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My players are newly awakened mages (Mage: the Ascension 2nd edition) living in a near future in a metropolis in the European Union which is developing into a surveillance and military state union—a transition which is directed by the Technocracy. As the story developed they were involved in several crimes but had alibis good enough to not be arrested in the first place.

Now the story is evolving and I am not sure how to portray the behavior of this complex society. The players have begun asking themselves (and me) if they have to expect formal prosecution, they already have been talking to a lawyer, etc. They have in-game jobs to do, with vacations and family and all—the game has a pretty dense atmosphere and we all prefer to play as much real life stuff as possible.

But I neither want to lose myself (and them) in bureaucracy and legal stuff (which most of us do not really know in real life) nor do I want to give the impression that the suspicions by the police, etc., are meaningless. I.e., I want bureaucracy and legal stuff but I want it to happen in a way that is a) persuasively harassing but b) doesn't take too much attention within the game play (there are other plots which I prefer to be in focus). How can I deal with these contrary goals?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I will mention that Shadowrun, while vastly different from Mage, deals with a lot of the same problems you are facing. I would recommend reading the basic manual for any edition, if you can. \$\endgroup\$ – Martin Epsz Dec 22 '15 at 22:05
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The Government has no time for small fries like you

Technocracy appears to be a monolithic Big Brother, spying on everyone at all times, but the truth is that their goals can leave even the best among them strained. Even the most oppressive governments are loath to devote precious resources (people, equipment, processor time) to small threats. In fact, such a government would rather apply pressure by threatening the well-being of a dissident (withhold important documents, make it hard to find a job, have a person known as an anarchist) rather than actually doing something drastic (investigations, summons, lawsuits, arrests).

The most oppressive way to threaten is to keep someone in the dark. The System has to be impenetrable and capable of anything. Your players seem to misunderstand and think that the System will play by the rules. It will not - it makes the rules instead. Laws, police force and courts are for regular criminals, who need to be stopped. Your characters however are more than that - they are dissidents, stark enemies of the System. A smart System operative would exploit their situation in three ways.

There are things you want from the government

Like a passport maybe, a place at a public kindergarten, driving license. Or maybe you'd like the police to properly assist you when you're mugged by "random" criminals? Or actual, dependable healthcare, without risks of complications? Or maybe sick pay or a pension? There is a lot of stuff that the government actually provides (at least in the EU) and your PCs will need those from time to time. Actual bureaucracy, delays, not being taken seriously. Hardly anything will demoralise a person more than reporting an assault (or other crime) and hearing "Are you sure you didn't provoke them? I mean, look at you. Who goes out that late anyway?". And then the case gets closed under "perpetrators unidentifiable" bull.

You have something to lose

As you said, there are families, posessions, freedoms. These can be taken away or better yet, threatened to be taken away. Democratic societes take a lot of stuff for granted - right to work, right to travel, right to gather. Imagine that a PC want to go to Spain for vacations, but every time he passes the border he is labeled for extra checks that make him miss the flight. PC's family can go, but not the PC. Maybe the boss will one day approach him and say that there are redundancies and sorry but he has to go. Don't do that to the players just yet! Mention that a friendly NPC has those troubles and make the NPC no longer willing to help.

There are things you want to hide

You said the characters committed some crimes. Lucky for them! They get to walk scot-free. Maybe a routine hearing that goes terribly, maybe a day in the jail, but afterwards, with no explanation they hear they're free to go. Let those accumulate, it's perfect blackmail material. When they go against the government in a serious way, a skilled operative will give send them a court summon. This can of course go away, but if and only if the characters cease all unwanted activity. And if they turn their contacts in, they might even get rewarded...

Usually, a single government operative would control about twenty cases at any given time, with many more than that being monitored. These people are often masters of coercion and can achieve compliance in a number of cost-effective ways. If the target is showing no signs of improvement, they would start building a net of contacts, helpers, snitches and spies around that person. In the end, however, it's control what they want, not termination. Especially Technocracy is much more fond of reprogramming and repurposing Mages into their ranks, either by invitation or by force than terminating them outright - that's considered inefficient.

In Mage Ascension such people would be known as Men In Black. They would indeed concern themselves mostly with Reality Deviants (Mages) and other undesirables (vampires, weres...) Now, what I wrote is what happens before they catch on that PCs are Awakened. What they do after is a topic for a different question.


The above is written partly from experience, partly from real life. IF you would like to know more about specific techniques, read up on the Secret Police in the Eastern Bloc and how they operated during the Cold War. It's a plethora of information and exactly what you need for evoking a totalitarian, oppressive state spewing propaganda, by showing it's dirty underbelly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If the PC's are taking in-game vacations, in addition to "randomly" being sent to 'enhanced' screening, maybe they return home to find their residence ransacked, property damaged, and a prominently placed card stating "This domicile has been searched pursuant to Civil Code S1234.56.78.9. If you have any concerns, please contact us at <govt. number that goes nowhere if you actually call it>"? And maybe that happens on the one time when they're not forced to miss their flight due to security-related harassment, implying that they were deliberately granted free passage to enable the search. \$\endgroup\$ – aroth Dec 23 '15 at 4:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ Wonderful. I just wanted to add that such oppressive and unfair environment can be extremely frustrating to players (as it would be to their characters), so I would say "let them win sometimes". \$\endgroup\$ – Flamma Dec 23 '15 at 17:56
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The political and legal proceedings in a surveillance/military state are often quite opaque in real life. You can use that as your cue to build a framework that is oppressive and capricious.

