A session I am writing for my gaming group will take the characters through a murder trial. One of the players is the accused, and he and his companions will need to build a case and defend themselves.

In the past, with my group, role-playing trials has not been fun for everyone. A few people get into it, but the others sit back and watch. I can't just skip the trial as it is an important story element.

My thought to make this more engaging for everyone was to abstract the trial concept out a little and play it out that way. For example:

Take two Jenga towers, one for me (the GM and the prosecution), one for the players. The players take turns pulling blocks from their tower, and I pull one from mine between every turn. As we build up our towers, this represents building up the strength of our case in court. Whoever's tower topples first has built their case too weakly, and it crumbles and is dismissed by the judge.

I like this idea, and will probably use it, but I want to draw it out a little. My thought was to have 3 separate tribunals that the party must face and convince of their innocence. But I don't want to just play 3 rounds of Jenga.

What other ways are there to abstract a courtroom scenario and allow all types of players to participate?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I think the jenga tower represents the weakness of the other guy's case, not the strength of your own. Every time A makes a good argument, B has to pull a block, weakening his own case. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sam Hoice
    Aug 18, 2011 at 16:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Western game Aces & Eights has substantial sub-rules sets, basically whole minigames, for courtroom trials, prospecting, and cattle drives. If you have access to that it's worth a read. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Aug 19, 2011 at 1:31

5 Answers 5


I would do this with roleplaying and whatever social combat rules your system uses. The level of detail is determined by how important you want the trial to be in your game. If you are not using a system with social combat, you can also model it with "chase" or "extended contest" rules, anything where success accrues over time can probably be kit-bashed into doing the trick.

My problem with Jenga is that you're not building something stronger as you progress, you're making something weaker. It just completely goes against the thing you're modeling.

Here's how I would handle it:

  • Determine the skill of the lawyers involved. Or the skill of the PC and NPC who will be the primary speakers at the trial.
  • Determine the number of successes required to constitute victory.
  • Ask what the players want to do in terms of preparation. Typical activities might include:
    • Gathering additional evidence
    • Tracking down witnesses
    • Bribing, intimidating, murdering, and otherwise influencing judges and / or jurors
    • Studying the law
    • Finding precedents
    • Tracking down the real criminal
    • Getting someone else to confess
    • Convincing frightened people to testify

Each of those activities could be an encounter or string of encounters. In the run-up to the trial, decide what the PCs get for succeeding or failing in these efforts. Smaller benefits could be modeled as skill bonuses, while larger benefits could be "free" successes to apply.

So if most of the PCs go out to convince people who can confirm the accused's alibi to testify, you can play that out. When they succeed give them a bonus to one or more "lawyer" skill rolls for use during the trial. Meanwhile, the (presumably imprisoned) accused PC is trying to track down the real killer in his prison. If he can get the guy to confess, you can grant them some number of free successes, based on how credible the confession is, etc..

In this way, you keep everyone engaged in the pre-trial process, and everyone gets to see their contributions contribute concretely during the trial.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ The social combat maps from Diaspora come to mind. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2011 at 19:49
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Seven - Those look awesome. I immediately thought of using them for Leverage! \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Aug 17, 2011 at 20:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Aren't they great? And a very portable concept. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2011 at 20:58

If the roleplaying elements of going through a trial are a known problem with some members of the group, but the trial itself is too important to gloss over the way the trial is presented will have to engage everyone from the start. If it begins the same way as previous - unappealing - encounters with the legal system, it will be harder to keep things moving. As your plan also involves three such encounters, this element takes on even more importance.

The idea of using Jenga has a lot of merit as it clearly signals a fairly short duration to the trial sequence, and brings a certain degree of tension all of its own. While some may find it distracting or a problem for immersive roleplay - in the situation described, roleplay in this type of situation/environment is already a problem for a part of the group, and so trying something different like this may balance the scales.

Phase One: Building a Case

The prosecution has to demonstrate a reasonable case against the accused. In this phase that side (the GM) has to build their argument while building a house of cards. Each successful layer or set of layers in this card house will represent the initial pool of "points" that the defense will have to overcome in order to maintain the accused's innocence and retain reasonable doubt.

