I love addressing law in a roleplaying game. Nothing startles adventurers more than being slapped with a fine or prison sentence for brawling in public, for evading “salvage” tax on the loot they’ve pulled from the dragon’s lair, for breaking and entering the villain’s legal residence. Law makes things trickier, whether it’s law in a fantasy setting or law in a futuristic setting. After all, most adventurers live on the edge of legality—their hats tend to be grey more often than they are white or black.
But, strangely, most GMs who develop laws for their campaigns model their justice system after modern bureaucratic forms, with a sense that crime is an offense against society and individual, and often with a system for trial by one’s peers. In a game system that takes place in modern Earth, that’s fine … but in fantasy campaigns or campaigns that involve nonhuman races or other worlds, why assume that all law has evolved the same way? This essay addresses the use of wergild as an alternative to physical punishment (e.g., flogging, enslavement, imprisonment, execution). It’s a bit brutal, but it could offer interesting scenarios to the right kind of game.
Wergild is a Nordic term for blood-money, or a sum that is paid to a victim or the victim’s surviving relatives in reparation for a crime. The practice, however, crossed many cultures and took many forms. Here I provide a simplified version that can be used in most campaigns.
Traditionally, a wergild system existed in a society with extended kinship ties, and in its usual form it called upon those ties for reparation. The mindset behind the wergild system was, in part, that all kinsfolk are responsible for their own; an offender offends not only against an individual but against a family, and punishment is meted not only against the offender but against the offender’s family. Although wergild systems have tended to exist in warrior cultures where maintaining peace among hot-headed warriors is extremely difficult, it might also exist in a pacifistic culture where the governing body refuses to kill even a killer.
In a wergild scenario, an offender harms a victim’s property or person and is brought before the lawgiving body. How the lawgiving body decides the guilt or innocence of the offender depends on the culture. However, one way or the other, a wergild payment scenario occurs after an offender is tried, found guilty, and sentenced to pay the victim (or the victim’s surviving kin).
The offender and all of the offender’s relatives to some X degree of relationship are required to pitch in shares that are scaled to their degree of closeness to the offender. Thus, the offender pays the largest proportion of the wergild; brothers and sisters might shoulder the second largest proportion; parents the third; aunts and uncles the fourth; grandparents and grandchildren the fifth; and so forth, to whatever degree of consanguinity the GM deems appropriate. From a roleplaying point of view, one can imagine that the threat of being hit with such a fine would lead to a great deal of self-policing in families! A society with this system of justice is also likely to have strict rituals of disinheritance designed to protect a family from a proven “bad egg” (although we can assume that the family probably cannot disinherit the offender after the crime is committed but before the wergild is paid).
The wergild is paid to the victim or, if the victim is dead, to the victim’s relatives, again scaled to whatever degree of consanguinity the GM deems appropriate. Once the wergild is paid, the victim or the victim’s family may no longer seek revenge against the offender or the offender’s kin—wergild can be understood in part as a nonviolent form of settling disputes that might otherwise tear a close-knit society apart.
Traditionally, wergild for an injured or slain priest was paid to the priest’s church, and in a campaign, this could be extended to include any person who belongs to any organization commonly thought to replace that person’s family. In addition, although wergild was traditionally paid to family, individual campaigns might want to replace family with the most relevant social group for the society is—religious group, clan, tribe, shield-sisterhood, and so forth.
A GM who wants to use a wergild system in a campaign must develop a list of offenses and scale the wergild fine accordingly. I would suggest that the wergild payment for damage to property be exactly what is needed to repair or replace the damaged property (whether it’s an injured cow, a burnt house, or a demolished space station). A GM might also wish to scale the wergild payment to income lost as a result of the property damage, or include mental anguish payments. These are modern concepts and wergild is a premodern system, but there’s no reason why other races or cultures couldn’t mesh the two.
Wergild payments for damage or death to a person are a little more complicated. I’ve developed a rough chart that can be used as a starting point for developing a system of personal-injury wergild payments. A GM using this chart should tailor it for the culture (is childbearing capacity valued very highly?), race (do you need to add prices for wings or tails? does the race value noses more than eyes?), and level of science (does chromosomal damage need a rating?). I have not included an actual monetary amount. The modifiers are all multiples of the base amount, and the base amount is provided in generic, relative terms from 1 to 10.
Payment Modifiers for Type of Damage:
Simple Damage (Cuts, Bruises, etc.): 1x
Great Damage (Leaves terrible scars, etc.): 3x
Broken (But can heal): 5x
Partial Loss (Partial amputation or loss of use): 7x
Complete Loss (Total amputation or loss of use): 10x
Death: 100x Head
Payment Modifiers for Type of Injury:
Causes Loss of Livelihood: 25x Head (doesn’t include death)
Causes Loss of Virginity: 15x Genitalia
Causes Loss of Child-creating Capacity: 75x Genitalia
Causes Loss of a Family’s Sole Source of Support: 50x Head
Payment Modifiers for Class of Individual:
Esteemed (high-caste, noble, celebrity, etc.): 75x Hand
Respected (middle-caste, merchant, scholar, etc.): 50x Hand
Useful (working-caste, yeoman, service industry, etc.): 25x Hand
Payment by Body Part:
Non-joint part of arm: 3
Fingers: Thumb 9; Index 7; Third 7; Fourth 5; Pinkie 3
Non-joint part of leg: 3
Toes: Big toe 9; Second 7; Third 7; Fourth 5; Fifth 3
Nonfatal injury to:
Other modifiers might take into consideration whether the damage was inflicted as the result of assault or self-defense, on an adult or a child, and so forth. Payment may be in the form of actual cash or independently assessed valuables. If somebody cannot meet the payment, s/he may go into debt or may possibly be indentured to the victim until the debt has been paid off.
Using a wergild system gives the GM a few advantages. First, the GM doesn’t have to worry about throwing player characters into prison or executing them if they break a few laws. Second, the GM can run a quick encounter with a wergild-using race to lighten the characters’ pocketbooks if they’ve been accumulating a bit too much money. Third, it differentiates a race or culture, providing much more depth and interest to the campaign than just another cookie-cutter imitation of modern-day jurisprudence.
Originally written December 14, 1998