Keeping civil order in D&D – without heroes or magic

This manuscript page from the Yale Law Library details part of a Medieval law, but such laws were enforced in ways that differed greatly from the typical D&D setting. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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.


12 comments on “Keeping civil order in D&D – without heroes or magic

  1. Thanks for this. I found it fascinating. Especially the Tithing… that works on so many psychological levels.

  2. Alric says:

    You are most welcome. I found researching the topic to be really informative. Just when I think I’m getting a good grasp on Medieval history, I discover that something I took for fact is completely wrong. Like this topic, for example.

    Thank you for commenting.

  3. vbwyrde says:

    Great post! Thank you. I’m inclined to want to add just this sort of aspect to my world, at least in certain areas. I’m not trying to create a medieval simulationist game, but at the same time I find that this kind of historically based system adds a lot of ‘true flavor’ to the campaign, and can augment the sense of immersion when the players find that out. Very cool.

    I always had in mind that in my world some version of Salic Law would be in effect. Not necessarily in detail, but at the very least the core concepts and methods. This adds substantially to that, so thanks again. Great stuff. 🙂

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m not a fan of total simulation, either – hard to justify magic and superhuman powers in such a setting – but incorporating aspects of society that don’t get in the way of fantasy can make the game setting feel different and more immersive to players.

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    Actually, I’ve tended to play D&D worlds as more early renaissance myself. But as you say, many of these ways would still be in force in communities that wouldn’t have a full-time city watch. And even with the city guard, there are only so many guardsmen. “Stop that thief!” is always a good way to start a gaming session.

    And of course I can imagine a spell of Tithebonding. When the mark upon your arm begins to glow, you know you’ve got to find the wayward member and bring them into the fold.

    • Alric says:

      Hi Philo,

      You know, in more than 30 years behind the screen, I’ve never started a session with “Stop that thief!” Great idea, that.

      And the tithbonding idea is awesome – it could be like a coming-of-age ritual in some communities…

      • Philo Pharynx says:

        Nothing gets people out of the pre-game socializing mindset like rolling initiative.

  5. […] a similar vein, Alric @ RPG Athenaeum brings up some good ways to bring law and order to civilized parts of your fan… Heaven forbid we actually add law enforcement to the “Wild West” approach many players […]

  6. given says:

    Awesome Post–I found this from Tracy Hurley’s WotC blog post.

    I am very interested in your sources–can you provide a bibliography or simple starting point for some of this information?

    I have recently started reading on the Crusades & I am feeling very overwhelmed on just trying to keep up with the Political History [Pope Urban II had CHALLENGES!], but a more general book on daily social life may be more interesting for me…

    • Alric says:

      Thank you for the kind words.

      Some of the information I blog about comes from my days of studying Medieval history in college, some of it comes from books I’ve read at the public library (the posts about Medieval ossuaries and describing zombies were both inspired by reading The Whole Death Cataolog, for example), and more comes from Internet research.

      The inspiration for this post came from a book my 7-year-old signed out from his school library about knights and castles. The book contained an illustration of a man being held in a pillory, which reminded me that Medieval societies didn’t have police forces. I didn’t remember enough specifics about how such criminals were apprehended, so I searched wikipedia and Google for terms like “Medieval law enforcement” and “Old English law” and got this information. Unfortunately, the kernels of information used for my blog posts are usually buried in much longer articles, so I do a bit of editing and post them as articles here.

      For this post, I visited sites including:

      From there, I used Wikipedia to get more information about terms I wasn’t familiar with, then knitted it into the article you read here.

      Thank you for reading!

  7. khovaros says:

    Fantastic post Alaric! I love this kind of stuff. It goes well with the economic Knight stuff that I wrote for RobotViking a (long) while ago. what’s sad is I’ve never actually used any of it since i did the research. I’ve never even heard of the tithing.

    also did you know that the law library downtown has some 18th century (i believe) reproductions of english cases from the 13th and 14th centuries writen in the original french? I so wish my french was up to the task of tackling that, but just holding it in my hands felt like a link to that time.

    I love this stuff.

  8. […] a similar vein, Alric @ RPG Athenaeum brings up some good ways to bring law and order to civilized parts of your fan… Heaven forbid we actually add law enforcement to the “Wild West” approach many players […]

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