LAW & ORDER: There are two sides to the criminal justice system in D&D- the BS Players do and the DM who has to put up with it

So what is law & order for an anachronistic European-esque generic fantasy setting? 

I've thought about this since reading A Time Traveler's Guild to Medieval Europe. It's a great book that covers all the things you would need to know if you found yourself transported back in time. The systems for maintaining order are quite different.

In brief, one person is designated the guardian of order in a village. Anything that happens, that person is called out by the sheriff (appointed by the nobility) to answer for the crimes. If they can't produce the perpetrators or keep order, they die. 

Now, after being sentenced to death, you can name your accomplices. This can end up with a lot of score-settling in town. But since a lot of people know each other in small towns and villages and have relatives in the next towns over, "strangers" currently in town will be the first suspects. Or best people to die.

Village/town defense might be served by the local population with torches and pitchforks. If the place is large enough there might be guards in the service of a specific person (or church) but not really for the "greater good of the community".

In terms of D&D, if the laws are too constraining or long they become a burden. Players already have to contend with a set of "meta laws" which are the rules of the game. Adding fantasy laws on top of those rules could easily flop.

I guess there is also an often unspoke set of law at most tables about players not performing certain actions with their characters that would be particularly onerous like violence against innocent babies or performing particularly gruesome acts of torture. 

So the layers are: Unspoken Laws of the Table (universal to all rpgs played) --> Laws of the System (specific to the rpgs: "Clerics can't use edged weapons") --> Law of the World (specific to the campaign)

Why do we want to include this?

Without coded laws, I think it becomes actually hard to define what black market, corrupt, decadent, privileged, and "DM's is just screwing with us" actually is.

  • How can the nobility be considered decadent & exploitative if there are no rules to flaunt or exploit?
  • How can you have a thieves guild or black market if there is no legal system to skirt?
  • How can religion be observed if there is no observable participation or taboos to avoid?
  • How can PCs be outsiders if there is no benefit to being born in town?
  • How can PCs be sure the DM isn't just arbitrary if there is no pattern to the enforcement of activities?
Now of course there are ways to demonstrate all of the above outsides of a page of laws, but at a basic level, an institution/group/person is corrupt when they ignore the rules that others have to follow in favor of their own code.

Laws also provide an environment where social maneuvering, concealment in all forms, and stealth become valuable as well as connections to in-world institutions. Which draws play away from combat/violence as a catch-all solution to most problems. People complain about combat/violence in D&D, but there is also little in-game fiction that constrains its use.

Stated laws might also help with alignment, in that player judge actions based on societal actions instead of inherent good/evil; factions some into play who enforce, create, and/or adjudicate laws. 

How do you run this last piece in an interesting fashion? 

False Machine has written a heist adventure that takes into account laws regarding dress, weapons, and the requirement for papers presented if asked:

Sumptuary Laws Glaem has basic laws of dress and behaviour which are… unevenly enforced, (though you could be checked at any time). 

  • No Heavy Weapons. No projectile weapons. (Unless you are a licensed bodyguard or ceremonial guard. Are you? Where’s your license?) 
  • Only ceremonial armour allowed. (Again, you need a license for this) 
  • Light blades only. (Only if your clothes are “noble”, and you need a license). 
  • Employment/Guild/Faction/City papers to be produced on-command. 
  • Your chances of being checked for licences and I.D. go up the more suspicious, poor and out of place you look, and are common on entering controlled areas. 

I think these help add something to the task of finding and stealing the McGuffin of the adventure. Immediately the value of wizards (as magic doesn't seem to have embargos) and characters who can conceal or have social strategies come to the front.

I guess this post is getting long. So in a Part II, I'll try to lay out some simple rules that also scale from village to town to city.


  1. I've been thinking about this too a bit, partly because Gus wrote an adventure with a heavy legal aspect, modeled on ancient Roman legal institutions rather than Medieval law. (A better fit for a decadent city of the dreamlands.) Having mini-games or systems around the law not only adds setting elements and constrains players, but also puts another tool in the players kit. Whatever the legal apparatus is, it's something in theory they can work through to accomplish their aims.

    1. Ah Roman laws, that would be another good model to follow and one that was written down a lot.

      That's another great point, laws are "in game objects" that can be manipulated. They aren't meta-concepts like "hit dice" and such. So easier for a player to interact with on a certain level. And yeah, if you are powerful enough you can use laws against other people or change them.

      Another reason to strive for domain status in-world.