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Fantasy Worldbuilding: Law

Posted by Zumbs on April 28, 2014

When people live together, sometimes serious problems arise, that is, someone has been wronged and want some sort of satisfaction. In small groups these could be solved on a case by case basis. It is not difficult to imagine that over time, the body of earlier solutions gave rise to a tradition of how to solve these problems. With the spread of writing, these traditions became codified onto law.

However, law is not necessarily about justice. It is a tool to an end. When wielded by the powerful, law is used to keep their advantages. Commoners can get better rights, but they have to fight to get and keep them. This fight is very dynamic, but the trajectory is usually to the advantage of one group. Conquerors may also use laws to break the conquered.

Law is tightly coupled with the ruling elite: They write the law to maintain their privileges. Note that different ruling groups may have different interests, which can have a profound effect on the law. An example could be the relationship between the king, the nobility, the religions and the magicians. Even in an autocratic monarchy, the king still has to consider the implications of making an enemy of the other powerful players. On top of that, the ruling groups may have further subdivisions. Two or more religious orders may fight for dominance (e.g. the New Gods and the Old Gods), and some members may have other interests, e.g. one group of nobles may want to be king whereas another wants to curtail royal power.

Often the law is defined by the ruling group, e.g. law in a theocracy may ban worship of other gods, but provide economic freedom, whereas an oligarchic council of high nobles may allow religious freedom, but ban free exchange of goods.

Settling legal twists

The most basic legal twist is that someone has been wronged and want satisfaction. Even with the most simple laws, people will still need some way to determine if an illegal activity has been committed and meter out compensation and/or punishment. The activities needed to go through the legal mechanisms will be called the legal framework in this post. Historically, the legal framework has changed many times and has had many different forms. It can be more or less codified and centralized.

Private and public law

Legal twists between individuals (or groups) are called private law. It is an individual that raises the case inside the legal framework against another individual. Classic examples are disagreements over contracts or torts. Public law regulates twists between government and individuals. Examples of public law could be treason or arson. Legal twists are raised either by individuals against the government or the other way around. Public law also implies that the government takes an interest into these cases and may investigate possible illegal activity. In private law, it is more often the parties that do the investigation, even though the government may require that the parties make relevant information available.

Which portions of the law are private or public depend very much on the society itself. Is there a government and how strong is it? And can an organization be a part in a legal twist, or will its members (or leaders) be responsible?

Might and right

In societies with a weak (or non-existent) central power, the notion of crime may not exist separately from the notion that someone has been wronged and want compensation. This means that if the wronged party is unable to claim compensation, e.g. due to being dead, no crime has been committed, unless someone else raises the case on behalf of the wronged party.

This is an advantage to the rich and powerful, as they can kill the weak and their family and take their land, and no one will lift a finger. If you ally with a lord, he or she may demand compensation. The lord would balance issues of making a competitor angry against making others sworn to him or her angry, as commoners may leave the service of a lord that does not protect them. However, the weak have little rights unless they have banded together to form some organization – which is likely to get a lot of enmity from the local lords.

In 11th century Iceland, they had an interesting alternative. As the wronged party, you could sell the right to demand compensation for the crime to a 3rd party who could pursue the case for you. While this holds some interesting prospects for role players it does not really solve the issue: What is to stop a powerful lord from threatening the wronged party into silence, or scare off a private investigator?

Without any central power metering out justice, your rights and safety is dependent on the might of your family, clan or ally and their ability and resolve in hunting down and punishing anyone doing wrong against you. If they do not, their group may be viewed as weak, leading to even more wrongs against the members of the group.

Sometimes the wronged party will meet with the wrongdoer to come to an agreement, with compensation to the wronged party. If an agreement cannot be reached, the result can be anything from ritualized combat to full-out war between the two parties. This blood feud can last very long, but can be ended by an agreement. There are often a lot of customs associated with blood feuds, as they tend to get out of hand, which is not to the advantage of either party.

Stateless law

We are extremely used to the idea of having a state as an integral part of our legal framework. However, it is possible to make a legal framework without a state. Traditional Somali Law (also called Xeer) is an example of this. Law is defined in terms of property, so settlements are intended to be compensate the wronged party rather than punishing the wrongdoer. As such, there is no law, just judges trying to figure out the best way to solve a dispute. Politicians and clergy are barred from interfering with the law or serving as judges.

The legal framework is based on clans, determined by paternal ancestry. When someone is wronged, he or she can contact his or her elder, who will gather the elders of the clans involved, investigate the case and hear the parties state their case. They can decide on a verdict, but the parties are not required to follow it (though their clans can try to force them). If this fails, the wronged party and clan are entitled to impose compensation by force. Clans are obligated to defend their kin, but not to attack their opponents, giving a strong incentive to find a settlement. If the wrongdoer is unable to pay the compensation, it is the responsibility of his or her family and clan to pay. Thus, it is in the best interest of the clan to make all their members behave, and may impose additional limitations on the freedom of the wrongdoer.

There are a number of issues with Xeer: Individual rights can be sacrificed for communal stability, women are not allowed to speak, travelers may find themselves with limited protection and it requires that the clans are reasonably even matched in terms of power.

Centralized law

As a society becomes more and more centralized, as does its legal framework. The place where one bring complaints, hear complaints and resolve the issues may be under government control. Judges, juries, investigators, advocates and so on may be public officials – or may not exist at all.

Magistrate law

In some societies, the local official representative of the state – the magistrate – took on the role of mayor, investigator, jury and judge. In case of legal twists, the wronged party could alert the magistrate (or a subordinate) of the situation. The magistrate could investigate, come to a conclusion and pass judgment. As can be seen, this magistrate had a lot of local power, and justice would depend on the diligence, honesty and wit of the magistrate.

In traditional China, such a system did exist. The power of the magistrate was somewhat curtailed by requiring that a sentence of a certain severity should be heard at a higher court, with death penalty requiring the approval of the Emperor. As no-one could be convicted of a crime that they had not confessed to committing, it was quite common to use torture against suspects to extract a confession. However, witnesses could also be subject to torture if the magistrate felt like it. Indeed, many people preferred to solve their disputes themselves as courts could be dangerous and painful for all involved.

Another feature of traditional Chinese law is the integration of class into punishments: Doing wrong against someone above you would increase your punishment, but if you did it against someone below you, it would reduce your punishment. If you were related to the Emperor, you could even escape punishment.

Divine law

At face value, divine law is written by a possibly singular God, and assumed to be as perfect and immutable as the divine writer. This can be true in your world, but the real world begs to differ. Writing law is hard, especially when you have to take changing conditions and the specific situation into account. Thus, both Islamic and Jewish law had provisions to resolve ambiguities. In Jewish law, the truth would be with the majority of the available scholars, whereas Islamic law accepted a good guess.

Even though the law is set and unchangeable, it is open to interpretation that can be very different from the written word. For instance, according to the Torah, a child that defies his or her parents must be punished by stoning. Not only is this rule extremely cruel, it could also doom a people to extinction given that most children at some point would defy their parents. Ancient Jewish scholars (and, presumably, regular Jews as well) held a similar view, and used a flimsy argument to avoid enforcing the rule. They argued that a child below the age of 13 could not be responsible, and that at the age of 13, the child could have reached sexual maturity and become a parent and, hence, no longer be a child.

Given that law is divine, one would also expect that the justice system would be independent of the state and controlled by legal scholars and the clergy. However, the legal scholars could also serve as advisers to the judges. The judge and the enforcers of judgments could be appointed and paid by the ruler, giving the ruler a hand in the application of the divine law.

Note that divine law can also contain moral codes, hygiene, diet, prayer, common courtesy, and other cultural traits.

Multiple legal systems

Some legal systems allow for multiple legal systems, co-existing in parallel. For instance, in Islamic law there are four schools of law, and in the Ottoman Empire different communities were allowed to police themselves.

As long as the legal twists involve members of the community itself, this system seems reasonably simple. But what happens if one of the parties want to use another court? Or if the twist is between different communities? Which court would be used? If one court comes to a decision, can it be “appealed” to another? As you see, this provides ample possibilities for intrigues.