Think of the legal system as merely the justification for paramilitary surveillance and interrogations. The characters notice unmarked vehicles and suspicious people watching them. If they hunt for signs, they'll determine that their communications are being monitored. Friends and contacts get taken in and asked questions about the activities of the PCs.

The authorities aren't after the PCs for specific crimes. Instead they're slowly assembling a net around them because they have labeled the characters as persons of interest. Over time the net tightens, and the surveillance becomes more obvious. A confidant gets thrown in the slammer for five years on a trumped up charge. Street contacts go quiet because the word is that the PCs are being targeted by the secret police. The PCs have to plan everything more carefully, lest they trigger the closing of the net.

If they trigger the closing of the net, they are brought before an extra-judicial hearing. These affairs are swift and likely to end badly for the characters, but from a game perspective they move the story along more rapidly. For example, if they are captured, sentenced, and transferred somewhere for incarceration, they need to escape and clear their names.

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Have them continually fined for minor infractions and examined for potential crimes.

One of the ways that a government can harass someone without appearing to overstep their bounds is by enforcing minor laws. Their car gets tickets for parking an inch too far from the curb. They get fined for littering for dropping crumbs on the ground at lunch. Their taxes always get audited and they always get pulled over for "random searches."

Since Ascension uses a simple Resources system, you don't need to track these; just make them part of the background noise. Tickets on their car, emails letting them know their account has been debited. Assume that the characters automatically pay their fines and the searches come up with nothing; the government is trying to inconvenience, not actually find a real transgression.

Have the lawyer they're talking to assure them that they're safe regarding prosecution, but that there's nothing she can do about the minor harassment, and just to put up with it.

And when they do do things that the police would really care about, make distracting or avoiding the police an obstacle they always have to deal with. The characters know they're being watched and the government wants them to know, so discard the uncertainty altogether. TV shows often have a recurring conflict where the protagonist must shake their police tail in a different way each time; draw inspiration from that.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Police harassment is a highly effective technique of oppression, and it was my first reaction to this question as well. If the PCs are safe from prosecution for their major violations, the local authorities will likely resent them for it, forming a natural motive to pursue the PCs on any grounds that are feasible. \$\endgroup\$ – recognizer Dec 23 '15 at 19:56
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Bureaucracy is Dense and Impenetrable

For the same reason why you can't effectively roleplay the vast swaths of bureaucracy, the party is not privy to that experience as well. Unless you wish for specific evidence of the inner workings to be available to the party, such as for an infiltration story arc, they will be outsiders, unable to penetrate the copious amounts of paperwork thrown around.

The Law in a Fictional Government

Your choice of country created a very useful situation, where you do not need to abide by an actual set of laws. This is a unique country with a unique government that very well may have an entirely different system for trying criminals. In a controlling state such as you described, it is entirely likely that preliminary rulings are normal; by this, I mean your characters can be found guilty before being arrested and then have to prove their innocence. This might seem like a rather fictitious premise, but it is actually a middle ground between real legal systems and actual examples of authoritative governments like the USSR.

If you ever wish to bring courtroom drama into play, you can use this to simplify everything. The prosecution has already assembled this list of damning evidence, obtained by witnesses or forensics. No need to cross-examine the prosecution's witnesses, and it immediately places the Mages in the cross-hairs. Even if the party proves their innocence, let them know through their attorney that double jeopardy exists in this form of government, so the party never knows if they are at risk of being tried again.

Tailing: Increasing the Party's Paranoia

In order to remind the party of their situation, have them be visibly tailed by a G-man. Now, there also might be several more covert ones, but they don't generate the wonderful paranoia critical to this kind of government. This way, the party is constantly aware of the surveillance upon them and learn that they are always being watched.

Results

By having the party be brought before a trial (for a different crime, presumably) and having to defend their innocence, you set up the expectation that the party will not necessarily have warning if they are considered suspects. By the constant tailing, the party will be keenly aware of the surveillance they are under, as well as giving the Storyteller ammunition for the case. Finally, the mountains of red tape will actually help you avoid real complications with the paperwork; for great realism, assemble one form, a request to submit other forms, that requires a large variety of dangerous information. The party will likely be hesitant to pursue that method if they have to write down their names, job information, family members, ID number, photo identification, photos of all family members, etc. And to top it all off, have falsification of information be a severe felony. Suddenly, the impenetrable bureaucracy will stay that way.

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Just let everything in the lawyer's hands. Say the Lawyer will take care of everything (you can include bribing or blackmailing if it is necessary and your players/characters are willing to).

He can be your voice to remind them of the danger of attract too much attention, so they try to do their stuff without kill everyone in plain sight and you don't need to mess with more bureaucracy. Just draw a bit(like 2%) of their resources for their lawyer(s) and even you can increase the pay if they keep in the outlaw way (to bribes, assesinations, etc), so you are being realistic and still keeping the focus in your story.

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