RPG Evolution: Guilty?

Before a criminal's guilt can be determined, your fantasy society has to care about justice first.

Before a criminal's guilt can be determined, your fantasy society has to care about justice first.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Hue-and-Cry​

Early policing and justice systems relied on the hue-and-cry, a process by which bystanders are summoned to assist in the apprehension of a criminal who has been witnessed in the act of committing a crime. There are some obvious issues with this method, most specifically that if there are no witnesses a hue-and-cry cannot be raised, and much of the testimony against the criminal relies on the reputation of those raising the hue-and-cry in the first place.

Assuming the accused was apprehended, early medieval societies used a blend of trial by ideal and compurgation to determine their innocence. Both were vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by outside forces. Trial by ideal was usually used when a crime was accused on the basis of specific facts, while compurgation was used when an accusation was precipitated by public outcry.

Trial by Ordeal​

Early medieval societies used trial by ordeal, a religious practice in which guilt or innocence is determined by a painful and usually dangerous experience. This could be by combat, taking place between the two parties in dispute. Sometimes, champions were designated to fight on their behalf. Whoever lost was considered liable or guilty.

Trial by fire, a form of torture, required the accused to walk nine feet over red-hot plowshares or holding a burning iron. The wound would then be bandaged and re-examined three days later. If the wound was festering, the accused was guilty.

Trial by water required the accused to reach into a boiling pot of water to retrieve a stone, with the depth of the boiling water determined by the severity of the crime. Like the trial by fire, the nature of the wound would determine the accused's innocence or guilt. There was also dunking in cold water, often against supposed witches, in which the guilty was dunked in water and, if they sank, were considered innocent.

If the victim was dead, there was even cruentation, in which the accused would be required to put their hands on the dead body and, if it bled or moved, was considered evidence of guilt.

There are flaws in this system, the most obvious being that innocence is being determined by a divine force. Depending on the campaign, this might rely on the character's relationship with his patron deity, or it might be circumventable by magic.

For player characters, ordeals pose an interesting opportunity. In combat, most PCs have resources at their disposal that common villagers might not (although a champion appointed by a powerful noble could pose a challenge). Trials by fire and water can both be circumvented with spells; the assumption is that divine punishment determines guilt, so it's up to the DM to determine if this has any basis. A cleric attempting to heal someone who is guilty might find their spells don't work.

Compurgation​

Compurgation, also known as trial by oath, was a defense an accused could use to take an oath of innocence along with 12 of their friends and allies. The idea being that a person of good character wouldn't lie about committing a crime. It was not, notably, about whether or not the 12 knew if the person was guilty.

Compurgation was sometimes used by influential people to get around trials by ordeal. It was also a means of ensuring those of higher influence could easily avoid criminal charges, by relying on their reputation. The dispossessed, mentally ill, and underclass might not be able to muster the resources available to someone of higher rank. Additionally, compurgation made it possible to accuse someone of being a changeling or a witch; those who couldn't defend themselves would be susceptible to trial by ordeal instead.

Compurgation is trickier for PCs to circumvent, but with the right application of charm spells it can be overcome. Conversely, doppelgangers and shapeshifters can wreak havoc with compurgation, as a person's reputation trades on consistency and the accused could theoretically kill with impunity with enough allies willing to attest to their innocence. Unpleasant and unpopular PCs might find themselves surprisingly vulnerable to compurgation.

Just the Facts, Ma'am​

Early societies didn't rely on facts so much as divine intervention (trial by ordeal), personal skill (trial by combat), and a good reputation (compurgation). PCs who decide to break the law might be surprised to learn that facts matter less than their relationship with their deity and their neighbors.

Your Turn: What sort of justice systems do you apply to your fantasy societies?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

aco175

Legend
The PCs tend to have money and can pay fines and offer service to local lords and magistrates. My games do not have the PCs getting into much trouble since the players tend to play good characters and would aid the locals in bringing in criminals but having a system that may be against the PCs is always good. I can add an evil baron or corrupt guard that is out against one PC and try to frame them. It is used more for a hook or story development.

I can also use the criminal system to show flavor to the players. If they walk into a town and everything is clean and orderly vs a town that is dirty and a few people are sitting in stocks and a permanent stage of gallows has been built sends different messages.

Some justice depends on the size of the place. A village or small town likely does not have the resources to have full-time guards and any kind of judge. There might be an elder or traveling magistrate to come by once a month to listen to things. Local posses bring in suspected criminals or just as likely take care of things on the road. Large towns and noble central holds have more guards and layers of justice. The King will not sit in on sentencing of a pickpocket since he has a few reeves for that.

