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Basic Information

A criminal is a person who commits crimes. In strictest application the word does literally mean anyone who commits a crime (or at least, anyone caught and convicted1), but is often used as a shorthand for those for whom lawbreaking is habitual and non-trivial: it's relatively hard to live in modern society without breaking one law or another, but very few people would consider themselves criminal on the strength of that2 and would reserve the appelation for those who are guilty of "serious" crimes. On the flip side, there are certainly quite a few people guilty of serious crimes who don't consider themselves criminal. Where you draw the line and how much thought you give the issue would normally say a great deal about your character.

If an act or item is criminal, it means a law proscribes a punishment for those who perform the act or possess the item.

Those involved in criminality - even from the outside - often acknowledge a concept similar to the idea of "ordinary, decent criminals". Whilst this may seem odd to the uninitiated, the category is basically designed to separate those who offend for purely "business" reasons from those whose crimes are seen as breaking significant social taboos. These boundaries can be hazy and very culturally dependant but in almost all cases common thieves, those whose crimes can be considered victimless and those guilty of many forms of violence and extortion are near the top of the hierarchy and sex offenders at the bottom3. Drug dealers and con artists operating on a sliding scale depending on their exact context4. Other "beyond the pale" forms of crime can include terrorism and political offences, but this will vary depending on the prison they end up in.

The other "low end" form of criminal is the problem drug user - the random drunk or junkie - prone to opportunistic, petty crime and liable to be used as an expendable resource by other, more self-controlled criminals. Criminal addicts are typically even despised by those criminals who deal in abused substances - and those dealers who "get into the product" are typically seen as being on their way downward. Such people are usually deeply unreliable due to their very nature, but will equally be cheap (sometimes to be hired for a dose or two of their poison of choice) and easily manipulated.

See Also:

Criminal Types, Tropes, and Characters


The Victorian Underworld Kellow Chesney


Game and Story Use

  • Criminals can make great villains.
  • A few subtypes of criminal can make for good Player Characters. See Social Bandit and Gentleman Thief, for starters. Let's not forget the person who's wanted for crimes he didn't commit.
  • Although to be honest, most of the things that will take place during any moderately involving RPG scenario are likely to put PCs on the wrong side of the law if strict reality is applied.
  • Exactly what things a given culture considers criminal will give you a lot of insight into that culture. GMs can use strange or harsh laws to great effect when characterizing an alien species or exotic culture.
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