Court Martial Episodes

Inspired by this thread about 'Excessive Force in Campaign over here, I wanted to start sharing ideas on Court Martial episodes. They are part of most of if not all of the Trek series (I am not entirely sure about ENT/DIS, though) and, as @aramis put it in the linked post, “can be excellent drama”.

I once did a some kind of special ‘Court at the Court’-adventure with my D&D group: There was a conflict in a little village that escalated very quickly into a full-grown battle – with the village-folk on the one and seasoned adventurers on the other side. Within a few rounds, the village had to mourn 8 or 9 casaulties (sources differ. :slight_smile: ). With a bounty set upon the heads of the perpetrators, some obfuscation by the party’s rogue and several plot-twist, months in game-time (and almost a year in reality-time, iirc) later, the incident finally came back to the PCs. The one who started the escalation was dragged before the Queen and her advisors and had to answer for his crimes.

Since this incident had become first a minor and then even a major arc of the campaign, I wanted the session of the court to take a full gaming session with everyone involved. Since there was only one accused (if convicted, the others would have followed immediately or, at least, very soon), several PC witnesses and even von player, who wasn’t there during the incident, I decided to set it up as follows:

The player of the accused PC would stay in his character the whole time. The player of the then-absent character would also stay in his character. Since this character happend to be a paladin, I decided that the queen would name him the criminal defence. The other players would play their respective characters when they would appear as witness before court. In the meantime, they were allocated NPC – the queen’s advisors and fellow judges and one even the accuser. I fleshed out one-page NPC with own hidden motivations or agendas and a mini-game of ‘shifting attitude’. Basically, when certain facts of the case would be mentioned by someone, some NPC-judges would get a roll to see if this fact would affect their attitude towards the accused, either positively, or negatively. For example, if the PC would confess that he was the first to draw his weapon, one judge could be affected positively (for he honoured the honesty of this confession), while another could be affected negatively (for he condemned the unnessecary escalation followed by bloodshed). Of course, I would take over their NPC during their PC’s appearance before court, to prevent exploitation of knowledge of the NPC’s hidden agenda.

Also, the Paladin, acting as criminal defence, could try to influence the judges with well-placed diplomacy-rolls (one per judge) that could either have a positive effect or prevent a negative effect on success.

After all witnesses were heard and the defence had made their final statement, every judge were to announce their ruling, depending on (again, individual) tables, relating the ruling to the attitude (friendly, unfriendly, hostile etc.) towards the accused.

Despite the “mini-game” I devised, the session turned out very roleplay-heavy and very dramatic. Despite there was a real chance of the PC losing his head (and the player losing his character), everything turned out well and it was one of the most intense sessions, I had in years.

I think, if I ever were to court-martial some of my PCs, I would consider adapting this method for STA. I would name appropriate traits and even values to the judges to reflect their inner motives. Then I would make the defendants try to ‘hit’ these values in a way good for them. Also, the attitude (including preferred sentencing ranging from acquittal over harsh disciplinary action and demotion to expulsion from Starfleet) could be reflected by traits.

The rules for social conflict would be used to present arguments to the court and convince the judges of the innocence (or guilt) of the accused and, thus, changing their traits. I would possibly have to restrict the trait-establishing power of Momentum-use for a while, but in principle, I imagine this to work.

My experience worked very well with a player, who knew that his character made a terrible mistake (while his character did not share this view to the whole extent) and a group who was experienced enough to a) keep tension high (even when it was clear to me that the PC would suffer no permanent harm, everyone kept a poker-face and the player in question had a very intense session), and b) would not have taken offence in ‘losing’ the proceedings.

Making my final remark, I would suggest using court-martial episodes only, when the group is very clear about the guilt or innocence of the character. So, if the character was to be found guilty, he either deserved the ruling or the session would spark new material for another story arc about reversing the judgement (same goes for innocence, respectively). I would encourage my fellow GMs to point this out clear from the beginning: that there would be no rail-roading and that the ‘wrong’ outcome would just start another story arc and would not need to be a permanent set-back for the character(s) but a possibility for character growth.