With no card house to build, the players each undergo an interview/interrogation to relate their side of the story prior to the trial. Obvious omissions, lies, contradictions, etc give the GM additional opportunities to restart the house of cards should it fall. If it cannot be built successfully at all, the case is thrown out of court.

The interviews follow the normal social combat rules for the system being used and if successful, the players can invoke a time limit on each card placement made by the GM when building the house. The more of them who handle the interview successfully, the shorter the time the GM has to build the house.

The GM can decide to stop building the house at any time, but the players can barter or make deals with the GM/Prosecution in order to force one more attempted layer to the house in exchange for a bonus "point" they will need to overcome in the trial. The GM can spend some accrued points to create a larger base if that is deemed valuable.

Phase Two: Arguing the Case

As Gomad notes, the suggested use of the Jenga towers runs counter to the purpose to which they would be put, so I would say that pieces only be removed from a Tower when the opposing side scores a significant point which weakens the case of the other. If this is a classic structure of Judge, Jury, Defense, and Prosecution, the lawyers would focus on blowing holes in each others' cases, while the Judge would focus on keeping them both in line.

Each lawyer would be granted bonuses to rolls for solid information and evidence, provable in court, and with success, be able to force their opponent to draw a block from their tower. Depending on how you want to run things, this could be a long series of challenges, or the difference in rolls could be calculated with one block being drawn per point of difference.

The judge could require a block to be drawn for any infraction.

The Jury could serve as an additional resource for the legal teams. (see below)

Resources The rolls of the legal teams could be bolstered in the form of physical evidence, additional witnesses brought to light, jury empathy, jury doubt, and convincing testimony. These areas are where the players of all the characters from accused to entirely innocent can contribute.

Cut-Scenes Action-oriented characters can be out racing against the clock to bring new evidence to light. Challenges can be for finding, reaching, and obtaining the evidence or witnesses, and then racing back for a dramatic revelation.

Social Combat The talkers and faces of the group - especially those who enjoy the opportunity the interplay a trial can create - can take on the challenge of a non-verbal social combat with jury members as they try to sway them with their charm and obvious innocence from their varied places within the courtroom. As the trial goes on this extended challenge will rise and fall on the tide of the Judge's influence as well as the relative success of the lawyers.

This can be heightened by accidental or illicit interactions between a character and a jury member during a recess or other incident.

Jury members swayed to one side or another will reflect this in their posture, faces, etc and will thereby serve to affect further rolls and interactions and also set up the third phase.

Phase Three: The Jury Deliberates

This is where you can mix things up a bit. A PC can take on the role of a juror for every one swayed by the defense during the trial. This lets them have a real voice in the proceedings and gives them a direct channel toward earning their freedom. The GM will take on the role of the Jury foreperson, and the other jurors (which will need to have the majority) and the PCs will need to present the case evidence in their own way, seeking to figure out what will earn the votes of the largest number of jurors.

For the more action oriented of the group, this can incorporate flashbacks of 'how things really went down' complete with rolls and the like.


Using a deck of cards, jenga towers, and quickly intercut cut scenes of action and desperation with trial procedures and tension, plus a little bit of bidding and brinkmanship, you should be able to abstract the legal system into something quick, and engaging.


Last time I saw this done successfully was with another group of players. Invite a second set of players to play the judge, the defence, and the prosecutor. Give the prosecutor plenty of evidence and details. He/she needs to be a good role player since they will stand against the rest. You, as referee, end up playing the witnesses. At the end of the trial, you can have the judge decide what the outcome of the trial is. He can keep a score card if he wanted to. Of course, if you can have 12 jurors, they can argue about it, and come up with a unanimous verdict. Note that, yes it helps being in a university club with 100+ members.

The Jenga idea does not work for me. Why bother with role playing at all. Just say "gable gable gable", pull a piece and hope your team is better than the opposition. Meh.


If everyone at the table likes poker, play some rounds of poker. Maybe blackjack or PaiGow which is a bit of a more group game. Give hand bonuses to people based on the charachter's attributes :)

Alternatively, you can allow a 'trial by combat'


I don't abstract it out much. I treat the court as a group of NPC's. I start with a rolled reaction to the defendant. I allow attempts to convince the group by the witnesses and the counsels. When it's all over, the final reaction scores are checked, and if negative, they vote to convict.


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