Law, Disorder, and Player Characters

line art drawing of armor.

And I am the law!

Originally “Law” came down to a simple idea; if you upset the rest of the tribe too much, you’d better hope you were faster than a spear AND that you could get along on your own.

Underlying that were a couple of other assumptions – that a normal member of the tribe COULD keep track of what would upset the rest of the tribe and that spears worked on everybody.

As groups got bigger, and it was no longer easy to keep track of what particular actions annoyed people, “law” got more complicated. It had to be formalized in local customs, lists of taboos, divinely-ordained commandments, and in codes of behavior.

As armor and weapons got better and more specialized (and expensive), you reached the point where taking down a lawbreaker who was so equipped might cost the lives of a dozen or more of your friends and relatives.

Justice now often carried too high a price – but the possibility of a “judicial assassination” was always there; spears from the front might be awkward, but knives in the back while the target was sleeping or bathing or sexually involved still worked on everybody.

As usual, price and demand soon arrived at a compromise – and multi-tiered “justice” appeared. A “nobleman” (generally “a person with expensive weapons and armor and training – and often with a lot more guys like him backing him up”) might suffer only small penalties for outrageous offenses – while the powerless might be killed over trivialities.

And for centuries, that was obviously the way it was supposed to be.

Eventually, however, guns made law. While it isn’t quite true that “God made men; Colt made them equal”, there is a certain underlying truth to it – which is why it’s persisted so long. As weapons improved, and got cheaper, and armor faded away into obsolescence, it gradually became a fair assumption that, barring special situations, if one side showed up for a fight with two or three times as many guys as the other side did it was almost certainly going to win.

Just the way that it had worked back in the days of the primeval tribe – and, just as it had been in the tribe, the “Law” became a more-or-less abstract set of rules that applied to pretty much EVERYONE – even if the list had gotten a lot longer and more formal.

These days the same principle – “We’ve got nukes” – is reforming the nature of “International Law” in much the same fashion.

So what does that say about “Law” in fantastic settings?

It says that it has serious problems.

It’s not just that divination magic may be a reliable science, or that “a demon possessed me!” may be an demonstrateable (and perhaps acceptable, unless one will then be held responsible for the moral lapses that allowed that to happen) reason for murdering an orphanage full of children.

It’s that both the fundamental assumptions the law is built on break down.

  • In a world where your community may contain multiple species, exotic spirits, long-dead and yet very active individuals, and outright monsters, “what upsets people” may be a job for a few decades worth of intensive study if it’s humanly comprehensible at all. If failing to make an offering at the village shrine when you arrive at the gates of the village causes massive avalanches to sweep down and kill everyone in the area UNLESS the miscreants still-twitching hearts are ripped from their chests and offered upon the altar before the sun crosses the horizon, then failing to make an offering on arrival is a crime that carries an immediate, no-appeal, death penalty – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a five year old that didn’t know and ran ahead of his or her frantically-calling parents on the path up to the village. Maybe the kid will be given an hour to say goodbye to his or her grieving relatives – but that’s about the limit of the possible mercy.
  • The other basic assumption – that your community CAN enforce it’s laws – is equally open to question. If that little kid turns out to be a shapeshifted dragon, or is magically protected against any source of injury the locals can bring to bear, or can teleport, or summon demonic guardians… Well, the villagers are pretty well helpless, and the only choice is to abandon anyone who can’t travel and flee the area.

Such is the law.

And yes, that sucks.

The thing is, most gaming worlds assume that societies are familiar enough to not need a lot of explanation time that could be spent on actual play – and that calls for some sort of law.

  • A lot of worlds have what might be called “Inertial Law” – the “Law” is a vague background element, mostly based on whatever legal code the players are used to, and enforced by a vague sense that the characters are used to it and that there will be trouble if it’s defied.

That can actually work – but only as long as the players cooperate with it. Once they get the idea that the locals can’t stop them from running amuck, the end is near – and it’s pretty hard to explain how the system came to be, or held together, in the first place.

  • In a few hyper-realistic worlds (such as World Tree, which doesn’t flinch when it comes to examining social issues, regardless of how exotic it’s setting is) “Law” is mostly something that applies to ordinary folks. When truly powerful people and groups are involved, the magistrates simply try to negotiate a compromise that will keep them all as happy as possible.

