Fantasy Legal Procedure

So I’ve been thinking about running courtroom drama in fantasy games again, and I simply can’t respect anything that involves a skill or stat check. I’ve decided to go with the following system of proofs based distantly on some forms of medieval jurisprudence. The courts should be weird and impersonal, utterly incomprehensible to laymen and tend toward cruelty - at least that’s my take. Obviously there are all sorts of weird trials by ordeal and combat in any proper fantasy game, but if someone decides they need a lawyer and manages to get a fair trial I’ve concocted the following for criminal trials (fantasy civil trials I think need to be settled by judicial champions fighting mounted on pigs and armed with cudgels - to either encourage or discourage players from getting into contract disputes, also as a job opportunity).

In a Trial by Proof a Full Proof will convict the party of the offense. A Full Proof can made up of two Half Proofs and one of these Half Proofs in turn can be made of two Partial Proofs.

Full Proof:
Uncoerced Confession
Witness Testimony of Priest, Deity, Noble or Cat

½ Proof:
Witness Testimony by Commoner
Coerced Confession
High Magical Evidence or Spectral Witnesses (Requires pomp and flash)
Dying Declaration of Victim

Partial Proof:
Coerced Testimony
Circumstantial, Character or Documentary Evidence
Low Magical Evidence (Shown by testimony)
Hearsay Witness (Witness is testifying to past statements of others)

I like this system because it gives players something to do (run around finding evidence and witnesses) rather then reducing the trial to having to make up a functioning fantasy set of laws (really impossible) or roll a lot of dice.

I’m curious if anyone has any other Partial or 1/2 Proofs that might be especially intriguing and hookish - as general categories not specifics to a particular case or crime.

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I can understand your reluctance to use skill checks but personally I would allow the characters to attempt a single syllogistic or theological argument in court. Then (after appropriate roleplaying) roll 1d6, optionally modified by +1 or -1 based on the quality of the argument and/or DM fiat:

6 or more    1/2 proof in favor of PCs
5            partial proof in favor of PCs
4            inconclusive, judges sympathetic
3            inconclusive, judges annoyed
2            partial proof against PCs
1 or less    1/2 proof against PCs

I would probably not show the players the table, the roll, or the modifiers.

EDIT: Ideally the players would commit to this after gathering other evidence and preparing for a trial – they would resort to arguments if they weren’t able to get enough proof otherwise (or there was too much proof against them). The DM might say that an argument can sway the court up to half a proof in one direction or the other, but that arguments are difficult to make and unpredictable.

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There should also be opportunities to gerrymander/impede court affairs if a player has legal/courtly/administrative skills to give their allies more time to gather evidence or increase the effective level of evidence they have/decrease the effective level of their opponent’s evidence.

The proposed system also feels devoid of any counterplay, there should be some kind of conversion ratio by which different levels of evidence can be used to counter or reject opponent’s evidence.

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This is great, reminds me of the archives in FaTT, they had to run around doing things like “make the library smile”, which is a vague enough directive that finding out exactly how they did it was interesting.

The PCs knowing they can get a coerced confession or some kind of magic evidence and it will weigh equally means every party should have a way to do it.

Past convictions (court records) or evidence of same in another jurisdiction (the brand of a thief on the hand, the brand of a deserter on the face, a missing ear or nose) should be half proof.

Astrological or magical conjunction between the accused and the crime should count as partial proof.

The standard of guilt for particularly heinous crimes should be lowered by half a proof.

Nobles and cats should automatically have their standard of guilt raised by half a proof. Priests are obviously tried in ecclesiastical court.

Positive character witnesses and documentary evidence can also counter partial proof.

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So one of the things I very much want to accomplish, and likely didn’t make entirely clear, is to emphasize the opacity and cruelty of the legal system. In trial practice it’s a terrible idea to launch into moralizing solioquies, especially if one is in propia persona. This is even worse in the sort of deeply conservative society that most fantasy TTRPGs model - that quote about “a group that law protects but doesn’t bind, and another that it binds but doesn’t protect” is even more true in such systems. Not paying your local advocates and going alone simply means loss. Your eloquence turned into an admission. I’d be tempted to add a series of secret objections/evidentiary rules so stuff is thrown out and the players need to scramble - but that also feels like added complexity.

From a mechanical/design perspective I really, really want to avoid having to invent fantasy statute, and the moment courtroom arguments are made that starts to become necessary. Same with evidentiary procedure. Simple stuff like ‘contradictory witnesses cancel eachother out’ maybe, but anything more complex and one will start needing the Evidence Code and Code of Civil Procedures for Greyhawke or whatever.

