Trial by Oath

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Trial by Oath

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 that includes a presentation of evidence and logical forms of argument. 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 oath-taking as an alternative justice system.

Cultures that place a high value on the individual and on honor, and that believe strongly that some greater power (deities, fate, etc.) arbitrates justice in the universe, may consider a person’s sworn oath sufficient to clear him or her of criminal charges. Such cultures are likely to take their religion extremely seriously and have firm beliefs in right and wrong. Oaths in these cultures might be backed by merit, character witnesses, or sacred artifacts.

Oaths Backed by Merit: Cultures with a belief in divine right may permit certain prominent members to rebut an accusation with a simple oath that the accusation is false. Such members of society would be considered so honest, so meritorious, that their word is unassailable. Historically, these have been leaders such as kings or chieftains, high priests or shamans. Often they would be taking their oath before witnesses of similar or only slightly less rank—the disgruntled aristocracy or an ecclesiastical court.

Cultures might also extend this privilege to other individuals, depending on the culture’s values. For example, some cultures might permit a pregnant woman to take such an oath, believing that she could not lie with her unborn child’s life in the balance, or that her child, in its innocence, would not permit her to lie.

Oaths Backed by Character Witnesses: Another type of oath is one in which the accused is backed by witnesses who will swear to the accused’s good character.

In this type of oath, the accused must round up a number of witnesses that would vary according to the gravity of the crime—the more heinous the crime, the more witnesses required (perhaps as few as three or as many as 300). The number could also vary according to the status of the accuser—it might take more witnesses to refute the accusation of a king than of a commoner. Moreover, the judge could determine what kinds of witnesses must be gathered—often they would be peers of the accused. People of lower rank might only count as a half a witness, whereas people of higher rank might count as two or more witnesses. Sometimes they might be required to be kinfolk, especially in cultures where family is highly valued and kinfolk share in each others’ successes or failures. Certainly they would be required to be people of good character, and the judge might weed out those witnesses considered suspect.

The witnesses would not be required to testify about the facts of the crime, but only about the accused person’s character and trustworthiness.

This type of oath may be combined with the first (if the accused finds a person of merit to swear to his or her innocence) or the third (if the witnesses are all required to make their oaths on some sacred artifact).

Oaths Backed by Sacred Artifact: If a culture believes that certain places or objects are sanctified to a power capable of judging a person’s truthfulness, then taking an oath in that place or on that object may be sufficient to prove one’s honesty. If the oath is false, the power in question will strike the oathtaker down or otherwise provide proof that the person is lying. A similar version of this is to require the oathtaker to swear on something not supernaturally but personally sacred, such as his or her family name, business tools, mother’s grave, and so forth, in the belief that such items (family, business, ghosts) would turn on any person taking a false oath.

Sometimes making such an oath may require traveling to the holy place or artifact, in which case the plaintiff, the accused, and a number of guards and witnesses may travel with the accused.

Cultures may also require the oath-taker to swear on a variety of artifacts, the number increasing according to the gravity of the crime. Thus a person might have to swear his or her innocence on four altars … or twelve … travelling from place to place with guards and witnesses in what would undoubtedly become quite a spectacle. In a pantheistic society, a serious crime might require taking an oath of innocence in the temple of each deity in the pantheon.

Cultures that carry out trials by oath are likely to be smaller and closer-knit that most modern first-world Earth cultures; they would need to be tightly bound by beliefs in merit, character, family, and religion. However, GMs shouldn’t be afraid to graft this justice system onto advanced societies. A spacefaring race that places more emphasis on honor than on material wealth might find that an oathtaking justice system works quite well; and if it’s not perfect, well, what justice system is? In many other ways, the race might find that relying on a system based on honor and trust maintains the social fabric better than relying on a system based on fact and suspicion. The canny GM, of course, will make sure these systems clash, with characters raised in one faced with a criminal trial in the other.

Originally written December 19, 1998

Image Source: Kinder-Und, 1910

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
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