Having finished quite a wall of text, I would now be very curious on how you would take such an episode. And even more, if you could give me any ideas on how to use a Court Martial episode to tell a story/case/crime in hindsight (as it was done e.g. in the Voyager episode “Ex Post Facto”). This is something I really would want to do!


This sounds extremely interesting and fun. While not exactly a court martial, The Measure Of A Man is one of my favorites, especially because Riker has to play the guy. Not sure if that works in this case tough.

How would this work mechanically? There should obviously be significant role playing for the players. Both the accused and the accuser should be able to introduce evidence. Each piece of evidence acts like a Trait. If a piece of evidence is contested, you should make a roll to see if it is allowed in. Hostile witnesses (if any) should also be interviewed using a Task or Extended Task. At the very end, an opposed roll determines the outcome. This is just off the top of my head and can obviously be improved significantly.

Regarding the story: You could make sort of a split adventure. Begin with a court martial. The accused is interviewed and tells the story. But instead of telling the story, you actually play the mission. The mission will then get interrupted at appropriate points to switch back to the court martial, where maybe some points are discussed (“Oh I see, so you did/didn’t beam down armed?”). Or maybe there is another witness from that mission that lies about the events or has a different view point. Then interview another PC which will continue to tell the story and you continue to play the mission.

Of course you would have to set up the mission in such a way that it actually ends with a court martial offense.

Not sure if this helps.

It might be interesting to have some of your more reasonable players acting as “Supporting Characters” of flag rank and the judges. Appoint an NPC to be the prosecutor, and ask one or more of the PC’s to act as defending council. Only one person at a time may speak. Have the prosecution present evidence of deaths and relate the gas attack to them. Allow the players to defend themselves and their actions. The three players acting as judges (Maybe not even from the campaign, but disinterested third parties) have to come up with a decision based on the evidence presented. I would hate to relate everything to dice, but we are playing a game. What about an extended opposed task? Would it work to have the 3 judges determine difficulty levels based upon their belief in the validity of the cases, presented? American courts have an adversarial system, where the judge is present to rule on facts of law and keep the proceedings in order. In England, I think the courts differ, and the judges have more leeway in framing questions themselves, or even asking questions on their own. I do not know about this, I have only watched British TV courtroom dramas. The difference between the two systems is very curious.

I have no idea about the Brits, but I actually have some (extended) about the German system (which is not too far from many systems on the continent). Not only is the principle of customary law virtually unknown to us (crazy, right?), but we also follow the principle of an ‘inquisiting’ judge. So, in a German court, it is the judge who is in charge, not only keeping the proceedings in order but also asking for and ruling on evidence. There is also no jury, not even at the so-called ‘jury courts’ (“Schwurgericht”) that we actually have (historical reasons). So it is the judge (or the judges) who have to be convinced.

Another funny and/or strange thing: In criminal cases, the accuser (whose procedural name would translate to something like State’s Attorney) has to be impartial. Thus, they are legally obligated not only to investigate evidence not only against but also in favor of the accused. They are also legally obligated to present this evidence in court. Crazy, right?

So, why do I delve into this?
Because this ideas could be used by e.g. American gamers to create a court that seems alien to what they know (and thus, have an episode set in a courtroom of some alien of the week). Doesn’t work too well vice-versa, though. We all know series like Law & Order and the like.

YES! Just like that! I happen to love British TV, and I enjoy watching British legal shows. I am fascinated by the differences between US Common Law and British Common Law. For example, British Common Law is based entirely on precedent, and US law is based upon the US Constitution and the body of precedent starting with British Common Law. I am truly a nerd. The information you gave us about German courts is very interesting, and fodder for a feeble mind! LOL

You want fodder for a feeble mind? Thou shall have it!

Imagine a system that could completely work without precedent.

The German could (or does, depending on your point of view). By law, even an Amtsgericht (Wikipedia tells me to compare it to English/Welsh magistrates’ courts) can rule against the Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice, one of the highest courts). Only the decisions of the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court) are binding like a law. All other ‘precedent’ can just be seen as some ‘learned opinion’. Yes, this system actually works. In practice, of course, everybody thinks twice before differing from the learned opinion of higher courts. Too much paperwork, in essence.
But, to be honest, I cannot imagine a scenario where this would be useful in an RPG. At least, if your group does not consist of law nerds who like to write fictual laws down and then have multiple proceedings with different outcomes with their characters. Even I would find that a considerable amount of strange.

