Best Ways To Handle Town Guards

klLaw enforcement in fantasy games presents GMs with a dilemma.

a) Do you let the guards do their jobs, which means most PCs will soon get into trouble and must duck and cover or fight the guard at every turn?

b) Do you let the PCs run rampant, causing murder and mayhem, and risk breaking sense of disbelief (and your hopes and plans) because there are no consequences for breaking the law?

Spending every campaign in prison or on the run is the type of gameplay sentence you want to avoid. Here are the best ways I know how to factor in town guards while still giving PCs freedom to play their style of game.

1. Incompetent And Corrupt

The guard is unable to do their job effectively because they have no training or skill, or because they have a selfish agenda of abusing their authority to achieve personal gains.

PCs get away with most of their actions because the guards are too busy serving their own ends. Alternatively, PCs escape notice or capture because the guards are so incompetent.

There is great gaming potential in such an environment!

Leader hires incompetent guards for his own evil purposesA blend of corruption and bumbling, someone has the ability to only hire those who will not interfere with their larger agenda. The leader figure could be the head of the whole city, the head of the guard, or just a bureaucrat who screens candidates.
This option gives you an instant plot hook too, should you choose: save the city from the corrupt leader. First step would be finding out where the corruption lies. Next step would be to learn how the leader is doing it and how he is getting away with it. Third step would be getting proof, catching the leader red handed, or removing the leader from power.

Such steps fit into the three act structure nicely, if you choose. Should the PCs confront the leader without ending things immediately, they just tip him off. This creates great encounters and scenes, and puts new roadblocks in the PCs’ way.

Before launching this situation, figure out:

Who is the corrupt leader?
How do they manage to fill the ranks with bumbling fools?
What other authority figures must be involved to make this happen? (e.g. politicians, high-ranking guards, other guild leaders)
Why is the leader doing this? There must be some greater goal or plot afoot.
For example:

Captain Bennett, head of recruitment
Interviews candidates himself; only hires the weak and stupid; ensures the trainers themselves are unskilled; shortened training to two days; pushes reports upwards that only the poor, stupid and unwilling ever apply to be guards, so the pool of choices is always limited.
So far, the Captain has had little trouble convincing his bosses that only poor candidates ever apply to become guards. The head of the merchants guild filed so many complaints about the law enforcement incompetence, it was getting hard intercepting her each time. Plus, she has made several astute guesses. So, he offered her a monthly cut in exchange for greater access to merchant guild resources.
The Captain works for the campaign villain, who would find it much more difficult carrying out dark plots if the guard were capable of detecting and interfering with them.
Pockets of honesty and competenceYou have the option to make key NPCs, guard units or sections within guard head quarters skilled and uncorrupt. You might do this to provide a bit of resistance to PC activities. The threat of some guard retaliation might keep players from burning the whole city down in the first session. 🙂
In addition, lots more plot and encounter potential opens up if there is conflict within the law enforcement establishment.

Guards are disorganized, under-funded and under-staffedA great setup if you just want a quick method to knock the guards out of your campaign so the PCs can do their thing without much interference, while still offering a logical reason why the guards have not locked them up yet.
Bureaucracy, budgets, leadership priorities, health of the economy and government, and cultural factors can supply you reasons why the guards do not get better equipment, training and support.

For example, the city of Riddleport in my campaign is a gentrified pirate city that has carried on a tradition of contempt for central authority. Despite the danger, older families and guilds prefer a lawless environment so they can carry on the way they’ve always done under the philosophy of “might makes right.”

Guards are cowardsAnother type of incompetence, this option could explain why the PCs can wage fights in the streets, break into places without recourse, and intimidate the locals. Who will stand up to them?
It’s not believable every guard in the city hasn’t the backbone to do their job and arrest the PCs, but this reason could work in the district the characters tend to operate in, leaving the party free to act like typical PCs.

PCs can bribe guards easilyAn excellent option that gives the excuse you need to prevent the campaign from turning into an ongoing PC manhunt. If the PCs get into trouble, they can just open their purse strings and buy their way out of an arrest, sentence, or in the worst case, jail.
This option gives you the bonus of siphoning away PC treasure. It becomes a new expense for them. The great thing is the PCs choose to commit the crimes, so bribing guards becomes a choice as well, if not a deliberate strategy.

Consider creating a list of crimes, and instead of the usual table of punishments, note the expected bribe amounts instead. Whether you choose to share this with the players or not, it will help you keep bribes consistent.

You might also create individual guards who charge more or less and who are more or less reliable. This gives you variation on bribe rates, seeds for new NPCs and potential plot hooks. For example, perhaps the guard who takes smaller bribes to look the other way also reports the characters’ activities to a senior officer for a bonus.

2. Get Player Agreement Up Front

Before the campaign begins and characters are made, have a discussion with your group. Decide how law enforcement will work in the setting and how it will affect gameplay. Let the players help you create this aspect of the game. Hopefully this produces a result the group can live by and play by when the campaign starts.

