The Law of the Land | Advice on making your world 'legal' by Ed Greenwood

Know, 0' traveler, that caravan fees are high for a good reason: such overland travel is dangerous. Travel in any place is unsafe if one knows not local laws and those things which underlie them. Fair speech from a survivor should not be taken ill. Wherefore...

Adventurers in an AD&D world may meet a fascinating variety of governments, beliefs, and customs if they travel. Too often, however, one kingdom is just like another; all play occurs in quasi-feudal society that is perhaps best described as "romantic medieval," spiced with enough individual freedom to account for widespread trade, party and individual adventuring, strife, and the bearing of arms. This is fun and not in itself bad, but it can breed monotony and robs a world of the depth and color which is born of making the atmosphere and society of (in my Forgotten Realms campaign) the imperial city of Waterdeep different from the serene, rustic beauty of Deepingdale far inland.

Religion, politics, customs, government, laws and their enforcement; all are linked in describing a society and should be considered together. The Dungeon Masters Guide notes (under "Duties, Excises, Fees, Tariffs, Taxes, Tithes, And Tolls" at p. 90) those taxes and eccentric local (read: nuisance) laws that travelers often run into problems with, and indeed these are generally most important in play  but they should not be devised or altered in isolation. A DM must always ponder the effects of a law or a legal change, considering all of the elements listed above which are linked to it. No one set of "basic" or cornerstone laws ran be offered in an article such as this; a DM must evolve a system that matches the elements as they are in the various kingdoms of his or her own world. What can be of help is a brief tour of the elements involved.

Every land has its laws - whether they are a code laid down by a court, the decree of a ruler, unwritten trade and trail customs, or merely the will of the strongest being.

AD&D adventurers tend to run afoul of such laws all too frequently, and the DM who wants to keep player characters alive (rather than merely having the blackguards hanged for any offense) must inevitably make use of some local system of specific punishments.

Such punishments may include any or all of the group including confinement, enforced service or labor, confiscation of property, and infliction of physical pain. We shall examine these in detail soon enough.

Travelers are advised to beware of peculiar local laws and customs. For example, "in Ulthar no man may kill a cat." 1 Local religious beliefs may prohibit the speaking of certain names or the use or wearing of sacred (or accursed) symbols, substances, or colors.

If caught and convicted, miscreants will find the nature and severity of penalties varies, depending upon the alignment of those making judgment and the existing rules regarding sentencing. Criminals are often specially marked (by dress - or lack of it - and/or symbols branded or painted upon the body), and an unwitting stranger whose appearance resembles that of a criminal may be surprised at the treatment he or she receives.

Some large measure of common (or at least economic) sense can be expected in the written or stated laws of any area. However, a nation that exists by trade is not going to have laws that reflect casual or relentless, consistent hostility toward foreigners. On the other hand (again logically), such a nation may well have laws that prohibit foreigners from acquiring control or ownership of the all-too-scarce soil, or any vessels of that country. A further example of the logic behind most state or imperial (but not, as we shall see, religious) laws involves a look at capital punishment.

All societies have had the death penalty, but this is often used only when life is plentiful. A good man-at-arms, years in the training, is too valuable to kill except when he is mutinous or must be made an example of, for some deliberate disobedience or other. Slavery was an oft-practiced alternative - instead of one meal for the dogs, the captor got the life's work of a man, usually at the most dangerous and undesirable tasks.

Another solution (and one ideal to a DM wanting to shift play to a new setting) is banishment - the exile of an individual by order of a ruler or government. This involves the outlaw taking an oath to leave the country within a stated number of days. (Refusing to take the oath, before assembled witnesses, usually means the person refusing banishment will be put to death.) A banished person is usually told what route to take out of the country and where to leave its borders.
In medieval England, banished persons might be slain by the superstitious commoners, and so had to wear a white gown and carry a cross (signifying that they were under the protection of the church). Upon reaching the port of departure, an exile-to-be had to live on the seashore until ship passage was available. During this wait, the outlaw had to depend on local monks for food and was required to walk into the sea until completely immersed, once a day, under the eyes of the local sheriff.