I do not bring in the Gods to the justice but can see where some societies have spells that can talk to god and ask them it someone is guilty. It takes it out of the hands of the locals but allows the opposition to question if the spell was cast or exactly who was on the other end of the phone call. It might even show the populace that the ruler is not as powerful and divine as he is leading the locals to believe. It is also way overkill for using on 99% of crimes and ties up one who is likely the most powerful priest in the land.
 

talien

Community Supporter
The PCs tend to have money and can pay fines and offer service to local lords and magistrates. My games do not have the PCs getting into much trouble since the players tend to play good characters and would aid the locals in bringing in criminals but having a system that may be against the PCs is always good. I can add an evil baron or corrupt guard that is out against one PC and try to frame them. It is used more for a hook or story development.

I can also use the criminal system to show flavor to the players. If they walk into a town and everything is clean and orderly vs a town that is dirty and a few people are sitting in stocks and a permanent stage of gallows has been built sends different messages.

Some justice depends on the size of the place. A village or small town likely does not have the resources to have full-time guards and any kind of judge. There might be an elder or traveling magistrate to come by once a month to listen to things. Local posses bring in suspected criminals or just as likely take care of things on the road. Large towns and noble central holds have more guards and layers of justice. The King will not sit in on sentencing of a pickpocket since he has a few reeves for that.

I do not bring in the Gods to the justice but can see where some societies have spells that can talk to god and ask them it someone is guilty. It takes it out of the hands of the locals but allows the opposition to question if the spell was cast or exactly who was on the other end of the phone call. It might even show the populace that the ruler is not as powerful and divine as he is leading the locals to believe. It is also way overkill for using on 99% of crimes and ties up one who is likely the most powerful priest in the land.
I think this is how most games probably manage it. To your point, if you're on the "wrong side of the law" things may have gone wrong.

That said, chaotic PCs and players who just like to make trouble absolutely do test the limits of the campaign's in-game laws, so it's good to have some ideas on how it would be handled. But if the PCs are going to end up committing flagrant murders, it's a fine line between dealing with it in game and taking players aside and asking them what kind of game they want to play (or if that's the game YOU want to play).
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
For a long time my games were like fantasy wild west. In that, law mattered, but you were so far on the outskirts that it was pliable to the situation. I ran Carrion Crown adventure path and had a good time. There is a construct in which the PCs have to investigate the crimes its accused of, and then defend it in court. It was like Frankenstein meets I, Robot. That was a great adventure and really got me thinking more about law and justice system in the fantasy RPG space.

I've come down on the topic as matters when it needs to matter. Like the example above, it was a fun aspect of the adventure, but I think simulating a fantasy world and all its nuanced justice systems might grow tiresome. This, will of course, be up to taste. Many discussions these days on EN world revolve around narrative vs. simulation. I have gone back and forth between them over the years myself. I am currently on the side of narrative because I want my interests and that of my players served in the moment. Who knows? Maybe ill want a sim approach again someday.
 


Voadam

Legend
The two trials I have run in games have been in gothic horror D&D games (2e Ravenloft and pathfinder Carrion Crown in a mad scientist enlightened city) so the default background was not ancient world code of Hammurabi or Dark Ages ridiculous witch hunting and ordeals but fairly Frankenstein era modern trials with judges and putting forth legal arguments, but also mobs with literal torches and pitchforks. Gave an opportunity for fantasy Perry Mason court scenes and turned out well.

Fantasy legal systems and policing are something I mostly avoid getting into unless necessary for plot reasons. I don't feel I have a good handle on actual historical systems compared to the current ones though I default a bit conceptually to legal systems like the Norse Thing, jury trials, Roman law codes, Code of Hammurabi, and the trial of Socrates, with a little bit of Inquisition and Salem witch trials often thrown in.
 

talien

Community Supporter
The two trials I have run in games have been in gothic horror D&D games (2e Ravenloft and pathfinder Carrion Crown in a mad scientist enlightened city) so the default background was not ancient world code of Hammurabi or Dark Ages ridiculous witch hunting and ordeals but fairly Frankenstein era modern trials with judges and putting forth legal arguments, but also mobs with literal torches and pitchforks. Gave an opportunity for fantasy Perry Mason court scenes and turned out well.
I think most folks handwave justice systems as "like modern times but with a city watch instead of police." Not surprisingly, Ravenloft skews Victorian technology along with its horror, and therefore the justice systems reflect that.
 


talien

Community Supporter
And depending on how truth works in your campaign, can lead to some utter delusional psychopaths being untouchable.

Just like today!
We could just as easily make a spell that causes you to either have fire resistance/vulnerability, water breathing/drowning, or advantage/disadvantage in combat, all determined if the person is guilty or innocent.

Zone of truth is pretty much Trial by Ordeal, it's just that the PCs believe it works because it's in the rules.
 


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