Rather this is about the idea of Murder in D&D.
Murder most foul.
The players in our group kill all the time. I mean it's kind of their thing. Still it has been a rare occurrence when they outright murder someone.
in one of our recent games Limura a ranger dropped two sailors in broad daylight. Mind you the sailors were working for "the bad guys" and Limura was covering the back of a fellow party member .. still.
Murder in the streets.
Naturally people screamed women fainted, guards were called. In the end the party had to flee the city as attempts to arrest them intensified. Having a boat that flies helped them greatly in that escape. On the other side of that messengers will have been sent out letting it be known that the persons involved are wanted in the city of Torin, for Murder. That's an albatross hanging around their necks that will be difficult to cut loose.
Now Murder in D&D is nothing new. A "cult of the Murder-Hobo" has sort of grown up around the hobby. There are plenty of memes and jokes littered across the internet which illustrate the concept.
What happens to these murderers?
As usual, the acts of the players in our game have made me run to the internet and embark on researching another subject I might have never thought to read much about. While I'm no expert in the study of crime and punishment throughout history I have come up with some gamerly ideas. As a point, I'm going to try to focus only on the parts of this vast subject that are particularly of use in game.
Primary are two concepts.
- Ancient Prisons were by in large horrible places.
- Unsurprisingly, in many cultures there were (are) stark differences between the conditions a rich citizen might encounter in a prison, compared to the fate of a more common criminal
- Prison itself was not the punishment. Offenders were only held there until some physical punishment could be meted out.
Looking at part 1, The Prisons:
Accurately covering all of incarceration's history in a blog is impossible. Some details may make for interesting gaming.
- In ancient Greece and latter Rome prison officials were known to turn a blind eye towards a prisoner's escape. Generally an escape of this sort would be into exile. "I have found my way out of prison but may never set eyes on beautiful Eretria again."
Often such an escape may involve bribes. Buying one's way out of prison even if awaiting a death sentence was not that uncommon.
- With the exception of instances where cash is involved. Prisoners would have little chance convincing the guards of anything. By the time the players get dumped in prison the guards have heard it all. They have been told every sob story, every tall tale, every beggars trick. They have been bribed, threatened, cried to and yelled at. They have been offered every type of promissory bargain, sexual favor, and future payment imaginable. In short the players yammering on to the guards bout how they "had been framed," is going to mean nothing to a guard.
And why would a guard help a prisoner? A guard who has a JOB, a paying job for their king or country, that provides food and shelter in a time when perhaps those things are not so easy to come by. A living that likely supports the guards whole family and does not involve the guard dying in a tin mine somewhere. Why would that guard help just another nameless prisoner?
Yet it happens.
My thought would be to give the player -6, "Disadvantage," or some other steep penalties (depending on your game of choice) on any social skill check made involving a guard.
I would also allow that the player could reduce the penalties if they continually engaged the same guard in an effort to befriend the guard.
Something like one check per month of incarceration for each successful check the roll penalties are reduced. OR after three successes the prisoner has developed a rapport with the guard. The effort would have to be specific and focused on winning the ear of a particular guard. Keep in mind it was common practice to move guards around just so long term prisoners don't have a chance to get to know their captors and vice versa. Imagine the frustration of a prisoner that has just gotten the ear of guard, when the guard is rotated to another assignment..
- Prisons just like today were expensive to run. If a society is using incarceration as a punitive measure and not just holding some poor sod until he gets stoned to death, then there has to be a prison. The expense of building a secure building, staffing it with wardens, guards, officers, carpenters, clerical staff, grave diggers, and all the rest would be massive. Not only massive but most likely coming from the coffers of the state, or king, or who ever is making the rules that generate criminals in the first place. With that said it can be assumed that not every town or even small city would have the means to create an actual prison. Smaller towns might have a cell or two, a cellar below the church, a root cellar or ice house, or a tower in the local fort dedicated to holding trouble makers. These buildings would likely be much less secure and not as well manned as a true prison.
- Overcrowding / disease: Jails and prisons: Still true today, but especially true in times when medical science had not yet caught onto how illness spreads, prisons are perfect breeding grounds for disease.
Overcrowding, no understanding of hygiene, no waste removal, vermin, lack of bedding, all compound issue of disease in an ancient prison. The young and the old are particularly susceptible to disease. In game terms this can be thought of as younger and older characters having a lower "constitution" or your game's equivalent. But even a hail and healthy character would likely get sick if a truly nasty illness should crop up. Disentairy kills and spreads easily in overcrowded unsanitary conditions. Pneumonia is a killer, Diphtheria, a myriad of respiratory infections, stagnant water can lead to Legionnaires disease, the list is endless.
