One of the background elements that is all too often ignored in most Pathfinder games is the nature of the law in various cities, towns, and other areas where the PCs frequently spend their time. For the most part, there’s little actual need for any sort of codified laws, since the PCs rarely run afoul of them. When they do, it tends to be simply part of a larger plot-hook, and is forgotten about once it’s served its purpose.
That’s something of a shame, because the laws of a given society are one of the best ways to demonstrate just what makes that society different from others. The extent of what the laws are and what punishments they mete out to those who break them can communicate a great deal about a given region of the game world. At the very least, it makes the Knowledge (local) checks more flavorful.
However, this bit of game theory tends to run headfirst into a problem of practicality. Laws – even the implicitly simple laws of a (fantasy) medieval world – are vast and complex. Coming up with a body of them can be quite a bit of work, and so tends to exist as little more than an interesting idea that never gets actualized.
It’s that problem that this series of articles aims to correct. We’re going to present a set of basic laws for a typical region in a Pathfinder game, complete with descriptions and punishments. These laws can then be tweaked, altered, and otherwise used however is most beneficial in your game. So let’s lay down the law!
A Legal Disclaimer
While it was heavily implied above, it’s worthwhile to come right out and say it: these laws aren’t intended to be anything other than a thorough framework for use in your Pathfinder game. They aren’t meant to represent or even approximate the laws as they actually were in medieval Europe or any other real-world society.
Likewise, the descriptions here are focused solely on criminal laws. No discussion is given to any sort of civil or tort law; these are the laws that govern the people, and if you break them, you’re subject to the punishment that doing so entails.
Laws for the Lawful
It’s inevitable that any discussion of a society’s laws will necessitate some discussion about alignment. In general, there isn’t as much overlap between the two as you might think. The Law-Chaos axis of alignment in Pathfinder, viewed in terms of the laws that tend to govern a society, can perhaps best be summarized as follows:
A lawful society will see their laws as ideals to be followed for their own sake, with an implicit trust (almost to a degree of faith) in that they promote and protect what’s valuable in their society. Thus, breaking the law is an affront to these ideals and, through that, an affront to the society in which the people live. The nature of the laws and the punishments for breaking them will be fairly standardized, with relatively little flexibility based on the specific circumstances of the incident committed.
A chaotic society will, somewhat surprisingly, still have laws. However, these laws will function largely as guidelines outlining a series of general prohibitions (e.g. things that are crimes if you do them) and what to do to an offender. The actual facts of a particular incident will have a strong determining factor in whether or not a crime actually occurred, and how to punish the offender if so. The practical circumstances of what’s best for the people involved, and the community as a whole, will reliably take precedence over any particular body of legal conduct.
A neutral society is, of course, a blend of these two views. Laws will likely be codified, but with an understanding (whether formal or not) that the laws which are enumerated cover unspecified crimes and circumstances that may arise in the future (e.g. a law against murder can be understood to apply to someone who orders a mercenary to commit murder). Likewise, there’ll often be a range of specified punishments, with the circumstances of the crime determining which are applied.
Inquisitors Need Not Apply
One area that this series of articles will not cover is the impact of religion on the law. That is, none of the laws and punishments listed here will deal with any sort of crime against a religion, nor apply any particular religious punishment to a given crime. The default assumption is that the law is secular, in terms of specifying crimes and denoting punishments.
The reason for this is two-fold. First, there are too many in-game religions, each with a different view of what is and is not virtuous, to possibly try and develop any sort of standard beyond the most bare-bones approach…so bare-bones that there’s little point to making the attempt at all. Secondly, the degree to which church and state mingle is likely to vary widely even within the course of a single game world. Keeping the two separate allows a given GM to add religious laws (usually for a state religion) as he or she sees fit.
Of course, for all of the above disclaimers, there are a few places where religion and the law intersect in this series, but these are relatively few and fairly universal in scope when they do happen.
In the Criminal Justice System…
Before going any further, let’s look at how crimes are investigated and judged in the context of the game world.
Most localities will have people whose occupation is to represent and enforce peace and justice within that area. Typically, this tends to fall on the sheriff, town guards, local watchmen, or even soldiers. These people are responsible for stopping crimes that they see/know are occurring, as well as investigating crimes that have previously occurred. They have the power to question suspects, collect evidence, and make arrests. While small towns might choose who functions as the head of local law enforcement, larger areas will have their chief lawman (or law-woman) appointed by the head of the (local) government, with that person then hiring others to work under them.
Once a suspect is brought in, they’re typically brought before a magistrate; a person chosen by the local government to hear cases and render judgment. Typically, one who investigated the case (and made the arrest) argues for the suspect’s prosecution, though in some cases the wronged party might also be active in asking for punishment to be delivered. The suspect is usually on their own to argue their defense. Once both sides have been heard, the magistrate makes their decision (if there are multiple magistrates sitting in on a case, then it’s the majority opinion that carries), and that’s usually final – unless a member of the governing authority cares to step in (which is likely quite rare).
Once the sentence is rendered, it’s usually up to the local law enforcement to carry it out, particularly if the sentence is something impermanent (e.g. a fine or a relatively short stay in jail). For more severe punishments, the criminal is usually turned over to a warden who runs a prison (notice the difference between a prison and a jail – the latter is meant to hold people for short durations and is usually a small establishment or even just part of another building, whereas the former is always a sturdy edifice and is meant to hold people for much longer stays), or even sentenced to die. In this case, the executioner – who’s identity is usually kept secret so as to foil retribution – carries out the sentence (often in public, both as a spectacle and to present confirmation of death).
Categories of Crime
One of the easiest ways to discuss the nature of a crime is by measuring how serious a crime it is; that is, measuring its degree of criminality. This, in turn, allows for the severity of the punishment to be more easily gauged. Below are several degrees of criminality, along with the typical punishment that they carry.
Co-opted from actual criminal terms, these are divorced from their real-world implications, and presented as broad categories from most-severe to least-severe. Note that these are not the actual crimes themselves (which will be dealt with next time) – these are just what sort of crimes they are.
Felony – The worst sort of crime that can be committed, this is typically punished with death, but banishment is also possible. In the event that death is the punishment, the body will typically not be allowed to be subjected to resurrection magic (perhaps by destroying the body, by using magic such as trap the soul, or by placing a mark on it indicating that they were executed for criminal conduct). Likewise, someone banished will typically have their banishment made known, whether by general proclamation, a brand forced onto a conspicuous spot on their body, or a mark of justice.
Larceny – This is a terrible crime, and commands a commensurate punishment. It typically involves long periods of imprisonment (possibly for life), being taken into slavery for a certain duration (also possibly for life), or mutilation of the offender (e.g. losing an finger, hand, eye, etc). As with a felony, pains will be taken to prevent the punishment from being circumvented (e.g. a tattoo so that people will know the criminal is not to be given the aid of regeneration magic).
Misdemeanor – Comparatively moderate crimes, misdemeanors are usually punished by inflicting pain/damage on the criminal (e.g. whipping or flogging), public humiliation (e.g. kept in the stocks), fines, or short-term incarceration. Additionally (or as an alternative punishment) the criminal might be sentenced to make some sort of restitution to the wronged party.
Infraction – Infractions are criminal acts so small that they typically don’t require a formal punishment, instead being disruptions that are fixable by the direct action of a local official. This typically involves sending people away from a particular person or situation (e.g. to let people involved in a fight cool off), settling a small dispute, or very brief incarceration (e.g. spending the night in jail).
Next Time: We go over specific crimes, discussing them in greater detail!