Trial by Ordeal

This bas-relief from Bamberg Cathedral depicts the trial by ordeal of the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich II's wife, Kunigunde. After being accussed of adultery she proved her innocence by walking over red-hot ploughshares.

Trial by Ordeal

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 the ordeal as an alternative justice system.

Cultures that believe in a Power that maintains justice in society have justice systems that depend on trial by ordeal. The Power may be a deity, fate, or just the karmic wheel, as long as the members of the culture assume that it actively interferes in events to uphold justice.

Trial by ordeal is typically used when evidence does not clearly point to the guilty party. That is, somebody seen committing murder is not going to be subject to an ordeal. But when the issue comes down to one person’s word against another’s, and the judges can’t make up their minds, then the accused (and sometimes the accuser) will be put to the test.

From a GM’s viewpoint, a justice system that requires trial by ordeal provides a variety of interesting roleplaying scenarios. The PCs may be the accusers but are more likely to be the accused. They must decide whether to flee, participate honestly, or cheat on the ordeal. The ordeal may be a brief scene in a larger adventure or could be the entire adventure itself, especially if the ordeal is the quest kind (under Stamina, below). If the PCs survive the ordeal (and let’s hope they do, unless the GM has decided to abruptly end the campaign), the accuser must be dealt with—was it an honest mistake or something more malicious, and will the accuser now resort to more direct threats against the PCs?

Who Undergoes the Ordeal

In some cultures, only the accused undergoes the ordeal. In others, both the accuser and the accused must participate. The second version has the benefit of reducing malicious accusations. After all, if the ordeal for treason is to lick a white-hot knife, chances are the PC will think twice before accusing his or her neighbor—the PC’s tongue is on the line, too.

When only the accused must undergo the ordeal, malicious and spiteful accusations will be more common. Those who have the power to accuse and to punish will be feared, and justice may or may not be served, depending on how well the ordeal works.

The ordeal can be combined with trial by oath. First, trial by oath may be a form of trial by ordeal if it is thought that a false oath will cause the Power to strike the offender down. Second, if the oaths are inconclusive—e.g., both accused and accuser take oaths and nothing happens to either of them—then trial by ordeal may be the next step in the justice system.

Will the Ordeal Work?

The GM must decide whether the ordeal really works. In a fantasy game, it may make sense for benign deities to protect the innocent. In this case, the ordeal is as logical a justice system as any other, and probably more reliable than trial by jury! In other game genres, the GM has more latitude to decide whether the ordeal is honest or rigged; whether there is a Power that will interfere or whether everything relies on luck and willpower.
In societies where the ordeal does not “really” work (there is no Power interfering), the GM must decide whether anyone realizes that or not. If the accusers, the judges, and the accused all believe that the ordeal is fair, then even good people may let horrible tortures and murders occur, believing that they are pursuing justice. If the accusers, the judges, or the accused do not believe that the ordeal is fair, then there is a more active evil going on—especially when the ordeal is used for political or personal gain.

Rigging the ordeal is, of course, an option for PCs or NPCs to explore. The judges will try to ensure that the ordeal is as fair as possible (unless they’re in on the rig), but clever adventurers or villains should be able to figure out ways to escape the ordeal unharmed … unless, of course, a Power interferes, after all!

Types of Ordeals

There are as many types of ordeals as there are ways to harm a person. In most ordeals, the participants must do something that will bring great physical harm, or even death, to them. The Powers will interfere to protect the innocent, and the guilty will suffer. If both accuser and accused participate in the ordeal, the one who is hurt will be considered the guilty person (that is, either the accuser lied or the accused was guilty). If both are harmed, then both must be guilty of something.

In a nastier twist, if the participant is harmed s/he is considered innocent, and if the participant is unharmed s/he is assumed to have used black magic, and is executed. The accused is in a lose-lose situation (always an interesting place to put a PC, of course).

The following are several types of ordeals pulled from the history books. They follow the usual pattern (unharmed equals innocence), but the GM may want to reverse the pattern (unharmed equals guilt), depending on what is appropriate for the campaign.

Fire: The participant must pass through fire unharmed (walking through a bonfire, being burned at the stake and living, walking on hot coals, etc.). The guilty will be killed; the innocent will live.

Red-Hot Metal: In this ordeal, the participant must carry some item that has been heated to searing temperatures. The distance it must be carried can vary. The innocent’s hand will be unharmed; the guilty’s hand will be seared away by the heat of the metal. In some cases, the hand or arm may be bandaged and then inspected at regular intervals; supernaturally fast healing may be a sign that the Power is favorably inclined toward the person.

Boiling Water: The participant must thrust a hand into a pot of boiling water, to the wrist or to the elbow. Sometimes the person must find a small but sacred item and pull it from the pot. Alternate versions are to replace water with oil or some other scalding substance. An innocent person’s hand or arm will not be harmed; a guilty person’s hand or arm will have the flesh seared or boiled away. In some cases, the hand or arm may be bandaged and then inspected at regular intervals; supernaturally fast healing may be a sign that the Power is favorably inclined toward the person.

Drowning: In this ordeal, the participant is tied (usually in a sack) and thrust into a natural body of water. If the person floats, s/he is innocent; if the person drowns, s/he is guilty.

Monster: In this ordeal, the participant must be made vulnerable to some kind of beast. If the beast harms or kills the participant, the person is guilty; if the beast leaves the participant alone, the person is innocent. The beast chosen is normally nonintelligent, to ensure its objectivity (one plot twist would be that its intelligence hasn’t been discovered yet). It could be as harmless as a swarm of stinging bugs or as terrible as a raging dragon.

Stamina: In this ordeal, the participant must do something that requires great stamina or willpower; if s/he can carry out the ordeal for the prescribed length of time (or at least longer than the accuser), then s/he is innocent. In Europe, standing in the form of a cross (legs together, arms outstretched) was one form of stamina-ordeal. Surviving poison may be another version of this ordeal, as might be successfully carrying out a great and dangerous deed.

A GM can use any of these ordeals as parts of adventures. In most cases, the ordeal will be more interesting if the PC does not belong to the culture that uses it; that way the PC will need to deal with his or her doubts about the ordeal’s efficiency. Since most PCs are not likely to blindly trust in the ordeal system, the GM should try to plan ahead to decide what will happen if the PC is caught running away or cheating!

Originally written December 28, 1998

Image Source: Bas-relief, Bamberg Cathedral, circa 1010: Trial by ordeal of the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich II’s wife, Kunigunde.

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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