Rough Justice - Crime, Punishment and the Acts of Adventurers
Date: Mon, September 04, 2006
Topic: Campaign Articles

Adventurers steal. They kill. They may do worse. And they get away with it. And they are heroes. Alignment may slow them down but it doesn’t stop them. How do they get away with it? Turns out, it is precisely because they are adventurers. Everything is not legal but much is. Read on.

Crime, Punishment, Rough Justice and the Acts of Adventurers
By: Glenn Vincent Gammerung, aka GVDammerung

As I am sure many others have, I have played in campaigns where, even in large, organized cities and societies, it seems there is no law. PCs commit a litany of violent and property crimes and are rarely if ever pursued by the constabulary, or even investigated/questioned. How do they get away with it?

Recognizing that (A)D&D is often about doing violence to persons and property, I've tried to split the difference in lawful societies (or chaotic ones with a penchant for good, i.e. crime is not of weal) while keeping matters simple.

Common Crimes and Punishments

The following categorization of crimes will be common throughout the Flanaess in places like Nyrond, Furyondy, Keoland, and even Aerdi, as well as lesser states that which are lawful or which favor weal. The legal tradition is principally Oeridian. Its codification is nearly universal among civilized states, even as precise details vary.

Violent Crimes
Murder: Punishable by death.
Rapine: Punishable by death.
Assault/Kidnaping/Arson: Punishable by death if the victim suffers grievous bodily injury. Otherwise punishable by fine or dismemberment (loss of dominant hand) if unable to pay or when victim is of higher social standing. Second and subsequent offenses include imprisonment.

Property Crimes

Theft/Burglary: First offense punishable by fine with restitution or commitment to workhouse/indenture. Second offense, punished by fine with restitution and commitment to work house/indenture. Third and subsequent offenses, punishable by imprisonment.
Robbery: First offense punishable by fine with restitution and commitment to work house. Second offense, punished with imprisonment. Third offense, punishable by death.
Piracy or Highway Robbery: Punishable by death.
Smuggling: Punishable by fine and confiscation.
Debt: Punishable by confiscation of property or indenture.

Attempt Crimes

An incomplete criminal act, one which fails to complete its objective, is still a criminal act of attempt. Attempt Crimes are punishable by fine and imprisonment.

Moral Turpitude Crimes

Crimes of moral turpitude involve nonviolent acts that offend society by presenting the perpetrator or the object of the act in a poor light or which threaten another crime. Moral Turpitude Crimes include public intoxication, disorderly conduct, solicitation, pandering, begging, extortion, and blackmail. Crimes of moral turpitude are punishable by fine and imprisonment.

The Exculpatory Acts of Adventurers

It is possible, using various historical incidents, to create a species of acts, otherwise crimes, that are societally sanctioned and thus exculpatory. This allows adventurers to proceed largely unimpeded in their actions while technically remaining within the letter of the law. The following legal "doctrines" look to keep adventurers free of most legal entanglements, essentially justifying their actions.

Murder Affray
What would otherwise be murder or assault committed by a societally recognized individual/group, where the victim(s) is a member(s) of a socially unrecognized or ostracized group, is not a crime. The precise phrasing of this doctrine will depend on the nation in question. The effect is to make legal, for example, the immediate killing of orcs etc. which are regarded as "enemies" of a given society. This doctrine is obviously morally ambiguous in its purest form and relies on the culture promulgating the doctrine to add specifics and thus clarify the ambiguity.

Sanctioned Duel

What would otherwise be murder or assault, when such act is committed after challenge and acceptance, is not a crime. The challenge may be formal or by necessary implication in the case of obvious insult etc.. The acceptance may be shown by acts, including a retort in kind. The effect of this doctrine is to "legalize" or immunize from criminality the typical bar fight etc., where one side provokes another and both parties decide they are going to fight to the death.

Prosecutorial Self Defense

Any act otherwise a crime necessary to defend against an immediate threat to person or property is not a crime. In other words, try something and your potential victim can use any and all means necessary to thwart you, or you them, if they attempt to victimize you. This is self-defense taken to the extreme and without complicated legalisms like "retreat" etc.

Claim of Spoils

The taking of property held without right by the possessor as recognized by the law is not a crime. In other words, what might otherwise be robbery, burglary or theft is not a crime if the "victim" has no legally recognized right to the property. It is important to note that the party asserting Claim of Spoils need not have a superior claim to the property, only that the possessor have no right to its possession. This doctrine immunizes adventurers from claims of burglary, robbery or theft where their "victim" has no legally recognized right to the property the adventurers take from them. This works both ways, however. There is a concomitant Right of Recovery.

Facilitation of Right

Those means necessary to effectuate a Claim of Spoils are not criminal in nature. In other words, what might otherwise be crimes in pursuit of a Claim of Spoils is legal.

