Legal villainy

Justice“Law and equity are two things which God hath joined, but which man hath put asunder.”

-C.C. Colton, Lacon

Among this writer’s varied list of odd accreditations is a paralegal degree earned in his home state of New York. During the course of study required to earn that degree, this writer began to see a line of separation emerging between conventional reality and legal reality.

For example, consider that New York State law defines the term “fresh fish” as fish that has never been frozen. While this definition conveniently separates “fresh fish” from “frozen fish” – two classifications of food product subject to separate governing regulations – it leads to certain differences between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.

Continuing our example, under current law, a fish caught in state waters or in U.S. waters touching New York State’s Atlantic coast , packed in salt, and buried underground for 10 years could be unearthed and still be considered “fresh” by the law of the land, by virtue of the fact that the 10-year-old fish had never been frozen. Of course, no one would consider a 10-year-old fish to be “fresh” by any conventional standard, even though the law claims it to be so.

The point of all this is to illustrate that no lawmaker can anticipate every circumstance that may fall beneath a new law’s jurisdiction, a circumstance that, in a Dungeons & Dragons game, particularly devious villains may use to their advantage. That advantage is most clearly defined in the differences between the fourth edition (4e) D&D character alignments of “lawful good” and “good” (or between lawful good and chaotic good in prior editions of the game). The former is very concerned with the letter of the law, while the latter is more concerned with the spirit of the law.

A villain, especially one having a legislative role in a game world government, can twist the wording or meaning of law to further a villainous end, or exploit a loophole in the law for the same purpose. For example, in one of this writer’s old campaigns, an order of knights in which a player character (PC) served as a squire was governed by an expansive, written code. The code provided detailed instructions about naming the order’s high templar, a process basically involving a trial combat with a challenger that had to be held within three days of the challenge. Enemies of the order bribed a less-than-scrupulous, low-ranking knight to poison all the other knights in the order; the toxin, which required an exotic antidote, would render the poisoned knights helpless for the better part of a fortnight, if they could survive long enough. The fortnight would be enough time for the villains’ plot to mature, and for the rogue knight to make his escape before the other knights recovered to drive him from his post.

The hardest part for the players to accept was that the rogue knight’s actions were absolutely legal.

The code that governed the knights involved exceptionally harsh punishments and specified numerous offenses for which a non-member couldn’t be punished under the kingdom’s law, such as cowardice or adultery. Seeing that the knights were disciplined more harshly than his own subjects, the king included a provision in the order’s charter that the knights’ code was independent from kingdom law; the knights therefore had the dubious right of court-martial under the code instead of trial under kingdom law, which had fewer offenses and lighter punishments.

The lawful good knights drafting the code included a provision prohibiting violence between knights. Since these noble warriors would most likely choose to resolve their differences with swords, the provision read, “none shall draw a sword against his brother.” For ages, this provision sufficed, since no knight would never resort to any other form of violence, especially not such a dishonorable tactic as poisoning an opponent.

Thus, when the rogue knight poisoned the other knights, he committed no crime under the code, which made no mention of any form of violence between knights other than combat. Moreover, he was immune to kingdom laws against poisoning under the order’s charter, the incapacitated high templar couldn’t answer his challenge within three days (resulting in forfeiture of his scepter, under the code), and none of the poisoned knights was in any condition to challenge the rogue knight after he assumed leadership. No legal authority could prevent the rogue knight from ascending to the rank of high templar, and anyone who committed violence against him would be subject to punishment under order or kingdom law…unless a PC squire and his companions could discover the antidote and obtain its exotic ingredients before the villains’ plot could unfold.

This example illustrates how a D&D villain can attain the unique trait of immunity from the normal repercussions of villainy. All the DM needs is an especially lawful group , an exploitable loophole in their governing laws, and a villainous member willing to betray that law. The rest will take care of itself, and your players will develop a special brand of loathing for the villains that do so.


4 comments on “Legal villainy

  1. Excellent article. Churches often operated under different laws from the the secular rules as well. Other places, such as say Ireland in the 16th C. had two legal systems, the traditional gaelic laws and English common law, operating at the same time. So there is a lot of room for a villain to manipulate the legal structure to their advantage.

    • Alric says:

      Welcome SoS, and thank you for your kind words.

      Very astute observations about church law, and concurrent secular laws. It also occurs to me that, armies tended to have their own laws as well. No wonder Shakespeare wrote that, when starting a revolution, the first thing to do is to kill all the lawyers…

  2. Reaperbryan says:

    Excellent use of Lawful alignment! I’m going to have to steal this plot for my campaign!

    • Alric says:

      You honor me with your visit, Reaping one. And by all means, steal away; I forgive you in advance, but your players may not.

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