Among my many faults, I am something of a scholar of International Law. (At least, I'm working on a PhD entitled "A new conceptual framework for state-minority relations in the United Nations' human rights monitoring system" - which entitles me to call myself a 'scholar' but which also makes me a hugely pretentious ass.) So naturally enough, in my idle moments my thoughts sometimes drift towards the idea of legal systems being incorporated into fantasy role playing settings. Of course - and I know this to be true, with every bone in my body - such an idea cannot be anything but a recipe for disaster - because what player would ever want to have anything to do with such a setting? Who wants to worry about the law, when you're supposed to be having fun?
Nevertheless, I'm toying with the idea once again. Here are some unfocused ramblings regarding legal systems in fantasy rpg settings. Enjoy.
What interests me, as a legal theorist more than a practitioner, is how a legal system would develop in a typical bog-standard fantasy setting, in which elves, dwarves, humans, hobbits, half-orcs, giants and dragons intermingle in a haphazard way. What would govern the relations of the wildly different races? What self respecting dwarf would abide by judicial decisions made by an elf?
In Early Germanic Law, a similar problem (how to deal with the patchwork of wildly different cultures found through the Holy Roman Empire) was circumnavigated by treating every man in accordance with the laws of his own people. Even if a Frank and a Burgundian committed identical crimes, their treatment would vary according to their specific 'racial' law. It wouldn't be hard to imagine a similar system existing in a fantasy state in which elves, dwarves, humans and halflings lived side by side. What follows is a dreamt-up overview of a set of legal systems for a place called Sachsenpiegel, which I've just made up. It is an ordinary bog-standard fantasy kingdom in which the population is equally divided between humans, elves, dwarves and hobbits.
Because humans are the least well educated of the four races in Sachsenspiegel and most of them are illiterate, their law is also the least codified and it relies heavily on custom and precedent. It is enforced by traveling judges, who move from town to town and village to village, hearing complaints and making decisions according to their own analysis, and according to precedent set in similar cases which they have heard about and memorised. They enforce their own decisions, and they are usually very powerful wizards or clerics who are strong enough to carry out required punishments, whatever form they take. Once a year every judge in Sachsenspiegel gets together at a great moot, where they exchange experiences, ideas and judgements.
Dwarfish Law is based on the concept of the 'Maegth' - everything is regulated by laws of kinship, and everyone within an extended clan is responsible for everybody else. If a member of a clan has committed a crime, all the members of his clan pay restitution and accept punishment. Likewise, if a crime is committed against a member of a clan, all the other members get together to demand (or enact) retribution. This system can result in very harmonious relations if clans are prepared to keep their members in line. But it can quickly spiral into tit-for-tat blood feuds spanning generations if justice is not perceived to have been done in a particular case.
Elven law consists of a set of simple guidelines for behaviour, based heavily on the concept of harmony. Because elves consider each other basically trustworthy and incapable of intentionally committing a crime, any transgression is viewed as having been accidental and repentance and forgiveness are expected on the part of the transgressor and victim respectively. Punishment is only enacted for refusal to repent or refusal to forgive; refusal to repent can result in anything from a fine to ostracism, whereas refusal to forgive generally results in milder sentences.
Hobbit Law is molded by the character of hobbits themselves. The little people like nothing better than poring over books, holding long and intricate discussions, and taking their time mulling over decisions. This makes hobbit law highly codified, extremely arcane, and almost inexplicable to outsiders. Trials typically last for months or even years except in the most clear cut cases, as the two parties, their representatives, and the judges argue the cases and discuss fine (extremely fine) details. Often the two parties (transgressor and victim) will compare notes and ideas very civilly over the existing statutes, precedents and records and what they all mean, and will reach a mutually acceptable decision together with the judges. Clouds of pipe smoke and the the thick smell of beer accompany almost all hobbit legal proceedings.
Interaction of the different systems
In the case of a crime in which the transgressor and victim are of different races, the guilty party is tried in accordance with their own law. This often results in problems, particularly in cases in which an elf 'accidentally' commits a crime against a human or dwarf - as people of those races are unlikely to accept the route of forgiveness.
Such cases are resolved by a council of eight legal elders - two from each of the races, appointed by their respective communities. Together they hash out decisions regarding inter-racial crimes, and generally speaking their decisions are abided by. In the case of further argument, both parties to a case have recourse to the king, whose decision is final.