Embedded law

A religious and/or ethnic minority may want to keep their own laws and customs in areas dominated by other religions or ethnic groups. Partly to maintain their own traditions, but also to keep their group together. In some instances they may be able to get special considerations from the law, e.g. the Amish in modern day USA.

It may also be possible to get the authorities to delegate its power to the communal authorities. An example is how Christian and Muslim rulers allowed Jewish communities to police themselves, provided they paid taxes and kept the peace. Naturally, it follows that the minority is no longer ruled by the same laws as the majority.

If rulers do not want to delegate their authority, the minority group is in a predicament. How can they maintain their group and culture without upsetting the people around them? One option is to build a very closely knit community with little contact to the outside world, making it difficult for members of the community to leave or even to live outside the community. This makes punishments of exile or partial exclusion a very powerful way to crush a misbehaving individual, and will usually not be illegal. One example of this is the Roma in modern day Europe.

Designing the legal framework

By now, it should be clear that creating the law and legal framework is hard. You can start out with an existing framework. Some old and ancient legal codes are short and simple enough that (with annotations) they can serve as starting points for the code of laws and how trials are run.

However, when designing a legal framework, you also need to take context into account. How did the code of laws come about and what are they intended to achieve? When the Normans invaded Britain, they enacted a legal framework intended to subjugate the newly conquered locals and establish the Norman supremacy. As noted earlier, rulers typically build the legal framework so it works to their advantage, though it is not always in-your-face explicit. It is also quite common for the legal framework to give an appearance of being just and equal to all, regardless of wealth.

When using it in game, you need to know the legal mechanisms, so let’s take a look at those.

Reporting crimes

Once the crime has been committed, what do you do? The first step could be to tell someone, but who? This could be whomever is near (neighbors, inn patrons, fellow travelers) and/or some official (the magistrate, police, an elder). There could be rules governing this that could have significant impact down the road, e.g. in 11th century Iceland, if you killed someone, you had to declare the killing to the world quite fast afterwards if you wanted it to be seen as an accident. If you did not declare it, it would be assumed that you had planned to kill the victim, resulting in a much harsher punishment. There could be rules requiring that some log of the incident is written and archived. It could even be used as evidence in an upcoming trial. It is also quite possible officials are not involved before you have gathered enough evidence to figure out who did the crime and, possibly, win a trial.

Gathering evidence

In modern times there are a lot of rules specifying how evidence can be collected legally so it can be used in a trial. The reason is simple: Once the individual has rights that the police is not allowed to breach, powerful measures must be put in place to force the police to respect those rights.

When gathering evidence, one would often need to speak to a witness or investigate a private location. Witnesses may or may not want to talk, and sometimes someone with authority over the witness (e.g. a family member) may want to keep investigators away. Similar, the owner (or caretaker) of a private location may not want to allow investigators to trample all over. Are there any legal way (court orders) to overcome those obstacles? And what happens to evidence gathered without consent and legal backing? Not to mention the investigators that broke the law?

There can also be differences between the weight of different forms of evidence, e.g. a statement from a witness could carry more weight than forensic evidence, or some witnesses could be viewed as more trustworthy than others.

Some legal frameworks have a dedicated group of officials to investigate crimes. In ancient China, the magistrates were responsible for investigating crimes, and Rome had a group of quaesitors that investigated and prosecuted capital crimes. Running your own investigation may be encouraged, in a legal gray zone or illegal. Official investigators may be angered by private investigators … or may appreciate the help.

The Trial

During the trial, the evidence is presented, guilt and punishment is decided and declared to the world. Some legal frameworks require all evidence be submitted prior to the start of the trial, to allow the participants to prepare their case. In others the trial may be part of the evidence gathering. Trials are often heavily codified in the legal framework. Sometimes each party are allowed to present their case once, sometimes parties are allowed to react to the presentation of the other parties. It may not be allowed to cross examine witnesses.

There could also be issues with getting witnesses or suspects to attend the trial. Today, witnesses are served subpoenas to get them to attend. It could also be declared publicly that so-and-so should appear at the courthouse at a certain time, maybe with some sort of punishment for not coming. Or the plaintiff could physically force the defendant to court.

As a trial involved a lot of people spending a lot of time, trials are costly. Depending on your legal framework this expense could be paid by taxes, by the guilty party, by the party pressing charges or some other configuration.

The Judge(s)

There may be one or more judges at a trial. Depending on your system, they can run the trial, decide guilt, pronounce punishment and more. Their selection is also of importance, as it indicates where they owe their allegiance. In Rome judges in public law was agreed upon by the parties of the trial, and just had to be a male Roman citizen. He ruled on the case, and could ask for legal advice (but could ignore it). If he did not feel confident judging the case, he could also refuse to give a ruling. (Note that capital cases were run before the People’s Assembly.) The judge could also be appointed by the ruler, found by drawing lots or something different entirely.

The number of judges could depend on the case: Petty cases could only require one judge, whereas complicated or very serious cases could require many judges. It can even be dependent on the type of court, e.g. in the US most trials have one judge, but the Supreme Court has 9 judges, voting on right or wrong. It is quite common that the authority of the judge is reflected in the legal procedures, e.g. “All rise” or by giving the judge an elevated position in the court room.


Most people do not have an advanced knowledge of law. So, when someone is going to trial, it can be an advantage to consult a knowledgeable person. Or even better: To hire that person to advocate your case. The advocate may also have strong rhetorical skills, improving the chances of a successful trial. Thus, it is possible to get around ones short comings. On the other hand, it also means that the more money at your disposal, the better an advocate can you get, making it harder for a less well-off person to win a trial. Some legal systems allow parties to hire representatives, others do not. Others allow parties legal consulting and reading of prepared statements.

One interesting way to get around some of these issues was carried out by Genghis Khan: Make the text of the law secret, while the contents were known.

Trial by jury

Rather than letting one person review the body of evidence and make a verdict of guilt, one could let many people (a jury) hear the evidence and make the verdict. This has the advantage that it is harder to bribe or threaten many people, and that the verdict is not as dependent on the whims and experiences of the judge. One disadvantage is that the jury may be impressionable by a good orator.

Jury members can be selected from a number of criteria. For instance, in 13th century Denmark the “truthmen” had to be wealthy men of good reputation, in ancient Athens they just had to be citizens (and given that there was a small pay, some consider it some sort of welfare), and in our time it is encouraged that they reflect the people of the local area (even though there is a tendency towards white, middle aged, well off males). Today, jurors are selected on a case by case basis, whereas in 13th century Denmark they were permanent official appointments.

The size of a jury can also have impact: In ancient Athens there could be 200-1500 jury members, whereas modern juries usually comprise some 12-15 members. Participation in a jury could also be an annoyance: You have to spend your productive time listening to some case rather than managing your business. Indeed, there could be fine involved in not showing up for jury duty.

Some legal systems require the verdict of the jury to be unanimous, where others accept majority. In the latter case, a non-unanimous verdict can have strings attached, e.g. maybe the harshest punishments cannot be used or a number of reputable men can swear an oath that the decision of the jury was wrong.

The role of the jury could also be to serve as witnesses to the trial, e.g. that it is being carried out in accordance with the law, or to advise the judge. Sometimes, the jury could be a board of judges.

Trial by ordeal

Rather than going through a (possibly expensive) trial, the parties could go through an ordeal to ascertain truth. These ordeals could be quite painful or even lethal. The justification is that the gods would protect the innocent party and hurt the guilty. As long as everyone believed in that, the innocent would be ready to take the ordeal, whereas the guilty party would be scared of doing that. It was also possible to rig the ordeal in favor of whoever was believed to be innocent … or had earned favor with the person(s) administering the ordeal.

A magical world might both make this more and less believable. Gods could be real, but on the other hand, magic makes it easier for a 3rd party to rig the ordeal.


In many legal systems, oaths play a crucial role. In theory, if someone swore a holy oath, it would be extremely serious for the relationship between the person and the divine. Lying could land you a nasty curse, an eternity in Hell or both!

For instance, in Jewish law, when insufficient evidence was available, it was possible to demand that your adversary swear an oath that his claim is true. If the adversary did not, you would win the case, regardless of other proof. However, if the adversary did take the oath, the judge could require that you did as well. And if you refused, you would lose the case. Not everyone were allowed to swear, e.g. if you are a woman, not religious enough or a known liar.

