I am writing a campaign which relies heavily on crime: investigating it, clues, leads, witnesses, evidence, corruption, etc... The setting is fantasy, low-tech, and for the time being - let us leave magic out of it. It is sort of D&D, but my answer does not need to be about this specific system.

I would like to know if there are any good generic guides, or if anyone can inform me as to methodology about this.

Also, historically, how were these things done before fingerprinting, DNA tests, blood types, lie detectors?

Was there even a court system, with lawyers, judges, jury? How did it work in the middle ages, I'm sort of trying to base it on that, with the addition of a fantasy setting, and, possibly, some magic...

As you can see its a very broad question.

Right now I am sort of basing my system off of movies I have seen, mostly taking place in the 15, 16 hundreds with those British judges with the funny hair, where there was not really any "evidence" and its mostly just two lawyers shouting at each other. But I want to make it more interesting to the players, engage their skills, all of them, at the scene, at manhunts, in the court.. Getting clues from people around the case.. Etc etc.. even forging evidence if need be..

So, kindly guide me, give me ideas, because I want to try to be as stable as possible, and without loopholes, I want a real immersible feeling, and I have an idea that this site can help me iron out all the wrinkles.

I'm looking specifically for how to integrate these elements into a fantasy setting. which means while I do appreciate the historical information, I am more interested in manipulating it to fit into my world, so understanding the reasons behind the historical so I can understand if these reasons fit more in my world with different races or not.

Each race or tribe or group or empire might have a different way of dealing out justice, but these methods for me need to make sense, not just be cool, from a natural evolution standpoint, how would that group of people develop their system?

Not to mention the inclusion of magical supernatural elements into a system where evidence, witnesses and clues are important, just as important as status and who you know.

Basically, as much as I appreciate all the answers so far, it would really help me to get to the source of them, why is it how it is, what is the cause, what led that people to develop their system how they did? How will that natural development be different in my world, when fantasy is involved.

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    \$\begingroup\$ For this to not be too big a question, you want to scope it down more - there were 1000 kinds of criminal systems in "the Middle Ages." Do you really just mean 1500's England? And this would be a history.SE question for the pure historical facts, what do you want that's more gaming focused? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 16:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ well. to be more gaming focused, it would be great to see systems or tables or any kind of rule-set that deals with these issues so i can adapt or borrow from them/it \$\endgroup\$
    – Inbar Rose
    Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 16:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ You note in one of you comments on an answer that you are looking for help with integrating fantasy elements into this hypothetical judiciary system - that and also the point you make in your comment here about system support, make strong differentiation from what is more in scope for history.SE - you might want to edit your question to focus what you are looking for. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 21:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Long Arm of the Law: Medieval Crime and Punishment maybe of some help. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 14:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep, I think you should focus it even more. First, are you asking about investigation, or about court system? These are two very different things. Also, do you want examples of historical elements, or fantasy elements? Again, very different, 12th century was probably not great at forensics, while a single good D&D wizard focused on Divination can provide a more effective investigation force than anything available in the modern world. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 23:00

10 Answers 10


Thanks for the clarification.

basically, as much as i appreciate all the answers so far, it would really help me to get to the source of them, why is it how it is, what is the cause, what led that people to develop their system how they did? and how will that natural development be different in my world, when fantasy is involved.

What it boils down to is, you want the legal system to "fit" with the culture.

In my experience of building cultures there are two key elements, religion and economy. For a given culture, as far as the average person goes, these two things will be the dominant influences shaping their life. So, nail down those two things and a bit of history on their evolution. Once you have that, looking at the legal system you should see it flow from, or be influenced by, these two things in varying degrees. As an example modern civil law can tend to be very contract based, like business, while criminal law tends toward punishment and/or retribution, a la old testament.

Looking at it that way you need to figure out what the dominant religions are and they will be the early influence for the system of justice (note I say "system of justice" not "legal system" as one has not fully developed at that point). That will grow into a true legal system once a strong economy has emerged in the culture and imparted its influence. Finally, as time progresses, a culture will learn and grow. This will cause it to change. As it and its people grow more sophisticated many aspects of the culture will do the same. The legal system is a key mirror for a society. It doesn't make much sense for an open, intellectual society to have a harsh, draconian legal system. So, most often, that will not happen.

Ok, to sum it up here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Identify the major religion(s).
  2. The idea of justice will be shaped by religion. That translates to punishment in the legal code.
  3. What is the power/role of the economy in this society?
  4. Business will add to the legal system. It will develop things like fines and new minor offenses (like littering or jaywalking), all done under the concept of the contract. See the idea of the social contract for an example.
  5. How much time and opportunity has the society had to "grow" intellectually? That will temper the legal system as well.

