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
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
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.
- 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.
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.
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
- 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