In a magical world, truthsayers could use magic to establish if a statement was true, or they could make you incapable of lying. Note the difference: In the first case, it is the, possibly corrupt, truthsayer who makes the call, whereas in the other, it is the witness that states the truth, though maybe selectively. There could also be a roll (e.g. Will against Will) involved, so it could still be possible for a witness to tell a lie. Either way, juries and judges would have to consider the truthfulness of the truthsayer when applying weight to the sworn statement.


Rather than having someone detained by the authorities, some legal systems allow the person to go free against some assurances that the person will return to face the trial. This could be money or even taking over liability for whatever crime the detained person is suspect of. The arguments for allowing bail is that it is expensive to keep someone incarcerated, it is uncomfortable to be incarcerated and the business of the jailed and possibly innocent person may suffer. One would not want frivolous law suits to be used to drive a rival out of business.

Magic could be used to enforce that a person would be unable to leave an area, or to help find or even conjure the person. This could profoundly change the notion of bail: Why would a third party need to provide money or assurances, if the suspect could just be conjured?


Some legal systems allow usage of torture to extract information or a confession from an uncooperative or possibly lying source. Aside from being cruel and horrible, torture also yields extremely unreliable information. As the pain becomes unbearable, the person under torture will say anything to get the pain to stop, if only for a moment. Finding heads and tails in the ravings of the torture victim is quite tricky. Even in legal systems that allow torture, judges and jury members are likely to be aware of this and view the “evidence” with suspicion.

In the real world, torture is mostly a means to incite fear in a population; a tool to keep the people subjugated.


The trial is usually concluded by a declaration of guilt and, possibly, a punishment for the guilty party. Depending on the punishment and legal framework, this punishment may be carried out at once, at a later date, by the authorities or by the winning party. Punishments where the defendant is maimed or executed are typically carried out by the authorities (maybe at a cost), whereas it could be up to the winning party to get compensation from the guilty party. If the guilty party will not (or cannot) pay, one option is to go to the home of the guilty party with a group of respectable people and take valuables from the estate of the guilty party.

Prison is quite common in our time, but it is quite expensive. Not only is a healthy person kept from working, that person also needs something to eat and lodgings. This bill could be paid by taxes … or by any citizen, say, the wronged party. Naturally, if the wronged party cannot pay, the guilty party would walk free. Some of the expense can be recouped by forcing inmates to hard labor. However, their labor has low productivity, and a significant number of guards is needed. Prior to the widespread use of prisons, alternatives could be to sell them outright as slaves or indentured servants, which could have some of the same issues mentioned above.

Punishments can serve multiple objectives: To give the wronged party some sort of satisfaction and/or compensation, to punish the wrongdoer, to scare other potential wrongdoers from crime and to help the convicted criminal out of a life of crime. Different legal frameworks may emphasis some or all of these, with various weights. Note that attempts to scare potential wrongdoers usually only work on planned crime, and also depend on the odds of getting caught.

Inequality before the law

Most legal frameworks have some kind of justification or ideology behind them that claims that it is just, or at least attempting to be so. While the real description of the goals may differ, it is quite common that the rich and powerful have the advantage. Depending on the society in question, law is also used to keep the current state of affairs. So, inequality before the law can be implicit, e.g. through the ability to purchase legal representation, or explicit, e.g. through laws that state that some have jurisdiction over others.

A common example could be that women are not allowed to speak at a trial. Another could be that relative class, caste or ethnicity factors into how punishment is metered. Some consider the head of the household to be its ruler, and has the power to punish (and maybe even kill) others in the household. An example of a legal system where the class divide is integrated is the Brehon Laws. Each person had an honor quantified in an honor-price that basically stated their legal value. It limited which legal actions one could take and allowed witnesses to “over swear” witnesses with lower honor-price. Indeed, the introduction to one law book stated that everyone being equal was a problem to the world!

The inequalities have a clear tendency to follow from the general ideology of the society, so an absolutist society may give explicit powers to the head of the household, and a free society may try to hide the inequality by making them implicit.

Gaming the system

When designing a legal framework, it is an interesting test to see if there is a way to game the system, that is, for a person to (mis)use it to his or her own advantage. For instance, in 18th century England, anyone could prosecute a crime, and if it resulted in a conviction, the prosecutor got a bounty. This created a situation where unscrupulous people conspired to frame innocent people on non-existing crimes to collect the bounty. As this issue became clear, the legal framework tried to patch that particular issue.

Another example could be an organization that is structured in a certain way to limit liability for a given crime to a small subset of its lower ranking members. This could be done by hiring subcontractors to do some work (e.g. purchase a large number of plots or produce some goods), without having any responsibility for how the job is carried out (e.g. bullying the current owners into selling or use slave labor).

Magic could also be used to cover up a crime or shift blame. An example could be to use illusions to make witnesses finger the wrong person, or cause witnesses to forget what they saw. In the court room itself, magic could be used to manipulate anyone in the court room or to detect unauthorized use of magic. The latter raises the question of the incorruptibility (and skill) of the magic user trying to detect use of magic.

Such issues could provide a number of adventures for a gaming group, e.g. to help the victim of such a conspiracy or to expose the trick to the public.

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Fantasy Worldbuilding: Gender

Posted by Zumbs on March 2, 2014

Most fantasy worlds are inspired by old or ancient civilizations. Most of those were severely oppressive against females, while we live in a modern era where we have (mostly) outgrown that nonsense and consider it offensive. Moreover, female roleplayers are put off by significant gender inequality. Partly because having to play a house wife is pretty boring, partly because many women still have to put up with discrimination and want to be able to relax and have fun when gaming.

On the other hand, we roleplayers also have a thing for consistency. Plastering gender equality onto a feudal society with no more concern does not create a consistent world. A simple alternative would be to copy the gender relations from your society of choice, loosen them up a bit and allow ambitious or exceptional women to follow their own paths, perhaps to positions of great power. In some periods in medieval Europe women could and did make their own way as merchants, generals and rulers. In ancient Egypt women could marry, divorce, buy and sell land and were entitled to the same wages as men.

The subject of this post, however, is how to construct a consistent gender equal society inspired by old or ancient civilizations. What issues crop up, and how can they be solved?

Many of these societies range from somewhat absolutist to very absolutist, and it is common that this tickles down through society to the smallest units. So, even if there is gender equality, it is likely that each household has some sort of chief.

The issues

In the following, I will assume a pre-industrial world, as the inventions of the modern age has nullified most (if not all) of the issues by making them much, much easier to manage. If the world is permeated by magic, you could consider letting magical appliances take the role of modern age appliances. On the other hand, matters are complicated by the fact that in many old societies, regular people were often just scraping by.

Pregnancy and birth

Infant mortality rates were extremely high up until the 20th century, sometimes being estimated that half of all children died before reaching adulthood. In order to just maintain the adult population, each woman would have to give birth to 4.2 children. As the children were the ones to support their parents in their old age, the parents would most likely try to get more children. That is in itself a lot of work. Raising the children is even more.


Looking after even a smallish household, e.g. a family driven farm, is a lot of work. Many of the inventions that we have today did not exist. Cooking needs to be done from the basic foodstuffs. However, in the cities of the Roman Empire, it was common to purchase (fast) food in the street, freeing the family from this work. The home still needs to be cleaned, children and live stock needs to be looked after, clothes need to be washed and maintained. On top of that, add spinning of clothes, brewing of beer and similar trades to bring in extra money for the family, sometimes also working in the trade of her husband (or father). Historically, the task of running the household and performing the house work has been the province of the woman.

Medieval noble women ran the household and sometimes the business of the estate. When husbands were out fighting, they could even be responsible for the protection of the household from invaders. Often they could read and followed intellectual pastimes, e.g. chess. After the Black Death they were allowed to support themselves as traders. After the recovery from the devastation of the Black Death, many rights were taken away, using Christian dogma as leverage, marked by the trial of Joan of Arc.

Marriage and divorce

Upon her marriage, a woman would leave her family and move to join the family of her husband. In some societies, the family of the woman paid a dowry to the new couple (to help them setup shop) or to the family of the husband (to bribe the family to accept the woman into their ranks). Often marriage was some sort of contract between the two families as well as between the new couple. The nobility, in particular, used marriages to cement alliances, making children important assets, and marriages to planned deals between the two families.