What kind of adventures do you want to DM?
What kind of adventures do they want to play?
What kind of adventurers do they want to play?
Be sure to represent the world-building point of view, that the players are unlikely to have, where the setting will be full of people who need to live by the decisions the group makes.

Sure, it is fun and easy to want to play heroes who can do what they want without any consequences. But what has stopped others from doing the same in the past, causing strife, misery and tragedy? Surely a society would take actions to prevent this from happening again.

By having this discussion at the beginning of the campaign you can formulate a world around the desires of the group.

For example, the players remain adamant they want to be unhindered by law enforcement. Two options of many come to mind:

Option #1: Create a warlord environment with an unsophisticated legal system. There are no guards, just agents of the warlord, and the warlord decides punishments. The PCs are safe unless they commit some major crime.
Option #2: Give the characters law enforcement powers. This solves many small game issues handily, and gives you a handy campaign platform as a bonus.
As you can see, both options have a profound impact on a campaign.

In addition, deciding this up front helps inform players what kind of characters they should create. I think this is where most campaigns fall down in terms of handling guards. The group creates PCs near the beginning of the process, which is like putting the cart before the horse. Or worse, players create characters outside the process, and they just show up to the first session with no idea of your plan, and everyone hopes things magically gel together. Either way, characters will be at odds with the setting, campaign and adventurers the game master has planned.

The solution is to discuss law enforcement before characters are created, as part of campaign planning from the beginning.

If you are mid-campaign there is still hope. If guards are a current headache for you, have a group chat immediately. Discuss the situation to get the group’s preferences. Once everyone agrees on the law enforcement style they would like, you need to make some changes.

Start with the characters. Continuing the discussion, ask the players how their characters will adapt to the group decision. This might require character personality tweaking, background changes, and motive changes. Players might need to reframe their character’s point of view a bit so they are in sync with what everyone decided they wanted gameplay to be like.

Next, tackle the setting. Make necessary changes so the law enforcement style and presence matches what everyone’s new expectations are. With character and setting changes planned out, you will need to update your adventure.

Make quick and seamless changes right away. Make bigger changes that can be done without requiring retroactive gameplay. Players will not care if you change game world history that they have not learned yet, for example, though you might need to update NPC backgrounds and motives as a result.

For changes that are big and visible I suggest running encounters to play them out. For example, the PCs stumble into a deadly fight between guards and the villain’s minions. If the PCs help the minions, then the guards who had a grudge, proof, or pending charges against the PCs are slain. Assuming no witnesses, problem solved. If the PCs help the guards, then out of gratitude the guards become friendly to them, drop the charges, and tend to look the other way in the future.

3. Make Them Allies

Guards friendly and sympathetic to the PCs make many of your headaches go away. This is one of my favourite campaign options. If the guards are friendly, likely the PCs will be more law abiding, or at least more cooperative.

Have the guards offer an olive branch. They must make the first step as the PCs likely will not. This is understandable because the players do not know what to expect from the game world, so the characters will be cautious or even hostile. Perhaps the guards summoned to the aftermath of an encounter chat with the PCs in a professional and objective manner. Instead of arrests, they might offer warnings, or better yet, offer to help.

Not all law enforcement needs to be heavy-handed. From your perspective, you might want to curtail fireballs and slaughter in the streets from the start. You may be inclined to summon a company of competent guards to smack the PCs around a bit and teach them a lesson. As we know from experience, this never works.

Instead, try making the guards sympathetic to the PCs’ situation. They are just doing their job. They want what is best for the PCs, the town, and all the other citizens. “How can we make this work so you can continue fighting against Lord Maldor without burning the town down or putting anyone at risk?”

Such an approach makes the characters sympathetic to the guards, in turn. Often after such an encounter, the characters will factor more lawful thinking into their plans. If they do not, you have not lost anything. The guards can still respond in force in the future.

However, the opposite is far more difficult to accomplish. Guards that come off as hostile or jerks will get the PCs’ backs up. Future olive branches will get rebuffed. Chances for the PCs to behave better because they have a friendly and productive relationship with law enforcement are zero.

4. Balkanized

We come now to my favourite option for handling guards in campaigns: factions. While not suitable for every campaign or setting, Balkanised law enforcement gives you the greatest range of options. There is no central authority, or if there is it is no more powerful than other factions. Instead, the environment is such that might makes right.

Regional leaders dictate the law. Enforcement style is based on the philosophy and resources of each faction. Characters can get away with a lot in such a setting, yet there can still be consequences for running amok.

If PCs do get into trouble with a faction, they can just change locations so they are out of arm’s reach. Incursions into a hostile faction’s territory offer exciting and dramatic gameplay, but the PCs do not have to be on the run for the whole campaign this time. They just need to return to neutral or friendly territory, and this territory could be as large as one side of town or a small as a neighbourhood block.

This type of setting also gives you a chance to learn more about your players. You can offer up a number of different types of law enforcement and see what works and what does not.

Players also get more strategic options, should they choose to exercise them. They can play factions off against each other, form alliances and ruin relations between factions to make areas easier to adventure in.

Faction play requires more work on your behalf, but it could be just the thing to solve your guard problems.