Character alignment has been something that is largely overlooked in the D&D campaigns I am a part of – either as a PC or a DM. Generally the players are Lawful, Lawful Good or Neutral on their character sheet but this label is in no way connected to their character’s behavior. The purpose of this post is not to discuss the merits or lack thereof of the alignment system, but to present how I dealt with a concern I developed in my campaign related to alignment.
My party is composed of “normal” players, meaning no one seems outwardly to be a dangerous sociopath. The group has mostly focused on “doing the good thing” and trying to save the day. There are times when morality is bent to achieve a certain end, and these situations have been roleplayed effectively by the players. But as the characters have leveled up and gained greater mastery in the world, the players also seemed to grow more confident in bending rules or blatantly disregarding laws.
I felt like the party’s moral compass was spinning in circles, but I did not see it as my job as the DM to tell the party what to do. I saw my job as developing appropriate consequences for their actions. They did not do anything this heinous, but there were questionable actions in the game world. Namely, a murder of an unarmed man in one town who the party learned was abusing his wife and the murder of another unarmed woman in another town during an interrogation. I began to feel like the players were running roughshod through the world I created, but I was not sure how to address it without forcing the players to conform to my sense of morality and judgement in a heavy-handed manner.
In the end, I decided to place the characters on trial and allow them to defend themselves from a variety of accurate (and inaccurate) charges. I was most curious to see how the players would respond, and it turned into an enlightening – and hopefully enjoyable – skill challenge/roleplaying experience. Below, I describe how I prepared and executed the trial.
After a series of combat encounters inside a prominent building in town, which the Wizard decided to burn down in retaliation for being ambushed by a wealthy aristocrat named Leif, the party was surrounded by the city guard. I had to describe large numbers because otherwise, the players might have attempted to fight through the resistance. In the end, they relented and the party’s mentor from Day One of the campaign provided counsel to the characters and intervened on their behalf to get them a hearing. Through a series of roleplaying segments – often with me talking to myself as different characters (something I try to avoid at all costs) – the characters agreed to defend themselves from the crimes they were accused of committing.
I established the guidelines for the trial through the voice of the party’s mentor; he informed the party they would be under close watch by the town guard but had two days to come up with evidence to defend their actions. The players asked questions and then discussed a strategy in character before I initiated the skill challenge. For the Tribunal Hearing, I did not set a specific Complexity ahead of time but I had in mind something in the range of Complexity 3 (8 Successes, 3 Failures). I wanted to run the skill challenge in a free-flowing and logical manner and determine success or failure based on their actions and rolls. I allowed each character during their turn to use whatever Skill they like as long as they could justify how it would assist them in improving their chances during the Tribunal Hearing; the Difficulty Class was set to the party’s level, and I determined if their intended goal was an Easy, Moderate or Hard Check.
To be honest, I was not sure how this direction of the story, roleplaying and skill challenge would work with the players. It was my intention to demonstrate to the players that their behavior has consequences in the world. I could imagine players being annoyed by this, but I felt it was worth the effort to demonstrate that now – in the Paragon Tier – many people are aware of the party and their actions and deeds are a source of news and gossip throughout the campaign world. So I set up the Tribunal Hearing in my mind and plowed ahead with it much more confidently than I actually felt.
When in doubt, act like you completely know what you’re doing even if your plans are strung together with scotch tape and prayer!
“I Want To Do Some CSI Stuff”
With the skill challenge setup completed, it was time to let the players loose in the city for two days to do what they could to clear their names. I was curious to see how they would attempt to defend themselves, but more interested in whether or not they cared about the hearing in the first place. The manner in which the party was traipsing somewhat lawlessly through various towns and encounters, I thought they might dismiss the hearing entirely and not worry about the consequences. I was pleasantly surprised when the players fiercely set about to defend their actions and honor and to implicate Leif as the true villain and reason for the death and damage in the city.
The creative ways in which they did this was also rewarding because I could sense the players cared about their character’s standing in the world – or at the very least, did not want to get into more trouble with authorities. One of the newest players in the group, playing a Dwarven Fighter, inquired if he could use Dungeoneering to return to the scene of the party’s last battle to find evidence of shadar-kai participation in the conflict. The shadar-kai were either burned in the blaze or vanished, so the city guard had no knowledge of their participation in the combat. His backstory describes that he is a bit of an archaeologist and he announced, “I want to go back to the building and use my tools to do some real slick CSI shit.” The actions fit into his character and it was a skill he’d been trying to use for a long time.
