The Coroner is a stock character who is a Coroner or Medical Examiner. (In many jurisdictions, they aren't the same thing. The M.E. is a Forensic Pathologist, trained to examine bodies. A coroner may be that as well, but in some places they're actually a political appointee or even elected bureaucrat1.)
Anyhow, this page is "The" Coroner, because it's about the Trope. After checking out the crime scene for clues, the investigators or detectives typically visit The Coroner, who has a medical report about the deceased that includes even more clues.
Frequently, The Coroner does something in front of the detectives that most folks would find gross. This ranges from the morbidly casual (like eating a sandwich while examining a mutilated corpse), to the morbidly excited (taking too much joy and interest in their job - "will you look at this brain trauma - man you sure don't see grey matter that shredded very often!").
Typically the job of the coroner is to determine the cause of death and determine whether any crime was committed (and if so, which crime(s)) - in some jurisdictions their findings may need to be examined by a jury, or face some other form of scrutiny. Whilst they do not actually conduct trials, their findings may prompt an investigation and/or be used in a later court case.
The Cororner's Inquest is a common feature of the classic British murder mystery
A coroner may have other roles as well - in English law, the coroner is also responsible for adjudicating treasure trove cases, shipwrecks and costal salvage and the ownership of certain kinds of fish. They were once also expected to handle claims for sanctury and abjuration, determine and accquire deodands2, attaint the estates of those who were executed and take evidence from criminals testifying against their accomplices. These latter functions have now been transferred or abolished.
Game and Story Use
- An NPC coroner can serve as a good information dump if the players are involved in a mystery, offering clues and establishing important facts.
- "I'd say he bled to death, only there aren't any external wounds worth speaking of. Unless you count those punctures in the neck, but there's no way he could have lost that much blood through those two little holes…"
- An off-stage coroner might be invoked by an Obstructive Bureaucrat trying to discourage the PC's investigation
- "Listen, the coroner has ruled that his death was a suicide, so I don't want you stirring up any more trouble!"
- See Bernard Knight's Crowner John series for an example of how a (medieval English) coroner can operate at the heart of a campaign.
- A coroner - especially a medieval one with extensive powers - could make a good boss for the PCs, able to send them haring off on all sorts of jobs. Possibly a medieval version of the traditional modern police chief.