny joke that eh?") The reason could be magical....an enemy mage has charmed the lord and the character's must break the spell, or the enemy could have the lord's child under thrall unless the lord carries through with the execution (making the characters have to find out what is going on then rescue the child). Above all the DM would have to make the circumstances confused and murky and sow real paranoia in the player...this wouldn't work with all players, but it could be a really tense and nail biting game if the DM pulled it off!


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