The availability of divorce was highly dependent on culture: In the Roman republic, husband and wife could renounce the marriage at will, in Christian Europe, marriage was considered holy and permanent and almost impossible to dissolve. The families of the divorced couple would most likely lose face over the divorce, so there was a very powerful pressure on the couple to stay together. The background for the divorce could also be of great importance, as the person at fault could influence who would get the dowry, additional loss of face, sustenance, children and so on.

Land ownership and Inheritance

How is it decided who inherits from who? Historically, the two major ways to handle inheritance was to either let one get everything or divide everything into equal parts and give one part to each heir. The first strategy kept the estate together, but meant that the children not getting anything would have to find their own way. The second strategy would give each heir something, but would also partition the estate until such a time where a family could not subsist on it.

In order to ensure that it was the children of the husband that would become heir(s), the reproductive capabilities of the wife were often under strict control. Often women were required to be virgins before marriage. This gave rise to the myth that women would bleed upon their first intercourse, however, this is only true for 4 in 10 women. Moreover, study of the hymen is not conclusive evidence for or against virginity. This myth underlines how morality was used as a means of social control.


If you can take and keep something, it is yours. Many societies have laws that govern ownership, but all to often it boils down to power, be it through money, culture or force. In medieval societies in particular, the social order was enforced directly through force of arms. The feudal lord was the local representative of the ruler, and was required to follow the ruler into war.

Gender equality

An ancient or feudal society where the genders are equal have been increasingly common in popular computer RPGs, e.g. the Elder Scrolls series. When constructing such a society, you would have to consider the issues noted above. Before we continue, I would like to touch upon the difference between the cultural and biological gender.

Biological and Cultural Gender

The biological gender is commonly determined by having a Y chromosome or not. Cultural gender are the roles and norms considered appropriate for a gender in a society. In modern western society, biological and cultural gender is usually considered the same.

However, it does not need to be. One option to create a gender equal society is to let cultural gender be something you chose, regardless of biological gender. Males wanting to run the household would take the female cultural gender, and females wanting to be able to work the smithy would take the male cultural gender. Some interesting questions with this is how the society would look upon two cultural females wanting to marry. Would one take the role of the male and the other continue as female? Is it even allowed to change cultural gender? Is it discouraged or even outright illegal for two of the same cultural gender to have a relationship? And should a relationship between two people imply that both their cultural and biological gender is different?


In a gender equal society, either the male or the female could join the household and family of the other. If dowry is part of the culture, it could be given by the family whose member leaves to join the other family, for the same reasons as before. This could cause significant intrigue and negotiations between the families.

Pregnancy and birth

It is difficult to avoid the question of pregnancy. And it is something that the woman has to do. Having to give birth to 4-8 children during the course of her life, would make it a challenge for a woman to work outside the home, but not impossible. However, it should be considered who would fill her role in the family during the period where pregnancy could make it difficult to do the needed work. If one makes a stretch to allow medical technology or magic to be reasonably sophisticated, the mortality rates for children and mothers alike could be reduced significantly, reducing the work forced upon the woman.


Aside from the pregnancy issue above, there is little reason that one gender or the other should be doing the work to maintain the household.

Land ownership and Inheritance

Should all children (regardless of gender) be eligible for inheritance, or just the ones who stay in the family? Both carries with them a number of interesting consequences.

If all children are eligible for inheritance, the land of a family would fragment very fast, causing a lot of time lost walking from one plot to the next. This would most likely lead so significant land sale and purchase upon one landowner dying. Indeed, someone could want to murder a land owner to be able to buy that plot that links his or her lands.

If only the ones who stay in the family are eligible for inheritance, there could be a significant advantage or disadvantage by leaving ones own family, so the discussion of which family to join could be a matter of great contention and discord inside and between the families.


Consider for a moment an army made up of roughly the same number of males and females. How would the social dynamic of such an army be? To my knowledge there is no historical precedent. The closest that I know off are from the time of migrations where entire societies were on march. However, a marching society is very different from a marching army.

Given that an army would consist of young men and women, it would be likely that sexual relations would ensue, sometimes resulting in pregnancies. Some of said relations would be rapist in nature. How would an army handle such issues? Would relationships be frowned upon or even punished? Would pregnancies be forcibly terminated? And how would rapists be punished? Most likely rules would be strict and punishments cruel.

Stat modifications

A lot has been written and considered when it comes to the differences between the genders. This could be used to decide upon stat modifications by gender. There are, however, a few things to consider.

Given that there are (roughly) the same number of men and women, the average for a given stat should be neither. Or to put it more bluntly: Do not make one gender the average with the other having stat modifications (Arcanum, I’m looking at you). You should also resist any temptation to make the stat modifications of one gender superior to the stat modifications of another. Any stat changes should be balanced in terms of fun.

It is still unclear to which degree the differences between the genders are biological or cultural in nature. Furthermore, as your world is not Earth, you are fully free to decide that in your world, gender differences are too insignificant to warrant any stat differences. This fits well with a gender equal society.

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Fantasy Worldbuilding: Organized Crime

Posted by Zumbs on December 22, 2013

Many of us have grown up with the idea of the medieval thieves guild from RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons or computer games like Skyrim. We have seen movies like Godfather and Scarface. You may also have researched organized crime in the real world. All of this has given us a number of preconceptions on how a criminal organization looks, how it is built and how it works. However, if you try to copy-paste these preconceptions to a medieval world, you will quickly find that it makes little sense.

As an example, consider a group of bearded criminals sitting around in your medieval city with markings that clearly show that they are part of this group. Even though they claim to just be a group of horse enthusiasts, everybody knows that they are a ruthless criminal organization. What is to keep the local ruler from sending an army to execute them? If the ruler does not it is either because:

  • They are allied with the ruler. But why not just wear the uniforms of the ruler?
  • They are too powerful. In this case, why not just take the power?

This was the reason that many criminals fled to the countryside and took up robbery, sometimes relying on powerful connections to be sheltered from prosecution, like a letter of marque.

To further muddy up the picture, the closest thing to modern crime organizations was probably the noble families and their retainers. Given that they were the rulers, they were, by definition, not criminals, but they often acted like a criminal organization.

Does this mean that there are no criminal organizations? No, but it means that you have to leave your current preconceptions and consider what the environment allows when designing your criminal underground.

Criminal activities

Criminal means operating outside the scope of the law, and as long as there is a demand for illegal activities, someone is likely to step up and supply the activity. If the demand is sizable enough, this will involve multiple persons, in effect becoming an organization. Let us take a look at the types of activity that a criminal organization could take part in.

Illegal substances

The main income of modern criminal organizations are various recreational drugs. The American mafia grew explosively during the period of prohibition where alcohol was illegal in the US. However, drugs and alcohol may very well be fully legal in your world. And why should they not? As long as it does not interfere with their ability to do their work, why should the ruler care that his or her subjects are stoned in their free time? In fact, it may be to the rulers advantage, as they may very well become more docile.

Once recreational drugs are eliminated, we are left with things like poison. While there certainly is a market for such things, it is much, much smaller than the one for recreational drugs, and unlikely to be able to support a criminal organization, unless it is used as a means to an end, e.g. murder for money.

Thievery and Burglary

While thievery may have been the most common crime in medieval times, it was likely the last ditch effort to get something to eat and very dangerous.

Today, most people are at work during the day, many travel away on vacation for days or weeks, and it is easy to blend in. Most goods are mass produced. With a bit of luck, you may actually be able to get everything of value from an apartment into a (stolen) lorry and get away before anyone figures out what is happening.

In the medieval world, there were people in the home almost all the time, and goods were made by hand. And most cities were small enough for people to know each other by face if not by name. So, stealing and reselling must have been quite hard, compared to the potential punishment (maiming or execution). Even in very large cities, breaking into regular homes and stealing goods would be difficult as there would likely be people in the home, in neighboring homes or on the street, wondering why some stranger was walking in and out while the owner was out. During the night, the owners would be home, sleeping, so the thief would have to find his way to the loot in the dark while not waking up the family.