Thus when a group of powerful adventures was annoyed by some street-gangers, they did a quick divinatory check, determined that the youngsters didn’t have any backing worth noting – although their pretense of having backing had fooled other people so far. Ergo, they simply enslaved the bunch of them and sold the ones they had no use for.

And that was perfectly “legal”. If the kids had actually had some backing, that would have been a different matter – but they didn’t. As far as the locals were concerned, the kids fully deserved their fate for being stupid enough to annoy people who could casually check them out and enforce an appropriate penalty when they turned out to be unprotected.

Of course, this system tends to fall apart if the players discover that their characters have plot armor, and won’t be suffering any consequences for misbehaving. You can simply not give them plot armor – but in that case you’ll have to make sure they get plenty of warning about what not to do; having the party exterminated for upsetting some powerful NPC group in some obscure fashion can be very disruptive to the game.

  • The default position is often Private Law – having some reasonably-powerful NPC’s or groups thereof enforcing the laws they feel are appropriate in their private domains, either personally or by hiring some tough guys. This can be made to work surprisingly well with one simple trick; once the characters are powerful enough to start ignoring the “law”, they BECOME the law – and the locals will start appealing to them to straighten out their issues.

This does, however, tend to imply a patchwork-quilt of law; cross a valley into the next nobles territory and the “law” may be wildly different. In most settings it’s also hard on many other social structures; unlike wealth, titles, and property, personal power and skill is generally impossible to pass on – which means that the “local authorities” are going to change every generation or even more often, as old powerful individuals die off and either pass their domains on to other powerful (and probably unrelated) adventurers or adventurers take domains away from heirs who lack the power to control and hold them.

  • Then, of course, you have Imperial Law – some vast, faceless, organizational power that has enough raw power to enforce ITS preferred “law”. This works – but the organization needs to be truly vast, resilient enough to withstand massive challenges to it’s power, equipped with enormous investigative and enforcement abilities, and wide-spread enough that there’s no simple way to avoid it in those areas it controls. Otherwise the player characters will just move somewhere that’s less bother.

That’s actually pretty easy; the game master can put pretty much anything he likes into his or her game background.

Unfortunately, that makes it a lot harder to explain why there’s anything for the characters to do – unless they work for the Imperium.

You can do that too, but “you are agents for…” campaigns rarely work that well. The players want to make their own decisions, and an awful lot of them just won’t be satisfied with improvising a bit around the fringes of their orders.

It also means that your laws are going to have to be extensive, and uniformly enforced, and a lot of trouble to keep track of. That’s not so good; game masters only have so much time, and spending it on legal paperwork instead of creating and running adventures is an unattractive notion.

  • Divine Law offers some useful possibilities however. All we have to do is to presume that the gods (1) exist, and (2) want lots of attention. It doesn’t really matter why…

Given those assumptions it’s pretty obvious that a thriving religion, with great temples, tens of thousands of worshipers, and mighty sacrifices is a LOT better than a far smaller number of hunter-gatherer tribes hiding from monsters and passing on a few myths around the campfire.

But that kind of thing takes an organized society. Like it or not, you can’t get the walls built and keep them manned, or grow enough crops to feed everyone, or construct those temples if everyone wanders about doing their own thing at random – or keeps disrupting the group. Sure, your rules may promote vicious backstabbing or slave-holding or many other heinous evils – but they won’t countenance random murders, or random decisions to allow slave revolts to succeed, or “kill all the kids day”. Embrace disorder to that extent and your society will not be able to survive.

ALL the gods (or the fair folk or whatever) thus have an interest in maintaining their worshipers – and their cities, and customs, and behavioral restraints. Sure, there may be mortal law enforcement for customs and rules that the gods don’t care about – but the gods don’t need mortals to enforce their rulings; that’s a part of what makes them GODS.

Under Divine Law there are rules that don’t matter much, and rules that you can get away with violating if the mortals don’t catch you – and then there are the major rules that the gods will personally smack you for violating – although sometimes the patronage of one will protect you from the ill-will of another.

