Tough Justice is a very interesting concept: A courtroom drama game set in the time of “The Bloody Code”, running from the late 17th century into the 19th Century. The Bloody Code was known as such, because the courts in England apparently looked to capital punishment as the solution for…just about any crime. The players play Prosecution and Defense in a capital case and, perhaps most interestingly, the game offers “kid gloves” sidebars for running it as an educational experience.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Tough Justice is $9.99 in PDF, or $15.11 through Lulu. The PDF is 260 pages and, while searchable, lacks bookmarks, unfortunate in any PDF over 100 pages. The author, Ian Warner, is a big history buff, which prompted the creation of this game, it seems.
The book includes an astonishing 24 page glossary of slang and legal terms from the era, impressive by any measure. As well, just in case you need it, is a list of English noble titles and how one should address them in conversation.
Characters are defined by six stats, on a scale of 1-5, with 18 points to spend. The six stats are Authority (using facts and logic), Jibe (banter and insults), Charm (people skills), Investigation (er, investigating), Violence (er, violence) and Composure (the ability to keeo your cool). Interestingly, your Composure can Decay throughout the game as you fail Composure rolls. Next, characters can either be Good At two things, or Very Good At one thing…either taking a +1 bonus in two areas, or a +2 bonus in a single area. Finally, you pick a Merit and a Flaw. Merits include bits like Ferreter (making Investigation rolls easier), Unimpeachable Morals (making Jibe harder to use against them) or Water Tight Private Life (making Investigation harder to use aginst them). Flaws include Too Nice By Half (making it harder to use Jibe), Wimp (making it harder to use Violence) and Secret Felony (which provides a chance that the PC may wind up as the defendant!).
Next, the group picks teams (Prosecution and Defense) and assigns Roles. Barristers are the lead on the case. Attorneys are the back-up lawyers, basically, and Allys are pretty much everyone else. Additionally, Prosecution gets Thief Takers, which are kinda like bounty hunters. Finally, the players flesh out their characters’ backgrounds in key points, and then agree on Relationships with the other characters (codified in little in-character quoteS). While the book does provide a character creation example, step by step, it also includes half a dozen sample characters spread out among Prosecution and Defense.
Generally, you roll a die and add 1 to it if you’re Good at it, or two if you’re Very Good at it, and add your relevant statistic. If you have a relevant Merit, you roll two dice and take the highest, if you have a relevant Flaw, then do the same and take the lowest. Pretty basic, but functional. You can also “Play Booty”, which is throwing a Challenge. This is most advisable if your Composure is in danger. Additionally, some rolls are just made against a chosen Difficulty, and are not actively opposed by another character. Every Challenge’s Win Margin has a wider effect on the case, and is tracked by the GM through Case Points.
Defendant Generation (if the defendant isn’t a PC), plays right to my strengths: It’s a bunch of random tables. Roll sex, age, profession…Males, Females and Children have their own Professions tables, so you don’t wind up with an 8 year old pimp or a 45 year old male midwife. Stats for adults are handled like normal, kids have fewer points. The Profession the defendant has also provides a bonus for either Prosecution or Defense, depending…and some professions can be hidden from the Prosecution, denying them their bonus.
Once the Defendant is created, we move onto the case. A chart is provided for the various offenses, which can provide Defense and Prosecution bonuses. The crimes including Cutting Down Young Trees, Sodomy, Intercepting The King’s Mail and…wow…being an Unmarried Mother Concealing A Stillborn Child. There are numerous sidebars here about some of the “crimes”, including that last one, as well as combinations that may not make much sense (although you can certainly run with ‘em…frankly, I think the idea of a 12 year old on trial for Insurrection is quite interesting).
The GM is recommended to track Case Points secretly, presumably so it would be harder for both sides to “game the system”, and I like that approach. Some of the crimes provide bonus case points like the occupations do, so yeah, it is quite possible for someone to wind up with a pretty big lead due to randomization.
Once everything is set up, dive into the Arrest phase. This largely consists of the Thief Taker taking down the Defendant. The example here is darkly humorous with an overzealous Thief Taker pummeling the Defendant (a younger girl) in order to bring her in.
