Crime 101 is a series where I talk about the elements that go in to committing a certain crime. The idea here isn't to talk about the specific issues but rather the general points that you want to consider when putting one of these crimes into your story or game. Specifics can change by story, general points are fairly common. Today's Crime 101 is going to focus on the Frame Up.
What Is A Frame Up?
If you've watched any mystery movies or police procedural shows you probably know what a Frame Up is. For those that don't know, or at least want to know what I am specifically talking about: a Frame Up is when you make someone who did not commit a crime look as if they are guilty of the crime so they take the punishment and not you. This is used most often in movies and TV shows with murder, but really it can be done with any crime that is out there.
Defensive vs. Offensive
I don't know if these are the official terms or not, but to me there are two types of Frame Ups. The first, defensive, is when you commit the crime because you want to commit that crime and then frame someone as a defensive measure to ensure you get away scott free. Pinning a bank robbery when you wanted the cash on a night security guard, for example. The second type, offensive, is when the entire point of the crime being committed is to frame someone as a means of punishing them. This is a form that gets used a lot more in narratives and games and often points to a chessmaster or other type of mastermind character running the villains.
To put them both much simpler. With defensive frame ups the point is to cover tracks for a crime you committed. With offensive frame ups the point is to punish/attack the victim of the frame up with the crime. Yes, both can technically be done at the same time, but that makes for a complicated - and often amateur - scheme to be done.
Two Key Factors
No matter which kind of Frame Up you are looking to do there are two key factors that you need to address: motivation and opportunity. These are the two things that the people looking to solve the crime are going to be looking for, and as someone framing someone else you need to control these factors. It does you no good to try and frame someone for a crime when they have no motive to commit the crime nor opportunity to do so. It just doesn't work.
Motivation is the desire/reason to have committed the crime. For example, someone who found out they were going to be laid off on Thursday would have motivation to use their position to steal from the company any day between when they knew they were getting fired and when they were taken off the premises. They would also have motivation for lots of actions against that company after they were fired. In both cases the motivation would be revenge - though some criminals might call it justice or fair play.
With a frame up you need to control the motivation. You ideally want the frame motivation hidden but discoverable. If the investigators just find it right away then it is easily dismissable, especially when it looks like other shady things might be going on. However, if they have to work a bit to uncover the motivation then suddenly it becomes a lot harder to discard. After all, steps were taken to hide the motivation, and that rarely happens. Things like an important/prominent business man/woman hiding that they have familial troubles are often used for this. The victim (of the frame up) needs people to think they had a good family life for their position, and so they'll lie about it and hide the fact that they were fighting. Then, later when the investigators find out about it there is the corroboration of "this person lied about this" to help give it a ring of truth as the real motive. Oh, and if this example sounds formulaic, it is because almost every mystery show uses this for the twist leading to the 'who really dunnit' at the end of the episode.
In review, no one does anything without a reason and you need to provide a strong reason the victim of the frame up would actually commit the crime and then hide that reason as if they were trying to cover their own tracks.
Opportunity on the other hand is a lot simpler to explain but a lot harder to execute. Namely, the victim of the frame up has to have the opportunity to commit the crime. If my wife dies on Thursday, but I was in another country the entire day, good luck pinning that crime on me (there are ways, but it is harder.) On the other hand, if my wife dies Thursday night and I'm in the area, but unaccounted for for the time of death, it is a lot easier to pin things on me.
This is where a lot of movie/tv/and game fantasies use some GM/Writer privilege to start things off. If the victim of the frame up is the protagonist they'll often wake up in the room the crime was committed in, holding the murder weapon and covered in blood. If the victim isn't the protagonist, the same can happen - the cops will just show up a lot faster and the person is less likely to escape. The point here is that opportunity needs to be there to cover every aspect of the crime. It isn't enough that the victim was available to commit the crime at the time, they also have to have access to the means. If you can't put a gun in the victim of the frame up's hands, and the person can prove they've never held a gun before, it is a lot harder to pin a shooting on them.
Cracking The Frame Up
So how do you crack a frame up? Well, this is where Defensive and Offensive comes back in. In a Defensive frame job you need to look at the original crime more than the person who is the obvious suspect of the crime. Who else benefits from this? Who else had the means? Who else had the motive? The focus is on the original crime because the original crime was the entire point. The resulting frame up was just an escape mechanism. With an Offensive frame up on the other hand, you need to look at the victim of the potential frame up. Who are that person's enemies? Who has the means to pull something like this off? Who would benefit from pulling something like this off?
Yes, in both you need to look at both the victim and the crime, but where the focus is changes for each one. As a writer this can be something you use to confound your protagonist for a bit longer. As a GM this is something you need to pay attention to lest your players lead themselves in circles or into pointless and frustrating dead ends.