There are many role playing games, both mainstream and independent. However, some of the more interesting RPGs are the independent ones, the best of which find a niche to stake out as their own.
This week I am reviewing Tough Justice, by notorious Englishman Ian Warner, which is a game that found a niche and claimed the spot as its own. In this case, that particular niche is a historical courtroom drama, in the English legal system.
Warner has set this historical game during a time called the Blood Code, which ran from the late 17th century through the 18th and into the early 19th century. For more than a hundred years, a host of laws in England mandated the death penalty if the court handed down a conviction for the accused.
According to the Tough Justice RPG, the list of things which automatically brought the death penalty under the Bloody Code include standard period items such as sodomy, espionage and shoplifting but also grab bag of odd crimes as well, such as blackening your face at night, spending a month with gypsies and cutting down a young tree. Of these the cutting down the young tree feels the most capricious, as there is nothing in the text about what qualifies as a young tree or even the ownership of the tree being relevant – you can get hung by the neck until dead for clearing brush and saplings from your own property.
In any event, at the start of the period, 50 laws mandated the death penalty and before things turned around the list expanded to 220. England at this time managed to outdo Texas for legally ending people, which is saying something. It was a high time for rope merchants. Assuming they did not do something like cut down a small tree.
In any event, that is backdrop of the game but the core is letting the players fight it out, in a period English court of law, as the opposing legal sides battling over the fate of some schmuck caught with a hatchet while standing over a chopped up copse.
That was a pune, or a play on words.
Tough Justice is the only RPG I know of about playing out a legal clash. Imagine it as rather like Law and Order, where not enough people bathe and too many people wear silly wigs.
In mechanical terms, players first think of a concept for their characters and then to match that concept divide up their starting pool of 18 points among six stats, which include Authority, Jibe, Charm, Investigation, Violence and Composure. Jibe and charm function as charisma, more or less, while Composure functions as something like hit points. It is worth noting that in Tough Justice, under the rules as written, it is more or less impossible for characters to die. They are playing the lawyers and associates battling over a case, not the accused. So Composure works as hit points in a situation where losing their shit or having a great big hissy fit would be detrimental to their side of the case. Character creation also includes assigning merits and flaws to the character, which modify the stats under certain circumstances.
Characters created, the players divide into two groups, one for the prosecution and one for the defense. Under the rules as written, only one character on each side actually speaks during the court phase of the game, this character being the barrister. Other players run characters that are lawyers, who do the legal case work as compared to making a presentation, allies and associates on both sides to corral and coerce witnesses, collection information useful to the case and try to sabotage the work of the other side. I am not a legal scholar and certainly not one for English legal history, but everything I have read indicates Warner did a good job recreating in game terms the function of English courts of this period. As part of the accuracy, while the game permits female characters, they may be neither barristers nor lawyers.
The simple mechanic of the game is a rolled d6, with the relevant stat added, and the stat is modified depending on the merit and flaw and the circumstances. Sometimes these rolls are contested roll against the effort of another player. Important here is the degree of difference in a successfully opposed roll. These points are the so-called “win margin” and players must keep track of these win margin points as they play into the final verdict of the trial.
Most of the facts about the accused – gender, age, occupation – are randomly determined. Occupation is relevant because it can give case points to one side or the other; the occupation of pickpocket automatically gives case points to the prosecution, for example. The crime for which the accused is… uh… accused is also randomly determined.
Early parts of a game include the arrest phase and the pretrial phase, allowing for collection of the NPC accused by player characters working for the prosecution, duels between PCs on the opposing sides and case investigation and sabotaging the opposing side. All the results, from opposed investigations, duels and so forth, generate win margin points for use in the actual trial. To reiterate an earlier point, it is not possible for one player character to kill another, though they can injure each other and injuries are a liability during a trial.
There is a specific order of actions permissible during a trial, which again appears to match what was and was not possible during actual English Courts of the period. Anyway, much of the trial phase comes down to opposed challenges to accumulate the most win margin points.
At the end of the trial, if the prosecution has the most points, the court finds the accused guilty and issues a death penalty. If the defense has the most case points, the accused is acquitted. Note that, the actual guilt or innocence of the accused is more or less irrelevant in terms of the verdict. It is possible, though not mandatory, to play through the post trial phase, including execution and burial.
The game has its flaws. For one, it is almost totally without art, and what art there is consists of stock line art of people in period costumes made creepy by their lack of irises and pupils. It is like pictures of well-dressed zombies, who I think should be executed on general principal. Another flaw is the only real way for any player characters do die is during childbirth, meaning the only way to die is if you are running a woman. Men should be able to die as well, not only for the sake of gender balance but it would make the trials more interesting if one lawyer can flat out murder another before the trial, to help their case.
The text is laid out is an acceptable and functional manner, though, the relative lack of art makes the pages appear dense and gray in places. Other issues include the fact, Warner includes a 25-page long section defining jargon and slang terms from the period, which is much too long – it is supposed to be an RPG book, not a period dictionary. Also, there are too many pages of example play - they are good for demonstrating how the game works, but they also go on and on. Finally, early sections of the book giving Warner’s background and talking explaining RPGs are also unnecessary.
To its credit, the book includes a solid table of contents and a detailed index, which help makes up for a lack of bookmarks in the 260-page PDF.
Ultimately, I give Tough Justice a 15 on a d20 roll. While it has its flaws, as niche games go, this unique game fill its chosen niche well and over all the game and book is well executed. The mechanic for adjudicating an over-all trial is smooth, focused and a commendable game tool.
In the opening of the book, Warner describes Tough Justice as a beer and crisps game, or the English version of a beer and pretzels game – a kind of game played during a break from a regular campaign or something requiring little story investment done as a one-shot. It can be that.
I suggest make a Tough Justice game a part of a regular game. In most RPG games, the PCs are always burning things down, blowing shit up and killing people. Perhaps one or more of them are accused of something they may or may not have done. Once accused and arrested, the game temporarily shifts to what would otherwise simply be NPCs – lawyers, court officials, witness and so forth – while the former players characters become NPCs for the duration of the trial.
It would be a good reason for the players to be nice to NPCs. And to stop chopping down small trees.