What Do I Do When My Players Try To Rob A House?

RPT GM Ian asks:

Hey Johnn!

I’ve got a DM question for you. What do I do when my players try to rob a house?

I’ve had this happen so many times, I’m ashamed that I’m still not sure how to handle it. It usually goes something like this:

The players come to an old estate or manor searching for information from the master or the house and just can’t keep their hands to themselves! Once they start stealing I’m never sure how to handle it from there. Set the guards on them? The NPC who owns the place threatens them? The priceless vase they steal is impossible to fence?

Afterward, they realize they never got the answer they were seeking. And now that NPC wants them arrested — or worse!

Ian, the first time my players ran afoul of the law, it was a ton of fun. Hiding, running, fighting. Roll on!

The second time the characters murder hobo’d in civilization it was somewhat fun. Rather than go to jail, they chose to mow down the guards. More XP, right?

The third time the party became criminals without a care it was boring. Back to dodging or fighting guards, fighting to the death instead of choosing capture, and all public encounters or law-abiding NPC encounters go down the toilet. Again.

Dudes!

My first approach is to downplay the law. It’s part of the reason many of my campaigns take place on the frontier or in dungeons. But this gets repetitive.

My second approach is to make the law nice. Guards are friendly. Guards look the other way. Guards are people too. But I’m really just breaking an important world element here, and that gets thin fast.

My third approach is to sic the law on the PCs. Arm up, hunt’em down, let the dice roll where they may. There must be consequences. But this is a heavy stick approach and passive aggressive GMing. “You guys get what I’m putting down here? No? Have some more then!” Players aren’t mind-readers, so this isn’t really fair.

Here’s what I think. Many players game to blow off steam. I know one player who hates drama games because her life is full of drama. No escape there.

My players love freedom. That means being contrary, pushing back, and doing what you can’t do in real life because your skill is 20 and you’re itchin’ to roll some dice. It’s like cussing in polite company — a small thrill of defiance.

I also think GMs suffer far more from repetitive gameplay than players.

Running from the law means adventure! To the players, at least.

To us it means logistics, supporting the world we’ve built vs. the PCs, and changing our plans to suit a recurring flavour of gameplay.

We live this every day as we ponder, plot, and build.

But players only live it during sessions. Every couple of weeks for my guys.

Me => Daily grind of PCs-as-criminals again, limiting my creativity and game design options. Yawn.

Players => “Can’t wait to beat the fuzz next game!”

I think in civilized gameplay this becomes one of your primary design considerations. What’s the game world going to do when the players don’t follow laws and social customs?

%FIRSTNAME%, how have you dealt with this in your campaigns? What ideas do you have for Ian?