Only feasible loot would be something that could be easily hidden and sold, like money and precious metals.

However, if goods were stolen, the thief would have to sell it to someone. This could be someone interested in cheap goods for his or her own home, or it could be a fence. Fences are specialized in buying and selling stolen goods. They could have a legal shop, e.g. a pawnbroker or a stand at the market place, where they increase their profit by selling stolen goods. In order to avoid the issue of someone recognizing an item, the city must have a certain size to support a fence. If someone gets something stolen, and they just visit the local pawnbroker to get the item back, the pawnbroker will quickly end up in trouble.

Breaking into the houses of the rich and powerful may give larger riches, but may also be more dangerous and generate a much more forceful response.

Overall, it would seem that pickpocketing is the easier avenue to get coin. But it is easy to get caught, and in smaller cities, one could quickly get a reputation.

Magic introduces some interesting options, such as magical traps, alarm systems, break-in tools (flying or walking through walls), retrieval of stolen goods (by magical search or even teleportation) or to confuse targets.

Loan sharking

The basic point is this: Loan out some money and charge (possibly illegally) high interest rates. If the borrower cannot pay, a number of consequences ranging from legal threads, public shaming over blackmail to violence or even death can ensue. However, these loans may not be legal, and the consequences are certainly not. Also note that the lender will want the borrower to actually be able to pay back the loan, so extreme violence or murder are only in extreme cases or to make a point to other who may be planning to default. An alternative to violence could be to force the borrower to partake in some very dangerous operation to clear (parts of) the loan.

In medieval Italy, some of the early criminal organizations were based on loaning out money at high interest rates. It proved to be so lucrative that, in time, local rulers had to borrow money from the criminals, and they turned into banks.


If taxes on imports are high enough, someone will try to make money by covertly transporting the taxed goods to the market, avoiding said taxes. Prohibition or quotas on certain goods could also give rise to widespread smuggling, sometimes by merchants. Note that significant fines or punishments may be the result of getting caught, so, unless the gain is significant or the risk is very low, smuggling is unlikely to be widespread.

The goods themselves may be legal or illegal, but it requires a network to supply goods, covertly transport goods and sell them after the illegal transport. This could also include forging paper work, paying off officials or similar. The destination could be into or out of a building or a city or across a border.

The transport itself must be hidden. One option is to use hidden passageways, like a subterranean cave system, sewers or hidden harbors. One could also bribe guards to look the other way, or to take a break at a prearranged time, possibly to pay of a debt? If the goods are small and valuable, they could be hidden on a person or among other, common goods.

After the goods have been successfully transported to their destination, they must be sold in order for the endeavor to be profitable. If paperwork is required, the smuggler must get paperwork (forged or not) in order to be able to sell the goods at full price. If no paperwork is available, the local merchants will know that the goods are illicit and may not pay full price, even if the goods are legal. For illegal goods, the smuggler will need a network of sellers to distribute the goods to the consumers.

Many cultures try to limit the availability of weapons to its citizens, or rival countries. This could be hand weapons or siege engines. In either case, a lot of money can be made by smuggling weapons to those who want them, regardless of local law.

In a magical fantasy world where wizards are capable of teleportation, invisibility or similar tricks, it is not unlikely that these abilities are being used to smuggle goods. On the other hand, it is also likely that the authorities use magic to counteract smuggling.

There is also the issue of smuggling magical items, especially if the item can make noise (or even talk). Such items could also accidentally be activated during transport with unpredictable results.


As ancient general Sun Tzu noted, it is crucial to know ones enemies and one self in diplomacy as well as in war. Spy networks have existed for a very long time. Most are tied to another organization, e.g. army, police, government or corporation. Some may be for sale. All exist in a legal gray zone, maybe legal where the parent organization live, but likely illegal and certainly unwanted everywhere else. Even if they are not part of organized crime as such, they may employ or have contact to criminal organizations for various type of dirty jobs.


Like spying, assassinations have been about for a long time. Some people have had power, others had the ambition to get that power and were ruthless enough to murder their rivals. This gave rise to the hired killer. These come in many shapes and forms, from the brutish thug to the supernatural ninja. Assassins may be loners, part of a guild or part of another organization. Loners have the disadvantage that they can be difficult to find: Bragging about your killing prowess can get you into all sorts of trouble, very fast. Again, the client could just hire a few soldiers to do the deed.

Guilds mean that there are middle men who want their cut of the action. Guilds are, however, possibly easier to find, as they may employ middle men who will be available to listen to propositions. From the point of view of the client, middle men can be dangerous as well, as they may not actually be middle men, and may sell out the client to the authorities or the enemies of the client.

In the Elder Scrolls series, the Dark Brotherhood is a guild of assassins, linked with a powerful entity. Those seeking an assassination perform a ritual in honor of the entity to summon an assassin.


Using force to take something from another is sometimes called robbery. When a band of merry men take money from the tax collectors at sword point, it is robbery. When said tax collectors take money from peasants at sword point, it is legal. At sea, robbery is called piracy, on land it is carried out by bandits. In cities it is called mugging.

Piracy is when someone at sea is being forced to give their cargo to a third party, the pirates. These pirates will need to get a ship and weapons in order to do piracy. They may find use for some of the loot, but often they will need someone to sell their loot to, i.e. merchants, smugglers or others in a city. Depending on their situation, they may also need somewhere to go ashore to fix up their ship … or they may just take another.

Unlike pirates, bandits “just” need weapons to be able to start their crime spree, but they will likely need some sort of camp. The amount of loot that they can bring with them is dependent on their transport facilities, and they may still need someone to sell it to and buy provisions from.

Thugs mugging city dwellers on the streets have some advantages over bandits and pirates. They only need weapons, and the loot will be in the form of coin or valuable items, so it is easy to move. Merchants and fences are likely close by. Unfortunately, so are the authorities, and they can be recognized. A variation on this is robbery of a store or a bank. This may involve more people and more victims.

Unless the town is reasonably large, everyone will know everyone by sight, so it is difficult to get away with robbery, unless the victims are killed, or too scared to say anything. Or to put it bluntly: It may be a way to get some fast cash, but as a way of life, it is extremely dangerous.

Protection Money

One common way for thugs to make money is to try to intimidate businesses and citizens to pay them money to avoid harassment from said thugs. This may involve that the thugs also protects payers from other thugs. And if someone does not pay? Well, it is not very intimidating if nothing happens. However, it is not always that simple. A direct attack on someone may incur a response from authorities or the locals, so the thugs may let it slide. Or they could exact revenge. Note that many cities were extremely vulnerable to fire, so only the most stupid would try to burn down someones home.

Betting and Games

During human history a giant wealth of games have been constructed to provide a diversion when time allowed it. They can be purely chance (who rolls the highest number on a die), a mix of chance and skill (poker or bridge) or pure skill (chess). It could also be sports, e.g. a horse race or a boxing match. Sometimes people bet valuables on the outcome of the games. And when that happens, some will try to hedge their bets by cheating.

Cheating can be by figuring out techniques to roll dice in a particular way, using marked cards or even bribing participants to lose their game. Magic could also be used to cheat, as well as to catch cheaters. As such this does not require a criminal organization to carry out, but if more than one person is involved, it is, by definition, an organized crime.

Note that in some cultures, it is illegal to bet on games, or only legal in certain ways. Some sports may also be illegal, e.g. duels to the death. Some will pay money to watch it. Organizers of such events will need to spread the word, find a place for the event and organize food, drink and, possibly, gambling.

Forgery and Counterfeiting

Most cultures need some sort of paperwork to keep records straight, establish identity, rights, property, money etc. Paperwork does not have to involve actual paper, but could be stone tablets, metal signet rings or some other medium. Forgery is the act of making an object to deceive someone to believe that the object is authentic. This could be a deed of ownership, a signet ring, a receipt for paid toll or something else entirely.

One common type of forgery is to produce currency – counterfeit money. Coins whose value is dependent on its metal can be counterfeit by mixing up the metal with some other, less valuable metal, or by using a less valuable core. This allows the counterfeiter to make money whose face value is a lot larger than the actual metal value. This is naturally highly illegal, and most governments will come down extremely hard on counterfeiters. Another technique is to shave the edges of a coin, again to stretch the metal value into multiple coins.

