Magistrate Abraham.jpg
Magistrate Abraham, a constitutional scholar and part of the
Constitutional Council

Overview

One of the distinctive features of Empire is the criminal justice system. Empire is a relatively law-abiding society; it has an extensive body of established law, legal and constitutional protections for citizens, an organized militia to investigate crimes and politically independent magistrates who conduct trials. Of course the system isn't perfect - just like the judicial system in the real world it has severe limitations. But we have put a considerable amount of time into the design of the legal system in Empire - along with the design of the game rules - to try and make it as effective as we possibly can.

We gone to that effort because the very existence of the legal system underpins one of the key design criteria for the game - it is an important adjunct to an essential part of the social contract of the game. This page explains why the system was designed this way and what we expect of players when interacting with the law.

Design Goals

Our goal for Empire was to create a game where characters competed with each other for political control of the Empire. This is classically referred to as "Player vs Player" or usually shortened to "PvP". It's usually seen as an alternative to "Player vs Monster" or simply "PvM" - where players compete against NPCs and monsters created by the game team. Of course Empire also includes some crucial skirmishes and battles against the barbarian forces - and that is an important part of the game design - but your key protagonists are other players.

Empire isn't the first PvP game we've run - in fact all the games that Profound Decisions have run have focused on PvP elements to a greater or lesser degree. But in Empire we are very keen to focus on a particular form of PvP - namely political and social interactions - rather than on direct combat. The concept is that combat is primarily against the NPC barbarian forces, whereas the conflict between players is political and economic in nature.

The reasons behind this choices are fairly simple. Our experience from Maelstrom was that PvP combat can be deeply unsatisfying unless it is carefully managed. If it's going to have any meaning at all then it's often over incredibly quickly and usually because one side is attacking with surprise and overwhelming numbers. It also tends to be overwhelmingly fatal - involving one side wiping out the other. It was also clear that these kind of games were inherently unstable - the risk was that half the player base would wipe out the other half. We didn't want that for many reasons - not least of which was that it tends to cut a character's story very short. And when it happens on a widespread scale it tends to undermine the credibility of the setting; it becomes harder and harder for the organisers and the participants to justify why murderous rivals are meeting up to socialise with each other on a regular basis.

Likewise, PvM politics tends to equally unsatisfying for some players. It can be hard for NPCs to compete with players on an equal footing in a large LRP game, partly because there are so few of them, partly because players tend to instinctively band together against NPCs, and partly because they often lack the killer political instincts that the players have. Even worse, in a game where we want the primary protagonists to be players - where we want the plot of the game to be about the decisions that those players have taken - it is completely counter-productive to have NPCs trying to politically outwit the players. In a game in which players compete with each for control of the Empire - the last thing we want to do is be part of that competition - not least because it's a competition we would never want to win.

The Role of the Legal System

The problem with the idea that players will be political rivals is that murdering your political rivals in their camp at night is the single most efficient political strategy available in most LRP games. Because of the way live roleplaying events are set up, it is unrealistically easy to do and unrealistically easy to get away with it. It is also usually brutally effective. Of course not everyone is comfortable with murder - lots of live roleplayers struggle to kill their rivals characters because of out-of-character concerns about the impact on the game for everyone. Sadly that only makes the strategy more efficient for those who are prepared to use it.

The role of the legal system in Empire is to make it as difficult as reasonably possible to kill other characters and get away with it - it's not terribly different to real life in that respect. We wanted murder of a rival to be an act of last resort - something only the truly desperate would attempt. The system of laws, magistrates, and militia exists as part of the game design to try and ensure the best possible chance that someone who murders a rival will be caught. If players believe that murdering someone carries a significant risk of being caught, tried, and executed - then it acts as a strong disincentive, shifting the balance to other options.

Of course it's easy to critique Empire's legal system in terms of the high profile failures. The murders that still happen - and those that go unsolved. But this really misses the point - the goal isn't to eliminate murder entirely. As game designers if that were our goal then we could just create a force majeure to prevent it. What we wanted was that murder be a last resort - that players at least stop to consider the risks of being caught first. The fact that some high profile characters do occasionally get killed completely obscures the plain fact that it remains rare - exceptionally rare by the standards of most large fest LRP games - and that people don't simply turn up at someone's camp late at night, mob-handed, and kill everyone they find. You can see the murders that happened despite the legal system - it's much harder to see all the murders that didn't happen because of it.

The design of the legal framework was done in tandem with the design of the rules. There is no way to compel the truth in Empire - that would undermine the important political intrigue - but there are very effective spells and rituals that allow you to talk to the dead. It's relatively easy to kill a character in Empire - but it's harder to get away with murder in a system where a character is not unconscious when reduced to zero hits and can continue to scream and call for help until they are executed. It's exceptionally hard for an organiser to create tools to provide information to players who are investigating a crime in a fest LRP - because the organisers very rarely know who did the murder - but we did what we could to make identifying criminals as easy as possible.

Of course discovering who carried out a crime is only half the battle in a live roleplaying game. There has to be some effective system for extracting justice. In Empire that is carried out by the magistrates and the militia. The militia are all PCs - they investigate crimes and bring all the evidence they can find before the magistrates. The magistrates however are all NPCs - creating a situation that is unusual in Empire where the players are usually portraying the characters in charge of the situation and making decisions.