Outlaws of wealth and influence could hire a ship to take them and their property from England, and arrange for future income to be sent to them. But those lacking friends and money were usually put aboard a ship by port officials regardless of the wishes of the ship's captain - and were often thrown overboard at sea, put ashore on an island or deserted coastline, or enslaved.

When England was at war, banishment usually proved unworkable. Most outlaws were merely compelled to leave the settlement where the banishment order was served, and thereafter allowed to wander free. Most took sanctuary in a church or abbey (joining a crowd of thieves and those fallen from political favor who lived on the monks' dole in all such places), or became poachers and highwaymen in the forests or marshes, like the man made famous in legend as Robin Hood.

A change of government, of course, can put a banished or tied-to-the-sanctuary-of-a-church character back in favor-and freedom -again, but in other situations a church could be more dangerous than the palace.
The two most common medieval-era lawmakers (and enforcers) were the church and the state. If the latter was one man, his justice was as inconsistent and intemperate as the man himself. If church and state were one, or if the church had a free hand to dispense its justice, laws tended to be without exception harsh and unforgiving. Theocracies (refer to the Theocracy of the Pale in TSR's WORLD OF GREYHAWK- Fantasy Setting) are by nature intolerant.

Because religions are based upon belief, often belief ("faith") without supporting facts or "real" conditions, religious rules and the enforcement of same tend to be most dangerous. Unfamiliar to a stranger because of this loose connection with reality (and at times, common sense), such rules are inadvertently contravened often and with ease. Adherents of the religion are not easily induced to show mercy to wrongdoers (and almost never will they "turn a blind eye" or make exceptions from holy justice), because they believe (often blindly) in their religion. Challenging the religious beliefs of such people is seen by them as a direct threat (and the challenger as an agent of an opposed religion - "servant of the devil") because they have based their lot on the religion - and to threaten it threatens the very meaning and worth of their lives.

At the same time, religious judgments seldom vary from a traditional code, set down and modified by high priests and extant "holy writings." The universe postulated in the AD&D system points toward harsh religious punishments, for it assumes a world in which gods of opposing alignments and interests are locked in continuing conflict through their worshippers.

Note further that the distance between common sense and some religious doctrines makes guessing as to specific religious tenets a perilous affair; religions are often not even self -consistent, let alone consistent with surrounding "reality." Adventurers should be wary of assuming that followers of a god of the forest will revere trees, for instance; in religions, nothing "necessarily follows." 

Thus far we have covered two types of law: that of the government or ruling authority, and religious law. There is a third type of unwritten "law" ignored in most AD&D play, and it may well be considered the most important: local customs, lore, and beliefs.

In our real world, only in the last hundred years have customs and folklore ceased to be governing forces in everyday rural life. In medieval times they touched upon almost every act in family and village life, providing the rituals, preferred conduct, and rules for utmost happiness, security, and prosperity.

Dark superstitions and taboos (often remnants of fallen, forgotten cultures and religions, divorced from any discernible meaning or reason for being in the present) abounded - and these local customs and taboos were often as strong, or stronger than the laws of church and king. 2 Outsiders entering community were often regarded W suspicion for the mere fact that the, were outsiders - in more than one fantasy novel the author carefully points out that "stranger" and "enemy" are one and the same word in a local language - and any transgression of, suggestions contrary to, or ridiculing of local customs and taboos they committed won them the enmity or open hostility of the locals. To threaten the beliefs of a community, as to threaten those of a religion, is to threaten its very existence - and its members will act accordingly.3

Until rapid, dependable means of transportation and communication become available to all, most dales and other geographically isolated communities will be self-contained, largely cut off from the outer world. The fewer travelers, the fewer new ideas - and the less tolerance for differences from local ways and beliefs. The spread of literacy will also increase tolerance and weaken unthinking belief in the old ways, but the tenacity of superstitions is shown in our own society by a great array of superstitious sayings that, half-hidden, remain today, along with the thinking that goes with them. This can be illustrated by such expressions as "There's no harm'
trying," which once meant literally ti- according to the beliefs of the speaker (and the community) - there was nothing wrong or dangerous about the act in question.

