Death in Absentia: Characters and the Law

As with so many things, when you’re looking at how you handle malefactors in role-playing games, it’s often wise to look back at the beginning…

Once upon a time there were wargamers, and they had little cards for units that might look something like this:

Class-A Tank (d6 Generic Wargame):

  • Move 5. No Swamp or Mountain Terrain.
  • Saves: Small Arms 2+, Heavy Weapons 4+, Flamethrower 5+.
  • Four Wound Levels. Repair 1 Daily 4+
  • Attacks: Main Gun: Ranged 3 wounds, one hex. Machine Guns: 2 Wounds, Two Adjacent Hexes

There: A squad with small arms attacks your tank? Roll 1d6; on 2+ they do no damage. They’re using a bazooka? Now it’s a 4+ you need. You know how fast you can move, through what terrain, how hard it is to damage your unit, and how much damage it can take. Throw in a few similar unit-cards, a hex-gridded map, and a few tokens, and you have a wargame.

Then someone crossed out “Class-A Tank” and wrote “Knight with Magic Bow and Claymore” – and now it was a basic role-playing game. The basic game abilities were just the same, but now your tank could go off-duty, drink in bars, and chase women.

You can still see pretty obvious signs of that in first edition AD&D; a “name level” fighter there could take out minor enemies by the swarm (attacking once per level against very weak foes in melee), withstand more damage than any normal human being could ever endure, move quickly on his mighty steed – and still couldn’t move in swamps or up cliffs. Their armor was too heavy.

And there’s our first problem with maintaining law and order in RPG’s that allow characters with vast personal powers. When you come right down to it, powerful RPG characters are not normal human beings. They’re the equivalent of major military units. If major military units are running rampant across the area, and they refuse to stand down and surrender voluntarily, you don’t send out the police to arrest them. You send in other military units to destroy them.

That’s been the foundation of the law since the very beginning. If you don’t obey the authorities, they will kill you.

So you’re an adventurer and have been summoned to be tried for some sort of crime.

Yes, you can indeed use your mighty powers (or feet if your powers are not so mighty) to not show up, but if you refuse to work within the law, then you’re outside it and the authorities may well declare you outside the law or “outlawed “- although, if they’re kind, they won’t do it until after your trial.

Not showing up can be bad. Why?

Well lets talk about what being “Outlawed” really means…

What makes a “Civilized Area”?

A “Civilized Area” is a place where people have agreed to help defend each other and to take measures against attackers in the interests of mutual security. A futuristic apartment complex where no one will stick their noses out or call for help if a neighbor is attacked is not a civilized area. A collection of mud huts and thorn bushes where the neighbors will bring crudely pointed sticks to help repel a lion that’s attacking a neighbor… is.

That’s why times when jack-booted thugs can burst into someone’s house and drag them away without protests from the neighbors are referred to as a “breakdown of civilization”.

Outlawry doesn’t mean the authorities are after you. The authorities are after lots of people. It means that the authorities will pay a bounty on you and that you’re outside the protections of civilization – and that’s the scary part. It means that anyone can kill you and take your stuff without having to worry about getting into trouble.

Adventurers generally have nice stuff. The price of that second-hand basic longsword could feed a kid for a year. Throw in armor, a horse, and a few other bits and pieces… most people will never see that much money in their lives.

And that’s just for your basic starting fighter-type.

Being outlawed means being poisoned by bartenders, coup-de-graced in your sleep by maids, and hunted by other adventurers. For them, the real prize is usually your stuff. Any reward that may be offered on an adventurer is usually just lagniappe. If you’re an experienced adventurer, you’ll have enough stuff to be well worth the attention of even more experienced adventurers. Remember that cheap scry-teleport-blast-repeat routine that sometimes pops up in high-level d20? Congratulations; you’re now the target for every cheap trick that you’ve ever used to take out the bad guys easily. You’re… loot on the hoof, without the protections of being buried deep in the wilderness at the bottom of a dungeon full of traps, monsters, and ancient evils. Why risk trips like that when there’s a lump of concentrated wealth that you can grab without leaving town – and with the healer right around the corner and no social consequences except applause?

