Justice Systems for Persistent Worlds

There are two forms of required justice systems in any roleplaying game, paper or computer based.  One is the control of problem players whose only purpose in the game is to ruin the experience for others.  The second is the retribution due a character who is in the role of a criminal.  The first issue can only be dealt with by careful GM scrutiny and penalties like removing the player from the game for a while, or permanent expulsion.  This is a human judgment call, and not within the scope of an actual game system, so here we deal only with the second part.

A justice system in the sense of criminal activity is especially necessary in a world with no artifice to prevent PvP combat.  The reason that players get annoyed with a purely PK+ world is that there are no effective systems as of yet to countermand wanton murder.  For a very long time, UO was firmly in the hands of the Dread Lords, and later silly artifices were introduced like statloss and such which only contributed to macroing off murder counts and other forms of system exploitation to avoid the consequences of criminal activity.  There is no system at all on Darktide in Asheron’s Call to sanction killers, and the only defense there is to be tougher than the other guy, or have lots of friends.  Neither system is satisfactory, although the Darktide system fails spectacularly when one considers the enormous disparity in power between potential combatants, as opposed to the maximum player potential in UO.  The real problem with both systems is that for the most part, justice is up to players to mete out, and this never works.  Would-be policemen are not logged in 24/7 as they are in real life, and there are too many opportunities for the criminal to escape notice altogether.  This is also the reason why houses in UO used to be so eminently lootable:  99% of the time, there is nobody home at all.

Trying to figure out how to deal with criminals in a realistic game system is pretty much like trying to deal with any other theoretical problem:  look at the real-life analogue.  If a couple of murderers are killing and robbing the locals around the duke’s holdings, he will eventually dispatch some rangers to deal with the problem.  So the logical response in an MMORPG to the presence of a known criminal is to dispatch groups of NPC cops to hunt him down.  Ideally, they don’t simply teleport out of nowhere a la UO superguards, but actively track the character through the countryside.  There would even be the possibility for players to become errant deputies:  "Say Ranger, what are you doing?"… "We seek the wanted brigand AzzMasta!"  This also provides the criminal with the possibility of evading justice if he can get out of the area, although if he comes back he will still be wanted.  He can also attack the rangers, possibly with help, but attacking a local alderman is the game equivalent of being a cop killer, and sets one up for more stringent penalties, and consequently, more people out for his head.

The degree of the crime (and the number of them committed) can figure into how determined the cops are to get the criminal.  Assign each criminal act a value in points.  Murder would figure high, heinous murder (killing someone who is effectively defenseless, maybe) would count higher, killing a town official would almost certainly be considered particularly grave.  Variable points can be added for the social status of the victim(s), assuming you have a social status system.  More people get mad if you knock off a popular local hero than if you mug a beggar.  The total number of criminal points you have determines how often you are recognized by a patrolling ranger, whether or not a posse is sent after you, and other things like that.  A guy who attacked and killed another adventurer because he was insulted would certainly be wanted, but a mass murderer would have half the patrols out for his head, and in big numbers too.  Criminal points can be alleviated by time (very slowly), doing good works for the community, and being caught.

Of course, once the criminal is cornered, then what?  The most common response for a murderer was execution, but this was not solely out of a sense of eye-for-eye:  it was to protect the public from his depradations.  If you have a world with even limited permadeath, being killed once doesn’t really put you out of circulation very effectively unless it’s you are fresh out of resurrections, and instant permadeath as the penalty for a crime is unduly harsh on a player who may be actually contributing to the lore of the land by roleplaying a true villain, or even some poor schmuck who made a mistake.  Imprisonment, therefore, is a must-have when considering a logical justice system.  The character languishes in jail for a certain amount of real time before it can be actively played again, unable to do anything, and at the end of this prison term, the character will probably be killed publically by the local headsman and his (known) property confiscated, just to show that the baron is tough on crime.  These penalties may be reduced somewhat by a number of factors, including the criminal’s social standing (good boy from a good family who turned bad), bribery, membership in an influential organization, or even just giving up peacefully when the police surround you.  Conclusion of the punishment term results in a certain loss of criminal points, always with a cap to prevent total absolution after a career killer is arrested once, but allowing for the possibility to actually "repay one’s debt to society."  If the character is still loaded down with enough criminal points to be arrested on sight, he may be released into the woods outside the city borders, a pretty clear message.

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