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Choose sides
Or run for your life
Tonight the riots begin

(from) Across the lines Tracy Chapman

Basic Information

A riot is a type of civil disorder where large but unorganized groups of people lash out with violence, vandalism, arson and other crimes. Public order crimes are more or less guaranteed.

There seem to be two basic flavours of riot - the "protest riot" where the rioters are attacking the local government over some real or imagined grievance and the "race riot" where the rioters are attacking another section of the population. The two types can also co-exist in various ways. The "bread riot" is an important subset of protest rioting: usually caused by food shortages (as the name implies) mobs of hungry people attack government or mercantile buildings that they believe contain food. Widespread destruction of private property may result from rioting - or may not - highly focused protest riots may well target only government buildings and security forces, whilst less sincere and/or coherent ones destroy almost everything around them - looting may also break out in tandem with the riot as the breakdown in civil order encourages the criminally inclined to help themselves. "Race" and other "(category)" riots are almost guaranteed to target property belonging to the target group - or believed to belong to them and/or their allies - but may end up attacking other people's property as well1.

Two other, more specialised, forms of riot comprise the prison riot and the sports riot. The Prison riot is typically a form of protest riot taking place within a prison consisting of attacks by inmates against guards (and typically other inmates as well), up to and including prisoners taking control of the facility and/or mass escapes. Sports riots are prone to occur when the ceremonialized and sublimated conflict of sport becomes de-sublimated and informalized - that is to say, when fighting breaks out between the opposing supporters. In some cases sports rioting can be confined to "consenting adults only" (that is fighting solely between rival groups of hooligans following their respective teams) but even then the collateral damage and affray make them a public nuisance … more typically a sports riot will degenerate into indiscriminate attacks on anyone who more or less resembles a target and random property destruction.

The "police riot" is a somewhat more controversial2 concept considered to be an unprovoked or excessive use of force by police or other security forces, typically an attack on a pre-existing protest under cover of suppressing civil disorder.

By default, expect clashes between mobs of people with improvised weapons and security forces with less lethal weapons - at least to start with. Category riots may also involve three way conflict between the category in question, their attackers and the state. Depending on the form of government under which the riot occurs, escalation of force by the state may take a variety of forms, up to and including the use of lethal force by the military.

Ironically, protest riots can often make life worse for the perpetrators as the inherent arson and vandalism frequently occurs in the rioters home area, destroying the infrastructure there and making it less attractive to residents who can afford to be somewhere else.

See Also

Event/News: Family of Montreal teen shot by police upset about riots
Event/News: Witchcraft rumor sparks riot at Congo soccer game



Game and Story Use

  • Riots are perfect distractions from crime or other shady activities going on elsewhere, as the local authorities will be preoccupied with quelling the riot. As a result, depending on whether the player characters wish to engage in such activities or stop it, they can either try to trigger a riot or stop it as quickly as possible.
  • This may be a good opportunity for scry-vs-scry work by the non-combat specialists in the group - someone for whom charisma wasn't a dump stat may well have a role to play in crowd control - if they can make themselves heard. Depending on the context, public renown and/or religious authority may also help.
  • Riots make good set dressing for an urban area - and what they are about will set the tone further: bread riots should tell the PCs that there are major economic problems, political protest riots will point to repressive government and ethnic rioting will point up community tensions.
    • The state response will tell them a lot as well - a weak government may try to appease or ignore the rioters, or swing wildly between brutality and appeasement, and in some settings the security forces may merely quarantine the riots into poorer areas, protecting the rich and leaving the poor to suffer.
    • Counter riots - or "volunteer actions" by concerned citizens may also have a role to play in dispersing a mob. This may escalate into civil war if left unchecked.
    • Dystopiae are frequently characterised by either quarantined riots or cycles of rioting and brutal repression - although the worst of them will be characterized by a complete absence of civil disorder.
    • The police riot is also dystopic - although a true dystopia probably lacks the civil liberties to render concept relevant.
  • Cynics have suggested that the soccer riot is truer to the origins of the game than what goes on on the pitch. Certainly the various ancestral forms of football could easily be mistaken for inter-communal violence at the best of times … and it would not take much for genuine fighting to occur and/or for some more deliberate crime to be covered up in the general mayhem.
  • Arguably, even more sinister if some external agency - which may or may not have astroturfed the riots in the first place (or at least used agent-provocateurs to incite an already unstable situation) then feeds the fires by supplying (or even pre-positioning) supplies of missile weaponry (for example, pallets of bricks or bags of rubble) in the riot area.
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