Law of the Land, Part 2 – Compendium of Crime

In the previous article, we laid down a framework for presenting criminal laws in a Pathfinder game world. This time around, we’re going to cover some of the specific crimes that a society would recognize. While a large number of these are obvious (“Everyone thinks murder is bad, duh.”), some aren’t the sort of thing that would immediately come to mind. So with that in mind, let’s go over some of the finer points of crime in a standard campaign world, followed by a list of crimes.

Nobility and Tiered Crime

One aspect of crimes in society that wasn’t discussed in the previous article was how the laws apply to people of different social classes. While a fantasy medieval world often has an egalitarian presentation, it often still includes people of different social standing – specifically, it usually has people as belonging to one of three groups: commoners (the ordinary people who need to work for a living), nobles (members of the aristocracy, usually with hereditary privileges, who tended to follow pursuits not related to manual labor or producing/selling goods), and rulers (people in charge of the regional/national government).

The difference in rights and privileges between peoples of different social classes is beyond the scope of this article; for the purposes of crime and punishment in a fantasy world, the difference we’re going to focus on is something called “tiered crime.” Tiered crime is the concept that the same crime is more heinous, and thus deserves a harsher punishment, if done to someone of a higher rank.

This guy has more rights under the law than your PC. How's that for a crime?

All of the crimes listed below are written under the premise that these are committed by one commoner against another. If committed by a commoner against a noble, the severity of the punishment is usually raised by one category (as laid out in the previous article). A commoner who commits a crime against a ruler will find the punishment increased by two categories.

A commoner who steals from another commoner, for example, is likely to be whipped or spend some time in a stockade. If that same commoner steals from a noble, however, he might have his hand chopped off, or spend the next twenty years in prison. If he stole from the king, it would be punishable by death.

Note that, in the case of a noble committing a crime against another noble, the degree of punishment remains unchanged, but rather than being judged by a magistrate, nobles may usually be tried before a jury of their peers (other nobles), or even (if the crime is severe enough, or the noble is of particularly high standing) before the ruler of the land. Note that in either case the actual question of guilt or innocence may be secondary to the politics between nobles and rulers.

In the event that a noble commits a crime against a ruler, the category of punishment is increased by one. Rulers, however, have two types of special punishments that they can bring to bear against nobles (in addition to the usual ones):

Ignominy is a punishment of the larceny category which results in the noble no long being a noble; they’re reduced to the status of a commoner. Typically, the duration of the sentence (which can include life) is pronounced at the time the sentence if rendered, though the ruler may change their mind at a later date and reinstate the disgraced noble. Note that many nobles punished this way tend to flee to other realms, trading promises of favors (usually of information to use against their former ruler) for being formally recognized as a noble in that realm, thus maintaining their status.

Withering of the Blood is a felony category punishment which has not only a given noble losing his nobility, but all of his children as well. In essence, a noble against whom this punishment is levied has their entire branch of the family tree removed from their noble house. If levied against the head of a noble family, it essentially means the destruction of that noble house altogether.

It’s important to note that the converse of tiered crime holds true as well: crimes committed by those of a higher stature against those of a lower one are typically punished less harshly. However, the degree by which the punishment is lessened is stacked in favor of those of higher social strata. Typically, the punishment for a noble who commits a crime against a commoner is decreased by two categories (meaning that a noble murdering a commoner typically has to pay a fine, usually to the victim’s family). By contrast, rulers usually never face punishment for a crime committed against anyone, as they are able to implicitly (or even explicitly) pardon themselves, and so are not held accountable to their lessers.

Having said that, nobles and rulers typically didn’t commit crimes against the people below them willy-nilly, since repeatedly taking advantage of being favored by the law was a good way to incite a revolution against them.

Repeat Offenders

The listed punishments presume that the guilty party is a first-time offender. If a person keeps committing crimes, then eventually the people in charge of dispensing justice will realize that greater punishments are called for, since the existing ones have failed as a deterrent. Given that, at some point committing a crime with the same category of punishment will result in a harsher punishment than is typical.

A good shorthand for this is that if a person commits a misdemeanor-category crime three times, the fourth time will result in a larceny-category punishment. If they commit a larceny-category crime twice, the third time will result in a felony-category punishment. Typically, infractions are too small to pile up in this manner.

Criminal Activity

The following is a list of the most common crimes in a given region. Each has a listing of what their punishment usually is, along with a brief explanation of the crime and some additional notes.

Apostasy – Apostasy, in this context, is practicing a religion that has been outlawed (by secular law, rather than religious). This is predicated on the idea that the state has declared certain religions (typically those that worship evil deities or outsiders) illegal. Apostasy is a felony crime, and death tends to be more common than non-capital felony punishments (since otherwise the criminal can continue worshiping an evil entity).

Arson – This larceny-category crime is when someone starts a fire that is large-scale enough to potentially cause serious damage and loss of life. The reason for such a harsh punishment (as opposed to destruction of property; below) is that a fire can quickly get out of control and spread to a wide area. Note that this crime doesn’t require criminal intent; if you cause the fire, even accidentally, you can be held accountable.

Assaulting an Official – “Official” here means anyone who works on the state’s behalf, and usually means law enforcement officials (e.g. the sheriff, soldiers, etc.). Worse than mere brawling, which is disturbing the peace (q.v.), assaulting an official is a misdemeanor-category crime.