Here are two quick examples:

Example 1 - Plains People of Gonby

The plains of Gonby have supported a tribe of nomadic people for at least five hundred years. These people worship Lickatoen, the hunter in the sky. The herds of the plains are holy to them as is the act of hunting the herds. The hunt is not taken lightly and every kill is used to the maximum, waste is frowned upon. Everything the people use comes from the hunt. The food, the tools, the clothing, everything comes from the hunt. Their system of law is influenced by the concept of a holy hunt and a desire not to waste life. There is no capital punishment. There is no maiming for punishment. Proof of guilt is hunted like one would hunt a crafty bull. The old ways allow crime to be absolved by a lone warrior accepting a dangerous spirit hunt. To return successful the warrior must slay not only the beast but his inner beast, which is the source of his crime.

Example 2 - City State of Wavefoam

Founded two centuries ago, the city of Wavefoam has become a powerful trading nation state and cultural seat of the Order of Demnok'sernoka. Translated from the old tongue, demnok'sernoka means "a right way and many wrong ways". The idea being that there is always a right way to do anything and one must seek the right way. This mindset has lead to some very draconian laws. Some of which are in the process of being changed. The mindset has also lead to a prosperous economy via trade. It seems the "right way" to trade is to ensure everyone gets the best deal that can be crafted. They tend to take a more long term approach on trade deals. These people see guarantees of future economic stability as more important than short term profit with the possibility of lost trading partners due to questionable practices. The idea is make it profitable and low risk and honorable. The city as a whole works toward that. The laws governing trade reflect this philosophy as well.

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    \$\begingroup\$ i really like this answer, it is the direction i wanted the answers to go in, explaining more of a reason why, so i could then adapt for my own world. the examples were great. if i dont get any better answers soon, i will accept this one. thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – Inbar Rose
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 7:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @InbarRose Glad you like it. If you want a more in-depth example have a look at this setting unicornbacon.com/Gamma-World-D20-Attwatta-Preziv.pdf it's for Gamma World but the ideas of developing a legal system in step with the culture still applies. I didn't include it in the answer because it's not a fantasy setting. \$\endgroup\$
    – Leezard
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 21:18

Back in the day, evidence was not as important as now. A lot of law was based on the person with the higher title being more honourable, so a landowner would win his case against a serf, for instance. Maybe your characters could try to get the support of a higher-ranking person if they want to convict, say, a knight?

Consider the amount of corruption in the setting, too. In the middle ages, there was a lot of corruption everywhere. Most guards would take bribes, many bishops would grant pardons from God himself for anything you'd done wrong if you paid enough, and many people abused their positions to line their own pockets - look at the sheriff in 'Robin Hood'.

Also, remember that a lot of justice was administered at the scene. If the local sheriff caught an outlaw, he'd hang him without a trial. Guards who catch a thief in the marketplace might simply cut his hand off there and then. Again, think 'Robin Hood' levels of law.

Most importantly, some trials were directly done by God. The person on trial would seize a stone from a boiling pot of water, and if God thought he was guilty, he'd be burned badly. Many other examples exist. However, this was also a way to break the system. One person (quite cleverly) asked that he be allowed to take the test with boiling water on top of a mountain, 'to be closer to God'. However, on a mountain the air is thinner and water boils at a lower temperature. He wasn't scalded by it as badly, as it was only about 80`C, instead of 100. This should provide some entertainment for the more scientific of your players

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    \$\begingroup\$ I believe your answer leaves out an important point: judges. Even in the middle ages, important cases liker murders and robberies were usually put before judges, who made the ultimate decisions. Quite often, that authority also fell to the ruling nobleman. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 29, 2012 at 10:24

Evidence was definitely not so important as today, but witnesses were. As Dakeyras noted, their status was important. Word of one noble was about as important as two or three townsmen and more important than any number of peasants (if someone of higher status didn't back them).

Question is, whether you want to emphasize "medieval", "fantasy" or "crime investigation". If it's primarily medieval, it would be about convincing nobles to back your side. If the stress is on "crime investigation", it will be similar to what you know from Knight's novels. But I don't think we can just leave magic out, if it's known or believed to work.

Even in Middle Ages, when magic was considered bad and common belief in it was diminishing, there were "God's trials". In ancient Egypt, investigation was performed mainly by oracles (who didn't agree with oracles was accused of some crime, so there was no real need for them to really work well). In fantasy, this magical aspect of investigation should be even stronger. Probably not in the "ancient Egypt" manner (court's High Oracle would investigate all important cases and there wouldn't be enough work for PCs), but if magic is not really rare (i.e. all mages are covert), it should be incorporated to investigation somehow, at least for elite investigation teams.

