When a PC commits a crime in D&D the dungeon master is in a rough spot. You should punish the player but you might not want to kill them.
When a PC commits a crime you should punish them appropriately. It will make the game better. There are ways to punish aside from death.
You actually have a variety of ways to stop players from committing crimes and punishing them when you do. We will talk about those but first, we should talk about consequences.
Consequences are very important. When a PC commits a crime in D&D they need to not get away with it or they will continue to commit crimes. This might seem fine at first, but players will push it. Give them an inch and they will try to go a mile.
When a PC commits a crime in D&D they generally start small if they are testing the waters. They will see what the punishments are and if you handwave them then things might get worse.
If the players commit a big crime out of the blue consequences should still be present. Appropriate consequences. Not every crime means that players will be killed on sight, but burning down an orphanage with children in it might carry out a lethal sentence.
It depends on your society and how strictly they follow the law. Most places are very strict in their legal system and have clear punishments. If a player is going to do something heinous like burn down that orphanage you need a deterrent. Walking around with a bounty on their heads, investigators, something.
These can be campaign plot points that spring forward the narrative for your game. If the players are caught they might receive a different punishment than just death.
When a PC commits a crime in D&D it is an opportunity to do something different. Banishment is a great example, but we will get into the specific punishments later.
If you want to read more about consequences I suggest checking out our article on them.
One last thing to cover with consequences pertaining to crimes is to make sure your players know about them beforehand. Here is an example.
DM: What do you want to do?
Player: I want to rob and murder that guy.
DM: Really? That is a pretty serious crime.
Player: I know, but I just want to make sure that he won’t talk.
DM: Alright, roll stealth to kill him quietly.
In this scenario, the player isn’t expressly told that the man he is murdering is a wealthy aristocrat. The player wouldn’t know that. Instead, he is given the choice once the dungeon master has informed him that it is a serious crime.
Did the dungeon master say what the punishment would be? No, the dungeon master did not need to. The dungeon master just said it is a serious crime and the player understood. This is important for clarification.
How many times has there been miscommunication that has led to an ‘I didn’t want to do that. I take it back.’ moment with your players?
I have had this happen a few times and when a PC commits a crime in D&D it might not be their fault. You as the dungeon master might have some miscommunication going on.
That player only wanted to follow the noble and see where they went, but you thought they were doing something different. The noble gets murdered and the player goes along with it, shocked as they roll a stealth check. They get caught and are now on the run for something that they didn’t actually do.
Of course, the player could just be trying to get out of punishment for a crime but this is rarer.
Either way, to cover your bases you need to have clarification with your player. Here is an example.
DM: What do you want to do?
Player: I want to follow him and then deal with him.
DM: What do you mean ‘deal’ with him?
Player: I don’t know, I will find out when I have more information.
Right there the dungeon master could have though ‘deal with him’ meant to kill the noble. Makes sense, but that is not what the player meant. They just wanted to follow the noble and possibly were anxious so they said an extra word. That word had weight that the player had not thought about and almost caused a whole lot of confusion.
This covers all your bases and makes the players unable to say ‘oh well I didn’t mean…’ Instead, they have made their bed and they must lie in it. You are not to be at fault if you clarified what they wanted. After that, every action is on them and not the dungeon master.
There is also some miscommunication when players don’t understand the repercussions of their actions.
Players are thrown into a different world. They don’t know everything that is legal or illegal. Players also are thrown into a different time so they might not know what the laws are in your society. Lastly, the players deal with death on a regular basis. In this world, murder isn’t that big of a thing, right?
When a player commits a crime in D&D they might not understand the legal rules. If a player visits a foreign country this is understandable but in their country of origin, they should know the laws. Killing is bad yes but how bad? Is it a fine of 50 gold or execution? Does it depend on who you commit the crime on? For example, committing a crime on a noble will carry a greater sentence than on a peasant. Is the legal system fair?
These questions and more are important to answer. You might think that yes killing is bad and the death penalty should be applied, but should it? Society in the past had far different morals than what we have today. The nursery rhymes about ‘down will come baby cradle and all.’ is meant to illustrate the death of a child.
They sang a nursery song about their child’s potential death to their child. This is because dark humor was almost necessary for them when people died every day at a young age.
Is your society like this? If not why?
This is something that players may already have considered but you have not. You as the dungeon master need to communicate what the rules of society are to your players.
Sounds strange I know, but this is something that should be considered. With these different times does the severity of your crime matter?
Severity of the crime
When a PC commits a crime in D&D they do not commit the same crime every time. Some like to pickpocket a lot but others might murder. Both are crimes and should have different punishments based on their severity right?
