The Circus Of Law

English: Water-ordeal. Miniature from the chro...

Trial By Water

A lot of games have trouble with legal systems. There are a few articles up on that sort of problem here on the blog – but there is an alternative to being reasonable when you’re in a hurry, want to be less than serious, or want to represent a capricious and arbitrary regime.

Legal systems – especially when it comes to exceptional, high-powered, individuals – don’t really HAVE to make any sense. They may feature trial by ordeal, just try to make all the powerful people involved happy (regardless of guilt or innocence), try to content the gods, simply punish everyone, send those involved on a quest-competition to see who’s in the “right”, call for trial by combat, presume that anyone brought up for trial is guilty, or call on the accused to use some random system to determine their guilt (and punishment if guilty). There may or may not be any pretense of a trial, or consideration of evidence, or attempt at “fairness”. Punishments may be utterly arbitrary and/or quite horrendous. The local nobility may be simply assumed to be in the right, or priests may invariably be turned over to their superiors regardless of what they’re accused of, or admitting to having red blood may be punishable by death.

If it helps maintain some sort of social order – if only by being so arbitrary that the citizenry will do anything at all to avoid getting involved with it – it’s working.

If worst comes to worst, consider…

Quaffian Law: Before judging or arguing a case, the advocates and magistrates of Quaffa are required to drink a glass of fine red wine in honor of the King and the royal family, a glass of fine white wine in honor of the nobility, a glass of sweet wine in honor of the children who are its future, a large corn whiskey in honor of the farmers who feed the city, a large rum in honor of the sailors who bring it wealth, a large port in honor of the soldiers and guards who defend it, and three large beers in honor of the working men, the guilds, and the working women who support the city… For the laws of Quaffa are silly laws, and badly written* but they are not to be mocked by being considered while sober.

*Always while drunk or while using hallucinogens. While the hallucinogenic alternative is a subject of much grumbling among traditionalists, for that there can be only one answer in Quaffa… “Have a drink!”.

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4 Responses

  1. I want to hang out in Quaffa…

    A couple of friends of mine are in the final stages of editing for their own game – watch me blog in the future for an interview with them – and a lot of takes place in a huge city state. Instead of the law, they have the ‘charter’. A document drawn up that guarantees the freedoms of all sentient beings within the city. The only ‘crime’ is slavery, and this also includes the forceful binding of daemons. Criminal organisations are part of the city, each controlling territory and vying for more. The watch their own borders with a hawk’s eye, and it’s in their best interest that those under their protection prosper. They then have money to be taken in gambling dens and whore houses. there’s more to it than that, but this is a comment box on someone else’s blog, so I won’t take up much more of your time, but it is an elegant solution to playing in a civilised society without having the players spend most of their time on the run from the law.

    • The “Enlightened Self-Interest” theory does have a wonderful simplicity about it doesn’t it?

      Sadly, in practice, it relies on everyone in the society being fairly rational, capable of thinking in the long term, and agreeing on what their best interests actually are.

      In real life, people often make decisions that have obvious disastrous consequences later on (whether out of overconfidence, immediate greed, being dying, or simple foolishness), pursue emotional vengeance for more-or-less imaginary slights, and otherwise act like people instead of like the Tit-For-Tat program.

      Thus, murdering the neighbors isn’t usually a long-term productive strategy for humans; the other neighbors get upset. On the other hand, confronting an armed and irrational opponent isn’t in a surviving neighbors self-interest; he or she wants someone else to do it. Getting someone else to do it usually calls for taking up a collection and paying someone quite a lot – which leads to organized contributions to keep someone on retainer to speed up response time and spread the load, and so on.

      Very, VERY, soon you have taxes, government, and police…

      All actual social systems and governments are based on people pursuing their own self-interest – and pretty much all of them would work perfectly if all the people in them actually were “enlightened”. It’s getting everyone there that’s hard.

      In fantasy settings, where there are often massive inequalities of personal power, and where many beings may have quite in human viewpoints, it’s going to be even harder. It’s Enlightened Self Interest for a Demon to curse people hideously so that it can turn souls to the powers of darkness. A Lycanthrope’s self-interest may lie in exterminating most of the population to return the area to a wilderness hunting territory. A vampire might be driven to kill and spawn regardless of what is truly in its interests.

      They’re all going to require very special measures to fit in.

  2. Out of idle curiosity: do people cheerfully ignore any judgement form the bench too incomprehensible to obey, or high tolerance for psychoactive comppunds part of the qualifications for judgeships?

    • A high tolerance does help – if only because “not dying of drinking yourself to death or overdosing” is a big step towards having a long career.

      As far as incomprehensible rulings go, both sides usually interpret them in their own fashion, then try to persuade each other. Often, they come to an agreement. If they fail, it’s time to ask for a “clarifying” ruling – and debate about THAT.

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