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Law and Order

Copyright Eric Brad ©2003

Edited by Peter Mork for The Guild Companion

Rollo the Feeb crept silently over the rooftops to the top of the Broken Camel Inn.  As he made his way stealthily into the open window he glanced furtively around for any sign of observers.  Satisfied that his ability to hide in plain sight had once again served him well, he began going through the contents of the small room.  A sack of coins in the drawer, a jewel handled dagger, a small golden amulet.  This was going to be a good haul.  The small hissing sound from behind was the last thing Rollo heard.

"He has my coin purse there in his hand still!" said the thin Elven figure still dressed in nightclothes.  The city guard inspected the corpse on the floor with the throwing knife embedded in the back of its head.

"Well then, good job you got him in one throw.  Nice shot!" said the city guard as some of the inn staff began clearing away the body.  "You've accounted for all of your belongings then?"

"Yes.  Thanks for attending to this so promptly."

"It's our job sir.  I hope you have no other problems during your stay.  If you should, we will be happy to help."  And with that, the city guard left whistling a happy little tune.  That was one less burglar he'd have to track down.  Bloody Thieves Guild!

The law is the law, but it's important to recognize that the laws of our fantasy worlds will differ in some important ways from our modern concepts of law and order.  In the example above, our knife-throwing friend had little fear of being hauled off to jail for killing a burglar in his room.  You may even think that he might have to work a little harder to prove that those were his belongings or that the victim was really a burglar.

The fact is that the world of high fantasy and the fantasy RPG is a much simpler place.  Not that the good guys always wear white and the bad guys always wear black, but the system of justice is a bit simpler and a good deal looser than we are used to today.  I thought it might be useful to discuss some general attitudes regarding law and crime in general and some of the differences you can find in a fantasy RPG setting.

The role of law and law enforcement is basically to keep the peace.  Since this is the primary directive for successful governing, detection and prosecution of crimes is usually in direct proportion to how the action disrupts the orderliness of the immediate area.  If you examine this, the pattern becomes pretty clear in the general sense.  Unpunished murders on the streets would tend to give the impression that the area is unsafe and therefore would discourage travelers and merchants, let alone residence.  So cities and towns would probably be very harsh on those who would kill without significant provocation or motive (self-defense, victim is a known "bad guy", to prevent a greater evil from happening, etc.).

Basically, laws and law enforcement are really about making the area a nice place so people will gather there and need to be governed.  That way lots of different folks make and spend money and live happy lives.  Kind of obvious but there it is.

It's only illegal if they catch you.  It's important to remember that detective science and forensics is really a mid to late 20th century phenomenon.  Only recently have we been able to reconstruct a crime and find the perpetrator from only the barest shreds of evidence.  Also consider that the modern communication media have the effect of making crimes hundreds or even thousands of miles from us seem relevant to our own health and safety.  This is not necessarily true in the simpler fantasy world.

There are, of course, magic spells that can gather information about the past or about objects and it may be possible to do some kind of detective work to solve a particular crime through the use of magic.  The real question becomes, does someone feel that it is worth the effort to solve the crime?  Remember our first point above.  If the body of some wizard is found in the hills outside of town by a guard on patrol and the body is not recognized as a local, the crime will likely go without serious investigation.  The guard would report the discovery to a superior who might make some inquiries to see if anyone important has reported someone missing.  If not, oh well, on to other things.  If yes, then reluctantly the guards will begin an investigation equal in rigor to the amount of money and resources being provided for the investigation (mayor's nephew dead?  Lots of resources.  Old Farley's housekeeper's nephew? Not so many resources).

This is, to some degree, the reason for adventurers and vigilantes.  City and town guards serve at the pleasure of those in authority and will pretty much investigate as much or as little crime as they are told.  If someone feels that the local authorities are not investigating sufficiently, they will usually hire someone to set things right.  And again, if the hired thugs don't do anything to upset the local authorities overly much, they could conceivably go out and steal and kill so long as they didn't steal from or kill anyone that mattered or in a way that disturbed the public peace.

Where do you take your grievances?  Well, the local guards and justice systems will respond to claims of wrong doing but again, only in the context of preserving the public peace.  In a real sense justice can be bought.  Influential nobles receive satisfaction for reported injustices far more often than common folk do.  Status plays a heavy factor in the credibility of a claim or the testimony of a witness or suspect.  If a commoner claims that Aelred the Noble has stolen his best horse and Aelred is well known and beloved by the local mayor, chances are that the poor commoner will be told that Aelred would never do such a thing (even in the face of overwhelming evidence) and told to go away.  On the other hand, if Aelred the Noble claimed that some commoner had stolen his handkerchief, the poor bugger would likely be taken out and flogged or worse without a shred of proof to substantiate the claim.  Rough stuff but these are simple times.

So much for generalizations, can different settings or cultures in a fantasy world differ in their attitudes on law?  Absolutely but they do not stray far from the general attitudes discussed above.  Let's take some hypothetical examples of potential fantasy RPG settings.

