Weapons Permits

By Ralf Kruytzer

This article deals with the questions, Why are there weapon permits in my Fantasy Medieval World? Why are there restrictions on wearing weapons?

How the heck did our DM got that goofy idea? (As some players might ask themselves). This article tries to help the DM (or GM) to sell such an idea to his or her players when the world they live in with is plagued with monsters like orcs, gnolls, ankegs, gorgons and wyverns (if you are familiar with 2nd edition Monstrous Manual from TSR).

What do you do when the PC’s don’t go with the system? If you put them in prison when their only crime is not having a piece of paper, some PC’s will move on to the next city or village until they find a place without those stupid rules. Hopefully this article gives you enough reasons and background information to convince your players your stupid “Permit Rule” isn’t that stupid after all.

Before I start I want to explain some of the abbreviations used in the text below:

  • RMW – Real Medieval World, referring to medieval and feudal England.
  • FMW – Fantasy Medieval World, referring to a made-up setting (e.g., Forgotten Realms).

In July 2002, I started to exchange thoughts with Dr. Erin D. Smale. The first subject of our correspondence was about medieval world views vs. fantasy settings. The both of us are quite fanatic D&D gamers. This article is not written to say how things should be done; it’s merely describing a way things could be done. Every DM is free to use this article as he or she seems fit. Each of us agrees upon the fact that in both the RMW and the FMW, the population can be divided into four categories:

  • 1. Those who work;
  • 2. Those who fight;
  • 3. Those who rule;
  • 4. Those who pray.

Those who work can be roughly divided into three sub-categories:

  • 1. The farmers (better known as peasants or serfs);
  • 2. The craftsmen;
  • 3. The freemen or yeomen.

Those who work in the RMW are bound to an area. The reason for this lies with the medieval feudal system. One of characteristics of the feudal system is that one exchanges ownership of land for protection provided by his feudal superior. Therefore, most farmers (both peasant and serf) were bound to the lands of the feudal lord. The craftsmen normally are bound to a county or – most likely – a town or city. Those in this category are mostly an anonymous flock of NPC’s. Normally, those who fight are in the RMW are allied with a ruler (i.e., a feudal lord) or have pledged loyalty to one. These are typical guards and soldiers and, generally, no threat to a ruler. The problem for either the villagers or citizens (most of whom belonging to the “those who work” category) and the appointed ruler of the settlement starts when a group of armed individuals approach the gates. Regardless of whether they are mercenaries, adventurers, monsters, invading soldiers, etc., from the settlement’s point of view these individuals can be classified as potential enemies.

There are two very important things about the group I’ve just described:
1. They are in front of your settlement;
2. They carry weapons.

Let’s take a closer look at the second aspect: they carry weapons. In parts of the RMW, the majority of people didn’t have much in the way of personal arms. This was for a few reasons:

  • First, weapons were expensive, and most of the common folk couldn’t afford to arm themselves.
  • Second, to be good at weapon use, one had to train, and there was little time for that when one had to farm, herd, shear, craft, or whatever to make a living.
  • Third, local lords (and their superiors, all the way up to the king) didn’t really like the idea of armed peasants that could revolt.

Therefore weapon ownership was granted to those whose loyalty was relatively unquestioned. In this vein, fighting was reserved for soldiers who could be coerced, cajoled, bought, or inspired. Land granted to a knight helped to keep his loyalty. Mercenaries were loyal to the coin they were paid. Regular troops were fed, clothed, supplied, and salaried. Fourth, the right to bear arms was granted as a means to enforce the lord’s law. Peasants, being the subject to such laws, had little say in the matter, and weapons were right out.

Generally speaking it is safe to assume that in the FMW one possesses (simple) arms, knowledge of how to use them, and one travels among groups for mutual protection. Traveling from Point A to Point B in a FMW is not just a journey; it is seriously dangerous expedition. In the RMW you might have some robbers in the area, but in the FMW some truly nasty critters – goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, gnolls, and kobolds – inhabit parts of the realm. One doesn’t want to encounter any of these creatures, day or night, without knowing how to wield at least a simple weapon (e.g., a quarterstaff or a club) or being in the company of a group who does. In this respect, the unarmed citizens -including farmers – rely mostly on authorized guards and soldiers for protection from harm, both in the RMW as in the FMW.

Let’s get back to the original situation: A group of armed individuals is about to start “knock, knock, knocking” on your settlement’s gate. Who are they? What do they want? They’re carrying arms, but they’re neither the guards nor the Lord’s men. Are they going to cause trouble? Will someone get hurt? What will the local authorities do to ensure safety? All these thoughts will be going to the unarmed citizens’ head. If these armed folk enter the settlement, there will three major groups inside it:

  • 1. The (unarmed) citizens;
  • 2. The (armed) guards and soldiers under the authorized control of a feudal superior;
  • 3. The (armed) mercenaries and adventurers who are under no authorized control whatsoever.