Many ancient rituals (such as Twelfth Night fires, placing a cake upon the horns of "the best ox in the stall" to be tossed in the air, and baking a hawthorn globe each New Year while last year's globe was carried burning over the first sown wheat) were concerned with the fertility of the farm. Ploughing and pulling matches are two of the few such customs that survive to this day. No matter what the fantasy setting, where there is agriculture there are sure to be rituals for the best time to sow and to harvest (such as with the phases of the moon, or in concert with certain weather conditions or natural changes like the opening of certain blossoms), and rules to be followed for avoiding death or ill luck and for gaining good luck.

The DM, of course, must judge the accuracy of such beliefs (such as "never fell a tree by moonlight") as far as the party is concerned. Even if the beliefs are incorrect, the DM should remember that they must at least be based on something real or correct. 

Such beliefs are not restricted to farmers. Blacksmiths held that iron would not weld when lightning was near, although they set out troughs and barrels to catch the storm water," which they believed particularly effective for tempering iron Countless other examples can be found. 4 Note that local lore and the religious situation will determine what form of government is tolerated - and if government is imposed by force, or becomes popular after its establishment, how well it will be obeyed. Locals may pay only lip service to some laws and taxes, or worse (does anyone remember the Boston Tea Party?).

The support of the ruled (by accepted custom and belief) lends stability to a government. This in turn allows weak rulers to keep their positions, at least for a time.

Most countries of any size, wealth and influence have reached that condition by the stability of popular (or at least, accepted) rule. In any land where communications and travel are only as fast as a good horse, the government must be both strong and accepted by the populace - or its rule will extend only as far as the immediate reach of its weapons.
Raw power is, at best, an unstable form of government (and just as shaky for a legal system). It has a tendency to blow up in the ruler's face - just ask Robespierre.

Many types or structures of governments exist, some of them quite novel.5 DMs should also remember that the "king" of Aluphin may command mighty hosts of warriors and speak with authority backed by gods, whereas the "king" of adjacent realm of Berdusk may be simply a war leader whose rule extends as far as the swordpoints of his bodyguards.

Bruce Galloway, in his book Fantasy Wargaming (Cambridge, Patrick Stephens Limited, 1981) reminds us that this variance in real power among nobles with the same title was true in our real world, too: English kings were relatively strong, except during times of royal minorities and disputed succession. They held wide personal estates, and maintained the nucleus of their own standing army. A network of royal officials exercised justice and administration even within the lands of their nobles, By contrast, the French kings were weak, little more than primi inter pares ("first among equals") in comparison with strong dukes and counts. Germany had what might be considered impossible - a strong monarch, but also dukes and margraves ... akin to kings themselves ... Italy, with its pattern of city-states and rural duchies owing little or no allegiance to any monarch, needs different treatment again.

Wthatever the actual balance of power within a country and between different countries - and remember, this is not something set in stone by a DM to be stable and unchanging forever; power can and should shift constantly - those who rule will control the citizenry (including player characters) by means of laws.

Regardless of exactly what laws a DM creates for his world, they will be broken by player characters sooner or later (in the AID&D world, usually sooner), and then - it's punishment time.

The forms and aims of enforcement are up to the DM, and must be tailored to match the other elements of society in each local situation. For example, given this imaginary example of law enforcement, think on what it reveals of the society of Zeluthin: In that city, political prisoners are always strapped to their cell doors, feet off the ground and facing inwards into the darkness, so that the backs of their heads are visible through the barred cell doors. Punishment in Zeluthin is a delicate art consisting of manipulation of facial, head and neck muscles with fingers and long, delicately curved and fluted metal instruments -from behind, through the cell door. Strangulation is never employed; it is the height of coarse bad taste; but much information is extracted by somewhat less violent extremes - such as when hungry rats are let in to the darkest corners of the cell.

Another city would find Zeluthin's habits disgusting or criminal; a DM must carefully make government laws, local religions and attitudes consistent.

Some general comments, however, can be made as to how to handle local enforcement forces and prisons - and how not to handle them. The discipline and training of local guards/watch/militia/constabulary will determine their reactions to any situation. The better the training of the guards, the more difficult will be the lot of adventurers seeking to dupe or escape them. Trained, experienced guards, for example, will seldom be in awe of magic, and will know effective tactics for when they encounter spellcasters in battle. Experienced guards will leave fewer avenues for escape when confining persons -and will take special care of extraordinary individuals, such as adventurers. A party may find itself stripped - clothes can conceal, or even be, weapons- and then chained securely to walls in separate cells (in such a manner that movement of hands and speech may be impossible) and watched over carefully (one to one) by guards who are relieved often. Unknown to player character prisoners, a magic-user may be spying on them through use of Clairvoyance, Clairaudience, ESP and related spells.