A skilled gold smith could most likely produce counterfeit coins all alone, but might have some difficulty to use them without attracting attention, so an organization could be helpful, but also dangerous as there would be more people who could talk. Paper money would require someone with a very fine hand, and possibly a printer to produce large quantities. Paper money also implies a more regulated society, so the counterfeiter would have more trouble hiding his or her illicit activities. Naturally, legally sanctioned producers of currency can get greedy and utilize the techniques above to produce counterfeit money. This is particularly easy for paper money (just print more paper), whereas coins based on metal value require some extra work.

Falsifying documents would most likely require someone experienced with how such documents should look, e.g. an official, as well as some sigil. Sigils could be forged by an adept metalworker. They could work alone, e.g. as a corrupt (former) official at a customs station.

One could also forge goods, e.g. an instrument made by a famous instrument maker. Depending on the type of good and the scope of sale, this could be the work of a single forger, or involve a large organization of craftsmen, smugglers and unscrupulous merchants.


Sometimes also called a scam or a con, the swindler tries to fool the victim (often called mark) into giving something to the swindler. The object could be money, information or even participation in some other activity. The swindler will often try to fool the victim into doing something that will keep the victim from turning in the swindler, e.g. by having the victim doing something illegal, or may try to make the victim believe that he or she has not been swindled at all. Some scams may not even be illegal.

The swindle can be very short and simple, or very long and involve many hired helpers. The swindlers may want to avoid running into the victim again, so if the victim is not a traveler, a city of significant size is needed unless the swindlers are ready to move somewhere else.

Wikipedia has an excellent list of cons, some of which can be adjusted to medieval times. Note that most of them assume that the victim has something of value not tied to land, e.g. cash, jewelery, art, fine items or other loot that can be carried. Naturally, the loot could also be the next meal, which is important if you are starving.

Urban crime

When considering how crime is carried out in an urban center, one needs to remember that the city must have a reasonable size to offer some sort of anonymity to the criminal. If the population of the city is a few thousands, everyone will know everyone, by face if not by name. If someone is a professional criminal, it the rumor will quickly spread, and someone will take action. Depending on the society, this could be the authorities or armed citizens.

If significant trade travels through the city, foreign travelers and merchants could be considered fair game. They are, after all, not part of the local community.

However, for an urban career criminal, there is safety in numbers in large cities, whereas small cities are much more dangerous.

You may wonder how many criminals a city can support. Well, according to Wikipedia, FBI estimated that there were approximately 1.4 million gang members spread out over 33.000 gangs in the US in 2011. That is approximately one for each 225 citizens, or 42 members per gang. However, in a country like Denmark, the number of gang members is smaller than 2500, corresponding to one gang member per 2100 citizens.

Rural crime

In rural areas everybody knows everybody, usually both by sight and name. So, organized criminals in rural areas are unlikely to be able to keep their activities hidden for long. Once the criminal is found out, the only alternative to punishment is to hide or flee, possibly both. Thus, many rural criminals end up taking up the life of the bandit, living of robbing passersby, or poaching the local wild life.

Perks of a criminal organization

If a criminal organization were available, it could provide a number of perks to its members and associates:

  • Meeting places where members can meet to discuss important issues, swap information or do business.
  • Hideouts and safe houses where members can hide if they get into trouble. This could also be the first step to leave the area, if the ground is really burning.
  • Training so that rookies can learn from experienced criminals. Skills could be anything from sneaking, climbing, picking pockets, swindling or something else.
  • Doctors to care for wounded gang members.
  • Access to corrupt officials to help smooth things over or get information. This could also be judges measuring out sentences or bribing watchmen to look the other way.
  • Cheap access to illegal merchandise, e.g. tools or poisons.
  • Middlemen to deal with people wanting to buy illegal services or merchandise.

The type of society and criminal organization determines which, if any, of these perks are available to the members of criminal organizations. The organization may also have developed a thieves’ slang to convey messages in seemingly innocent conversation, e.g. to point out that a third party is trustworthy (or not).

However, in most ancient or medieval worlds, the punishments for getting caught were extreme, so most of the people turning to a life of crime would have to be desperate, viewing crime as a last resort to avoid homelessness or hunger.

You may also want to investigate the Russian Thief in Law group.

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Fantasy Worldbuilding: Commoners

Posted by Zumbs on December 8, 2013

Peasants, cobblers, smiths, masons, miners, butchers, bakers, fishermen, farmers, hunters, potters and many more were the commoners of the medieval world. Through their daily work the goods and services needed by medieval society were made. Their daily lives and outlooks are important parts of how a society works, and, consequently, a cornucopia of inspiration for adventures or simply backdrop to the action.

Most player characters will also come from a simple background, the life of the commoner will be their background as well. For inspiration, you may want to watch some of the historical documentaries by Terry Jones, notably the The Surprising History of Egypt, Rome and Sex are recommended.


It has been said that any society are three meals away from revolution. It certainly is true that before a group has secured its source of food, it can do little else than try to secure a source of food. Eating also has important cultural significance: People meet over a meal to build and maintain family relations, friendships or to negotiate deals. Often there are all sorts of rules that apply to the meal, e.g. the rules of hospitality.

How do they get their food?

Is it harvested from their own land? Purchased at the market place? In ancient Rome most commoners did not have a kitchen, so they purchased the food at restaurant and fast food bars on the street. This is likely to cause a lot of people being outside and on the streets at all times of the day. If, on the other hand, meals are cooked at home, streets are likely to be empty around dinnertime. Kitchens could also be communal in nature, so everyone in an area, e.g. a building block or a village, would meet and share a meal, while discussing the issues of the day, rumors, news or telling stories.

There could also be differences between cities and the countryside. Aside from the smaller population in walking distance, if you grow your own food, why sell it to someone just to buy it back?

What do they eat?

Do commoners subsist on porridge, or do they eat a more varied diet? What can one expect to find in a home or at the inn? How much do they eat? Is the fear of starvation real for a commoner? This can be used both as a backdrop and as a vehicle. Hungry people are likely to do anything for a meal, so they can be used as pawns by unscrupulous people, steal food, rob people with money, start a revolution or even eat corpses in desperation. Similarly, the fear of hunger can drive both individuals and groups to desperate acts. Mass starvation could also lead to mass migration, causing all sorts of political instability. If food comes from very few sources, there is also the real possibility that the source could dry out, e.g. due to sickness, over-usage, pollution or magic.


What sort of clothes do people wear? Cotton, linen, silk, fur or something different? Is it purchased at a shop or at a tailor? Usually, most cultures will make clothes that are suited to their climate and life style, however, it is also important to look spiffy to attract attention from the other gender as well as respect from others. Even if the culture is highly puritanical.

Clothes could be produced from local or imported produce, and raw materials could be both imported or exported, resulting in significant trade. Different color often had different prices in the real world depending on how the dye was produced. Tyrian purple was made from a secretion produced by certain snails, and was reported to being worth its weight in silver.


In ancient Egypt people slept on the roofs of their houses, looking up at the stars. With no street lights and little cloud cover, they must have studied the stars, making up and telling stories of the stars and the images they saw in them. Premodern homes were different from our modern homes, and it is one of the places where you must take care with your own misconceptions.

Homes are important to keep warm and safe, as well as living together as a family. What sort of home does a commoner have? Is it a house, a flat or a tent? The construction is also very important. In particular, what is in the house? As noted earlier, ancient Romans had no kitchens. How about lavatories? If people use a lavatory in the yard, you have chance witnesses to things happening in the yard or in the street. Bathing and cleanliness is also a consideration. Many cultures had public baths where everyone could go, negating the need for private baths. Such facilities are also a place where one can catch up on the latest gossip, scope attractive persons or get ready for an encounter. Lavatories and cleanliness also have direct effect on the general health and spread of disease.

Houses also have inventory, e.g. chairs, beds and closets. There may also be drapes and blankets for coziness, small alters for worship and various trinkets owned by the occupant(s), e.g. beautiful rocks or jewelery. The occupants may also have tools for their trade and various hobbies.