Categories one and two are of no threat to an organized and lawful society. Category three, however, is a possible threat to anyone within categories one and two. Put another way, those in category one relies on category two to protect them from category three. Given that the core of any settlement is probably category one, we can conclude that the presence of category three legitimizes the existence of category two. This also implies a precedent for settlement taxation, as citizens are willing to pay local authorities for this protection.

When outside forces threaten the settlement (e.g., orcs, gnolls, ankegs, gorgons, and wyverns) they need to be dispatched. Who does the dispatching? The people with the weapons: town guards, city watchmen, local militia, adventurers.

Ironically, the adventurers, who probably have more muscle than local authorities, are the only group of these four where good intentions and loyalty are uncertain. Add to this that the adventurers don’t receive a cut of the tax money that pays for the guards, watchmen, and militia. The only ‘cut’ they receive might be a fee for their services.

As a result, some precautionary steps are taken. First, visitors are stopped at the gate and asked what their business is. If the guards are satisfied, passes are issued to the visitors, indicating lawful entry (i.e., the local authorities have granted permission to the visitors to be within the city walls). If the visitors are carrying weapons, they’re required to register them.

Now, understand that this does not prevent the weapon from being used. But it can be a deterrent. The concept is not dissimilar to some handgun laws in the United States. If you want to carry a handgun, you need a permit. What’s in it for you? The right to carry a firearm legally. That’s it. Why is this good? Because if you’re caught with a handgun and don’t have a permit, authorities assume that you’re up to no good and charge you with a criminal act. Then you’re in trouble.

The same is applicable to the FMW: a weapon permit is a legal license to go about armed within the city limits. But that’s the extent of the permit’s license. This means that a permit allows adventurers carry weapons about town, but it does not, by any stretch, imply that they those same adventurers are permitted use those weapons within the town. More than anything else, a permit is a sign of willingness to operate on good faith within the town. Having taken the trouble to get a permit goes a long way in demonstrating, at least, that you’re not hiding something. It tells the rest of the town that you’re willing to play by the local rules.

Sure, some players will start complaining about being restricted, but you as DM have to remember that there are at least two sides at every story. In this case the PC’s vs. the town. The idea of weapon permits was even applied in the Wild West. If you watch the movie of Wyatt Earp (featuring Kevin Costner, 1994), you’ll see how Earp, a law officer, attempted to protect settlements by enforcing the rule that there be no firearms allowed within the city limits. Guns were handed in upon entry and returned to the owner when he left town.

A PC might register his long sword but keep a dagger in his boot. It happens, and it’s not unreasonable. Even if a PC does this, there is no man overboard. The PC just needs to be aware that he’s broken the law and consequences will follow if he or she gets caught. Same for whole group – if they don’t want to register anything at all, they’ll probably be barred from entry and subsequently arrested if found within city limits. Just because their only crime is not having a piece of paper doesn’t mean that the crime isn’t serious to the local authorities – the same local authorities who’ve never seen this visitor before, who don’t know what his intentions are, who are pledged to keep the peace, who are responsible for local protection, and who are charged with punishing criminals.

Another side of the story is that of the Lord vs. the adventurers. In the RMW, the difference in fighting skills between an outlaw and a guard rarely favored the outlaw. In the FMW, the PCs soon reach much higher levels that the local militia just won’t achieve, and therefore the PC’s have more hit points, a better chance to hit, etc. The Lord might have introduced a weapon permit law just to give his men a chance against the better trained adventurers. An unarmed (and possibly unarmored) fighter of 5th-level is in serious trouble when facing a dozen or even a half-dozen city guardsmen with swords and halberds. From the ruler’s point of view, divesting PCs of their arms, or at least restricting their ability to engage in combat within city limits, is simply a smart way to help keep the peace. After all, if the PCs have good intentions, they won’t be bothered by such laws; if they have a desire to cause trouble, though, the lack of weapons and armor is a helpful deterrent. At the very least, characters who balk at such restrictions will cause some alarm and raise suspicions amongst the authorities (“If that visitor has no bad intentions – as he told me – why does he still wear his armor and why is he so obsessed with keeping his arms with him?”).

Earlier, I wrote that the guards issue passes, indicating that visitors have lawfully entered town and weapons are registered. Of course, some wily PCs will spend their entire time in a city telling the guards that they are just on their way to register the weapon. To prevent this, gate guards might peace-bond weapons with cord and wax upon entry into town (this is done the Kingdom of Cormyr, described in the Forgotten Realms box set). Peace-bonding means that a piece of cordage is wrapped around the sword’s hilt where it meets the scabbard; these are tied together with a knot, which is then wax-sealed. With one or two jerks, one can tug the sword out of the scabbard, but the knot is untied and the seal is broken. Each time the PCs are encountered in a settlement without peace-bonded weapons or a broken wax-seal, they’ll have to explain to the questioners why this is the case (in the Cormyr description, there is a rule stating that an inhabitant of Cormyr had to confirm the PC’s story; i.e., there had to be a local witness so the PCs couldn’t lie their way out of it having broken the peace-bonds).