Guards with good training and resources may have monsters (war dogs, for example) which are trained to aid them in fighting intruders/rescuers or inmates attempting to escape. Too many AID&D adventures involve a party of player characters sneaking and ambushing their way through an unbelievably stupid and unorganized defensive corps who make no attempt at internal communication. Slain or missing sentries go unnoticed, and guard patrols walk past or through treasures or areas they are supposed to be guarding without routinely examining their charges (so that party members hiding in shadows, behind altars, or in dark rooms are undetected). 6

The discipline of a guard corps will also determine its treatment of prisoners: highly disciplined guards will act according to rules, and will respect any legal rights prisoners are considered to have. Usually, confiscated goods will be carefully itemized and stored (for return when or if the prisoners are set free), punishment of prisoners confined to a special code, and prisoners will (at least) be given food, water, and conditions of confinement conducive to survival.7
Guards lacking such discipline may do anything to prisoners they think they can get away with - and in the case of outlanders without apparent rank or influence, this can include various means of death-dealing, selling into slavery, and all manner of theft.

Good characters (and players) who are shocked at this tendency would do well to remember that the essential difference between a policeman and a pirate is how they regard themselves, and how they are regarded by the populace, in relation to "rightful" authority (local government). The actions of the two types are often very similar.
Mention of the attitude and regard of the populace brings us to the backbone of local life and character; the ever moving and changing, vital force behind the laws, customs, and other elements: politics. In the article "Plan Before You Play" (DRAGON" issue #63), we looked at politics on a large scale: the trade links, tensions and history that shape empires and denote wasteland and impoverished areas, viewed broadly upon a map.

But more important in AD&D play is the to-and-fro of local human interaction, the politics of everyday life in a village or a kingdom. A DRAGON reader can refer to the previous Minarian Legends series or the currently running World of Greyhawk columns for excellent examples of the large-scale politics of fantasy worlds, but small-scale politics (beyond Chaosium's Thieves'World, which deals with the desert city Sanctuary) is something each DM must devise on his or her own.

Development of local politics will give any campaign depth and believability, and at the same time create reasons and impetus for characters to undertake adventures (and players to role-play). Make a world seem real, so that what occurs matters to the players, and you will make play far more enjoyable and memorable - and a DM owes it to his or her players to give them an active, living world to engage their interest, rather than a colorful background of artificial, lifeless , mobility through which characters are allowed to rampage.

This latter condition in a campaign dooms play to eventual boredom, until the playing activity ceases altogether. If the setting has no interest for the players, no apparent life of its own, it must be continually fed with the energy and excitement of new characters and character classes, new treasures, new monsters and magic and traps ... and when the players grow jaded or the DM runs out of ideas, the whole campaign runs down. Even the gaudiest trappings cannot sustain interest; one grows used to throne rooms if one is a fighter in the party that conquers one kingdom after another, just as one grows used to dark caverns and locked chambers underground if one lives like a mole, in an endless dungeon with nothing to do but fight.

If a DM does not have the time or liking for careful crafting of local politics, history, a cast of characters, and the like, a simple solution is to sketch out the basic history and geography of a region, and begin play within its borders, in the midst of a civil war. The disorder, lawlessness, and intrigue such a setting offers will get a party off to a good (exciting and offering wide experience in fighting) start. Players should be forced to take sides and become involved; fantasy readers may recall the excitement of Roger Zelazny's five-volume Amber series, which was primarily a family struggle for control of a multiverse. From such a rocky start, play can shift into more conventional AD&D territory, perhaps with involvement in the intrigue and politics of a large city with warring guilds and the like, and eventually, when the successful, experienced players seem ready for it, player characters may have a crack at gaining control of their own territory.