As visits to houses happen often, you may also consider the design principles of the culture. What is important to show to the visitor, and what is hidden? If it is important to show wealth, you have ample options for shame (of modest homes), jealousy, theft or competition.

The nature of visits can also be dependent on climate, so in cold climates visits will be indoors, where visits in warm climates may happen on a terrace. When designing the culture, it is a good idea to draw a few floor plans of common houses, so you can make up more on the go.

More spectacular layouts are also possible, e.g. in the ancient city of Çatal Höyük, there were no paths or streets between houses. The roofs of the houses effectively became the streets, and houses were entered by holes in the roof using a ladder.

Hopes and fears

Even in the most static of societies, there are those who reach above the station of their births. Alas, it is also possible to fall below the station of ones birth. Often there is a general dynamic in a given period in a society. During the Roman expansion, peasants were pushed off their land into poverty. The black plague caused severe labor shortage, resulting in better conditions for commoners (and women) until the population gap had been closed. Organized labor has significantly improved rights and living conditions of commoners in the 20th century.

From the view of the commoner, what are the chances of falling into poverty, and what are the chances of improving ones lot? And how does one go about it?

Falling into poverty is disturbingly easy. An accident could make a commoner a cripple, unable to work his or her profession, reducing the commoner to a beggar. A home and shop could be lost in a fire, causing the commoner to lose family, home, tools and savings. Peasants can be pushed off their land, anyone can start drinking too much. Consorting with the “wrong” type of people can cause the commoner to loose respect or business. Depending on the society, the result can be the life of a beggar, a slave or even worse, with different kinds of rights and options.

Commoners may try to get some insurance against these issues, e.g. by joining a guild or placing themselves under a powerful patron. Someone may play on anothers fear of sliding into poverty, and use this to get power to themselves. They may even go so far that they spread fear to make people more gullible, e.g. by sponsoring a crime wave or selling liquor on the cheap.

This also makes for a number of adventures or campaigns. Maybe a local monastery are hiring a group of bandits to harass or even murder families in an area that they covet. A friend could fall in with unsavory types, or end up owing a lot of money. Any organization of commoners is likely to generate resentment or downright hostility from the ruling elite, so they will try to break such an organization – or to corrupt its leaders.

It is also possible to better ones position. Through hard work and skill, one may be able to attract more business, make more money and maybe expand the shop. Bravery and loyalty may get the commoner on the good side of a lord or an influential businessman, which could lead to more trusted positions, titles or land. Someone rising could generate resentment from others who believe that this nouveau riche person is taking a post destined for someone born for that position, foiled their plot or are simply bad mannered and foul.


Every now and then even the commoner will have some time off to relax. During this time, the commoner can play a game. Boardgames like chess or nefatavl could be popular in winter or among the infirm. Sports are also likely to be popular. You may be tempted to look at the Olympics for sports, but they have a significant drawback: They are competitive spectator sports. While that certainly can be fun, team sports are also quite popular. Sometimes they can be quite violent as well, and the rules are not always well defined, as described here. Another related source of entertainment can be local competitions that are mostly there for fun, like sackraces, possibly with multiple people in the sack, e.g. parent and child or a young man and woman, or to show off prowess in cooking or agriculture. Such celebrations can be a wonderful way for players to get to know an area, and can be a part of an adventure, like We need to win the best shepherdess competition to get the magic mirror.

Another source if entertainment is to watch a play or go to the circus. Unlike today where plays and circuses often become quite sombre affairs, the spectators took a much more active part in plays in premodern times. If the play was bad, they could throw stuff onto the scene (or maybe even if it was good), and they could shout comments. Much fun could ensue if the actors would react humorously to the comments.

The troupes could be traveling from city to city, so they would be strangers. As the locals have not known the troupe for their entire lives, they would not be considered trustworthy, with all their traveling they may even be considered to be shifty, thieves and almost criminal. This would make targets for (youthful?) infatuations as well as scapegoats for all sorts of crimes. Some of them could also be criminal. They could also have a reason to take up life on the road, e.g. to escape a powerful enemy, a crime, debt or just to see the world. Indeed, the start of a campaign could be that the party decided to travel the world with a group of actors.


Depending on how magic works in your world, it will impact commoners in different ways.

If magic is something dangerous, practiced by secluded witches and wizards, commoners will tend to be afraid of magic and magic uses and try to protect themselves, e.g. by painting an Eye of Horus or similar. These protections can be more or less effective, or may have a root in something that was effective.

Magic could also be as common as any other tool. In this case commoners would tend to use magic themselves, e.g. to improve the quality of their goods. Commoners may also utilize body art, e.g. tattoos, to protect themselves from magic, or to improve their ability or something similar.

In both cases, the magical service may not work quite as the commoner is lead to believe. It could have side effects like being addictive, causing accidents, draining the user of life or will, or do something quite different.

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Fantasy Worldbuilding: Religion

Posted by Zumbs on September 23, 2013

In the real world religion comes in so many different variates that it quite simply boggles the mind. Every little area has its own spirits, gods, myths and beliefs. And even the largest of religions will have its own dialects, large and small. In this post, I will use the word divine to refer to the god(s) and mythology of religions.

This post will focus on the effect of the divine on the world, and not so much on the mythology. For the mythology itself, I recommend reading up on real world religions that are similar to the religion you want to create. As with my other posts on fantasy worldbuilding, these thoughts are intended for roleplayers first and everyone else second.

Knowledge vs. Faith

Is the existence of the divine a known and verifiable fact, or is it based in faith? In the real world, there are no proofs for the existence of the divine. Thus, real world religion is based on faith, not knowledge.

Faith is the crucial strength of real world religion. Faith can help the individual to find strength in times of need, but it can also be used by religions organizations to manipulate the masses, e.g. into accepting that a ruler has a divine right to rule or that a certain group of people is the cause of the plague. Often this faith does not need to be logically consistent or even make sense. An example could be the Christian notion of Trinity, where God is one, but also three. In fact, this will often be the case, because if you can make someone believe something that contradicts itself, you can make them believe anything.

Most (if not all) real world religions hold to the notion that their religion was inspired by the divine, and that the divine wants us to act in a certain fashion. But even almighty gods do not tell humans how they want us to act. Instead they inspire a prophet to inform those around him, instead of letting all of us know in our hearts. Priests will tell you all sorts of reasons that their god does not work like that. Strangely, their explanations are similar to the ones you could expect to hear from someone trying to convince you into believing in a god that does not exist.

As religions are not based in knowledge, divine intervention is not required for religions to spawn, spread and evolve. Indeed, one could speculate as to how religions came about in the first place. Are they creations of humanity, or inspired by the divine? One could argue that for the faithful, the divine does exist, even if it is only inside their minds.

In a magical world, one could take the notion of religions created by humanity further. What if there was a magical power in faith and worship? That gods draw power from faith and worship, or even materialize into existence, created by worship? What if that god could only really interact with the faithful?

Good and Evil

The notion of good and evil is both interesting and complex. Not only is it likely to vary by religion and sect, it is also likely to take very different shapes.

In many polytheistic religions, gods are representations of the forces of nature. These are sometimes benign, e.g. Zeus sending good weather, at other times they can be a scourge, e.g. Zeus sending a hurricane. It is, however, important to note that the god is neither good nor evil; the god has benign aspects and harmful aspects. In such religions, the notions of good or evil are seldom important, as it is understood that gods and humans contain both. Worship is often used to try to get on the benign side of the god being worshiped.This is an important point as many of us come from monotheistic cultures, and have a tendency to divide our divine pantheons into good and evil gods.

On the flip side, the notion of good and evil are a central part of monotheistic and dualistic religions. There is one truth – the truth of God. Anyone following that are good, all others are evil. This gives the ability to define a foe, an adversary, who can be a powerful entity, group of entities or even a part of the population.

Divine intervention

When gods act directly in a fashion that changes the world, it is called divine intervention. Divine intervention can be more or less visible, but if gods act directly in your world, they are the main characters. Humans and, crucially, players are not really important. So you need some way of limiting direct divine intervention. Examples:

  • Divine intervention requires a lot of power.
  • Divine intervention requires physical presence, making the god vulnerable.
  • Gods really do not care what happens.
  • Gods don’t really exist.
  • Gods only act through mortals.