He rolled well and I discussed how he located fragments of weapons with dark markings typically forged in The Shadowfell. The party now had one piece of evidence to support their claims and they were on their way. The Cleric in the group used Heal to perform Raise Dead on the woman who had died during interrogation and ease the wounds of others hurt in the fire. He had previously voiced his disapproval of her death and carried her body out of the burning building, so this action fit in with his characters and his previous actions during the campaign. His check was also successful, and he hoped bringing the victim life and healing others to the best of his ability would improve the reputation of the party in the eyes of citizens.
The party previously obtained ledgers from the building where the shadar-kai ambushed them. The ledgers were so dense that they could not make sense of the numbers and names in the books. A member of the party took the ledgers to an accountant in town and requested assistance with uncovering the meaning of the volumes of transactions. This produced one of my prouder improvisational moments when I decided to act as a bookish old man studying the ledgers. I pinched my glasses to the edge of my nose, stooped low over the table and spoke in a muttering voice, “Hmmm, yes. Very interesting these values here. Lines up with these totals over here. Hmmm, intriguing. You got these from an official in town, you say? Very troubling, very troubling indeed.” He proceeded to inform the party about what appeared to be illegal transactions involved property throughout the city and possibly vast quantities of stolen goods and weapons. I really milked this character for all he was worth, but the players seemed to enjoy him and their success with the ledgers provided more evidence to their case.
Our very proud Halfling Rogue decided to use his charming personality to win the support of a prominent community organization in town; he specifically sought out a woman’s group, “If the woman think we’re good guys, then they will tell other people and then everyone will think highly of us. It’s a great plan!” It was interesting logic, and I was curious to see how he rolled as it would influence my reaction substantially. I set a Hard DC and his Diplomacy Check failed rather spectacularly. It was a brief moment during the skill challenge, but he had to back out of the organization’s hall with his proverbial tail between his legs and report back to the party “Um, that didn’t go well. That hate us more now.”
The checks continued as the players used skills in a variety of interesting ways. Streetwise was used to feed information dealers positive stories about the party with the hopes that the rumors would spread around the city and improve the party’s reputation. History was used to search through the Hall of Records to find rulings from similar Tribunal Hearings in the hopes the documents would improve the party’s ability to defend their actions. Intimidate was used to coerce a witness to testify on the party’s behalf, and other skills were used as well.
At the conclusion of the two days with the players mostly succeeding on their rolls, I roleplayed the Tribunal Hearing during the session. Each player produced the results from their skills challenge during the hearing, and the judge evaluated their defense. In the end, the party produced enough material to clear their name enough and implicated the prominent wealthy aristocrat, Leif, of illegal operations in the city. The judge sentenced the party to assist the town guard in the capture of the Leif so he might be brought to justice.
From that point, the party joined with the town guard to storm Leif’s estate. Leif’s informants had cued him to the judge’s ruling and he attempted to escape, but the party chased him down and eventually captured him after the conclusion of a wagon-chase combat encounter that was a combination of scenes from Willow and Raiders of The Lost Ark (I played music from Raiders throughout the combat to add more personality to the encounter).
I was not sure how the events would play out, but the Tribunal Hearing felt like a success on multiple levels. First, it allowed me to demonstrate to the players that the actions of their characters produced in the world. Second, it created opportunities for the characters to use skills and their background to affect the world. The skill challenge was not specific to how they could act so there wasn’t the typical conversation, “Okay, I can use Perception, then you use Endurance, and then I’ll make an Acrobatics check, . . .” I find skill challenges can disintegrate into meta-gaming very quickly, so the open-ended nature allowed players to create their own checks rather than me telling them what skills they should use. And third, it allowed me to gauge the alignment and sense of morality in the characters without the need for me to directly ask, “So, hey – aren’t you supposed to be Lawful?”
I can accept the feedback that the Tribunal Hearing was still heavy-handed, but I attempted to make the skill challenge interesting and meaningful to the story being told. And it eventually lead to the party capturing Leif – the villain that very recently tried to kill them all. So there was a payoff for the players at the end. Had the party failed on their checks at the Tribunal Hearing . . . well, they’ll never know!
Consider using a similar Tribunal Hearing with a group of adventurers that are acting a bit lawlessly in the campaign world. At the very least, it should demonstrate to the players that their actions have consequences. In addition it should offer the players an opportunity to roleplay their characters and communicate clearly their alignment and relationship with authority in the campaign world.