This territory should be small, so that a DM can concentrate on individual NPCs to make the place seem real, and so players can identify with their holding - seeing it as a specific region with its own character and beauty - and at the same time seek to expand it. The DM should also ensure that the players act to keep their lands, becoming involved in trade and diplomacy as well as battle. The notion that lands are a rosy source of revenue, which novice players may get from the Players Handbook (i.e., a 9th level fighter who establishes a freehold can automatically and effortlessly collect 7 silver pieces per month from "each and every inhabitant of the free~--Id due to trade, tariffs, and taxes") must be quickly dispelled, Governing is work, and a DM should see that those who enjoy such work are happy in their thrones, and those who are not cannot safely delegate the tasks of ruling to others if they wish to retain power for long. Few medieval rulers were rich, in cash terms, and fewer still spent most of the taxes they collected on living high; rather, most of a ruler's money was needed to cover military expenses (the training, outfitting, boarding, and salaries of any standing army, plus militia and/or mercenaries), and the repair, expansion and addition of ships, buildings, and fortifications. Trade and the support of innovations in industry and medicine are other areas of expenditure a ruler should keep in mind.

Even if a lord finds his subjects happy, no priesthoods or guilds opposed to his rule and no apparent problems, he can always find something like this affixed to his castle door one morning:

To Doust Sulwood, resident in Shadowdale:

Recently I have learned that you have taken the title, authority, and lands that are rightfully mine. Shadowdale has been my family's since the death of the lord Joadath, sixty winters ago. I shall come for my throne ere spring. If you think your claim stronger than mine, send word back - or I shall come with force of arms to take back what is mine.

Lord Lyran of the family Nanther, Melvaunt

This sample letter is from my campaign; the players do not (yet) know whether "Lord Lyran" is a pretender or a legitimate claimant to the lordship of Shadowdale (local history is incomplete and contradictory on the subject). A quick look at Doust Sulwood, the Lord of Shadowdale (a player character), and his plateful of problems will demonstrate the depth, excitement, and constant adventures generated in a campaign by local society and politics.

Doust Sulwood is lord of a farming community surrounded and largely isolated by elven-inhabited woods. It is a stop on a major overland trade road, and has successful, if unspectacular, local industry (a weaver, a smith, a wagonmaker ro woodworker, and of course an inn). Doust has a few local problems: collecting taxes (the dalefolk had been without a lord or taxes for some years before his arrival), settling local feuds and ferreting out a lycanthrope among the townsfolk, and dealing with incumbent power groups: a band of adventurers (all more powerful than the players, and used to being the local champions and heroes); the Circle (a group of druids and rangers who work with the elves to preserve the forest against fire and farm expansion); and a few powerful solitary NPCs who could topple his lordship if they decided against him. All of these power groups have their own interests, and all of the them have more personal power than the Lord and his party. Both the elves and the druids have (player character) representatives/spies in the party.

From outside the dale there are influences too. Many nearby rulers and priesthoods have, or are about to, send envoys to Lord Doust, seeking (nay, demanding and often bribing or threatening) alliances, allowances of free trade and the powers to establish temples and tithe the populace. At least two dale lords are eyeing Shadowdale as a possible addition to their own lands - and the player characters have made special enemies of a secretive network of evil mages and clerics who wish to control all overland trade between the rich coastal cities and the lands about the Inland Sea. Shadowdale occupies a strategic location on the caravan route, and the party has - at first unwittingly, and then in careful self defense - slain many members of this evil "network." Party members have also died in the running battle, and with the spring thaws their surviving comrades may face a network-sponsored army invading the dale. At the same time, the drow - now apparently allied with some githyanki - seem to be stirring in the depths. Lord Doust's tower was built by the drow, and it once guarded the entrances to their vast subterranean realms. The dark elves were driven into the depths over a hundred winters ago, and the exits were blocked. Now they seem to be returning, and have kidnapped one of the dalefolk (which the party subsequently rescued) to learn details of society and property in the dale.

To Doust's ears also comes a constant f low of news about current events, coming to Shadowdale via caravan, and the party can learn much of movements and political actions by careful attention to and interpretation of the "current news daleside."