  1. Thrud is a monarchy and the closer you get to the king and those who serve him, the closer to law, order, and justice you get also.  Mayors of towns and cities are answerable to the Governor for each of the 4 provinces of Thrud (North, East, South, West) who are in turn answerable to the King.  So mayors do have a vested interest in maintaining the peace and collect revenue for their Governor to present to the king.  Each mayor usually provides for a town/city guard or security force to keep order.  Obviously as you go from larger cities to smaller towns and hamlets the caliber of justice gets skewed.  In fact, small villages will likely be run more as "wild west" towns with the mayors or village leaders only worried about getting their taxes to the governor any way they can including killing or robbing strangers to the village!

This type of law is predicated on the desire of those in power wishing to stay in power.  The king must be appeased by wealth of his kingdom.  In order for this to happen, taxes must be collected and spent on the public good (roads, infrastructure, security, etc.).  Those who are the best at providing the king with this sense of well being will remain in power.  And this rule trickles with governors trying to appease the king, mayors trying to appease the governors, and townsfolk paying the whole ticket.

  1. Haven is a gentler culture and believes strongly in consensus and cooperation as a form of government.  They have created a "Council of Nine" to govern the affairs within their country.  This council has one representative of each of the eight major clans in the country and one elected representative called the Ninth.  The Ninth functions as a final arbiter in all legal disputes but derives his mandate from the other eight Council members.  The people of Haven are a fairly law abiding and self-policing people among their own kind.  Clan tribunals are responsible for adjudicating complaints within their respective spheres of influence of each clan.  In the previous example, Thrud, justice varies based on the population density and urban versus rural nature of the geography.  Haven depends more on the relationship of the accused to the clan in authority over the claim being brought.  The people of Haven again have expected moral standards regarding murder, theft, personal property, etc. but will hand out sentences which they feel are commensurate with the circumstances.  Many times a clan tribunal will be far harsher on one of their own clan than an outsider due to some internal need to "teach a lesson" or correct the behavior of a "bad citizen."  In general, the people of Haven will prefer to leave judgment and punishment of non-citizens to the respective courts of the violator's origin and will return them to that jurisdiction with a representative for Haven to insure that the claim is resolved satisfactorily.  The people of Haven have no formal guard or police except for the High Guard who serve and protect the Council.  All Haven citizens are called upon to police for their respective clans.

This type of law depends on the trustworthy nature of the citizens.  The government, the "Council of Nine," expects that respect for clan hierarchy and leadership will be sufficient to handle local peace keeping.  Where transgressions do occur, it is deal with first within the clan.  The Council of Nine is only used where the matter involves more than one clan or is a matter of greater importance than a clan.

  1. Almirada represents a small county that is very concerned about their borders.   The leaders of Almirada are ever vigilant of the many outsiders that travel through their land.  As such, they have an extensive network of "monitors" who patrol the countryside as part of standard community service and apprenticeship programs.  This security service is primarily concerned with the protection of the lands as a habitat for the people of Almirada and to insure that outsiders are not allowed to contact or meddle in the affairs of the people of Almirada without permission.  As such, crimes are purely internal affairs for the people of Almirada.  Whatever happens in the countryside between people who are not citizens of Almirada are their affairs and not the concern of Almirada.  Any transgression against the people of Almirada (trespassing up into the private property or unauthorized entry into cities or towns, attacking or interfering with citizens of Almirada, etc.) immediately results in capture and the perpetrators are brought before the nearest court for swift judgment and sentence.  The people of Almirada are harsh with first offenders and almost merciless with repeat offenders.  The unprovoked killing of a citizen almost always results in swift execution.  Theft of Almirada goods could result in lifetime servitude or worse!

This is a form of government that begins to approach dictatorship.  It is the beginning stages of martial law where outsiders are not dealt with unless they break the law.  When outsiders break the law, the punishment is swift, harsh, and public to serve as a warning to potential offenders.  When citizens break the law, punishment is not as swift as the system provides for a bit more time to determine guilt and sentence.  Punishment for citizens usually has community service as a component of the sentence.

In summary then, some key points to remember on law and order in fantasy RPGs:

  • Crime and criminal behavior very much depends upon where you are and who is doing the crime.  Also upon whom the victim of the crime is!
  • The bar for "justifiable homicide" is much lower than we know it today.  A few well placed silver or gold pieces may be all that is required to "justify" your actions.
  • Adventurers frequently find themselves as much the law enforcement as the lawbreakers from time to time.
  • Someone has to know about or complain about your actions in order to report the crime.  And even then no one may care due to where you are or who the complainers are.  (It is really hard to "murder" an orc; no one usually cares that they are dead!)
  • If you are not sure of the "law level" of a given area, ask.  First ask the GM if it is in the background of your character to know the general attitudes and accepted behavior of a region.  If you don't, you can always ask such questions in-character by approaching people you meet, city guards, or commoners.

I hope this sheds a bit on how your actions may be viewed from a legal perspective in a fantasy RPG world.  It is also instructive to look at various fantasy novels to see how great or small a role crime and punishment play.  Remember, when playing a fantasy role-playing game it wouldn't be much fun for the players if the GM could have your characters arrested every week for one thing or another.  So things are a littler looser, a little more heroic.  Have fun and be careful out there!

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