Obviously the system here is designed to convict. Torture out a confession and suborn a witness, or offer an accomplice freedom for testimony and it’s done. The goal of the defense being to prevent/counter these things, and the goal of the PCs (who presumably lack access to judicial torturer) is to find exculpatory evidence, frame the innocent, bribe or otherwise wrangle false witnesses etc. The system is for creating extra-judicial complications.

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I like this system a lot but I’ve got to agree with @Radmad - there has to be some sort of counterplay. If you want to keep it lethal use the same set of proofs as counters but make it impossible to accumulate good faith to exonerate a character. Here’s a bunch of examples.

Example 1

  1. Paul the Priest testifies that John killed Mary.
    That’s bad for John but then…
  2. Nate shows up and confessed to kill Mary.
    Both proofs are of equal level so another proof is needed for John to be convicted.

Example 2

  1. John was tortured and confessed to kill Mary (1/2 proof).
  2. Mary’s last words were “Why, John, why?”
    This would seal the deal for John but wait! there’s a witness.
  3. Bob the Builder claims that he saw a toll blonde guy killing Mary yet John is short and bald.
    This counters one of the half-proofs so it’s up to the court to find another one to convict him.

Example 3

  1. John was tortured and confessed to kill Mary (1/2 proof).
    Suddenly, there’s a witness.
  2. Paul the Priest testifies that it was Nate who killed Mary.
    This counts as a full proof against coerced confession so it’s enough to strike this one out but then:
  3. Mary’s last words were “Why, John, why?”
    This puts John at half-proof since you can’t use priest’s testimony to build up negative points.

Even if order of events in example 3 were different (1-3-2) Paul would still pull this back to 1/2 proof. To make it more lethal you can demand proof of higher tier to strike something out, but that would make full proofs impossible to counter.

@Jmstar has a nice addition to your list: past convictions or records. You may very well end up with John at 1/2 proof which essentially is unresolved case. This would count against him the next time he’s brought to court - whether charge is related or not. If one can never reuse proofs or counter-proofs from previous cases, existing record is basically a starting penalty.

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Yes that would be the contradictory and cancelling proofs mentioned. History and past convictions fall into character evidence, perhaps I should have been more clear on that. Though past convictions in early pre-modern law (where this is adapted from – the era of the glossitors, roughly 1100 - 1400) were rarely a factor given both the frequent lethality of punishment (gaol fever and starvation as well as execution) and difficulty in making identification without photography.

One of the fascinating things about Vidocq, and one of the ways the 18th century detective & policing starts to appear is when he started keeping a record of descriptions of criminals as well as names.

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So one thing that’s worth realizing is that European courts between, say 950 and 1250 weren’t particularly systematic (the timeline is sliding, and it depends exactly where in Europe you were, but that range is roughly right). There’s no real distinction between civil and criminal law, and dispute resolution was largely handled through mediated negotiation rather than handed down by a judge. Many courts didn’t have strong enforcement mechanisms. (The glossators on Justianan’s code and digest, who @Gus.L is referring to, were primarily learned law commentators. Their ideas did make it into legal practice, but not really until the end of the 13th century, and not robustly until the mid-late 14th century, as states gained more power, with their courts along side them).

Obviously, it depends on exactly what kind of fantasy world you want your gaming to take place in, and what the role of government, policing and courts is in that world, but I like this histoical model because it’s very gamable. It turns a court procedure into a common sense negotiation, where you need to balance the power of the court, the power of your opponent, and plausible argumentation, but you don’t need to really create any new game procedures or tools. You can roll persuasion checks, or a series of linked tests, or whatever persuasion mechanisms your game has if the conditions for that are met, or you can just role play it out, if that’s what you want. It’s not going to work for a world where there are robust legal procedures and enforcement, but if you’re playing in a world where politics roughly match the high middle ages (and a lot of fantasy roleplaying games do), I think it works pretty well.

For later periods I don’t necessarily have good ideas right now, but what I’d do is take a look at late medieval and early modern trial records, rather than laws. They’re very robust, rarely reference legislation, and give you a good sense of how trials proceeded. I think they’re a good place to start in terms of thinking about how proof and argument looked. They’re also often loads of fun to read.

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My take is to use it for the Opium Fantasy of something like Ultan’s Doors. I previously (long ago) wrote up and used a more complex litigation system for Anomolous Subsurface Environment’s acid scifantasy which made lawyers fight via combat mechanics with each round being a session long cycle of law and motion culminating in trial, and one of the key rules there (which made 3 of my players who were attorneys annoyed) was that it was a crime for non-lawyers to possess books of code or profess knowledge of it.

The point of this and the Trial by Proof system is that I don’t think one can do justice to the complexities of a contemporary or even early modern legal system. The process and underpinning are so complex as to be virtually ungamable in a meaningful way, and certainly as a subsystem. Furthermore I feel compelled to recognize that legal professionals have expertise, which a gang of heroes or dungeon hobos cannot. I want a system where you can’t CHR test your way out of a conviction.

