Thursday, 9 September 2021

Some thoughts on law in fantasy settings

In this post I'm gonna tell you why you have to chop your player's hands off.

So if you start up Skyrim, you're playing what is called "fantasy". There's a lot of shit here that does not pretend to be real. In fact that's why people play it. There's dragons and trolls and there's magical powers everywhere.

There's strange peoples and customs and histories.

I've written before that "religion" in fantasy kind of shows that we take some things that really are arbitrary - such as the concept of "religion" as being belief in gods - as universal.

I argue that our response to a fictional world shows that we have two kinds of normal. 

The first is VISIBLE NORMALITY. This is the things we find normal but that we understand are arbitrary. For example, the clothing people wear in Skyrim is not something I'd ever wear, and the gods they worship are not gods I'd ever worship. My clothing is normal to me but I understand it is different for other people and *would* be different in an alternate, fictional world.

The second is INVISIBLE NORMALITY. This is things we find normal but we do not even know could be different. They are self-evident, taken-for-granted, hiding-in-plain-sight. So, understanding that fictional people in a fictional world would not worship Christ shows that we consider worshipping Christ a VISIBLE NORMALITY. But, the fact that all fictional religions revolve around worshipping gods shows that we think of "religion" as "worshipping gods" as INVISIBLE NORMALITY. We do not even realize that it does not have to be that way. We think that is universal, necessary. In Skyrim, I can play as a cat-person. But I cannot play as someone who is non-binary, for example. 

These are things that are normal to me and that I *don't* understand are different for other people and *would* be different in an alternate, fictional world.

Religion and gender in Skyrim shows that they are invisible normalities. When constructing the weird fantasy world, the creators just skipped over these because they did not see them, did not consider them candidates for potential difference or fantasy.

Moving on to what I was actually thinking about: law.

Consider now, if you will, the Whiterun Guard. And the Riften Guard. And the Solitude Guard.

I argue, dear reader, that "guards" in fantasy show how the police are an example of invisible normality. These guards function exactly like cops and seem not to have been subject to serious thought at all - they are transplanted wholesale from contemporary society. Of course there are cops. Cops are an inescapable part of reality. Skyrim has gravity, therefore it must have cops.

But the cops have only existed for like 200 years. Before that, law enforcement was entirely different. The town watch, for example, was much more about *watching*. They kept an eye on things and would alert others if necessary. They did not perform arrests, AFAIK. In Medieval law, the cry "stop thief!" was not just a cool thing for people in cartoons to yell. If you did that, every single person in the community had a duty to stop the thief. There were no designated thief-catchers like we imagine the cops to be.

In addition, people were sometimes put in groups of ten. If any of the ten broke the law, it was the responsibility of the other nine to take him to court.

So law enforcement wasn't a profession. It was something everybody did. It was a very social type of phenomenon. Communities policed themselves.

So why are all these fantasy settings crawling with "city guards" who are just modern day cops wearing armour? 

Where am I going with this? Well, obviously the intent here is to imagine more types of fantasy worlds.

Punishment after and trial were different as well. Judges travelled around for serious cases and had their authority from the king, and courts were set up by local lords. So whereas policing is communal, trial can be top-down.

Punishment, again, can be super small scale. Jail time did not exist. Prisons are modern. Sure, some castles had dungeons, but those weren't used for regular old punishment -- you had to be *really* unlucky to end up there. Punishment was either something physically painful or something terribly embarassing (or getting executed). Think about the stocks. The community is punishing you. There's a communal aspect both to the enforcement and punishment.

This is al leading up for a few questions to ask yourself when designing what will happen when your players nick something.

The thing is that there are no quick fixes here. Your law enforcement is related to your power structures and your law. There may be different laws enforced by different hierarchies. Take for example church law versus royal law. Or, different laws may apply to different people. In medieval Muslim societies such as in al-Andalus, Muslims were required to follow aspects of Islamic law that non-Muslims, though they lived under a Muslim state with a Muslim ruler, were not required to follow. But non-Muslims were required to pay a tax, for example.

So ask yourself:
* who is making laws? The king? The city-state? The tribe? The church? The guild? Some people very very long ago?
* why are they making laws? Keeping order? Religious reasons? Enriching themselves? Maintaining their own power?
* who do their laws apply to? Everyone? Their subjects? Only women? Only men? Only guild members?
* what do laws forbid? Crimes against people? Crimes against authority? Crimes against sacred things or persons?
* who are law enforcement? The community itself? Or paid experts, or semi-expert volunteers? Or informal groups, militia-like? Do experts have special status? Do experts of different groups compete?
* what are the duties of law enforcement groups? Do they apprehend; are they the muscle? Do they notify the muscle? Are they mostly deterrent or actually supposed to catch criminals?
* who does law enforcement deliver a criminal to? Informal authority in the community? Or formal village- or city-level authority? Royal authority? Church or temple authority? Guild authority?
* what are trials like? Are they quick and dirty -- "everyone can tell that he did such and such..." or drawn-out affairs with ancient customs like right to trial by combat, etc? Who presides over trials? Mayor, priest, chief, judge, king? Are there maybe oracles or rituals in trials?
* where does the authority of the judge come from? Is it the informal authority of the well-known and respected community member? Is it divine authority? Is it the authority of the king? The authority of the ancestors? Is the judge a political figure, or perhaps someone out of political hierarchies, like a feared and loathed shamanic figure who lives out of town, and whose legal authority derives from being so distant from it himself?
* what are punishments like? Do they emphasize punishment, retribution, safety of the community, or rehabilitation? Depending on these, they can be physical punishments, payments to the aggrieved party, a right to the aggrieved party to punish the criminal themselves, punishments of embarrasment or a decrease in honour, incarceration, exile, slavery, execution. A nomadic society will have no prisons. A clan-based society may seek retribution on members of the criminal's clan, with the punishment designed to prevent that from happening.

