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I have two roleplaying newbies in a 5th edition D&D campaign. I started them at level 1 to prepare them for joining some more experienced players for a level-4 campaign in the near future.

The two characters were prisoners. Through various means, they brought about the deaths of six camp guards, and killed another two personally. They covered their tracks and escaped without any evidence of exactly who it was. Relevantly, one is chaotic good, while the other is chaotic neutral, and they were imprisoned by the civilian authorities — the people they killed were not soldiers.

One of the players said afterwards that he thought they were just NPCs; clearly they didn't understand what I meant when I said that roleplaying is not like video games.

Should I a) write it off as an inexperienced mistake, b) allow the world to respond in a believable way to this slaughter, or c) some mix of the two with a blunted response and a minor story arc?

I have left my options open — one of the NPCs who escaped with them has disappeared in the night.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm curious: What was the intended solution to the imprisonment plot? Did you intend to let them rot for a while, then let them go? Did you intend for them to get out non-violently? Did you intend for them to find/talk to/... something/someone/... inside prison? If any of those, did you communicate that to your players? I.e. hinted (strongly) at one of these? As an example: They will never figure out that the warden is corrupt (proving which presents a way out) if you haven't actually shown them that he is in some way. \$\endgroup\$ – MrLemon Jun 28 '15 at 11:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ intended solution was that after the initial day of work duties outside of the camp, they would have acquired certain materials and escaped from the camp itself at night. Instead, the 8 guards supervising them are dead and it looks as if a creature did it; mutilated bodies and stuff. \$\endgroup\$ – gburton Jun 28 '15 at 12:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Don't answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Jun 28 '15 at 14:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ What were they imprisoned for? From their perspective, it's entirely possible their imprisonment was unjust, and therefore breaking out was a justified action to take. \$\endgroup\$ – Zibbobz Jun 29 '15 at 14:51

10 Answers 10

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I can think of several ways to handle this, not all of which (due to timing) are really relevant for your situation.

1) Pre-game discussion, set-up, expectations

I notice that even though you say the PCs were imprisoned by the civilian authorities, you don't say why and we (and possibly the players) know nothing about the world you've set up. Did the PCs actually do whatever the authorities were holding them for? Were they set up? Was it a minor infraction, or something they would rightfully fear for being imprisoned for life or put to death?

These are vital things for the PCs to know. Did they?

I remember one game I played in where we also started as prisoners, but we all knew we would be going down for a long, long time if we were lucky because the very premise of the game is that we were freedom fighters [sic] against a tyrannical regime. Of course we escaped, and of course we didn't think twice about the consequences. But this was known and understood by all ahead of the game.

2) GM Pre-emption/Questioning

By pre-emption, I don't actually mean telling the players, "No, you can't do that." But in my opinion you can, in your role as GM, temporarily pre-empt (maybe "suspend" is a better word) their actions while you have an out of character, above-board discussions about how the world works, what your rough moral aesthetic is, and how much fun no one is going to have as they are the subjects of a massive manhunt.

"Guys? Are you serious? You got a parking ticket and you're murdering the meter maid in response? The way this world works, X, Y, and Z are likely to result, and none of us are going to have fun with that."

I've both done this and had it done to me when I was in danger of committing a major faux pas. If done gently and early it can be very successful, but if you find yourself having this talk over and over again, either you are not getting through, or your players have a desire to play in a world that you are not running.

3) Retcon - It never happened - do over.

I am not a fan of this, but it is an option. It might even be a good option if the game hasn't progressed past that point, and you think that you and the player have done grave damage to the game you want to run or to the characters they want to play. But this would be a pretty major retcon.

4) Unintended Consequences

Did they really get away clean, or was there a witness? Will someone be blackmailing them? Maybe the authorities have some reason to look the other way after the prisoners disappear and the guards are all dead, but maybe there's one die-hard member of the authorities-- or a guard's husband, wife, brother, etc-- who will not let it go and causes trouble.

Maybe they will eventually need something-- some help, some object, some support-- from the people they killed, or from their bosses or support network. Good luck with that, now.

Maybe their patron, if they have one, knows what happened and demands they they (somehow) make things right.

You have ample hooks to make any of these happen, given the escaped NPC. (Of course, there is the danger, now, that your PCs are going to hunt that poor guy down and murder him, too.)

