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© 1998-2001 Dru
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Trial by oath
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 second in a series, addresses the
use of oath-taking as an alternative justice system.
Cultures that place
a high value on the individual and on honor, and that believe strongly
that some greater power (deities, fate, etc.) arbitrates justice in the
universe, may consider a person's sworn oath sufficient to clear him or
her of criminal charges. Such cultures are likely to take their religion
extremely seriously and have firm beliefs in right and wrong. Oaths in
these cultures might be backed by merit, character witnesses, or sacred
by Merit: Cultures with a belief in divine right may permit certain
prominent members to rebut an accusation with a simple oath that the accusation
is false. Such members of society would be considered so honest, so meritorious,
that their word is unassailable. Historically, these have been leaders
such as kings or chieftains, high priests or shamans. Often they would
be taking their oath before witnesses of similar or only slightly less
rank—the disgruntled aristocracy or an ecclesiastical court.
Cultures might also
extend this privilege to other individuals, depending on the culture's
values. For example, some cultures might permit a pregnant woman to take
such an oath, believing that she could not lie with her unborn child's
life in the balance, or that her child, in its innocence, would not permit
her to lie.
by Character Witnesses: Another type of oath is one in which
the accused is backed by witnesses who will swear to the accused's good
In this type of oath,
the accused must round up a number of witnesses that would vary according
to the gravity of the crime—the more heinous the crime, the more
witnesses required (perhaps as few as three or as many as 300). The number
could also vary according to the status of the accuser—it might
take more witnesses to refute the accusation of a king than of a commoner.
Moreover, the judge could determine what kinds of witnesses must be gathered—often
they would be peers of the accused. People of lower rank might only count
as a half a witness, whereas people of higher rank might count as two
or more witnesses. Sometimes they might be required to be kinfolk, especially
in cultures where family is highly valued and kinfolk share in each others'
successes or failures. Certainly they would be required to be people of
good character, and the judge might weed out those witnesses considered
The witnesses would
not be required to testify about the facts of the crime, but only about
the accused person's character and trustworthiness.
This type of oath may be combined with the first (if the accused finds
a person of merit to swear to his or her innocence) or the third (if the
witnesses are all required to make their oaths on some sacred artifact).
by Sacred Artifact: If a culture believes that certain places
or objects are sanctified to a power capable of judging a person's truthfulness,
then taking an oath in that place or on that object may be sufficient
to prove one's honesty. If the oath is false, the power in question will
strike the oathtaker down or otherwise provide proof that the person is
lying. A similar version of this is to require the oathtaker to swear
on something not supernaturally but personally sacred, such as his or
her family name, business tools, mother's grave, and so forth, in the
belief that such items (family, business, ghosts) would turn on any person
taking a false oath.
Sometimes making such
an oath may require traveling to the holy place or artifact, in which
case the plaintiff, the accused, and a number of guards and witnesses
may travel with the accused.
Cultures may also require
the oath-taker to swear on a variety of artifacts, the number increasing
according to the gravity of the crime. Thus
a person might have to swear his or her innocence on four altars ... or
twelve ... travelling from place to place with guards and witnesses in
what would undoubtedly become quite a spectacle. In a pantheistic society,
a serious crime might require taking an oath of innocence in the temple
of each deity in the pantheon.
Cultures that carry
out trials by oath are likely to be smaller and closer-knit that most
modern first-world Earth cultures; they would need to be tightly bound
by beliefs in merit, character, family, and religion. However,
GMs shouldn't be afraid to graft this justice system onto advanced societies.
A spacefaring race that places more emphasis on honor than on material
wealth might find that an oathtaking justice system works quite well;
and if it's not perfect, well, what justice system is? In many other ways,
the race might find that relying on a system based on honor and trust
maintains the social fabric better than relying on a system based on fact
and suspicion. The canny GM, of course, will make sure these systems clash,
with characters raised in one faced with a criminal trial in the other.
originally written December 19, 1998
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