On the other hand, there will be magical crimes (even if magic is not publicly known, in fantasy there must be some magi who ocassionally misuse their power). I don't know your magical system, but you should think about it a little and realize how magic could be used or why it's not used regularly (on the law side) and how it can be used for crime, and either how law fights against such a crime or why most law-dogs rarely face such a situation. If methods of magical investigation are common, the criminals will also find some countermeasure.

An example of my game: the world magic level is "medium" - there are magical universities, but the society is much like the medieval and magi are not the reigning class (apart from Zeelandia, where they achieved this by politics mostly). In most of the world, magicians need a license to use their powers, and special extensions to their license for special spells like invisibility (a silver bullet for any thief-mage). Mage caught without proper license can be even executed; punishments for magical crimes are usually harsher than those for the same done without magic.
On the side of law, there are several options. There are theurgists (magi travelling through astral spheres; almost ultimate investigators), but there are very few of them (the college is one of the hardest to learn) and most of them are interrested in much more esoterical mysteries than ordinary crime, so they investigate only the most difficult magical cases.
Other options are priests of the god of death, who (at least some of them) can interview recently dead. They are generally distrusted by the law, but ocasionally they are called to difficult murder cases. That's why assassins usually cut the victim's tongue out - this short ritual prevents the soul from speaking.
There is a college of investigation magic - the investigation mage can in general find the same as an theurgist. But both magic colleges can't find what is known only by a person or two, at least if they have strong will (and the magic isn't extreme masterwork). If something is known, the magic will show the "known" version even if not true. This encouraged spy rings and criminal gangs to frequent use of false-flag operations and preventing their own people from knowing important intelligence (few more fails is a low price for endangering the whole gang by some mage using mind reading on an unknowing thug).
Our campaign (its first three years of playing focused on a civil war) started with an attempt to kill the king. The assassins thought they were working for an ally of the PCs, so magi were able to find this is a false accusation (with other evidence), but couldn't find who is behind the case - the link from assassin to his master was too weak.

On the other hands, every magic, even that used by crime, has its countermeasure. That's why every city guard have dogs trained to find invisible people, why important places have guarded areas covered by sand (to see the footprints) and why some colourful liquid is a common guard's equipment.


I'm no expert on this field, yet I have to recommend you to read Bernard Knight's Crowner John historical mystery novels whose protagonist is a medieval coroner. Though opinions about the books vary (some find them lacking in excitement, others love it), the author is a highly respected forensic pathologist and is "a founder member of The Medieval Murderers, a select group of historical crime-writers within the Crime Writers' Association" (wikipedia).

I've learned a lot about medieval investigation--basically Holmesian clue-gathering and deduction, the sometimes absurd methods and role of state and religion in the investigative procedures etc--from those few books of his series that I read.

You might want to read into the history of the coroners and the history of forensic science as well, to get a sense of the topic. (And the online articles are free, obviously, opposed to the books I've just recommended.)

It's good to keep in mind, as a baseline, that even today's advanced methods do not provide failsafe truths. As prof. Knight himself says in an interview:

"The reality is, short of an exact DNA match, for which you need to already have a comparative sample, all forensic science can do is indicate X or rule out Y - there's no magic crystal ball."

Of course, your campaign might have a crystal ball (a real priceless artifact in a low magic setting... plot hook... nudge-nudge. :))

  • \$\begingroup\$ @InbarRose I'm glad you've found these pointers useful. You may also want to check out this thread at rpg.net: forum.rpg.net/… (and I may want to include it in my answer. :)) \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 10:09

I suggest you read or watch some of Brother Cadfael's adventures, the character is a former crusader turned monk with a innate sense of justice and always has a eye out for a unlawful death trying to slip by in his parish/city.

His main tools and what I think is most helpfull for your own character is:

  1. A keen sense of his surroundings.
  2. A logical mind, linking one event to the other is the basis of investigation in any era.
  3. Use what skills you have to the fullest, Cadfael's a herb expert so flowers or seeds on the corpse are the most recurring clues.
  4. Have a friend who is a noble, you must be able to both stop hasty convictions and be able to convict others who would normaly be shielded by their noble status.

Don't forget the forensic abilities of an alchemist. I think it is a given that an alchemist has some means to determine if a strand of hair comes from a high or a wood elf, or if a vial of blood is from a black or red dragon - before ruining a 50,000 gold piece potion and taking away a chunk of landscape along with it. This is as CSI as it gets.