While this may seem restrictive to the PCs, the peace-bonding of weapons is done to ensure the safety of the settlement. It is a way for the settlement to “control” (as in damage control) those with arms but under no control from a rulership. It’s a rule to make the citizens feel more at ease. Both Erin and I think that it’s not a rare thing in both the FMW and the RMW that adventurers are viewed with suspicion and therefore represent possible threats to both local authorities and citizens. The problem stays the same: the adventurer’s loyalty is unknown and he’s armed. Given the odd niche occupied by adventurers, one might ask how adventurers fit in to the grand scheme?

In a nutshell, they don’t. At least not in the historical sense. Most freemen in the RMW were craftsmen, merchants, etc. who consequently did not need to arm themselves. Reasons: they practiced their crafts or sold their wares in settled areas where a town watch or city guard was employed to ensure safety. In a worst case scenario they could always fall back on the power of their Guild to offer protection. Secondly, a craftsman needs to learn his craft, and swinging a sword in the practice yard took time, money, and effort away from his trade.

Most characters in the campaign would be considered freemen, too. But they are freemen in a class of their own. Adventurers lack the protections enjoyed by the craftsmen, merchants, and common citizens of any given settlement. They’re not craftsmen, so they have no guild protection. They’re not bonded, and without owing anyone a feudal obligation, they can expect no feudal protections. Most adventurers are not members of the noble class, so the protections typically provided to rulers do not apply. Finally, adventurers, by definition, are itinerant, so they lack the protection of a safe and comforting settlement. In all, most denizens of the FMW would be wise to view adventurers as outlaws who haven’t necessarily done anything wrong… yet.

Maybe there are places within the county / kingdom that don’t require permits, peace-bonding, or passes. If so, such locales have reputations as dangerous and lawless places. This could be the case especially if it’s the only settlement in the region where such laws are relaxed. For example, consider the Nordic settlement featured in the movie The Thirteenth Warrior. This village was a farming community, sure, but everyone within was capable of taking up arms to participate in the common defense against the quite regular attacks from a group of barbarians. No peace-bonding or weapon permits to be found, but who would the characters want to live in a place that, every morning, runs the risk of being nothing more than a smoldering pincushion?

Any rule regarding weapon permits should not be used, in our opinion, as an effort to bilk the PCs out of some cash in a campaign, or to annoy them with needling details, or even to render them particular vulnerable. Instead, the rule should manifest as yet another law of the campaign setting, to be followed or ignored at the PCs’ leisure. If its use makes sense amid a dangerous world of monsters, illusions, and evil beings, then assume as a DM that civilized settlements and the authorities who run them would enforce such restrictions, just to make life a little safer.

A last piece of advice: introduce this rule as early as possible in you campaign, the earlier the better. If you are playing with a group for awhile, but never applied this rule to previous campaigns, BE CAREFUL!!! It’s likely that your players will whine and complain that their freedom has been reduced. If this happens, decide for yourself if they’re questioning your judgment to introduce this rule because of its effect on the campaign, or because they think they’re being treated unfairly. If it’s the latter, then maybe it isn’t their style of play. If it’s the former, then you and the players should discuss what sort of campaign you want to run. In both cases it’s important to reach a consensus in which both the DM and the Players agree about the campaign’s direction, and if people aren’t having fun, they’re missing the point of the game.

Comments

  1. Jeremy says

    I’d also consider giving Guilds and other major non-governmental institutions the power to grant such permits to adventurers. Now if the PCs get into trouble, they have to answer to not only the city watch/guards, but also to their own (now angry) patrons!

    Such a ‘permit’ could also come in the form of a recognized guild banner, carried around by the party’s spear-wielding dude, or perhaps armbands worn by each member. Now everyone knows who’s responsible for these frightening looking ruffians.

    Finally, a member of the watch or guild may be assigned to follow the PCs around, to keep a close eye on the potential troublemakers. Whether or not the party tries to ditch or confront their playground monitors all depends on their motives…

  2. says

    Ralf,

    Great to see this shared out. Biased that I am ;) I think this is a great way to inject some realism into a campaign, as well as keep characters on the beam. It just makes sense.

    At the risk of self-promotion, one of the by-products of our discussion was a quick primer on Feudalism I wrote a few years later. For those with a mind toward low-fantasy campaigns, I offer it here: Feudalism 101.

    Thanks again, Ralf.

  3. says

    Hey Erin! Great to hear from you.

    RPT readers – click on Erin’s link. That’s an informative article of Feudalism. Great stuff.