A child-pickpocket might flee outlawry successfully; he or she is unlikely to have anything worth the effort of taking and the reward is likely to be trivial. Get a weeks travel away, take a new name – and in a year or so everyone will have forgotten about you. But once the reward is worth a few hours work for a powerful mage…

Lets say it’s d20, and some upset noble has put out a 200 GP reward – for him, small change – on our child-pickpocket. A twelfth-level sorcerer can easily scry out the kid, teleport in, drop him or her with a single spell, and turn in the pathetic corpse (or unconscious body if he or she is feeling REALLY kind – or perhaps REALLY unkind) for the reward within five minutes. If the locals (somehow) find time to question our sorcerer, all he has to do is point to the kids status as an outlaw.

Now that does presume that powerful mages or other reality-manipulators exist in the setting and can find you – but if they can’t, local justice is a meaningless joke anyway as far as powerful people are concerned; they can just move elsewhere.

Bounty hunters are not sporting – and if you’ve got a soft heart and pity for the helpless, it’s not a profession you wind up in. Being outlawed means being screwed. Unless you’re so far gone in munchkinism as to be a problem for gods rather than mortals, being powerful won’t help a lot; sure you can survive more attacks, but there WILL BE a lot more attacks too.

You don’t actually need the accused at the trial either. You don’t show up? The court will STILL consider any evidence of your innocence that comes up, but not showing is a big strike against you and a pain for anyone trying to present your side. Remember; in most older societies the legal system does not exist to produce justice. That’s a modern ideal, and a VERY expensive social investment that pre-industrial societies often cannot afford. The legal system exists to maintain order and to keep the powerful people happy. Justice is nice when it can be arranged – but no one is letting the chance of committing an injustice stop them; there are always gods and afterlives to sort out the mistakes.

No, that’s not fair. Most RPG characters are working on the military level – and the military is interested in making things as unfair as they possibly can. If some innocent has gotten in the way, that’s what “collateral damage” is all about.

This may lead to compassionate types restraining people – especially young thieves and such with powerful enemies – from running away from accusations; no matter how much they panic. They may not understand that not showing up for trial is almost certain doom – but their benefactors will.

If you do show up but don’t behave they don’t need to take massive and expensive measures to restrain you either; if you aren’t simply killed in the fight, and if they really need something from you, they can just pour cups of narcotics into you until all you can do is mumble confused answers. They may throw in mind-probing spells and such if those exist in the setting – but there’s no need for it. You CAN be forced to testify against yourself, and no one will bat an eye. Quite a lot of places will still be using judicial torture.

You didn’t put up a fuss? You can probably defend yourself and testify without restraint. If you were going to use your abilities to escape or attack… waiting until you were in a courtroom that’s likely to be full of guards and powerful people would be bloody stupid.

Modern courts tend to ban weapons, but RPG’s tend to offer characters so many weird-ass powers as to make it a moot point. When the person next to you may be a werewolf, or have flaming explosive halitosis capable of demolishing castles, the fact that someone has a knife on them doesn’t look so important does it?

Showing up for trial and behaving yourself – particularly if you’re powerful enough to have a good chance of escaping for awhile – will often be taken as a big point in your favor too. Even if you’re guilty as hell, there’s a good chance of clemency, or a royal pardon in exchange for some special services, or some other way out. Adventurers who are sane enough to show up, face the music, and stick around to see the outcome even if it doesn’t look good are too valuable to waste – and and the price tag of forcing the issue can be rather high.

And that’s why when that ordinary Court Bailiff turns up to deliver a summons to your archmage for blowing up a small town and killing fifty people, it may be smart to go along with it. The trial might go badly – but the worst that’s likely to happen is an escape (it’s blasted hard to restrain an archmage) followed by Outlawry – and that’s exactly what will happen if you blow away the Bailiff and go for the escape right away anyway.

You’re already under sentence of death. Going to the trial… might get it lifted.

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