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A ghost’s testimony should be a full proof ( like Roshomon)
Other than that I don’t have anything useful to add that someone else didn’t say better but I just ask that if you do refine this and put in on a PDF or something keep us posted!
I’m already going to use this in my next session mostly as is.

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This is great. A pretty inspired idea!

I agree with some of the commenters who are saying that the whole thing seems a little too pedestrian or mathematical, with no counterplay… there’s fairly little mystery or uncertainty in the process when we know that Proof A + Proof B guarantees us a conviction.

I would want to pair this with some kind of unreliable resource. That could be a roll or similar random/semirandom process injected into the proceedings somewhere. For instance, when you submit evidence to the court, the GM tells you whether to draw one (partial proof), two (half proof), or three (full proof) cards from a deck, and place them face down on the table. When the trial reaches its conclusion and the judge or jury deliberates on the outcome, we flip over the cards and see what we get. (However, I can see the appeal to keeping all randomness out of the process, too.)

Another idea is to prep “traps” into the procedure. For example, the judge has an ongoing feud with Family X in the town. Any proof brought forward by that family counts against the desired verdict, out of pure spite (or because the judge believes that person or that family to be a liar). Or maybe the jury is biased against supernatural evidence, because there is a known illusionist or necromancer on the loose, and they are distrustful. In this trial, supernatural evidence counts against them, too. On the other hand, in the next town over, the judge believes ghosts are God’s messengers, so supernatural evidence counts double. Things like that, that the PCs could discover with investigation, or risk attempting anyway.

A final idea is using special privilege for leverage. For example, is there a book of secret knowledge only available to a certain caste in society? Then simply being able to recite a verse from that book could count as half proof, since it shows your connection to powerful people (and is associated with virtue in public view).

Similarly, the word of nobles or wealthy patrons could be unusually potent. You have this already in the list, with the “Noble” witness testimony, but perhaps it could be generalized that the opinion or stance of any noble simply upgrades the value of a piece of evidence? For instance, Circumstantial Evidence provided by a local noble counts as half proof (instead of partial proof), because no one wants to piss off an important local person!

Finally, what about bribes? Might that be a point in the process where a Cha check or something would be warranted, since it’s an uncertain act with an unknown outcome and great potential danger?

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This is a really interesting idea but…after considering this off and on for a couple days, I think for playability sake, I would like to suggest an alternate method of tracking completion.

What if the court case is treated as a threat clock, where each tick of the clock is evidence or arguments presented (perhaps doctored) against the client / PC. At 12, the client / PC is convicted. The clock would start at 6 or 9 (2 or 3 ticks out of 6). Meanwhile, if the party can provide evidence that is admitted, then they can push back the clock a tick.

Assuming PbtA, with each roll of a 6- (in PbtA), the conviction clock gets another tick. If not PbtA, perhaps each day / week the party do not find evidence, the conviction clock gets another tick. If the players can get the clock back to 0, the accused goes free.

Your list of evidence could still apply. Any thoughts?

Two “clocks” or countdowns, both increasing, would be much more dramatic and tense, I think.

So…one for conviction and one for not guilty? And it goes as a race then?

Is my read correct that this is a system where if PCs are willing to torture 3 or 4 people they’ll always win?

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Deckard,

This isn’t a complete sub-system, just a basis for evidentary burdens and a framework for a fantasy legal system aimed at allowing criminal court cases to be resolved quickly without an appeal to skill mechanics or too much complexity. In a sense it’s not presented as a mechanic at all - It’s part of the fiction. It’s not that the game requires X level of proof as a means of establishing mechanical effect, it’s that the setting itself ises the system.

Obviously clocks or other timekeeping mechanics would be useful for setting deadlines. My own impulse would be simple - “you have X sessions before trial”. I’ve intentionally left out stuff like bribes and jailbreaks because they are beyond the scope of a courtroom/trial procedure or would be unlikely to be codified in the setting’s codes. Again my own impulse would be not to turn extralegal intervention into a mechanic, but to make it a sort of hook. Can the party find and bribe the right party? Can you pay off or intimidate witnesses? Can you collect evidence?

Jimlikesgames,

The use of judicial torture is unlikely to be an option to characters, at least in games I would run. It tends to be something available to authority figures: prosecutors, inquisitors and such. Horrifically there was a provision in Roman law that said slave testimony could only be taken publically under a very specific type of in court torture - as slaves were too easily coerced by thier masters to testify otherwise (at least if I remember correctly from undergrad). You do notice an important element of this system though… it’s rigged by brutality for conviction.

In game terms I find this an advantage because it encourages players towards entanglement in extralegal schemes, and schemes are the lifeblood of adventure.

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