In Game terms the fetid conditions should start to wear on a character's constitution.
I Suggest weekly checks that get harder as time goes on. Once the character fails the check have them begin to suffer constitution (or what have you) Loss. Many games have rules for disease and I would enforce them to their harshest if an affliction is picked up in a prison.
- I have a strong opinion, that long term incarceration is not the best way for a character to end their days. The heroic warrior Biff Stonehips Dying of Phenomena and gangrene in some fetid oubliette goes against everything I enjoy in gaming. Your mileage may vary, I mean ole Biff might deserve it.
For most of history the above atrocities are avoidable. Most of history no one thought of prison as the punishment, rather prison was simply where a criminal was held until the real punishments could be delivered. This may have sometime to due whit many cultures not seeing any corrective value in incarceration. I have a hunch a lot of it also had to do with many cultures did not have the resources or space to hold criminals indefinitely. Likely it was a bit of both. Regardless it was much cheaper to simply kill a prisoner, or punish them physically in hopes that pain will convince them never to commit the same infraction again. Better still for some cultures a prisoner could be sold into slavery at a profit. This option while rightly viewed as an atrocity in the view of today's culture gets rid of the criminal and makes the municipality some coin at the same time.
Punishments varied wildly deepening on the society and culture in question. A GM will have to make their own calls about what fits their setting.
Again like where a criminal might be held social standing will play a huge part in punishment. For example Slaves may be beaten severely, branded, put to labor in a work house, and marked in some way but as property with value they were rarely put to death unless their transgression was particularly severe.
For the rich Exile was a popular choice. In both Greece and Rome, stripping a criminal of citizenship and casting them out of civilization could be a worse sentence than death. Debtors might be branded, or their worldly processions stripped from them.
Player characters who have been arrested would likely fall into this category of rich prisoner. They very well might be viewed as income opportunities by and judge or municipality that has them in custody. If the parties fighter has been arrested for some infraction, and the city knows there are four other people traveling with her. The law enforcement of the city would likely know that the party came to town carrying exotic weapons and wearing fine armor. They might know about magical possessions, and perhaps even have heard that they had been buying out the inn every night. It would make sense that some sort of ransom could be negotiated. Leniency for your companion if you do this for us, or pay us this amount of gold. This situation could be an excellent adventurer hook opportunity, particularly if one play has a scheduled conflict and is going to have to miss a game or two.
The opportunity to exile a whole adventuring party might be a fun option for the GM , having them shipped to some exotic coast and just dropped off with no equipment or supplies. This sort of thing could change the face of a campaign from the typical, "Lets go get that McGuffin!" to "how the hell do we survive?"
Having the Prisoner Player characters sold off to a slave trader is an interesting option from a gaming perspective. The escape, return, and revenge opportunities could make for a campaign all by themselves.
After reading articles around the internet I quickly realized there are as many ways throughout history to torture or kill a prisoner than there were crimes to be tortured over. Again unless Your parties fighter is named Will Wallace I'm not saying torturing a player characters to death is a great way to end a campaign. The links above have some pretty good descriptions of ancient punishments tortures and executions that may serve as threats or sentences that the characters might endure or avoid. A character that is tortured as a punishment for a crime should suffer some kind of permanent attribute loss. Charisma loss makes sense for things that mark the character obviously , such as loosing an ear, or being branded. The Charisma penalty should be particularly severe while the character is active in the culture where the punishment occurred. A character forever marked as a criminal will affect the characters ability to do business in normal society.
Other tortures could sap strength or dexterity. Horors such as being broken on a wrack or wheel. Intelligence and wisdom could also be affected if the torture is something like solitary confinement, prolonged pain or other psychological cruelty.
I would suggest steep attribute penalties. For D&D style games allowing the character a save after which if successful they loose 1d4, and if they fail the would loose 1d6 of whatever attribute is being targeted. This sounds steep but remember we are talking about cruelty designed with all of humanities cruel inventiveness to break the target. This would scar a character for life, and might change the direction of their carer.
Imagine the party fighter accused of murdering some poor innkeeper, convicted in a kangaroo court, and sentenced to torture. The party tried but fails to get the conviction overturned and even fails at breaking their friend out of jail. The warrior is tortured and next time the party sees him he' is a shadow of the man he once was. Where does the story go next? Perhaps the fighter retires? Perhaps the player sees magical healing to regain his strength. Perhaps the Fighter found god on the rack and multi-classes to priest form then on? Perhaps the party seeks revenge perhaps not?
It is a bit of very heavy handed GMing but in the right situation this sort of thing could open up many story telling avenues.
So for now that's all I have on the subject of crime and punishment in D&D.