This once again depends on the society. If you are in a very lawful and ordered society pickpocketing might carry a death sentence as murder would. Seems extreme but your society can be like this. It can lead to an interesting setting, but players generally prefer a legal system akin to our own.
Make different crimes give different punishment based on the severity. How harsh should the player be punished though?
Players generally should not be killed for their crimes. The threat of death should be there sure but your players should be relatively powerful compared to the average person in your world. This gives them leverage.
Remember the villain trick of not killing your players but making them work for you? This can be done with the good guys as well. Make the law force them to do a fetch quest with something personal to them on ransom.
There are a bunch of creative ways to deal with players committing crimes but let’s work from the ground up with basic theft/disturbance of the peace to what did you do!?!
For minor crimes, there are a few ways to go about it. When a PC commits a crime in D&D it can be a past time.
The easiest way to do this is when everyone is doing downtime activities the thief says they want to steal from people. Cool. Have them roll to see how well they did and give them max 10x their level. Make the failure rate something low like a 5 and the rate for maximum success 10+ the player’s level. Anything in-between is up to you to give the player.
This makes crime not so bad when it is an unplanned downtime activity and somewhat rewarding but never as rewarding as learning skills, proficiencies, etc.
If a player gets caught doing a minor crime like theft there are a few options which you can employ for punishment.
Minor crime punishments
When a PC commits a crime in D&D and is caught for minor offenses they should be able to pay off the fine.
They didn’t know to not draw weapons in public give them a warning if they are charismatic or a minor fine of maybe 10 gold.
Did they vandalize a piece of property? Community service.
Have you ever made players do community service? It sucks! They have to spend their downtime doing community service and are tied to one location. The enemies of the player also have blackmail if they want to use it on the PC.
You do not even have to pay anything but this minor annoyance can become extremely annoying and teach the players not to break the law. Or at least, get caught while breaking the law.
You can also factor in what they have done in the past or what they can still do for the city. If the players are very powerful they might be pardoned or even given a deal. Your players are powerful people and powerful people get special priveledges no matter if it is right or wrong.
The last type of punishment that you could give for minor or even moderate crimes is probation.
This will create an NPC that the player has to report to. This NPC is probably weaker than the player but they still have power over them. This makes for some fun comedy or just an interesting dynamic. It also gives the player a hard lesson that even if they are powerful less powerful people can still have a hold over them.
This could shape character development by making them see the light or more likely go further down the rabbit hole of crime but hey, that is their choice.
Now onto the serious crimes.
How to deal with serious crimes
When a PC commits a crime in D&D and it is big, there is no salvation. A murder could be big or meh. Depends on your society. But the murder of a noble? That most likely will not fly in any society.
If a player is caught in a terrible crime they will have to be punished. Now as I mentioned at the beginning of the article you don’t want to kill your players. Instead, you want to use these crimes as an opportunity for you to do something interesting. Banish them!
This makes the players leave their place of comfort and can be terrible if they owned a home. This will make them more responsible in the future when they own a place of residence. The players are at your whim and if they end up making everyone mad somehow then there is nowhere else to go.
Trust me, I played a game where the players made every faction within 100 miles their enemies. It didn’t turn out well and since then they have been very conscious about committing crimes.
You can also have bounty hunters after them. Not every player gets caught for their crimes but unlike minor crimes, they have people actively looking for them. Some people will even go behind the laws back and hire murders to hunt down your party.
This can make the game go in many different directions. The players can see the error of their ways and try to apologize or make amends. They can decide to hunt down and kill the people trying to murder them. Lastly, the players might turn into villains as they want to murder everyone.
Your players may take a different path but I have seen these few paths happen and they are quite interesting.
There is one last thing to talk about when a PC commits a crime in D&D.
Players testing you
When people play D&D they turn into children. Children test their parents to see what they can get away with. Some of your players will do this.
They will push the envelope and try to see how much they can get away with.
To these players, punish them as described above. Do not single them out and give extra punishment. I have seen this happen and dungeon masters have tried to use the rules of the world to justify it.
We will cover how to deal with ‘that player’ in another article but for now, treat them as normal and make sure that there are consequences.
When a PC commits a crime in D&D it can be a hassle to deal with. You have to make sure that they do not die and at the same time punish them accordingly.
Punishing your players can get them to stop committing crimes and also prevent them from becoming murder hobos by learning about responsibility.
The punishment from crimes can also be a great opportunity for you as a dungeon master. Banishment, bounty hunters, and even community service open up a whole host of opportunities that might not have been present otherwise.
Make sure to be fair in how you punish your players and let them do minor crimes for a downtime activity if they really want to. A rogue wants to steal so let them get some pocket change. They just need to not roll a 1….
But what do you think? Should you be even more harsh with your players? I would love to know what you think. What should you do when a PC commits a crim in D&D?
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!