The fact that most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns are loosely based upon Medieval history and culture is both a benefit and a liability.
The benefit can be found in relying upon player expectations in order to enhance suspension of disbelief; since most players aren’t medievalists (which is a pity), telling them that there are knights and castles and dragons around is enough to get the game rolling, and the players will mentally fill in missing details as play progresses.
The liability emerges from that same circumstance. Since dungeon masters (DMs) and players – including professional designers - typically don’t know a great deal about Medieval daily life, they tend to place a Medieval veneer on 21st Century social systems when designing communities for D&D settings. While such anachronisms don’t affect game mechanics, it does forsake an opportunity for a DM to provide a more accurate picture of how things were, thereby providing a more immersive experience for players.
One aspect of D&D setting design that routinely gets the “veneer treatment” is law enforcement. Typically, the city or town watch is the staple of public safety, sometimes supplemented with a peasant militia, providing what basically amounts to a modern police force equipped with chainmail. Historically, the closest pre-Renaissance society gets to such a thing is the office of wait, or night watchman, who shouts out the time on the hour each night and keeps an eye out for trouble or fire, but these fellows weren’t organized into bands responsible for public safety until the 15th Century.
While there is nothing wrong with having a police-like watch force in a fantasy setting – I’ve included them myself while designing adventures, in spite of what I’ve thus far learned about Medieval history, just because players expect to see them – placing more historically accurate law enforcement systems will satisfy players with a penchant for realism, and provide a refreshing change of pace for the rest.
Forms of Medieval law enforcement
Historically, there were three methods for keeping common folk in line during the Middle Ages: the Tithing, the Hue and Cry, and the Posse Comitatus.
The Tithing (not to be confused with the ecclesiastical system of monetary donations) was a system of mutual accountability. Each year, the men of a settlement were divided into groups of ten called tithes. If one of the men in a tithe was wanted for a crime, the other nine men in his tithe were punished if he wasn’t apprehended. Given the traditionally harsh penalties for Medieval crimes (including penalties for not catching a fugitive member of one’s tithe), the Tithing provided ample motivation for the other nine men to catch fleeing members of their tithe.
The Hue and Cry required anyone witnessing a serious crime - from the lowest citizen to the constable himself – to cry out that a crime is being or had been committed, thereby summoning help with apprehending the miscreant committing it. If the perpetrator has already escaped, it became the responsibility of the person discovering the crime to notify the local lord, who would then notify nearby settlements, in a way foreshadowing a modern dragnet. The Hue and Cry would continue to grow in scope until the suspect was caught.
It is important to note that all able-bodied people hearing the Hue and Cry were legally obligated to join the pursuit, and that falsely raising a Hue and Cry was a crime.
The Posse Comitatus, translated from the Latin as “power of the county,” denoted a sheriff’s legal right to conscript able-bodied men over the age of 15 years to help apprehend criminals or to prevent civil disturbances. This tradition was later incarnated in the 19th Century American West, where law enforcement was often lacking, although its name was shortened to the more familiar posse.
Adding these law enforcement systems to the game
A DM may decide to implement these systems in places deemed too small to support a standard watch force, or utilize them everywhere to give the game a more historical feel.
The real value in employing these systems, apart from historical accuracy, is the adventure leads that they can foster. Most heroes have a hometown; imagine if a hero receives word that someone from her tithe is wanted for a crime, and she will be sought by law enforcement if the suspect isn’t captured. Heroes involved in any activity could suddenly find themselves obligated to join a Hue and Cry (or they may choose to help the suspect avoid capture, if the heroes are so inclined and don’t mind becoming wanted themselves). And the authority lawfully appointed officials have to impress anyone into a Posse Comitatus can push a hero toward an adventure, or add layers of complexity to an existing one.