An alternative could be to go into the other extreme: Gods are behind everything, pulling the strings, like powerful rulers, playing an elaborate game of chess. A game with rules that could bar direct intervention, or allow it in some circumstances. Humanity would simply be the playthings of the gods, used for their pleasure. This idea is quite prominent in Homers stories and some of the Discworld novels.

Are they real?

The divine may or may not be real. The religions may or may not have got it right. And it may not be as clear cut as a yes/no reply. Truths, partial truths, misconceptions and outright lies can very well exist side by side in religious mythology. It really is up to the worldbuilder to decide. However, these choices can have a lot of consequences.

If the gods of the religions exist, they may want to intervene. Or they may actively push misconceptions and outright lies to further their own power. On the other hand, some more or less powerful entity could be manipulating the followers of said religion for its own end, or even claim to be the worshiped entity. Either way, the agenda of these entities will be important when shaping the world. On the one end of the spectrum, one could look at the very fallible and human gods in the Greek pantheon, on the other the inhumanly strange entities of H.P. Lovecraft. Gods may be so powerful that they neither notice nor care about worship or humanity.

Another interesting question is if these gods can die. And what happens to their power if this happens? Will it be up for grabs? Disappear? Come back at some later time, like Demeter or Jesus? Some worlds let mortals gain divinity, sometimes by taking a vacant spot.

Gods and Worship

The relationship between the gods and worship is also of some importance. What do the gods get from worship? Do they get anything? Or is worship merely the way that the religion keeps itself together?

In some worlds gods gain strength and power through worship. Does this power come from the sacrifice, time usage or even by draining the worshipers? Does it follow that worship created the gods, and not the other way around?

And what does the worshipers get in return for their worship and sacrifice? A bountiful harvest is a classic, but does it actually come true? After all, doing stuff like making the land more fertile is likely to take a lot of power. And if the god does not get the same power influx from somewhere, the god will drain its power over time. An alternative is to make such effects more subjective, e.g. that the peasants believe that they have been blessed and work better due to being more confident. Or the god could simply rain ails down on those that do not worship the god.

The relationship could also be symbolic. Worshiping a fertility god could be a symbolic action linked to respect for the land and cattle being worked on. The bountiful harvest follows from taking care to do sustainable agriculture.


In the real world, priests can get away with not being able to perform miracles. In a world where wizards can heal wounds or build castles, not being able to perform miracles will make it really difficult for priests to argue that their religion is true.

However, the powers of priests does not need to be divine in nature. Some alternatives are:

  • Priests are magic users
  • Priests are witches/shamans
  • Willpower can bend the fabric of reality
  • Humans in large numbers hold magical power that priests harness
  • Priests get their ability from some other source

The source of power does not need to be the same between religions, or even inside the same religion. There could be all sorts of power struggles and theological controversy between different branches over using different powers that may have different sources. Priests may also not know the actual source of their power, accepting on faith that it comes from the object of their worship.

Discovery of the actual source of this power could also be very controversial, sparking accusations of heresy and blasphemy, or even religious wars.

It should also be considered that faith in itself holds significant power. The placebo effect is well established in the real world, so a magical placebo effect could give some interesting dynamics. Indeed, sermons or blessings could have real, in-game effect on the receivers without actually being supernatural in nature.

Religious practices

All too often, worldbuilders use a lot of time describing things like gods, interactions between gods, creation myths and similar, but very little time considering the religious practices. But from the point of view of the population of your world, the mythology and theological arguments are of little consequence; they get their culture by ritualized interaction with the priests of the religion.

  • How often do the worshipers meet to worship?
  • How does this worship happen?
  • Where does it happen – in a dedicated temple or in the
    homes of the worshipers?

Often worship is communal, and its functions can include binding the worshipers together, enforcing social norms, introducing children to the religion and so on.

Many religions will have special holy days that are related to the mythology of that religion. Often these days will also be related to astrological events and carry significant symbolism, e.g. Christmas is placed just after the winter solstice, celebrating both the birth of Jesus and the rebirth of the Sun (and has become a consumerist orgy on top of that). Rituals for holy days may also differ from the regular worship in some way.

Another important question is the intensity of worship of the commoner. Is it expected to come to all sessions of worship? Or is it more common only to go to the special holy days, or not at all? How about religious taboos and shame?

And then there is the question of which ceremonies are carried out by the religions. Are rituals surrounding birth, marriage, or death controlled by the local religions or are they carried out by the relatives and friends? Today we may be used to the idea that they are religious, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that Christian priests became part of the wedding ceremony (and only much later that their attendance became required).

Indeed, the push to get all the important parts of life (and death) into the hands of a religious organization, is very much a sign of one dominant religious organization, e.g. the Christian church. And history shows us that these things are not as permanent as some may like; the push to change a certain custom could very well be a part of a campaign, possibly as a backdrop.

Religious Organizations

Most of us are used to religion and worship being organized. However, this is not necessarily so. Worship could also be carried out by the leader of the household, town or country.

Assuming a religious organization, there can be some head organization for a given religion with one or more sub-organizations with a relationship that can range from close to distanced. Usually, the main organization will require sub-organizations to mirror the basic truths of the main organization, but can give some leniency to different ideas.

Priests are the people met by the common worshipers at temples. They carry out the day-to-day affairs, live in the communities. Being a priest may impose restrictions on what lifestyle a priest can live, even though the real restrictions often are more dependent on the income of the priest.

Some religions also have people who seclude themselves to dedicate their lives to the worship of their chosen deity or philosophy. These people are often called monks or nuns, depending on gender, and can have all sorts of limits on their life style. They may or may not honor those limitations, and it may be more or less acceptable that they do.

Theology and Practice

Many religions have rules that the adherents have to live up to. However, over time some of these rules can be modified, bent or even broken into something entirely different. This may spark anger or resentment among the pious who could break out and make a new order or even start a new sect.

One example could be the Jewish/Christian commandment of Thou shalt not kill. It sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it? However, if a powerful baron was not allowed to kill, how could he take the land of his neighbor? How could a king wage war on another country? Or a judge convict someone to death? So, the rules were bent and broken into something else with all sorts of exceptions. Most of which were likely already intended by the original authors of said commandments.

When the Normans invaded Britain, the commandment was understood to be literal: Any killing was a sin and would cause the murderer to go to Hell. There were, however, a loop hole: If the killer prayed for 40 days, the killing would be forgiven in the eyes of God. For the generals this could be quite a long time, so instead they hired monks to do the praying for them.

Indeed, this sort of divine forgiveness became a large industry that made the monks very, very wealthy, causing monks to bend the rules of their orders until they were unrecognizable and the monks could live very lavish lives. Sometimes monks even resorted to thievery, robbery and even murder in order to get what they wanted. This made monks both hated and ridiculed by many contemporaries, as some of the early ballads of Robin Hood show.

Naturally, some monks got fed up with this lack of piousness and went off to found their own monasteries, only to discover that the more pious the order, the more sponsorships would they get from people terrified of an eternity of torture. And with more money coming in, they would attract the type of people that tried to bend the rules.

Relationship with rulers

Like any other organization wielding power, religious organizations will attract people who will try to grab more power, both for themselves and for their organization. It follows that religious organizations will have agendas that do not necessarily have anything to do with their religion. They may even be incompatible with the tenants of the religion itself.

When building or expanding a power base, the religious organization will need to interact with the rulers of the society they live in.

The rulers can provide protection, advantages in law or taxation, even integrate the religious organization into the public life or state, e.g. by letting the religious organization handle marriages, births (and, thereby, population records) and coronations.

The religious organizations can give the rulers legitimacy or even divinity, by claiming that the organization of society has divine backing (or inspiration), and that the rulers are appointed (or sired) by the gods themselves. In a magical world, priests may be able to provide more tangible benefits to rulers, e.g. alternatives to wizards as a source of spell casters, supernatural equipment, and better morale.

The political power wielded by the religious organizations can be used to push for some of the tenants of the religion. Some of the most ruthless power grabbing priests can very well also be religious zealots, telling themselves that their power grabbing is not to satisfy their own lust for power, but in service of the divine. They may believe it. Naturally, a priest may also just act the part of a zealot in order to further his or her grab for power.

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