When Players Cross the Law: OSR Crime and Heat

It is not exactly surprising, and probably even expected, when players have their characters turn to criminal acts in order to get the job done. Whether the party is made up of greedy rouges or righteous paladins, they are likely to run afoul of the law at some point. And if the campaign is one of criminality and skulduggery, then run-ins with the law are likely one of the main sources of tension and drama.

Clearly up to no good

A while back, I ran a campaign that fit firmly into “Greedy Rouges” category, and I wanted to make sure that my players had an easy to understand system that would let them know at a glance how much attention they were drawing to themselves, and what the consequences of that attention would be.

After a few weeks of on-the-fly rulings and some notebook scribbling, compiled my house rules into a document for all of you lovely people to use. They are posted in full below, and a downloadable PDF is at the end. It all fits on a double side page. These “Heat” rules are easy to use with nearly any system, and serve as a good measuring stick for the amount of trouble the players have gotten themselves in with all their heisting and scheming.

If your campaign is anything like mine then the PCs likely live on a street just like this.

Rogues and Blackguards: Heat

Heat: Heat is a value that usually ranges between 0 and 6. Heat is a representation of the attention and suspicion that the Player Character’s illegal activities have brought upon them. Heat is shared among all party members, as their association with each other is likely obvious. The higher your heat the more likely you will attract the attention of the law, and higher heat also means more resources being devoted to bringing you to justice.

The Heat Roll: Whenever one of the following conditions is met, roll 1d6. If the roll is equal to or less than the parties current Heat, then you have attracted the attention of the law. The higher the roll, the greater the effort the law makes to confront the party.

Roll heat when;

  • You move from one city district to another.
  • You traverse a guarded checkpoint within a district

Increasing Heat: Heat can increase in a variety of ways, and it is generally easier to increase heat than it is to reduce it. Heat begins at 0. The following situations cause the parties heat to increase;

  • Criminal Acts: Committing an obviously criminal act, in view of bystanders or the watch, will result in an increase of heat proportional to the crime. As a general rule, most acts increase heat by 1, while truly dangerous or destructive acts increase heat by 2. See also Heinous Crimes. For additional details
  • Infamy: Well-known criminals are never without a cloud of suspicion, and so long as the party is travelling with an infamous member, Heat is effectively considered to be 1 higher than the current value.

Reducing Heat: As heat can be increased, it can also be reduced. This is a process that requires time and money. See also Heinous Crimes, as truly evil acts are not as easily forgiven.

  • Laying Low: For every two weeks spent in hiding, staying mostly in your lair or hideout, not travelling outside your home district, heat reduces by one. The whole party must be in hiding in order for this decrease to take place. 
  • Bribery: Bribing the local watch is a good way to reduce heat, and a few coins here and there might let you slip and individual watchman, although bribes have their limits. A standard bribe for an individual watchman to look the other way for a month is about a months salary (30 gp). Crimes witnessed by bribed guards do not generate heat. Much, Much larger bribes to watch leaders can decrease heat as much as 2, this is very much dependent on the temperament of the individual watch leader. A failed bribe can even increase heat, as the slighted guard or watch leader will make sure they and their associates keep an eye on you.
  • Doing your time: Getting arrested may seem like a loss, but every cloud has a silver lining. An arrest usually means heat is taken off the group as a whole, a small consolation to the incarcerated member I’m sure. If a party member is caught by the law hand given an appropriate sentence heat is reduced by 3.

Warrants and Blame:

  • Arrest Warrants: An arrest warrant means a significant increase in heat for the party. Whenever the law issues an arrest warrant for a player character, heat increases by 1. Additionally, whenever the wanted character is in the party and the party must make a heat roll, heat is considered to be increased by 1.
  • “I’m not with these clowns!”: Heat is a reflection of the whole parties reputation, however criminal adventurers are often quick to disown their companions, and rare circumstances may arise where a PC truly has nothing to do with the rest of the party. Protestations of innocence towards the watch will get you off the hook once per district, after that they will remember your face. This only works if the player loudly tells off their companions in-character.

Heinous Crimes: Sometimes the PCs will do something so terrible, so reprehensible or so obviously criminal that the law will be forced to come after them. Should the players ever commit a truly heinous crime that leaves witnesses, or more than two-thirds of the party members have arrest warrants out on them, then the following rules take effect;

  1. Heat: If the parties heat was 6 or lower, it is now considered to be 7. If it is higher than 7, it remains at the previous value. Rules regarding arrest warrants still apply.
  2. Manhunt: The PCs are now subjected to a manhunt. The Law has assembled a special task force of watchmen and inspectors to bring them to justice. This task force will generally be out in a force proportional to the heinous crimes committed by the players. They will descend on the player’s usual hangouts and haunts, interrogating witnesses, collecting evidence and harassing loved ones and associates.
  3. Justice be Done!: The usual methods of reducing heat are no longer as effective. Laying low now takes a month in order to reduce heat and bribes for most watchmen are increased to three months salary (~90 gp). 

I fought the law… : In order for a Manhunt to end, the following conditions must be met;

  • Heat has been reduced to 3 and has remained at 3 for a month
  • Someone has taken the fall for the player’s heinous crimes, whether it is one of their own number, another criminal, or a demon, it doesn’t matter. But the hammer of the law must fall on some poor sod.
“There you are.”

I hope you found these rules helpful. Let me know in the comments if you used them in your own game and what you thought about them. I’ve also included my own ‘Heat Encounter’ tables I’ve been using in my Warhammer campaign. These should give a good idea of what an appropriate reaction to a given heat roll is.

Authors Note: These rules were created with a Dishonored or Thief-esque world in mind. This can mostly be seen in the references to city districts as the main unit of travel. I’ve tried to keep the terms used in the rules as setting-neutral as possible. Concepts such as “The Law” and “The Watch” are pretty universally applicable, whatever forms they take in your game. Acknowledgement must also be made to Blades in the Dark, which planted this idea in my head.

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