Small “crimes” may call for nothing more than a few prayers and small sacrifices to atone for. Commit murders, and perhaps terrible ill fortune and incurable diseases will follow you for the next seven years. You might be able to atone, especially if you had good reason – but you can’t count on it.

Given that the characters will have normally grown up knowing all about this, if you use Divine Law you’ve got to remember to tell the players when their proposals will bring down penalties on their characters – but if they decide to go ahead anyway, so be it.

The major problem with Divine Law is that it can seem quite arbitrary – and that there should be some good reason for it if there are inconsistencies. If King Nasty murdered his father to seize the throne, and murdering your father is normally punished by the Curse of Melting Bones, then you’ll need to come up with some reason why he’s either eluded the curse or is getting along despite his melting bones.

Now, if you only have one god – or impersonal forces run your world – then you have what might be called…

  • Natural Law – or perhaps Traditional Law – is pretty straightforward. It involves really bad things happening to you when you break the rules.

We see this in the real world; eat fugu without following the complex, traditional, ritual preparation, and you may well wind up dead. The fact that we call it “poison” doesn’t make it any less “you died because you failed to follow the rules”.

In fantastic worlds, things may be a bit less well-understood, but the results can be every bit as direct and observable.

They wondered why Silvya had drunk himself into unconsciousness and collapsed in their Church – but when the pit opened, spewing forth icy white flames, and the demons of the lowest circles dragged him down, the spectators blotted Silvya from their memories and set out mournfully to search; such a fate awaited only the most treacherous, the most brutal murderers of innocent kin – and that meant that young Dalimar, Silvya’s sole relative since the plague of the year before, was surely hideously dead.

If they could find Dalimar’s body, for him there would be a funeral, an honorable burial, and guidance for the long journey to the higher realms of the dead. Silvya… Silvya was lost, at least until the turning of the age.

Natural Law doesn’t always have to be that drastic. If lesser manifestations are run by small curses, or left in the hands of mortals (who knows? perhaps injustice empowers curses), things can be quite reasonable. More importantly, there are usually ways to finesse natural laws – ways in which to negate the penalties, or avoid acquiring them in the first place, that wouldn’t work with an intelligent enforcer who wouldn’t fall for technicalities.

Natural Law offers other bonuses as well; some players assume that – if their character is now hunted by the authorities – all that means is that the authorities have just joined their list of targets. Under Natural Law that isn’t really a problem. Moreover, it can lead to any number of scenarios. Was someone tricked into committing a crime which will call the Wyld Hunt down on them in three days time? Can you save them? Should you try?

When the job of “Defense Lawyer” may mean personal combat with a supernatural manifestation of vengeance, opening a legal practice gets a lot more exciting.

On the other hand, you’ve really got to make sure that there are tricky and difficult-to-exploit ways around Natural Law – and you’ve got to draw the line carefully. If the rules are too easy to get around, why isn’t everyone doing it? If they’re nigh-impossible to evade, you’re going to have a hard time creating villains; they’ll have to be either really subtle or extremely rare.

A few settings are anarchic, and have no “law” at all. In this (lack of) “system” personal vendettas, dueling prowness, and raw power are all that matter.

Unfortunately, anarchy tends to be unstable; people start banding together in self-defense, and – very soon indeed – you’re back at “Private Law” if the place hasn’t been overrun by more organized neighbors first.

Are there more options?

Well, no, there really aren’t. There are variations – perhaps the laws are enforced by powerful “law machines” – but when you come right down to it, either there are no effective rules (Anarchy or – if there are rules but there’s nothing much to enforce them – Inertial Law) or there are effective rules. If they don’t apply to the characters we have Law for Ordinary Folks only. If there are effective rules they may be enforced by individual entities or by groups of entities (Private Law), by a single giant group (Imperial Law), or by either Personal (Gods) or Impersonal (Monotheistic Deity or “Natural Law”) Supernatural forces.

You do usually need Law in a setting – but it’s always a good idea to think about where it comes from and how it’s enforced.

For some more information on classical law, and how it functioned, I’ll direct you (for now) over to the Intelligence Check Blog for parts ONE and TWO.


2 Responses

  1. Much thanks for the shout-out, Thoth!

    • You’re quite welcome. You’re taking quite a different approach to the topic, and diverse viewpoints are virtually always a good thing!

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