| Back to RPG Index
|| © 1998-2001 Dru
All rights reserved.
Most GMs who develop laws for their campaigns
model their justice system after modern bureaucratic forms, with a sense
that crime is an offense against society and individual, and often with
a system for trial by one's peers that includes a presentation of evidence
and logical forms of argument. In a game system that takes place in modern
Earth, that's fine ... but in fantasy campaigns or campaigns that involve
nonhuman races or other worlds, why assume that all law has evolved the
same way? This essay, the last in a five-part series, addresses trial
Trial by combat is similar in many ways to
trial by ordeal. Much like trial by ordeal, trial by combat will be required
when a person's guilt or innocence is not self-evident. It also relies
on a cultural belief in some sort of deity or fate that will intervene
to bring victory to the innocent party. Unlike trial by ordeal, trial
by combat always involves both the accuser and the accused, or their respective
Trial by combat will be found in a warrior's
society, a society that values individual merit over the collectivity
and that values prowess in battle as a social skill. It may be an option
open only to a privileged elite (probably some sort of aristocratic warrior
caste) or to anybody in society (in which case a system of choosing champions
will probably be in effect).
Trial by combat is one of the most entertaining
scenarios for a roleplaying game because it boils down to something most
player characters do best—fight. This, then, more than the other
forms of justice detailed in this series of essays, is the most likely
to show up in your campaign.
The Challenge: First the
challenge must be made and accepted. Depending on the society, this may
be as informal as throwing a gauntlet down on the tavern floor before
one's opponent, or as formal as declaring the intent to duel before some
sort of board of combat, choosing seconds, and making a number of ritual
decisions regarding time, place, weapon, and so forth. If a formal system
of regulating trial by combat is in effect, then there may be an involved
set of laws regulating combat terms, all of which can open entertaining
roleplaying possibilities as the PC struggles to fulfill them all before
s/he gets a chance to cross blades with his or her nemesis.
The society must also have standards regarding
when (if ever) a challenge to trial by combat can be refused. There are
numerous extenuating circumstances that could lead a person to refuse
such a challenge, from sheer cowardice to being pregnant to simply being
a president who refuses to dignify a challenge from a cabbie with a reply.
The GM must consider the options before starting down this roleplaying
path. One thing is worth note, however. In a society with rules for trial
by combat, it's very likely that any killing outside of these rules will
be considered murder. Systems of authority rarely like to be ignored!
The Champions: In some societies,
combat must be resolved between the accuser and the accused, and no others.
In other societies, champions may fight for accused, accuser, or both.
Historically, champions have been permitted to women, priests, or the
elderly, but champions could be permitted to any type of person, if the
society permits it. In some cases, choice of weapon may determine whether
or not a champion is employed. For example, in AD&D it would hardly
be fair to force a magic-user to cross swords with a fighter, or a fighter
to match spells with a magic-user. In those cases, it makes sense that
the mage or fighter hire a champion to do his or her fighting, instead.
Champions might be swords-for-hire (in which
case it would make an interesting sideline of work for your player characters),
or the law might require that they be related to the accused—a spouse,
a sibling, a parent or a child, perhaps. Choosing a champion—or
being asked to be someone's champion—also offers some interesting
The Nature of the Combat:
Trial by combat can involve individuals or armies, technology or magic.
In many wars, each side, even if believing in a different deity (or pantheon),
will believe that "the just shall prevail."
Typically, this sort of trial will be formal
enough that there will be some sort of rules in effect, even if they are
just the rules of chivalry. Even in a tavern brawl acknowledged as a low-class
form of trial by combat, one can assume that using poison or illegal weaponry
would be frowned on by the onlookers and thought of as "cheating"
justice. (This doesn't have to be the case, of course; it just depends
on the overall mores of the group witnessing the fight. An assassin's
guild might have very loose rules about what is or isn't permitted in
Trial by combat does not necessarily mean
a duel to the death—combat to first blood or to any stage before
death could be deemed sufficient. Mercenary champions may insist that
their duels be to first blood or to incapacitation!
The Battlefield: If the duel
involves weapons that might harm bystanders—for example, guns, lasers,
or magic—there will probably be a rather large or specially protected
battlefield available to the combatants. In general, somebody must be
around to ensure fair play and to declare the outcome of the combat, so
at least one bystander is likely to be present (but protected) during
Defeat: There's little doubt
that the victor of the trial by combat is well-off—he or she leaves
the battlefield and goes home. But what about the loser? If the loser
is a champion, does the champion suffer the punishment attached to the
crime? Probably not. But what then happens to the person the champion
was representing? If that person was the accused, then one presumes that
he or she then faces the legal repercussions of the crime s/he was accused
of. But if that person was the accuser, is there any punishment? A fine
of some sort paid to the wrongfully accused seems to be the very least
that can be levied on a defeated accuser!
Trial by combat offers a number of roleplaying
opportunities for your players. Characters may find themselves the accused
in a duel they didn't want, or may find themselves asked to be somebody's
champion, or may need to find themselves a champion. They might need to
learn a new weapon ("A lightsabre?") or learn a new set of social
rules ("First, you must make a pilgrimage to the temple and there
make sacrifice to the gods to purify yourself...."). The combat itself,
of course, will be the most interesting part of this scenario—especially
if one of the parties decides to cheat, or if the combat gets interrupted
by a mutual enemy who leads accused and accuser to fight side-by-side
against their common threat!
originally written January 16, 1999
Back to top of page