I suppose the moral of the story is that Player characters committing all sorts of crimes should at some point be threatened with the horrors of ancient punitive measures. Not only will it make the players think twice before they stab some innocent NPC in the face. Having some systems of law enforcement in place creates opportunities for adventures that players will be invested in from the get go. Jail breaks and escapes are a classic adventure trope, exile can lead to adventure, unfair trials and even harsher punishments create enemies for the player characters that can last for a whole campaign.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
Thanks for reading
A 2D20 list of execution methods, jazzed up a tiny bit for D&D.
(Taken wholly from this Wikipedia source, credit to them.)
2: Crushing by elephant. or other heavy beast such as ogre, War Horse, or Golem
3: Devouring by animals, as in damnatio ad bestias (i.e., as in the cliché, "being thrown to the lions"), as well as by alligators, crocodiles, piranha and sharks.
4: Stings from scorpions and bites by snakes, spiders,
5: Tearing apart by horses (e.g., in medieval Europe and Imperial China, with four horses; or "quartering", with four horses, as in The Song of Roland and Child Owlet).
6: Trampling by horses (example: Al-Musta'sim, the last Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad).
7: Back-breaking A Mongolian method of execution that avoided the spilling of blood on the ground
8: Blowing from a gun Tied to the mouth of a cannon, which is then fired. Seems legit.
9: Blood Eagle Cutting the skin of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out through the wounds in the victim's back. Used by the Vikings.
10: Boiling to death, This penalty was carried out using a large cauldron filled with water, oil, tar, tallow, or even molten lead.
11: Breaking wheel Also known as the Catherine wheel, after a saint who was allegedly sentenced to be executed by this method.
12: Buried alive Traditional punishment for Vestal virgins who had broken their vows.
14: Burning Most infamous as a method of execution for heretics and witches. A slower method of applying single pieces of burning wood was used by Native Americans in torturing their captives to death.
15: Cooking, Example Brazen Bull A bull made of brass that the prisoner could be stuffed into, a fire is then lit below the bull. It could be anything however, a large stew pot stirred by Baba Yaga for example. A huge oven?
16: Crucifixion Roping or nailing to a wooden cross or similar apparatus (such as a tree) and allowing to perish.
17: Crushing By a weight, abruptly or as a slow ordeal.
18: Decapitation Also known as beheading. Has been used at various points in history in many countries in Eurasia. One of the most famous execution methods is execution by guillotine.
19: Disembowelment Often employed as a preliminary stage to the actual execution, e.g. by 20: beheading; an integral part of seppuku (harakiri), which was sometimes used as a form of capital punishment.
21: Drawing and quartering English method of executing those found guilty of high treason.
22: A magical electric chair could be rigged up in some campaigns... It's gruesome but it could fit a particular game.
23: Falling The victim is thrown off a height or into a hollow
24: Flaying The skin is removed from the body.
25: Garrote Used most commonly in Spain and in former Spanish colonies (e.g. the Philippines), used to strangle or choke someone.
26: Gas Death by asphyxiation or poison gas in a sealed chamber. Again in D&D this could be achieved via alchemy or magical spells.
27: Gibbeting The act of gibbeting refers to the use of a gallows-type structure from which the victim was usually placed within a cage which is then hung in a public location and the victim left to die to deter other existing or potential criminals.
28: Hanging One of the most common methods of execution, still in use in a number of countries.
29: Immurement The confinement of a person by walling off any exits; since they were usually kept alive through an opening, this was more a form of imprisonment for life than of capital punishment
31: Keelhauling European maritime punishment. Tied to the keep of a boat while it is moving through the water.
32: Poisoning Lethal injection. Before modern times, the method of capital punishment of nobles.
33: Pendulum A type of machine with an axe head for a weight that slices closer to the victim's torso over time. (Of disputed historicity. Great for D&D though ...)
34: Scaphism An Ancient Persian method of execution in which the condemned was placed in between two boats, force fed a mixture of honey and milk, and left floating in a stagnant pond. The victim would then suffer from severe diarrhea, which would attract insects that would burrow, nest, and feed on the unfortunate victim. The unfortunate victim would eventually die from septic shock. I mean honestly WTF?
35: Shooting (with bows in most games, but also slings, cannon, whatever fits your setting)
36: By a single shot (such as the neck shot, often performed on a kneeling prisoner, as in China).
37: Smothering (Asphyxia) Suffocation in ash, or Clay, or even in snow.. Horrible way to die.
38: Starvation / Dehydration Immurement
39: Stoning The condemned is pummeled by stones thrown by a group of people with the totality of the injuries suffered leading to eventual death.
Sources: Some things I read while writing this post.
- The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society
By Norval Morris