Law, Crime & Punishment in Fantasy Role Playing Games

From Brennan O’Brien

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0041

A Brief Word From Johnn

A couple of quick words about Brennan O’Brien’s excellent article “Law, Crime & Punishment in Fantasy Role Playing Games.”

First, don’t let the title fool ya. I think the information is great for GMs of all systems & genres–not just FRPGs. Sci-fi, modern & cyberpunk games all have primitive cultures which need laws. And, modern and future laws often have their roots in earlier, simpler times so you can use the info to form a core for more complex law systems.

Second, I try to avoid including game mechanics in articles because you all play so many different games. But Brennan has come up with a nice and simple generic mechanic which you should be able to use without hassle. If the nicely spaced tables don’t come through very well, I’ll be formatting them in a web page by midweek and putting it up at the site.

On another note, I’ve been reading through the new D&D 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and thought I would pass along a good tip that I just came across last night:

Photocopy your maps. Use the copies to write notes on how the area changes (i.e. the PCs break down a wall), or to write helpful reminders to yourself (i.e. using highlighters, colour-code the map by inhabitant type).

There are lots of other things you can do with photocopies of your maps but you get the general idea…


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Law exists to maintain a social structure. Without law, there is anarchy. Anarchy tends to lead to social failure, because a society cannot successfully marshal its capability against threats.

  • Law Is Based On Custom & ReligionIn general, Law is based on Custom and Religion. Custom and Religion define for each society what is “right” and what is “wrong”. Obviously, these factors vary tremendously between various cultures, and the crimes of your society should reflect the normative behavior based on what you view the customs and religious beliefs are that dominate your society. At the core, however, most societies have between 3-10 significant “thou shalt not” rules governing social behavior.
  • The Basic Rules Of LawIn general, these rules resemble the following:
    • Do not kill people.
    • Do not speak a lie about your neighbors.
    • Do not steal or destroy the possessions of others.
    • Do not have sex with some society defined group (varies by society and custom).
    • Do not challenge the rule of law/authority (typically seen in older societies).
    • Do not commit heresy against the predominant religion of the society (varies by religion).
    These tend to form the basis of criminal law for a society. Most of the laws that we have on the books today can, in some way, trace their origins back to one of these six key laws. These, then, can be considered “felonies” for most societies. Punishment for committing a felony in most early medieval societies tends to focus around retributive action. For example, killing someone tends to result in the offender being killed. Stealing tends to result in some sort of physical deformation.
  • How Social Status & Circumstance Affect PunishmentTwo elements strongly influence the application of punishment to the crime. The first element is the level of relative social stratification between the “criminal” and the “victim”. A noble killing a slave, from a society perspective, is a lot less “bad” than a slave killing a noble. Secondly, the number of factors which aggravate or mitigate the commission of the crime itself influences the punishment of the crime. This second class of factors, though, does not supersede the first set — that is, even if you’re defending your own life (a mitigating factor), killing a noble if you’re a slave probably won’t save your life.
  • The 4 Steps For Creating Your Own Crime & Punishment System
    1. Determine the society’s crime categories and assign Punishment Levels
    2. Assign effects of social class as modifiers to Punishment Levels
    3. Assign effects of circumstance as modifiers to Punishment Levels
    4. Determine punishments for Punishment Level
  • A Sample Crime & Punishment SystemThe following generic mechanics can be used to address crime and punishment in your own campaigns. Obviously, change whatever necessary to adapt to your own environment. Each of the major crimes has a generic “punishment” level. Remember these are just examples, and can serve in a pinch – but you’ll probably want something a bit more tailored to your campaign world.
Crimes of Example Society X
Killing People is Outlawed Punishment Level 11
Stealing/Vandalism is Outlawed Punishment Level 9
Treason, Sedition and speaking against the Government is Outlawed Punishment Level 7
Assaulting A Guard or Soldier is Outlawed Punishment Level 5
Effects of Social Class and Reputation on Crimes of Society X
Slave/Outcast commits crime against Commoner +1 Punishment Level
Slave/Outcast commits crime against Noble +3 Punishment Level
Slave/Outcast commits crime against Society +5 Punishment Level
Commoner commits crime against Slave -1 Punishment Level
Commoner commits crime against Noble +2 Punishment Level
Commoner commits crime against Society +3 Punishment Level
Noble commits crime against Slave  -3 Punishment Level
Noble commits crime against Commoner -2 Punishment Level
Noble commits crime against Society +1 Punishment Level
Criminal has an awful reputation +2 Punishment Level
Criminal has a poor reputation +1 Punishment Level
Criminal has a neutral reputation +0 Punishment Level
Criminal has a positive reputation -2 Punishment Level
Criminal has an exemplary reputation -4 Punishment Level
Victim has an awful reputation -2 Punishment Level
Victim has a poor reputation -1 Punishment Level
Victim has a neutral reputation +0 Punishment Level
Victim has a positive reputation +1 Punishment Level
Victim has an exemplary reputation +3 Punishment Level
Effects of Circumstance on Crimes of Society X
For each aggravation making the crime worse +2 Punishment Level
For each mitigation which lessens the crime -1 Punishment Level
Generic Punishments
Execution of Criminal, their Family and their Associates and Friends Level 13
Execution of Criminal and their Family Level 12
Execution of Criminal Level 11
Massive Deformation (Leg, Arm, Tongue, Eyes removed) Level 10
Major Deformation (Hand, Foot, Sex organs, Single eye removed) Level 9
Minor Deformation (finger, teeth removed) Level 8
Extended Imprisonment (Tens of Years) Level 7
Imprisonment (Several Years) Level 6
Short Imprisonment (Number of Months) Level 5
Significant Fine (Several Decades of Average Earnings) Level 4
Fine (Several Years of Average Earnings) Level 3
Minor Fine (Several Months of Average Earnings) Level 2
Crime Overlooked Level 1
  • Applying the ExampleLet’s say Frederick, a Nobleman with an exemplary reputation in Society X, kills a social outcast with a poor reputation. He can demonstrate that it was self defense (a mitigating factor).In Society X, killing is a punishment level 11. The act, though, was committed by a Noble against an Outcast, reducing the level by 3. The victim had a poor reputation, reducing the punishment by another 1 level, and the Noble has an exemplary reputation reducing the punishment by another 4 levels. The mitigating factor further reduces the punishment by one level.The final punishment, then, is (11-3-1-4-1 =) 2. Frederick must pay a fine to the society/government amounting to several months of funds.
  • Expanding This SystemOther elements can easily be added to this system, such as the effect of magical spells, reaction modifiers, representation by counsel, or whatever catches your fancy. The key element to defining crime and punishment in your fantasy world is understanding what major activities constitute crimes. Identifying and differentiating these elements from each of the various cultures in your game world can add tremendous depth to your campaigns because the laws can be sketched out based on what you already know about your various cultures. In other words, a great bang- for-the-buck in terms of increasing the depth of your campaign without costing you a lot of time.Copyleft ? Brennan O’Brien  [email protected]
    Details on copyleft can be found at:
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Tips Request

