Up until now I have been covering a bunch of small, isolated topics that relate to running a game and creating a world. Naturally, part of building a world is creating cities or making them come alive. One element that I constantly end up referring back to when I build a world is the legal system regions may possess. Though it may sound boring, I think it is extremely important when designing regions and cities. I will be exploring exactly why I feel this is the case as well as present the way I usually use it.
Part of living in a society is being subjected to rules. By creating legal systems, there is an instant contrast from the natural wild your players may spend a lot of time in (especially when dungeon trekking is a core part of the story) and the cities they visit. Simply killing someone on the streets of a city will feel much riskier if they are aware of the legal system and guards present. It also serves as a contrast to mostly unguarded trails, where bandits are common and folks go missing. It can also serve as a way to really contrast cultures or regions.
The laws can be put in place based on region, ruler at the time (if area changes hands as part of a war, laws can change) or other factors (there may be laws of war). To make matters easier and to not have to make laws for every city you ever want to make, laws can be defined by the entire world (make the entire world have one set of laws, and then some rare exceptions) or by region. This will allow for uniqueness between cities while also making it easier for the Dungeon Master by not forcing them to explicitly define laws for everything (players can be told that unless otherwise specified, they follow the general laws).
What Should the Laws Cover?
History has shown that laws can be very different from region to region. However, since we are talking about role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, there are going to be certain activities that we have to explicitly consider. These are:
- Killing people (Is killing someone legal if it is in the form of a duel, in self-defence, defending your honour, just because you felt like it and you are higher standing or any combination of the above?)
- Assaulting people (Same reasons as above, but instead of killing them just hurting them)
- Stealing (Does the amount stolen factor into the punishment, and are there different types of stealing like stealing from a temple, that are considered worse?)
- Carrying weapons (what, where and who)
- Trespassing (Yeah, this is mainly for the sneakers)
- Using magic (Where and under what conditions is magic legal?)
- Worship (Is it illegal to worship certain gods like the god of murder?)
The reason for those in particular is because those elements directly influence the options players have to pursue their goals and touch upon every class (combat, stealing/trespassing and magic use). You also have to consider:
- What are the consequences for committing a crime?
- How are criminals prosecuted? If framed for a crime, is there even a chance to defend yourself?
- How are the laws enforced? Do guards show up for everything and take you to jail, or can you get a bill in the mail for petty theft? How many guards will there be if the players try to attack someone?
The above three considerations need to be considered for every law the world may have. There are some, such as weapon carrying, that will also need to have accommodation systems in place (if I arrive there, do I give my weapons right at the gate or is the place I am staying at responsible after the gate keepers give me a 1 day pass).
You can also add more laws on top of the sections I listed to give each region or system their own identities. They can also be more specified. For example:
- One city allows weapons to be carried but swords are reserved for the nobles. Anyone in violation faces fines but travellers can keep their weapons in the place they are staying without repercussion. Players can move weapons from one place to another (if they decide to switch inns for some reason, etc.) but need to carry a paper given when they entered the city.
- There is a very strict class structure that involves certain colours being worn by certain classes in society. Breaking this results in fines and/or jail time. Travellers, not being part of any classes, can largely ignore them unless they own property in the area (owning property will make you part of society). Regardless, noble colours cannot be worn by travellers unless they are foreign nobles.
I believe the use of the above system to create legal systems has helped me create better worlds and has benefited my games. This is because it allows different areas to feel inherently different and puts explicit consequences on crimes that characters living in that world would know about, creating a sense of risk. The checks themselves to be discovered would need to be made on a per-crime basis, but this method has helped me and I hope it helps you as well. As always I'd love to hear if you agree or disagree. Happy holidays.