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 trial by combat.
Trial by combat is similar in many ways to trial by ordeal. Much like trial by ordeal, trial by combat will be required when a person’s guilt or innocence is not self-evident. It also relies on a cultural belief in some sort of deity or fate that will intervene to bring victory to the innocent party. Unlike trial by ordeal, trial by combat always involves both the accuser and the accused, or their respective champions.
Trial by combat will be found in a warrior’s society, a society that values individual merit over the collectivity and that values prowess in battle as a social skill. It may be an option open only to a privileged elite (probably some sort of aristocratic warrior caste) or to anybody in society (in which case a system of choosing champions will probably be in effect).
Trial by combat is one of the most entertaining scenarios for a roleplaying game because it boils down to something most player characters do best—fight. This, then, more than the other forms of justice detailed in this series of essays, is the most likely to show up in your campaign.
The Challenge: First the challenge must be made and accepted. Depending on the society, this may be as informal as throwing a gauntlet down on the tavern floor before one’s opponent, or as formal as declaring the intent to duel before some sort of board of combat, choosing seconds, and making a number of ritual decisions regarding time, place, weapon, and so forth. If a formal system of regulating trial by combat is in effect, then there may be an involved set of laws regulating combat terms, all of which can open entertaining roleplaying possibilities as the PC struggles to fulfill them all before s/he gets a chance to cross blades with his or her nemesis.
The society must also have standards regarding when (if ever) a challenge to trial by combat can be refused. There are numerous extenuating circumstances that could lead a person to refuse such a challenge, from sheer cowardice to being pregnant to simply being a president who refuses to dignify a challenge from a cabbie with a reply. The GM must consider the options before starting down this roleplaying path. One thing is worth note, however. In a society with rules for trial by combat, it’s very likely that any killing outside of these rules will be considered murder. Systems of authority rarely like to be ignored!
The Champions: In some societies, combat must be resolved between the accuser and the accused, and no others. In other societies, champions may fight for accused, accuser, or both. Historically, champions have been permitted to women, priests, or the elderly, but champions could be permitted to any type of person, if the society permits it. In some cases, choice of weapon may determine whether or not a champion is employed. For example, in AD&D it would hardly be fair to force a magic-user to cross swords with a fighter, or a fighter to match spells with a magic-user. In those cases, it makes sense that the mage or fighter hire a champion to do his or her fighting, instead.
Champions might be swords-for-hire (in which case it would make an interesting sideline of work for your player characters), or the law might require that they be related to the accused—a spouse, a sibling, a parent or a child, perhaps. Choosing a champion—or being asked to be someone’s champion—also offers some interesting roleplaying possibilities.
The Nature of the Combat: Trial by combat can involve individuals or armies, technology or magic. In many wars, each side, even if believing in a different deity (or pantheon), will believe that “the just shall prevail.”
Typically, this sort of trial will be formal enough that there will be some sort of rules in effect, even if they are just the rules of chivalry. Even in a tavern brawl acknowledged as a low-class form of trial by combat, one can assume that using poison or illegal weaponry would be frowned on by the onlookers and thought of as “cheating” justice. (This doesn’t have to be the case, of course; it just depends on the overall mores of the group witnessing the fight. An assassin’s guild might have very loose rules about what is or isn’t permitted in a duel!).
Trial by combat does not necessarily mean a duel to the death—combat to first blood or to any stage before death could be deemed sufficient. Mercenary champions may insist that their duels be to first blood or to incapacitation!
The Battlefield: If the duel involves weapons that might harm bystanders—for example, guns, lasers, or magic—there will probably be a rather large or specially protected battlefield available to the combatants. In general, somebody must be around to ensure fair play and to declare the outcome of the combat, so at least one bystander is likely to be present (but protected) during the combat.
Defeat: There’s little doubt that the victor of the trial by combat is well-off—he or she leaves the battlefield and goes home. But what about the loser? If the loser is a champion, does the champion suffer the punishment attached to the crime? Probably not. But what then happens to the person the champion was representing? If that person was the accused, then one presumes that he or she then faces the legal repercussions of the crime s/he was accused of. But if that person was the accuser, is there any punishment? A fine of some sort paid to the wrongfully accused seems to be the very least that can be levied on a defeated accuser!
Trial by combat offers a number of roleplaying opportunities for your players. Characters may find themselves the accused in a duel they didn’t want, or may find themselves asked to be somebody’s champion, or may need to find themselves a champion. They might need to learn a new weapon (“A lightsabre?”) or learn a new set of social rules (“First, you must make a pilgrimage to the temple and there make sacrifice to the gods to purify yourself….”). The combat itself, of course, will be the most interesting part of this scenario—especially if one of the parties decides to cheat, or if the combat gets interrupted by a mutual enemy who leads accused and accuser to fight side-by-side against their common threat!
Originally written January 16, 1999
Image Source: Military and religious life in the Middle Ages and at the period of the Renaissance (Jacob, P. L., 1870).