Many otherwise law abiding cities, even nations, find it expedient to define certain areas as exempt from usual laws. This is particularly so when the alternative is the cost of enforcing the law among foreigners, where the enforcement may hinder trade or where even the most strict enforcement is unlikely to be permanently effective. As a consequence, cantonments are set up where the otherwise illegal will be legal. Common cantonments include red light districts, foreign quarters, and docklands. Violent and property crimes will still be stricly enforced but other crimes, especially those of moral turpitude, may be overlooked if they are not outright legal.

That Peculiar Institution

Slavery is a hot button issue in the World of Greyhawk. While it is rarely written into the description of a society, it is also rarely specifically written out. This leaves much open to speculation and debate.

Ultimately, slavery is a legal status conferred by a society on some within the ambit of that society’s influence. It is possible, however, to parse this legal status usefully within the World of Greyhawk.

Slavery may be defined as the ownership, as property, of one sentient by another sentient. Sanctioned slavery requires the authority in a society to recognize, directly or tacitly, the possibility of sentients having no rights superior to property more generally.


Indenture may be defined as the ownership for a defined term or condition of the labor, as property, of one sentient by another sentient, to include the subsidiary rights to ensure, facilitate and transfer in commerce that labor. Debt is universally recognized. Failure to pay a debt may subject the debtor to forced payment or confiscation of property equal to the debt. However, if a debtor has nothing of value, the creditor has little recourse but to attach the person of the debtor. Debtors prison is one means of attaching the person but it leaves the creditor still holding the debt. Indenture of the debtor to the creditor or his assigns, until the debt is paid, is an alternative that sees the debt paid in full, plus any fine.

The distinction between slavery and indenture is more than semantics. The indentured debtor has rights as a sentient and as a member of society, which a slave does not. The creditor owns the labor of the debtor and may then direct the debtor to extract that labor but only to the extent of the debt, plus any fine, and the creditor cannot summarily dispose of the indentured debtor or mistreat him as a master can a slave, for the debtor is not property. At any time, the indentured debtor may terminate the indenture if he or she can arrange to have the debt paid or forgiven.

Of course, indenture is subject to abuse, as is any institution, and indenture may become in its practical effect slavery.

Serfdom is distinct from either slavery or indenture. It is an extreme component of some feudal agrarian societies. The person of the serf is neither purely property, as the slave, nor is it purely the labor of the person that is attached, as in indentured servitude. It is something of both with the attachment running principally to the land. See "Peasant Classes in the Flanaess" by Glenn Vincent Dammerung at

In most of the Flanaess, slavery will be uncommon but indenture will be extremely common. Serfdom will be uncommon. The practical difference, however, may well be more semantics, particularly in Aerdi and large parts of Keoland.

Freedom of Contract

Freedom to contract is unfettered throughout the Flanaess and contract terms may be what the parties agree them to be, the only check being that the parties must voluntarily agree to the terms. Voluntariness, however, is not subject to legal niceties. For example, contract under threat is voluntary. One party voluntarily agrees to avoid the threat.

While attempt is punishable as a crime, see above, threat is not. Threat is only punishable as a crime if it amounts to extortion. Extortion extracts money or property to avoid a threat without compensation. An act or forbearance agreed to under threat is not extortion unless the immediate consequence of that act or forbearance would be to extract money or property from the person contracting under threat without reasonable compensation.

Punishment for failure to abide by a voluntarily agreed to contract is treated as theft. Capitalism in freedom to contract is the rule and only rarely the exception.

Benefit of Clergy

All of the above is subject to a single huge exception. Theocracies operate by and under the precepts of their faith(s). A theocracy will vary all of the above depending on the tenants of the faith(s). Heresy and blasphemy may be defined as crimes. Contract may not be free but may be subject to additional requirements or prohibitions. The law may even be entirely different for the faithful or clergy. This will often be the case where a theocracy venerates but a single deity or a single racial pantheon.

In non-theocratic states with various clergy, clergy may still be exempted from common legal precepts or they may be held to a higher standard, even to enforce the societal norms. They might also be treated no differently than any other person under the law. The variety is such that no single statement will hold true everywhere.

Where clergy are given special protections under the law, such is usually referred to as Benefit of Clergy. The most common benefit is that the clergy person is entitled to be tried according to church law, not secular law, for any first offense. All subsequent offenses would be tried by the secular authorities as subsequent offenses. Obviously, a church that condones what is otherwise illegal will not find Benefit of Clergy of much utility, if it is recognized at all, which will be increasingly unlikely depending on the severity of the crime.


The foregoing is intended to be simple and clean. While arguments can be made "in court" by characters, such arguments will be more factual than legal. In other words, did the actions of the characters fall within the definition of a crime or were they without? Either factually or from the application of one of the exculpatory doctrines commonly recognized.

The intent is not to set out a law code but to establish general principles that can guide a characters actions - the law as it is known to lay persons, not jurists. Few games, I believe benefit from a rigid or too common application of "the Law." Yet, the idea that characters can do anything for no reason and remain "law abiding" seems as problematic. I hope to have split the difference.

This article comes from Canonfire!

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