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Figure Storage Tips

From Ralf Tschulena


I was reading your article “Never Forget Your Dice Again” in Roleplaying Tips Weekly #19. I use an old computer game paper box. I lay a precisely cut foam mat in the underside, a second mat in the lid. Then I get my Miniatures in the box, lay a third mat over this, close the lid and use a rubber band to hold it closed. The rubber band presses the mat together, and the figures are held securely inside. This doesn’t work for figures with arms or wings that stretch out from the miniature (especially all glued things). But most figures are relatively 2-dimensional, and this works fine.

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From Mike

I use a fishing tackle box to carry my figures. It has about 4 individual plastic boxes (drawers in the tackle box) subdivided into smaller sections.

I’ve cut up an old wool army blanket and hotglued it inside each of the individual sections, and another piece to the lid, so that a figure has four sides, top and bottom of padded (no chipping) wool.

For some of the odd shaped figures that don’t seem to fit… a drider, an ettin, etc… I’ve sectioned off a portion of the large top compartment and carefully cut up a large block of foam with an exacto knife so that the odd shaped figure fits in snugly, and topped it with another piece of foam for a lid.

I can take out individual drawers and take just a portion of the figures that I’ll need for the upcoming session, or if playing at my place, just drag out all three tackle boxes to provide the maximum amount of figures. When all else fails, we end up with each player having their own figures and using M&M’s or gummy bears for the critters.