All of the aforementioned conflicts and challenges come to the party, made up of characters with personal problems and interests of their own. In Lord Doust's case, he is a cleric of Tyche, the goddess of luck, who wants her followers to lead daring, chancy lives. This was an easy creed to follow when Doust was a landless adventurer; but now, when he wishes to build h is strength and act with caution and deliberation in the face of all these dangers and demands, he finds himself torn between Tyche's dictates (which he must follow if he expects the goddess to grant him spells, and if he wishes to rise in her service; that is, gain levels) and his own enjoyment of adventure, and the necessary prudence of a ruler in such a delicate and dangerous situation.

Such playing conditions make for excitement and good role-playing. Players are interested in the campaign because every adventure becomes (through cause and effect) important, not just in terms of treasure and experience gained, but in terms of social consequences. Moreover, with such a lot going on, the interaction of players and NPCs generates adventures; there is always something meaningful to do. This sense of purpose serves to sustain interest over lengthy campaign play, makes the fantasy setting seem more real, and makes successful play more satisfying: Players gain a real sense of accomplishment when they complete sticky diplomatic negotiations, gain allies, find a path through intrigue, or destroy long-standing foes. And in this increased enjoyment of play lies the real value of such an approach to the AD&D game.

It may seem odd to increase the enjoyment of fantasy role-playing by increasing the problems and difficulties of the setting (so that it seems you're not role-playing at all, but still in our real world battling banks and taxes and computer mistakes and boneheaded bureaucracy), but it works. Bigger and more scaly monsters, flashier magical treasures, and wittier, nastier traps are exciting -for awhile. But the escalation of treasure, monsters and character experience such an approach causes will ruin a campaign even before boredom sets in.

To handle a world requires careful attention to NPC activity (both groups and individuals), so that player characters are not the only source of action in an otherwise lifeless backdrop. If this is done carelessly or with too heavy a hand, the result is the familiar "carrot and cattle prod" approach to stirring players into action. Treasure, fame and power are the carrots players pursue; hostile armies, hungry monsters, and various enemies in turn pursue the players, serving as the prod that forces them to react. The nickname of this technique comes from the unsubtle way in which many DMs use a world in play - and such over manipulation quickly sours players who feel that, rather than playing the roles of adventurers, they are portraying helpless pawns at the mercy, vindictive god. DMs who believe that is precisely how players should feel will probably have stopped reading this article long ago, DMs who find enjoyment in creating a fantasy world they can share and delight in with other people will, I hope, find what has been said here useful.


1 - H.P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, published in paperback by Ballantine, 1970 (and recently reprinted), p. 8. A similar law is in effect in Rome today.

2 - The strength of such beliefs as a code of behavior is illustrated by a Latin phrase known in modern legal practice: Multa non vetat lex, quae tamen tacite damnavit, which translates to "Some things are not forbidden that are nonetheless silently condemned."

3 - In his excellent study of fantasy, Imaginary Worlds (Ballantine, 1973), Lin Carter reports one of master fantasy writer Lord Dunsany's touches of realism: the human nature displayed by the archers of Tor, who shoot arrows of ivory at strangers, lest any foreigner should come to change their laws - which ar.bad laws, but not to be altered by rr
foreigners. Another chapter in Imaginary Worlds, entitled "On World-Making," is essential reading for DMs who have not extensively explored fantasy literature. Carter discusses the "sound" and suitability of fantastic names, as well as providing a fast, logical geography lesson.

4 - On the shelves of most libraries one can find books dealing with local customs and tradition. One example is Folklore and Customs of Rural England (by Margaret Baker; London, David & Charles [Holdings] Limited, 1974), which is chock full of readily usable local lore - but there are many similar sources.

5 - For types of government, refer to the DMG and D&DO module X-1, The Isle of Dread, and to L. Sprague de Camp's The Goblin Tower (New York, Pyramid Books, 1968) and its sequel, The Clocks of Iraz.

6 - Movie buffs may recall the scenes in Monty Python's Life of Brian in which at least a dozen Roman guards repeatedly search a small set of apartments without detecting the Judean resistance fighters, who stand behind tapestries, crawl under the tables, and dive into wicker baskets in attempts to hide- and of course remain in full view all the time.

7 - These will include light, ventilation, sanitary facilities, the dignity of person clothing or the right to retain one's own clothing, acceptable or even comfortable temperatures, and a relatively quiet, odor-free environment.

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