I will introduce some ideas of the law of the European Union if we should discuss intra-federation diplomacy, one day. :slight_smile:

Another tidbit that might be a bit more useful: I was told that in Scotland, a criminal court would not only have the possibility to rule ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, but also could rule ‘not proven’. The latter would practically work like ‘not guilty’, but with worse public relations. Or so I was told by some Australian professor some years ago.

Imagine an episode with a crew member of the ship charged by a court on a non-Federation planet with the outcome of ‘not proven’. There would be no further prosecution (or, would it?) but the authorities would definetly treat them different then they treat other crew members. This could lead to another episode, now investigation-themed to provide more evidence to prove the crew member’s innocence – but with the crew member present and without remand, maybe even lawfully being the head of the investigation.

Lot to digest. I definitely agree with giving the judges certain values that are the targets for the prosecution and lawyers to play to. I also like the players who won’t be the accused or lawyer playing the judges.

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After reading this thread I paid a longer visit to the bathroom…

I am GMing to crews of four Players and during abouve mantioned visit I build up following szenario:

An NSC from annother ship is to be courtmartialed. As Admiral Heberts JAG-Staff is well non-existent and all other ships are out doing exporation, the prosecuter and the defender are drafted from the senior staff from the players Starship, and do their stuff.
One of my groups is a onlinegame via Discord, were it is pretty simple to make conversations privat, the second group is a little bid more difficult, also because there is a betazoid, with very liberal use of his psionics (so he has do be the defender and the defendant has to be guilty).

Now I need some imput.

  • what about the other two players, thould they be devided as secondary counsels or shoould they be used as investigators.
  • what about Momentum, I planing to give both parties a seperate Momentum pool with a maximum limit of 4
  • what about punishment, Ro Laren seems to get a realy harsch prison, Tom Paris got sunny New Sealand.

A few more Information about the case but be advised the defendant is innocient until proven guilty.

The Defendant is the chief of Security of USS Lancaster (in my Campaigns Admiral Heberts nominal Flagship). The crew of the Lancaster were on a mission to find out, wo is smuggling federation tech to the romulans.
A away team of six of USS Lancaster beamed down to a isolated trading post, in civillian cloth to infestigate some leeds. One of the young Ensigns from security messed up and the starfleet officers are spottet and a fire fight errupts. In the Ende three of USS Lancasters away team are dead including USS Lancasters first Officer.
The Chief of Security is charged as followed:

  • Disorbeying a direct order from a superior Officer (to retreat)
  • negligent of Duty (attacking a enemy position against direct orders, getting two subordinates killed, getting recklesly into a situation that the rest of the away team is put in danger while rescuing the Security-Chief with the direkt result, that the first Officer get killed).
  • Conduct unbecoming an Officer (putting the blame for the situation on the dead Officers)
  • General article (some other stuff)

I hope a got your brains spinned

and as allways, sorry for the bad Englisch.

I will note: When I did the Court Martial episodes, I had been having players write log entries for many sessions, so I was able to actually use their log entries against them. This was in about 1992… It was the singularly most memorable episode for most of the PCs… In all three campaigns I used them in. One group, tho’… we still talk about it from time to time…
… in no small part due to the Ship’s Chief Quartermaster committing Barratry and computer tampering to be able to get a call into Memory Alpha to have unredacted logs sent to the station. And his resulting court martial.

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Actually, the American system is largely based on the English and Scottish systems, and they are very much adversarial.

I am not a lawyer, but so far as I know:

English criminal courts have a judge, jury, prosecution and defence that work exactly the same way (and very differently from the European Napoleonic system). The big difference is actually that the balance of power between judge and counsel is much more in favour of the judge here - he or she can instruct the jury to ignore certain evidence and bar them from coming to some decisions - they’re supposed to be impartial so they shouldn’t be asking questions of witnesses although they will intervene if the lawyers appear to be “leading” the witnesses. Criminal prosecutions are handled by the Crown Prosecution Service, who are independent of the Police, who have to convince them prosecutions are likely to result in a conviction. And the whole jury selection process is less influenced by the lawyers.