Attempted Murder – Attempted murder is a larceny-category crime; this crime is committed when someone deals hit point damage to another person (as opposed to nonlethal damage).

Brandishing – Brandishing is an infraction involving handling a weapon in a threatening manner. This is usually resolved by having the weapon confiscated, but can also include peace-binding it; that is, tying it so as to make it difficult to draw (conversely, not having your weapon peace-bound can also count as brandishing). Note that societies with this law may have exceptions for nobles and/or rulers.

Defamy – Defamy is publicly slandering someone else in such a manner that is likely to start rumors or wide-spread gossip. Because this is an infraction-category crime, and because doing this about rulers is considered treason (q.v.), this crime tends to only result in punishment when a commoner commits defamy against a noble.

Destruction of Property – Destroying that which belongs to someone else is a misdemeanor-category crime, and virtually always includes making amends in addition to the punishment. Note that in societies where slavery is legal, this is the crime of killing/crippling a slave that someone else owns.

Devilry – Devilry is the catch-all term for dealing with evil monsters intent on harm to people. This includes not only things like demons and devils, but also things like evil dragons, drow, aberrations, etc. This is a felony-category crime.

Disturbing the Peace – This infraction-category crime is anything from brawling to public drunkenness.

Enterprising – Enterprising is the term for conducting guild-regulated activities when you’re not a member of a guild. Doing so is a misdemeanor-category crime. Note that a state may have both guilds and free-practitioners in certain areas, but some states may require that the latter register their status with the government.

Extortion – This misdemeanor-category crime includes all forms of trying to coerce money, or other actions or activities favorable to the criminal, by threat. This includes threats of violence as well as blackmail.

Kidnapping – The act of abducting someone is a larceny-category crime. Note that this doesn’t always depend on the non-consent of the being kidnapped – a common man and a noble’s daughter who run away together to elope may find that the commoner has been charged with kidnapping, despite the girl’s wishes.

Murder – Killing someone is a felony crime. In societies that have this as a less-severe crime, the perpetrator will usually have to pay the costs of resurrecting the victim, with not having the funds putting them into prison (as a debtor); all of this alongside the penalty of having killed someone to begin with.

Rioting – Rioting is engaging in mob violence of any sort, and is a larceny-category crime. This includes attempting to incite a riot, and is often charged in addition with crimes committed while in the act of rioting.

Sexual Impropriety – This larceny-category crime typically covers rape and other forms of sexual assault, but may be applied more broadly to ban certain sexual acts or practices.

Theft – Stealing is a misdemeanor-category criminal act. Typically, the thief will have to make restitution by returning the stolen item(s) or making appropriate compensation, in addition to the standard punishment. Note that persons who take part in trafficking of stolen property are also engaged in theft.

Treason – Treason is a felony offense that involves anything done against the nation or its ruler(s). This includes everything from assassination plots against the rulers to colluding with enemies of the state to publicly defaming the government (or other subversive activities).

A Quick Reminder

It bears another mention that these crimes are designed as a framework – modifying them for a given region is expected, and indeed will probably be necessary for your game. Moreover, different countries will recognize different crimes, and have different punishments. Even a few small tweaks can make one place seem very different from another.

Next Time: How does a society where spellcasting is common regulate magic? In our next article, we cover criminal magical activity!

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2 Responses to “Law of the Land, Part 2 – Compendium of Crime”

  1. Vincent (masaru20100) Says:

    Interesting series of articles. I remember the Iron Kingdoms World Guide had some information on crime and punishment in the various countries of the setting and thought it was great.

    In some settings, or some country in a setting, like Andoran in Golarion, there is no nobility. I thought everyone would be considered a commoner, but there is some individual that hold some authority, like judge, soldiers, sheriff, etc. I think that a crime against them would be more punished, same way as commoner versus noble. The reason I see is that it would dissuade people from committing crime against them. Not sure it is needed thought. But, contrary to the noble committing crime against a commoner, someone with authority committing a crime would be more punished. The reason I see is to avoid them abusing their authority.
    What do you think of it?

    Another point, I don’t see corruption in the list of activity, what’s your take on it?

    • alzrius Says:

      Vincent, thanks for the input!

      These articles were written with to be a broad framework, so for an egalitarian country like Andoran, things would need to be tweaked somewhat. Making everyone equal in the eyes of the law is certainly a good place to start.

      If you want to emphasize the idea that people in power are held to a higher standard, however, you could consider inverting the idea of tiered crime – that is, people in positions of notable authority are given harsher punishments for criminal activities than ordinary citizens. That’d presumably put a damper on illegal activity by those in power…or it could just drive it underground.

      The list of crimes does, looking back on it, seem to have a few holes in it (smuggling, for instance), but I’m not sure I’d include corruption as a crime. For one thing, it’s too nebulous for a medieval society, where the list of crimes is usually focused on practicalities. Is “corruption” having/giving undue influence with another group? Does it need to be limited to money or other tangible gains?

      There’s an idea that, in a medieval society, the nobles are screwing the commoners (hence why they have more rights to begin with), so corruption would likely go hand in hand with such a system. In a country like Andoran, though, I can imagine that it’d be larceny-category crime.

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