From there we move to the Pre-Trial Phase, which also includes challenges of honor such as Dueling (but only between respectable gentlemen), Pugilism (but only between working class men) and Hag Fights (between working class women). The Pre-Trial Phase takes place over a set number of turns (the default is 7), and each side gets to take an action each turn. The types of actions can vary greatly (allowing each team to play to their strengths), with numerous examples provided for inspiration. For instance, you can start nasty rumors to poison the well against the other side’s case, try to intimidate witnesses, seduce a member of the opposing team to learn information and so on. This is followed by a very lengthy example of the pre-trial phase.
By the Trial Phase, Barristers are going to be doing most of the heavy lifting, although there are options for others (namely Allies) to do, such as appear as witnesses or prepare “surprises” for the trial. Again, this goes into each step of the Trial, from describing even the smell of the courtroom to setting the Jury Strenght. The GM gets to sit back and play Judge, reacting to the tricks pulled by Prosecution and Defense. One area where I would part is the Defense’s plea…it says the GM should decide what stat to use, but unless you’re really having issues between the Defendant and the Defense, I don’t see why the Defense wouldn’t have a say in it. Anywho, Prosecution also has a distinct advantage in that they get to “sum up” their case (think modern closing statements), while the Defense is forbidden from talking to the Jury! The Verdict is a simple matter of comparing the final scores, but the GM (playing as the Jury) should play it up a bit. There ARE rare cases in which a Defendant is found guilty, but is not sentenced to hanging…but most of the time, yeah, victory for the Prosecution does equal death.
But that’s not all! There are also last minute twists that can be played, such as female defendants trying to get knocked up in order to avoid the death penalty, or defendants getting cases reopened when it came down to the wire between Prosecution and Defense.
When you get into the final days of the Defendant (if found guilty), there is a surprising amount of room for drama, especially if the Defense did get attached to the Defendant. Five methods of execution are given (Hanging, Burning At The Stake, Beheading, Drawn and Quartering and Firing Squad, although only the military get that last one). Then, the GM gets to decide what to do with the body.
Tough Justice is a largely non-lethal game (for all but the Defendants), so Retirement is presented as an option to get rid of those characters you may not care for any longer. To that end, Advancement goes with the player and not the character, so new characters are on par with existing ones. The final phase of the case is rolling for Felonies…if the PCs broke the law over the course of the game, well, they may have to answer for it.
Appendix One offers some Advanced Rules like Cock Ups, which are (essentially) critical failure rules. Pregnancy rules are also covered, complete with Abortion rules. Other rules include Downtime for PCs, a whole section Tough Justice LARP rules and even allowing the other five stats to degrade the way Composure does.
Appendix Two is full of sample characters, first being NPCs tied into the example case given throughout the book, and the second being half a dozen defendants (2 male, 2 female, 2 child), completely detailed with stats and crimes (and a plug for an upcoming novel).
A two page summary of the entire case proceedings is also given, always a welcome sight.
Finally, we get a heartfelt afterword, a character sheet and an extensive index.
WHAT WORKS: First off, the book is VERY light on art. It is almost all text, which sounds crazy for what is really a rather simple system…except for when you realize that a BIG chunk of the book is a walk-through of playing the game from character creation, on through to post-execution. There really should not be much issue with someone reading the book and going “but what do I DO with it?” I like how, in some areas, the author erred on the side of legal fiction over legal fact, but I thought he also did a tremendous job with conveying The Bloody Code.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The “rolling for pregnancy” felt strangely out of place, although it may still be justified, seeing as though it is a very valid defense for female prisoners to escape death…I think the Abortion rules might have been just a step too far, though. Also, an electronict book that is 260 pages and does not have bookmarks is disappointing.
CONCLUSION: Okay, I went into this with the expectations of Chav, WizKid andBloodsucker in my head, even though I was explicitly told that it was more serious…and I wound up completely amazed. Yeah, the book could have been shorter, if you cut out the extensive examples, which I would not recommend. The audience is going to be more limited, given the courtroom drama aspect over more traditional RPG fare but – and pardon my french – Ian Warner managed to turn a passion for history and a particularly insane period of English history into a viable RPG without making a wholly pretentious ass out of himself. Much like their humor games, there is still a very playable game in here, and one that I’ll be going so far as to add to my bookshelf and not just my PDF library. Given the quality of the writing (and my love for courtroom drama), I will overlook the “What Doesn’t Work” I noted above, and say that this is certainly the most pleasant surprise that I have encountered this year, hands down.
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So what do you think?