While influenced by precedent, which is largely used to argue for a particular judgment, English and Scottish laws are actually based on those passed by Parliament. The relevant Acts work pretty much like the American Constitution and its supplements. A higher court can overthrow a law if it’s seen to be unjust, but I believe they can only do this if the case has been passed up to them.

The Scottish “Not Proven” verdict is basically the same as “Not Guilty” except that the accused has not proven they were innocent, it’s just that the prosecution has failed to prove their guilt. It’s more or less equivalent to the trial ending due to the prosecution withdrawing the case.

When looking at Starfleet trials, be aware that military courts are often very different - you can see this in Star Trek due to the presence of officers and very little in the way of lawyers. A court martial covers military offences (desertion, cowardice, failure of duty) rather than criminal offences (murder, theft), which would generally be handed over to civilian authorities to deal with.

US jury selection varies by state in number and amount of dismissals by counsel. Most states require a jury of 12, fed 6-12; most states allow requesting a bench trial (trial by the judge). Most states require unanimity for criminal cases, few require it for civil. To my knowledge, all state with death penalties require 12 jurors and unanimity. Some states, the judge imposes sentence; in others, the jury does. Some states, the judge imposes civil punishements, in others, the jury does. One state uses the Napoleonic code (Louisiana), as modified by federal appeals.

US verdicts vary;

  • Guilty (Fed & all states)
  • Not Guilty (Fed and all states)
  • Not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect (Fed and Most states)
  • Guilty but insane (a few states)
  • deadlocked (fed and all states)

A jury finding of deadlocked is considered a mistrial most of the time.
The differences in various states about insanity are in culpability and whether the jury can only find NGBRoMDoD if the individual entered such a plea or not. Guilty but insane is allowed in a few states, I don’t know whether or not those states require it to be plead first; the punishement in those states is confinement in mental hospital until sane, then serving the rest of sentence in prison.

(Deadlocked was one of the three options given the civil jury I was on… we almost voted to do so for the verdict; we did vote so on the award. One member had a conflict of interest, being a defendant in a similar case about to go to trial. the judge ordered us to come to an agreement on award, noting that deadlocked is only allowed on verdict, not award.)

Looking at the 2016 Courts-Martial manual…US military courts do not usually have juries, but panels.

  • A Summary Court has only the judge, and the judge is usually a specified JAG military judge. It is only permitted when the defense requests in lieu of a special court. The judge personally determines guilt and sentence.
  • A Special Court Martial is a Judge and 2 or 3 panel members; when a military judge is available, he functions as judge, with a 3 member panel determining guilt; otherwise, the presiding officer is part of the panel.
  • A General Court Martial is a military judge and 5 to 12 panel members.
  • Unanimity of the panel of a general court is only required for administering the death penalty, and that requires a 12 member panel; a non-unanimous panel still convicts or acquits by majority, but a death sentence may not be imposed.
  • Commissioned Officers may only be tried by a panel of officers; Warrants by panels of mixed warrant officers and commissioned officers; enlisted may ask for a panel including enlisted, in which case at least a third are to be enlisted.
  • A panel is always presided by the senior officer; if no military judge is available, the presider serves as judge as well.
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At least in our times, this is actually handled differently around the world’s militaries.

There are States that try their soldiers before court martials, regardless of their offence. Thus, there would be a court martial, because the accused (or, some times, even the victim) was a soldier.

There are, on the other hand, States that try persons (not necessarily soldiers) before court martials, because the specific offence was military in nature. Thus, a soldier would be tried before a civilian court for theft or murder, but before a court martial for war crimes (which could, in turn, include murder, but that’s a different story after all).

And there are States to whom the concept of court martial is almost completely unknown (Germany being one of them, by the way). These States would try those accused of desertion, mutiny or even war crimes) before civilian courts despite the offences being military in nature.