This is stuff you can't really do quick and dirty or roll out on a table, because it is so intertwined with whatever political system and cultural values you may already have for your setting. Even if you think you don't, you just have a basic fantasy setting -- there is always the king, the mayor, what have you, and if there is a king he is probably not absent in law. Either he is the judge or the authority of the judge comes from him, or something. Then again, maybe it would be super interesting to have a setting where there is a king, but all legal powers are derived from somewhere else and the king has nothing to do with them. Go wild, I say.

One thing I ask of you. I don't want you to stop using 'city guards'. I do want you to think about why they're there.

BUT let's get to GAMEPLAY.

Of course it's fun to tinker out a world. But eventually people are gonna have to play in it. So what system is most fun to play? WELL. I'll tell you what isn't fun. Jail. Time skips are easily done but also kind of skirt against the fourth wall too much. It's abstract for your players. It doesn't mean anything. Maybe their skills decrease (like in the Elder Scrolls) but even that is just a number.

Here's an idea. What if the punishment for theft is having your hand chopped off. Yeah, your left hand. -5 DEX for life, bro. Oh sorry do you usually use a shield? Well, should have thought of that before stealing that necklace. Now that's punishment. That's something players definitely DON'T want.

Basically, from a gameplay perspective I think good law punishment would be something that attacks the character sheet. Remove a limb. Limit their health. Cripple their inventory. Ban them from buying at shops in that city ever again. Cut out their tongue. Cripple their ability to play the game. 

This has three goals: firstly, it really makes them want to avoid punishment, either by not committing crimes (which ups immersion and decreases murderhoboism) or by having to plan elaborate escapes before sentence is carried out (which is fun). Secondly, if they do get punished and are now missing a hand / tongue / eye, then you have at least put a dent into the player journey into invulnerability, meaning you actually invest in their fun. And finally, they'll have to think creatively how to function without those bodyparts. Making players think creatively is fun. Shit you might even throw in a quest hook about getting a magical artificial hand. 

All SOOO much better than being put in jail.

Sure, it's harsh. But that's the only language these players understand, dammit!


  1. Interesting considerations, no doubt. Who rules, why, how and how is power enforced and for what reason are extremely relevant questions. Perhaps, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is: "What is the most heinous crime one can commit?" followed by "Why is that the case?" This would provide valuable insight as to the nature, customs and ritual routines as well as the core values of such and such community or society. Perhaps in a desert world wasting water is a capital offence, while murder or theft are only relatively worrisome. In the settibg I run, for example, the law is consideres to be an extension and expression of civilization. In a walled world in which the survival of humanity depends on everyone's ability to coexist relatively peacefully within a claustrophically enclosed space, anything that threatens this delicate balance can be seen as crimes against the City and thus punished accordingly. Here, symbolysm is key, as well as a very useful tool. Since the sword is seen as a civilized weapon, only members of La Castra can legally carry one and be trained in their use. Owning or carrying any kind of sword without the proper sanction is considered to be a grave offence with very real consequences (hand-chopping, for example). As a result, players become immediately aware of a defining aspect of the setting from character creation, since they are barred from choosing a sword as their starting weapon, and are hence forced to think of something a bit more imaginative in the process.

    Thank you for your post!

  2. "Perhaps in a desert world wasting water is a capital offence, while murder or theft are only relatively worrisome."

    Fun scene in Dune: when a leader of the desert-dwelling Fremen spits in front of the off-world duke and all the duke's men reach for their swords. But actually, spitting in front of someone is a sign of great respect due to the preciousness of water. It's kind of the reverse of what you suggest; what is an offense to outsiders is an honour for insiders.

    But those are great points.

    > As a result, players become immediately aware of a defining aspect of the setting from character creation, since they are barred from choosing a sword as their starting weapon, and are hence forced to think of something a bit more imaginative in the process.

    Also very cool! This is exactly the kind of stuff I mean. Crime is not just when you steal a ye olde apple at ye olde market square. These kinds of taboos also count, and they really force your players to consider the world. Great example, I'm gonna steal something like that.

  3. I like your comparison of the City Guard and police. Very apt. In Canada where I live (and I think a lot of other places), the police function to preserve private property. Arresting protestors, according trespassers, federally regulated railway and transit police who have jurisdiction over certain places. They're good at protecting property. But try to have the police solve a rape case or arrest a hit and run driver, and you're out of luck.

    So how would a fantasy world use the state monopoly on violence to reinforce societal norms? Maybe there are City Guards, but they don't care about petty crime. Maybe all they care about is executing folks who disparage the royalty. Maybe they are only interested in protecting magic items. Lots of possibilities!


Some thoughts on law in fantasy settings

In this post I'm gonna tell you why you have to chop your player's hands off. So if you start up Skyrim, you're playing what is ...