Thursday 16 October 2008

I am the Law

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.

Human Law

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.

Dwarf Law

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

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

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.


  1. Who wants to worry about the law, when you're supposed to be having fun?

    Taken out of context, that sounds very sinister, but no matter.

    First, Phoenix Wright says you're wrong: I and many others would play a game of legal maneuverings, and it'd be great. The base book would include a list of jurisdictions (or types), each with respective principal laws and procedures, and one or more mechanisms for players to add laws to the table. ("I concede that my client might have punched the priest of Thor in the face, but caselaw clearly proves that, as a grieving widow, non-fatal assault should be over-looked!") Plus, of course, the cases they won (or, occasionally, lost) would gradually be used to create an even more vigorous body of precedent. And heck, why not make a website that acted as a shared repository for groups everywhere, so that people in other games could refer to your brief in their brief! Wooo!

    In fact, I imagine you could be up and running very quickly with a hack of Mortal Coil. In a nutshell, the rules let you choose to either give your character a lot of power (making him an angel or immortal wizard), or giving yourself a lot of power of narration (deciding what angels and immortal wizards eat, do, come from and go to in the setting), with a few balanced steps in between. So you'd just apply that to law instead, with either your character being a capable arguer, investigator and/or judge of character, or you being given the power to say "THIS is the bizarre legal twist that you will attempt to manuever around or use to your advantage this week!"

    Anyway, it sounds like you'd be interested in playing some kind of game that had some kind of place for legal proceeding. Tongue out of cheek, the tens of millions of people who watch legal procedural dramas lead me to honestly believe there are many people who'd want to play such a thing.

    And even barring the creation of an entirely new game, certainly the verisimilitude and new adventure possibilities created by having even the barest sketch of a legal system rich with conflict and opportunity are well worth the effort.

    Speaking of gaming and law strikes me as an odd coincidence. I've been reading through Pantagruel, a fantastic and ridiculous book about the eponymous giant of exceeding virtue and perspicacity, and also farting, drinking and penises, written by a French monk in the 16th century. It's hilariously, amazingly great.

    Anyway, there's this brief side-quest halfway through the book; Pantagruel and friends have been trying to help one of their number decide whether he should get married or not, when Pantagruel says that he's heard a famous judge has been called before the high court, and this is quite unusual, and he'd like to go observe.

    In the thousands of cases this judge has heard, most have been appealed (everyone appeals), but of those, not a single one has been overturned. He's a watchword for fairness and intelligence in judgments, so it came as a great shock to the high court when one of his cases seemed way, way off to them. And they asked him why.

    His response was (to the degree that I was able to understand it past the fake legal jargon of extensive latin abbreviations) to inform them that his procedure for deciding every single one of these cases has been to put all the papers submitted by the prosecution/plaintiff on the left side of his desk, and all the defendant on the right side, compare the size of the stacks, then choose a die to roll of an appropriate size. The reason the recent decision seemed off was because he had to use his smallest die, and his eyesight was not what it used to be, so he had mistook a four for a five.

    Pantagruel, a famed legal mind himself, is appealed to, and his opinion was that the method had to be judged by its products, which had been universally seen as wise and balanced, even by this court.

    So I don't think gaming and law are as diametrically opposed as you think. :)

  2. Great, great post. I can never figure out how to make the demihuman races seem alien, this will help.

  3. Nick: John Grisham's popularity would suggest there'd be a market. What you're suggesting would definitely work as a story game. I'm not sure I enjoy that kind of thing, but it's purely a matter of taste. Why don't you write it up in more detail?

    Noumenon: I constantly struggle with that very thing - trying to make demihuman races seem alien.