We chose to have NPCs conducting the trials for two key reasons. The most crucial is the obvious one - because achieving the goals of the game design is dependent on an effective legal system, we wanted to ensure that the trials themselves were not part of the PvP politics of the game. You can't suborn the magistrates, you can't blackmail them, or threaten them. In many live roleplaying games, the identity of a murderer is common knowledge, but they are too well connected for anyone to do anything about it. That happens less in Empire, because our NPC magistrates strive to be completely impartial and detached from the politics and rivalries of the players.

The other reason is because trials can be astonishingly boring in live roleplaying games. They ought to be moments of high drama and tension - but for various reasons they tend to be tedious and drawn-out affairs that go nowhere. Having NPCs magistrates allows us to at least try to expedite trials and do what we can to focus on having a fair judicial system that moves quickly to a dramatic resolution.

Social Contract

Of course the legal system is only a disincentive to murder and other crimes if you are put off by the prospect of your character being caught and executed. If players create characters who have no concerns for the repercussions of their actions then that does undermine the game. For this reason, as part Empire's social contract, we ask people not to create characters who have no concern for their own demise - or at least not at the hands of the magistrates. It's fine to be extraordinarily brave on the battlefield, nobody will mind if your character's life is quickly swept away when fighting the barbarians. But characters in Anvil should be cognisant of the law and give due consideration to the reality of what will happen if they openly break it.

That means that creating a disposable character purely for the sake of attacking another character at Anvil is completely outside the remit of fair play for the game. As a result, certain very extreme characters, like a serial killer or a murderous fanatic are also outside the social contract of what is appropriate for Empire. We do accept that murder will still happen, but it is something that should happen because of a fierce rivalry and antipathy that has developed in play. There is an inherent fairness to this process - people tend to have a narrative of their character's existence in their head. In effect we are all the starring character in our story when we're roleplaying. For that reason many players find it deeply unsatisfying to be randomly murdered. It's always sad to lose a loved character - but if it happens as a result of a long running feud then there there is a cause and effect which gives meaning to the death.

On the flip side there are some things which are encouraged in the social contract for Empire which may be viewed as inappropriate in other games. The most obvious one is what happens when your character dies at the hands of another character. In live roleplaying games where murdering your political rivals is widespread, creating a new character in the same group and nation can be looked down on. If murder is encouraged as a means to damage your rivals power - if what matters is the body count of your enemies, then the practical impact of that is blunted if a player simply creates a new character that has the same allegiance as the old one. Hence why it can be considered inappropriate to do that.

There is no equivalent in Empire - murder should only really happen as a result of intense rivalry - a long running feud between characters - a desperate attempt to strike down a hated enemy. At no point is the body count of your rivals ever relevant - the conflict between characters is social and political in nature - you can defeat a rival in many different ways, none of which require violence. That means that if your character dies, it is always perfectly acceptable to create a new character who is part of one or more of the same bands that your previous character was a member of. Obviously it's good to create a new character - and you certainly shouldn't have any private memories or items that your old character had - but you can absolutely create a character from the same hall, the same chapter or house and so on. In fact if your whole group gets killed on the battlefield, we encourage everyone to create new members of the same group if they want to. Because murder is heavily discouraged in the system - there is no "play balance" to losing your character - you don't have to intrinsically make that death matter by starting a new character somewhere else. You can if you want to - Empire is a big game with many different things to appeal to different players - but there is no obligation to do that.

Retiring A Character

As part of Empire's set-up any crimes that take place in the game are investigated by the militia. All these characters are players - they've chosen to be part of the militia because of the enjoyment to be had from investigating crimes and trying to solve them in-character. Obviously we want to encourage that - because what they're doing also strongly supports the setting and helps the game to work as designed - but ultimately they are players who have paid to be at the event so their enjoyment is also a critical part of the game itself.

For that reason, it's not appropriate for players who are retiring their characters to arrange with a friend to have their character murdered or to simply create a murder or similar exit. Real murders are already difficult enough for the militia to solve as it is! But when a player - or sometimes their group - conspire to invent a murder as a way of "creating game" then the militia are forced to interact with that as if there was an actual murder to solve. Almost inevitably that isn't the case, because the character has not actually been killed in play by another hostile character acting against them. That means that other player characters will be forced to waste time and energy and resources investigating the "death", using tools like the ritual Whispers through the Black Gate only to get no useful evidence that leads them anywhere.

This might be fun for the player retiring their character, it might be fun for their group even - but that fun is all at the expense of the players in the militia. It doesn't take long when investigating an incident that has been prearranged like this to discover that it is not a real crime that has taken place during the game for in-character reasons. But if the militia do sense that a murder has been arranged by the victim and their friends, that is not a conclusion that makes any sense in-character. As a result they are often forced to roleplay through investigating the matter, despite the fact that everyone involved knows that there isn't a crime that can be solved here.

There are loads of good ways for your character to die in Empire if you want a dramatic exit. The easiest and best way is to start taking absurd risks on the battlefield - that will usually get your character killed pretty quickly. But if you're in a rush to die and you want to make sure that your breathe your last then you can always speak to our referee team and they will arrange for you to receive a traumatic wound that cannot be cured. That will allow you a dramatic final scene with your allies. Even if you don't take the battlefield, you can still talk to the refs about getting something fatal arranged for your character if you absolutely want that. It does mean some work for us - so we prefer players to take their lives in their own hands if they can - but anything is preferable to fabricating a story that your character has been murdered!