Friday, May 24, 2013

J'Accuse: Law, Adventurers, and the Judicial Duel

Some developments with the Hounds have led to a conflict (and, really at its heart, a misunderstanding) of how adventurers interact with the law—or how they must necessarily interact with the law. You see, this sequence of comments stuck out to me from our game the other night. They revolved around the idea of the difference between money earned "legally" and "illegally" by the party. Cain the Dorl (who is a LN mercenary) was upset and disturbed by the party's wanton murder and looting (note that most of them are CG) of a morally reprehensible local that they decided to rid the city of. There was no question that this fellow was in league with some bad forces. Vagr Blackstone was the hookup for the Temple of the Three Shadows and he serviced both thieves and smugglers across Tyrma by getting them in touch with the Shadow Temple.

That being said, the party murdered him without provocation. Indeed, they drew him out and ambushed him to prevent him from putting out a contract on a friendly local dwarven smith. They followed this up with a deadly raid on his hold, slaying most of his thugs and servants. Cain stayed well clear of this second activity.

After all was said and done, most of the group felt that what they had done was justified and that they had earned Vagr's money (which they stole from his hold) fair and square. Cain didn't feel the same. When his player said "But you essentially just murdered this guy and robbed his house," they responded, "Isn't that how adventurers always get money?"

This brings up THE LAW. Do adventurers essentially just kill people they don't like and take their stuff? Certainly, they seem to engage in this behavior a lot. Is it the only way that adventurers can behave? That is a murkier question by far.

PART ONE: Whither the Lawful Adventurer?

Not a lot of people that I play with tend to play lawful characters. Most fall somewhere on the sliding scale between neutral and chaotic. It just seems to have worked out that way. Does this mean that there can be no lawful adventurers? I heartily think not. Whatever the reason that my players have for avoiding law (except for Cain's player, who embraces its structure as necessary and right nine characters out of ten), that doesn't preclude it from being an acceptable alignment for an adventurer.

If all adventures break down to the simple premise that the party identifies someone they want to kill, murders them, and then steals the things which are their belongings... well, of course none of these adventurers are lawful. That narrative is one that has been very powerful and popular in D&D discourse—describing adventurers as "murder hobos." But I think the power of that characterization has completely obliterated or obscured the potential for lawful adventure in the main channels of discourse.

So, if lawful adventurers are not, by definition, impossible it must follow that some adventures are comprised of more than "identify foe, kill foe, loot foe."

 PART TWO: The Setup

Here are some scenarios that look very similar:

1. The party, looking around for work, is brought to the manse or curia of a baron. He offers a reward if the PCs will slay an evil wizard who lives in town.

2. The PCs encounter an evil wizard in town and decide to kill him after discovering that he is murdering people in his basement.

3. The PCs are attacked by goblins on the road and slay them. They trace their tracks to their lair and slay those too.

4. The PCs find some bandits or outlaws and decide to wipe out their camp.

The question here is: Which of these scenarios violate a lawful alignment?

My answer is thusly: only #2.

"WHY!" I hear you clamor. "What could possibly make #2 different from #3 and #4?"

The answer lies deep in...

PART THREE: Medieval Law

We're used to a society in which the law applies equally to everyone. If you meet a man on a highway and he tries to rob you, you are not justified in killing him unless you can say you legitimately fear for your life. If you meet a homeless man living out in the woods, you are not justified in killing him.

The same is not true in a society of medieval laws. Outlaws, bandits, goblins, and all manner of creatures do not have the protection of the law. The evil wizard who lives in the town does. Thus, only when the baron (assumed here to be the local law) gave the alright (for, if he is the local lord it is within his power to condemn this man to death and remove the just protection of law—or at least it is assumed so in this case, though perhaps a trial must be in order if the lord does not have that power).

These people who abandon the protection of law are all over the medieval record. Living outside civilization, essentially, curtails your rights. You are a legal non-entity. And while it would still behoove a lawful character to ask about slaughtering bandits in the forest, or to bring an evil wizard to the nearest town for justice, they would be under no LEGAL obligation to do so. As Frank pointed out, a LE character would feel that same urge, perhaps to bring the mage in for a higher reward but might decide midway along the route that he was too dangerous to transport and just kill him. No laws there are broken.

#2 could be brought along to the lawful end of the spectrum if it was amended with: and bring this information to the local baron, who holds a curia to investigate, discovers it is true, and authorizes them to deal the wizard's death.

PART FOUR: The Judicial Duel

A last note: sometimes, in polite society, people just couldn't get along. You could accuse someone of something until you were blue in the face but maybe there was no way to resolve it; your lord, for example, refuses to hear the case. Judicial dueling can therefore substitute court in many lands and is completely legal and acceptable. This is an out, perhaps, for lawful characters who simply must destroy their foe—challenge him to a duel. This will either result in a great loss of honor for him, his death, or the PCs death.

Two out of three ain't bad!


  1. Replies
    1. How would you explain being hired by the local authority in law to dispose of an evil wizard unlawful?

    2. That didn't make a lot of sense, I realize—WHY would you categorize that as unlawful, I mean.