5) They got away with it.

My favored approach is always, always the second option, but you're past 1 and 2. It's hard for me to say whether I'd go for 3 or 4-- it depends very much on why they were imprisoned and what sort of characters they think they are playing. No one is going to have any fun at all if they see themselves as heroes, but they've already crossed your world's moral event horizon. I lean toward 4, without having all the information.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A variant of 2. is simply reciting their plan to them, i.e. "You want to do XYZ?" Often, people get caught up in an idea without really thinking about it, but telling them with your own connotation can highlight problems. Also, a GM asking for confirmation should make any player aware that it's not a lightweight decision (lest he'd just go along with it) and that there will be consequences. \$\endgroup\$ – MrLemon Jun 28 '15 at 11:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ #4: "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die" \$\endgroup\$ – Makyen Jun 29 '15 at 16:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer. I would only add the Unintended Consequence of feelings of guilt. Something for the players to roleplay, perhaps the DM could add grieving families of the dead... (Stormtroopers' 9/11) \$\endgroup\$ – Simanos Oct 14 '15 at 10:58
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Han Solo, Robin Hood, and the three Musketeers: all would be stereotypical Chaotic Good characters. And none would have a second thought about dispatching their prison guards, whether it's Stormtroopers, the sheriff's men, or a guard in the Bastille.

So the first question would be: did they really act out of character? What would you have expected them to do? Chaotic adventurers aren't exactly the guys that lawyer up and trust in procedure.

Now, the world should definitely react. It is your world and there is no point in having a world that is not believable. They could be branded murderers — more guards and maybe bounty hunters will be after them. That's what good stories are made of. Take the three examples above, all great stories. I suggest you play along.

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Some of this depends on how you prefer to define 'good' in your game world. In books and movies, it is very common to treat anyone working for the bad guys as bad, and therefore deserving of any horrific fate that the good guys find expedient. Nobody worries about storm troopers having families, despite the overall Star Wars story being all about ambiguity between good and evil, and the possibility of redemption. Ironic, but it definitely simplifies things and keeps the philosophical considerations nicely constrained to only the parts of the plot where they are wanted. (We won't talk about the low-wage guards who ended up getting digested for several thousand years because they happened to be stuck working for Jabba the Hut at the wrong time.)

In your case, it seems like (1) you have a more "realistic" definition of good, and (2) the guards weren't even working for the bad guys, they just happened to get in the way of the protagonists. I don't think it's necessarily a huge moral conflict if killing guards was a far lower risk route to escape. But if it would have been just as fast to knock them out, or just as effective to bind and gag them, then I agree that there's some out of character behavior going on.

Anyway, I think the answer is clear: if you have time and creativity for (c), it would be best. But if it's just a distraction and you can convey what you want in other ways, (a) is totally reasonable. I happen to really like a world where I feel the weight of my actions. It makes me care about everything much more.

Perhaps you could bring them into contact with a grieving spouse? Or for a little retribution, perhaps a guard's children, now homeless and living off the streets, could relieve them of some items? Though connecting those kids to the slain guards might be pretty tricky. You can't exactly have it happen just outside the "Orphanage for Children of Guards Brutally Murdered by Unknown Persons"!

Or you could go direct and low-key: have them overhear a shocked conversation in a bar about how Barry got murdered while just doing his job. They even had to call in a priest to cleanse the residual evil...

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There should always be consequences. If there aren't then your world will feel lifeless.

Next time the PCs are captured, they are gagged and hobbled. One of the guards says, "We had an escape a few months ago, killed several guards. Since then we've updated our security."

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would have them discuss killing them straightaway. “We had an escape a month ago. The guards followed the procedure, and notified the judge. They would have a fair trial and would probably been freed after paying a fine. But they ran away killing everyone. Their wifes and children barely survive without them. I too have children and I don't want to risk such fate. I say we kill them. Our job is to . If they arrive alive to the prison, we will need to guard them. But if they fought back and were accidentally killed, nobody will held us responsible. That's how we work here now, lad.” \$\endgroup\$ – Ángel Jun 29 '15 at 10:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ That could be explained to a new guard, which is still innocent and pure… and may get involved with the characters in the future (convincing the other guards not to kill them, helping them to escape again…) \$\endgroup\$ – Ángel Jun 29 '15 at 11:57
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some mix of the two with a blunted response and a minor story arc

Sounds like the best choice to me, because they are still learning the ropes, and might have made different choices with more information.

