Series Info...Playing with History #8:

And Justice for Some

by Michael Karlin
May 14, 2003

“Justice tips the scale, bringing to some learning through suffering.” — Aeschylus, playwright.

This article I am going to discuss the legal system in your historical-fiction online world. You have much to face when approaching this topic, because as values changed, so too did the crimes and the punishments for them. You'll even have to tackle the sometimes boring procedural rules and conduct of your system, and align them to some degree with the period and setting where your game takes place.


Whether or not you are optimistic or pessimistic about human behaviour, it is an objective fact that, for one reason or another, people break law. The law is a body of values by which a society operates, and therefore an infraction against the law is an infraction against the values of society, and must be remedied. Law does not equate justice, and it tries to emulate justice with very limited success. If you are going to create a society, chances are you are going to create a law as well. For a game developer, this might take a bloody long time to do, but it is one of those necessities that you'll need to undertake. Find your balance between meeting your justice needs and precision; you don't want a legal code one-hundred pages in length written in a Middle English dialect. Sure this is historically correct, but the PCs won't read it and those having to enforce it won't really know what to do. Legal codes are very, very ancient and are probably existent in most time periods after ancient Babylonia.

Generally speaking, I find it preferable to draft the legal code early in the plot development in order to get the values of the society conceptualised in an easy format. As the idea evolves, you can always go back and add or subtract a few provisions. Historically speaking, you have a lot of research to do. Laws in societies evolved quite quickly, and since you don't want to replicate the massive texts some legal codes turned out to be (a big problem during the Reformation), you have to pick and choose what would be relevant to the game. Making individual laws is not a difficult endeavour; most will come intuitively, or through research. For easy reference by the vast oodles of players who will access it, organise your legal code into logical sections, be they by severity of crime or theme of infraction. The Ma'at, the legal code of ancient Egypt that will be used in Glory of the Nile, is divided into sections relating to who is affected by the sin (as crimes are called there). Therefore, crimes against the gods, Pharaoh, the people, the treasuries and the marketplace are listed in their respective sections. The Ma'at also contains regulations and privileges of certain groups, such as the scribes and magistrates.


Punishments of legal infractions are probably more difficult to conceptualise than the laws themselves, and stray into IC/OOC crossover territory quite readily. There is a myriad of different types of punishments available to you, from so-called "Final Death," or the deletion of the character, to something as small as a fine. Each have their own pros and cons, and I will present some here in easy-to-read bullet format:

  • Capital Punishment – A character commits a crime so heinous that they are put to death. Sometimes, this death might amount to a character's deletion, and sometimes not. This depends on how severe the crime was, and how you set up your death system (see last article). It is only recently that many societies have condemned this; for most of history in most cultures, death was the result of being found guilty for many crimes. In my opinion, a death that results in the deletion of the character should be used sparingly. Players might be tame in their roleplay risk-taking if their character gets caught and deleted for stealing a loaf of bread. If you have a death system that allows for resurrection with penalty, then this is easier to pull off.

  • Corporal Punishment – A character is punishment by being tortured, leading to temporary or permanent effect. In Glory of the Nile, most crimes are punishable by being strapped to a pillar and whipped silly. Accordingly, we will ensure that the punishment carries certain mechanical disabilities, or a reduced ability to engage in any physical activity. Permanent versions of corporal punishment include the removal of body parts or lingering effects of a severe beating. These let the character persist, but with a permanent reminder that their crime was not tolerated.

  • Incarceration – In modern times, prison is the most common way to punish a criminal. Incarceration removes a criminal from society. As this prevents roleplay by severely limiting a character's mobility to a place few will visit and interact with, you remove what is really fun about roleplay gaming. I see this as a punishment against the player as well as the character, and therefore GN will have very few instances of incarceration. Prison will only be used to store dangerous criminals before a magistrate sees them.

  • Monetary Penalty – In games with an economy, monetary penalty can significantly affect a character while leaving their physical integrity intact. The money can go to the central authority, or to the victim.

  • Bondage – A criminal is made a slave to either the central authority or the victim of the crime. GN will introduce slavery as a concept in the justice system for certain crimes, especially economic ones. Slaves must do as their master commands, and have little rights. In Egypt, the slave to a human have a few rights (such as to food and some shelter), but a slave to Pharaoh has no such luxury. Of course, people don't always do as they are told, and so bondage offers a system not reliant on mechanics.

Virtually anyone can enforce a law or punishment, be they police, military or the judge him/herself. There will be many people involved in the creation, enforcement or judgement of law in your game, so it is best that you keep it coherent.

In conclusion, keep it short, relevant and accurate.

In two weeks, I'm going to make some brash opinions about why games are rarely made about certain excellent places and periods. Hint: they might be good ideas for game development. Stay tuned.

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