Again, this could be useful if you plan a ‘court’ episode involving another legal system than that of the Federation. A civilisation where the military is strong and/or culturally important would probably tend towards a broad jurisdiction of court martials. The second variant, as proposed by @Astronut, would imho serve as a very good middle-ground. Civilisations more sceptical about a self-contained military culture in general would probably prefer the third variant.

Rule of thumb: Players shall be involved in play. :slight_smile:
As I explained, for the time their characters did not have to testify as witnesses, I made my players play judges. This will work for your setting, too, just have the court martial be a panel of several judges who all have the right to ask questions on/for facts.

You could, of course, also make them be secondary counsel to prosecution and/or defence. But in this case, I would recommend to add some drama (like, having best friends working for ‘the other side’, respectively). This should make dividing up spotlight a bit easier, I think.

I don’t know. Maybe this divides up the group too much. Having three pools of narrative currency (momentum for the defence, momentum for the prosecution, threat) could overcomplicate things. On the other hand, if they will would actually argue over momentum…
I don’t know.

Do what fits your story. Or leave it to your players.

Momentum - new evidence, or new line of enquiry leading to an altered or more focused legal strategy, finding a point of law to “object” to or in the British model a snarky comment by the judge.
Threat - same as above, but for the prosecution.

So, if a PC acts as prosecutor, you would allow them to use the GM’s threat-pool? Same problem as with a shared momentum-pool by opposing players, just with slightly different parties…

I wouldn’t. I’d have a second Momentum pool - one for each side - due to the way things work with threat. PVP just isn’t a good idea with a single momentum pool, and threat is too powerful

No, not entirely. Threat allows doing things (adding NPC’s, direct complications) that momentum doesn’t.
Plus, the Judge (in most cases) should be a third party and an NPC.

On the other hand, I don’t generally do PVP.

I haven’t read every comment on this thread, so forgive me if my comment has obviously missed something.

Personally, I’m not a fan of this sort of situation being too mechanics based. I much prefer to have it being heavily role play. Of course that is all dependent on how co-operative the player characters are being and if they are trying to hide anything.

The closest I have come to a court marshal in my own games has involved classified debriefing following an interaction with Omega.

Conveniently (in a strange sense) a couple of players were away for this session, so I brought in a guest players and had each player debriefed individually- I literally sent my guest into another room with instructions and we cycled through the players, with each player talking to each of us individually.

Once this information was gathered, there was a quick drinks break to confer, and a judgement as to any wrongdoing was reached. In this particular case, the crew were cleared for duty, with the guest being assigned as a mission advisor to keep an eye on them (and to keep the player involved.)

Everyone really enjoyed this as a session and a bit of a change from the normal dice rolling and mechanics (the only rolls needed were for deception). It was also a good chance for the players to reflect.

Any who, that’s how I’ve dealt with a similar type of situation previously :slight_smile:

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I suggested threat only because I have the regulation blue and red markers, of course you could use poker chips or colored stones, or whatever and call them Momentum. I only see an issue keeping track, but players can help in this.

Just put an index card (labeled. or one blank up, other lines up) out for each team; track their pool by putting it on the card.

So, let me do some thread necromancy here, as I’ve currently been keeping up with Clear Skies (featuring Chief Theq in an insta-court-martial) and since our discussion, there arose the topic of player-induced court-martials due to the new (Klingon) Reputation System where Shame/Reprimand can be spent by undergoing a court-martial.

What do you think could be possible consequences of a court martial that has been induced by spending Shame? Obviously, there should be at least one scene in-play. But what to the consequences? My first, a bit obvious thought revolved around dishing out further Shame/Reprimand spends at GM’s/Captain’s discretion. But that would, in essence, be double-punishment for the player (spend 5 Shame/Reprimand for the court-martial and end up with the effect of further reputation loss or some days in the brigg…). Thus, I would only do this with any excess Shame/Reprimand after the five for the court martial.

So, what to do with characters that have been found guilty in a court martial that has been induced by the player spending Shame/Reprimand?

Further on PvP Momentum

This has been discussed and I would propose to use this procedure from Conan. In essence: No Momentum for nobody; use Threat! I think some Modiphius-Account (I think @Modiphius-Jim but am not sure :frowning: ) confirmed this a few days/weeks ago, but could not find their post.