A story arc that brings the players up to speed with the alignment system and the moral nuances of the campaign you're running not just fairer, but likely would more fun for both you and the players than either ignoring it (unsatisfying) or outright retaliation (possibly punitive, from the POV of your players).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is probably the best answer for the OOC situation. Other answers have great ideas, but this is how you teach new players. I'd later discuss that it was muted, so they could get a feel for the game without derailing it. All the clever ideas can be worked in later. \$\endgroup\$ – Smithers Jul 3 '15 at 16:33
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The consequences of such actions, whether projected onto the characters themselves or just the world around them, should have effect. They arranged for the death of 8 people.

If you want to instill a sense of what happens when you kill an 'NPC', you could present a guard's wife in the street begging for money because she has nothing left. Perhaps she is offering the remains of her small but worthless possession to any adventurer who would avenge the 'beast' that killed her husband.

If you want to tie it into your campaign, the idea that "they got away with it" is not set in stone. You always have the option that there was a witness, perhaps a small child or field worker who saw it from a distance and hid or ran. DM's discretion always overrules dice rolls.

Overall, if you want an involved story, when ever a player commits a serious action, its best to have it felt through out the campaign. Players should have a sense that they are impacting and shaping the world, that its not just a one dimensional story read from a manual.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For bonus points - have someone rope the party into the 'revenge' plot, and see how far you can go before they realise they're hunting themselves ;). \$\endgroup\$ – Sobrique Jun 29 '15 at 12:29
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It seems that your question has 2 (related) sub questions:

  1. Are the characters behaving to their alignment?

    See How do you adjudicate what alignment a PC's actions are? for answers to this.

  2. What consequences should follow from their actions?

    See My PCs have a plan that will get them all killed; how and why should I save them? for answers to that.

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Personally as a DM I love the occasional unexpected response from the players and welcome the potential fallout from these actions. There should certainly be consequences and as mentioned in other answers; these situations offer great hooks for future development in the game world.

In addition to feeling the impact of the guards' deaths, there are other moral issues that could toy with the characters' alignments. What if the identity of the escaped convicts was unknown? What if the bounty for their capture was growing (one of the guards had a wealthy or important friend)? What if the players see another innocent (or several) brought in for the crime? What if they are even given a simple means to frame another NPC for the crime or are hired to bring in someone else accused of their crime? In the OP having these new characters join the group and then discover the bounty posted at the next tavern creates some good tension for the party to role-play; what if the group takes up the bounty and then one of the party members starts to suspect the newbies?

It's about providing a slight sense of dread in the players as they "wait for the other shoe to drop", not knowing when or if they will be discovered. One time I had the characters find a note of credit (1000gp) on a dead man. All they had to do to cash it in was travel to the city where it was written up and claim the identity of the dead man. What could possibly go wrong?!

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This is trivial - they did something which logically has in-game consequences, so the DM plays those out, same as any other action.

I think what you're really asking is "I don't want to bother with the results of this, is it okay to ignore it and get on with what I want to do?"

The answer to that is, yes. It is a sort of reverse railroad, but if you have a practical goal of getting new players into the group then talking to them out of character might be okay.

Just flat out tell them "If you were the only PC party, you'd be looking at a bounty being raised and 7 shades of trouble for what you did, but I haven't time to DM two groups so let's just say those guys were just badly wounded and got better and you all paid a fine of 100gp and move on, okay?"

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Letting them live is a mistake. They need to learn that walking down the street and throwing a fireball into the bar (I know they did not do "that") has undesired results. A re-roll of characters 'cause these ones got captured, tried and beheaded… tends to remind players, "Oh, we are the good guys."

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Please take a moment to check out the tour and the help center to get an idea of how things work. \$\endgroup\$ – Miniman Jun 28 '15 at 8:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't really agree with his opinion, but it is a well qualified enough to be an answer. A good example of an answer people don't agree with. \$\endgroup\$ – Greg Jun 28 '15 at 17:05

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