Let’s talk for a minute about the law. Most legal systems are based on two things: the protection of certain general principles that are considered fundamental truths by the society in question, and a long history of precedents matching punishments with violations.
Criminal law, for the most part, is fairly straightforward. Not much has changed in the nature of criminal acts for centuries, if not millennia. Make appropriate allowance for social class restrictions and technology and you have most of it covered. Fraud still remains fraud, for example, even if it is conducted over the internet. What little remains can be summed up as the presentation and verification of evidence. Who can testify, who and what is considered most reliable, what cultural and social attributes are automatically considered unquestionable?
More frequently useful, and often overlooked in games, are the commercial and civil courts. The civil courts are all about someone doing something with someone else’s property, whether it is being harmed by that property, purchasing that property under false pretences, violating someone’s posession of that property, or whatever. They measure the harm done to someone and impose financial compensation. Take a look at a standard insurance policy, for example; every microscopic line of fine print is the result of someone cheating, or attempting to cheat, the law. Similarly, every line of public liability law stems from someone claiming that someone else permitted or caused them to come to harm through negligance or intent; every componant of a car derives from a string of automobile accidents.
Ownership and authority are civil matters: who is permitted to do what with someone else’s property, for example. In the middle ages, it was quite permitted for a freeman to travel anywhere he wanted in search of employment, and quite routine. Permission had to be obtained from the local representative of the owner of the lands into which the freeman had been born; he in turn set a fee which the freeman had to pay to the owner of the lands each year in exchange for his liberty to wander. Serfs and Freemen had an obligation to perform certain services on behalf of the land owner in return for the right to farm his own personal allotment the rest of the year, though the amounts differed from social class to social class, and year to year, and Lord to Lord. Prosperous individuals could pay someone else to work their share of this burdon – the baker or blacksmith was able to satisfy his farming obligation by paying someone to work on his behalf, or was exempted. In addition, in return for the right to work his professional trade, a licence fee had to be paid, usually in the form of so much product of his labours – so many loaves of bread or horse shoes (or whatever) per month. The mills and bellows and other professional tools were usually the property of another (usually the Lord, who bought them as an investment), and also had to be rented, and so on; it was quite rare for a craftsman to own his own equipment.
In fact, just about anything was negotiable with hard currency except in times of war and strife, and sometimes even then. Many people in modern times consider this to be a modern corruption of the legal system, not realising how far back the historical precedents can be traced; in olden times, these arrangements were open and above board and public knowledge; now they considered immoral, and so are conducted furtively and secretly, but the reality hasn’t changed – the wealthy can get away with far more than the poverty-stricken. As late as the turn of the century, in some places, it was quite legal to buy your way out of dury juty, and it was considered revolutionary when the wealthy were not permitted to buy their way out of the draft in the US during World War I (an amendment to the draft law that would have permitted it was narrowly defeated).
An even more important consideration is civil rights, violation of which is ALSO a matter for the civil courts. It can be argued that these are the descendants of the local codes of conduct that every village and township had in fuedal times, which determined the fines to be paid (to the Lord) for violations of public morals and peace. In fact, jury trials also stem from these precedents by long tradition; in the middle ages it was often even more important to be popular than to be wealthy, as guilt or innocence in all civil complaints and many minor criminal matters (those not directly affecting the Lord) were decided by the most respected of the accused’s neighbours. That’s worth remembering, the next time a celebrity gets off with a wrist-slap – that it’s nothing new! The concept of such a jury being biased against an individual was known, but was deemed unimportant except in capital cases or crimes against the Crown. In all other cases, the risk of being found guilty because of a bad reputation amongst your neighbours was considered an incentive to behave yourself and not make enemies!
It’s when these principles are applied to an unfamiliar setting within an RPG that things get interesting. How might a mage harm another, and how would civil laws change to accommodate these harms? Is the Lord entitled to a fee for every spell he permits the mage to cast, or perhaps an annual fee? How much stronger are the legal protections of the Church when the Gods’ will is expressed patently through a cleric’s miracles? Druids are often considered the protectors of the earth; how are their rights accommodated, and can they trump those of a minor Lord? There are innumerable questions that can be posed, and they can have a direct impact on what the PCs in a campaign are permitted to do and what they aren’t, on who has authority over them, and so on.
This is one of my favorite topics in Superhero campaigns. Not only because I am a fan of courtroom drama, but because superheros are in the profession of law-enforcement. Can a masked character even testify in court? Is he forced to divulge his real name? If not, how can his identity be ascertained? Is he required to read a suspect his rights before attempting to apprehend the villain? Is he responsible for collatoral damage – and can he be sued? Telepathy, Precognition – in fact, almost any form of enhanced sense – may create trouble because the evidence against the bad guys is thrown out of court, AS IS any evidence that would not have been found without that lead (“fruit of the poisonous tree”).
In one memorable plotline in my campaign, one of the superhero team was accused of murder. Prosecuting him was a Special Prosecutor appointed by the court, Perry Mason. Defending him was Denny Crane of Crane, Poole, and Schmidt [Boston Legal]… I got a sore throat from all the dialogue I had to read that day, but on several occasions the players were in histerics from laughter, as each side did their utmost to outmanouver the opposition, usually with sprinklings of wit and sarcasm and flashes of genius. Ultimately the question came down to jurisdictional considerations, since the PC was from another dimension, and he got off on a technicality! (One of the most entertaining scenes: The PC was a shapechanger whose normal appearance was that of a Gargoyle. Crane asked his expert witness what the law was concerning Gargoyles? The Answer: Federal and State laws don’t mention Gargoyles at all, and Boston only mentions them in the Building Codes, violation of which is a property offence. If anyone is injured by a Gargoyle, they are entitled to sue, but you wouldn’t lock up the statue…)
So spend a few minutes considering the laws of the realm in which your campaign takes place. What are the obligations of a citizen? Of a visitor? What rights and what responsibilities do the PCs have? What are they forbidden to do – and what can they buy their way out of? How will these change as they become wealthier, and more famous? And how can the GM use this information to complicate the PCs lives and entertain his players?