Also, many fantasy worlds feature "magical clothes". Specialist "Tailor Wizards" could identify specific fibers and so on. ("This is black belladonna weave, only used by the Death Wizards of the Southern Kingdoms. Only they know the secret of how tp weave the plant into magical clothing. Also, such clothing is poisonous to anyone except them...")

Necromancers can give other kind of info. Even more mundane embalmers can be employed. ("This body's internal organs are messed up in a... weird way)

Generally speaking, think about what kind of professional figures your fantasy world may have, and the kind of info they can provide as consultants, or even people working for law enforcement agencies.


Remember, that medieval/renaissance Europe was not a completely lawless hellhole how a lot of people imagine it.

It might also be worth considering, that the "generic" medieval-ish fantasy worlds usually depict a society more like the 17th century (with walled city-states, very influential guilds and merchants) instead of the middle ages (maybe except the technology, like no gunpowder).

If the crimes happen around the royal court, then I agree with most of the answers, that the complicated intrigues and the influence of the strongest noble families, and trust or distrust between the top nobles would be more important than evidence and peasant witnesses.

However, consider criminal investigation in a walled town. The cities in that era had a surprising level of autonomy, they could elect their own leaders, and if they did their duties to the ruler (taxes or war material) then the ruling king/baron/etc. would let them do inside their town pretty much what they wanted. This means people in towns could get fair trials, or at least fairer than one might imagine from hearing about the middle ages and thinking on the rights of kings vs peasants.

Without advanced forensic science, most trials were decided by the witnesses one could gather.

Keep in mind, that frequent travel, changing professions, lifestyles or circle of acquaintances were very uncommon. Towns were not that big as today. This means that people knew a lot more about their neighbors compared to our days, and if you had a profession in a town (blacksmith, baker, etc.), most likely your father and grandfather had the same profession, you had the same shop and same work for most of your life, and everybody knew you. This means that if someone was known as an honest person for decades, his words were trusted. Dishonor was something not taken lightly, if you had to flee, you could not just easily make a new living in another town as people were very slow in building trust in strangers. So your "medieval detective" character would most probably spend most of his time trying to find witnesses or gather information among people who live in the town for quite some time and have the respect of their neighbors.

I remember a story from the late 17th or early 18th century, where someone stole a lot of money from a locked room in a tower in the town center. The room had guards posed in front of it, and the streets around were frequently patrolled at night. The window was tiny and very high. Even if the perpetrator was small and thin enough to fit trough, how could he carry a ladder across town, climb up, spend quite some time in picking the locks on the chests, climb down, and hide the ladder without being seen?

The perpetrator had a collapsible ladder (shaped like a scissor lift) which he could take with him while he was in the room. The parts were not something you could acquire, make, or keep hidden in that time. So he did order it from a smith in another town in disguise (big fake beard, etc.), as parts of some furniture (chair legs, if I remember well). He did really use the parts in his furniture. However, what the perpetrator did not know, is that the local smith in his town recognized those parts on a visit because he made them! The other smith in a much smaller town ordered them from him. Now, why would someone buy those parts for a much higher price from another town (as the other smith did place a hefty percentage on it), if he could have bought it locally. A talk with the smith in the other town (a well-respected person) revealed that a small and thin man with a big beard and mustache bought them. The word of two well respected smiths was enough to cite our perpetrator in for questioning. You can figure the rest out, especially as such questionings were not very polite in those times.

While I don't know how much of the above story is true and how much is made up, it might illustrate the practices of that time.

So I suggest to pick the NPCs in and around the storyline to be from the same level of society, and so you can limit the effects of "no one would trust a peasant versus the word of a noble".

While maybe a bit too late of a period, but still an interesting read: a real-life criminal investigation from a time of kings and nobles: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affair_of_the_Diamond_Necklace

By the way, words of nobles... most nobles were not that corrupt as it's popular to imagine. Except the rich land-owners, most (especially young) nobles did not have much except their sword and their given word. If they were caught lying and thus lose that respect, their social and professional life would have been completely ruined.


Have a look at the (Chinese) movie Detective Dee and The Mistery of the Phantom Flame... it gives a nice idea of how investigation may proceed with low tech and the chance of magic to be involved.

Basically think of Sherlock Holmes: an exceptional individual who is considered trusted by the authorities and who can act outside of the "normal" investigative process (which in primitive societies most of the time would just be "decide who the culprit should be and then torture him/her until we get a confession").

This character (or band of characters maybe, in an RPG) should have a backstory of being considered a good detective - either as a freelance or part of the judiciary of the state.

I also remember that the old White Dwarf published a Detective subclass for AD&D 1st ed., back in the late 80s... a subclass of thief with some minor detection magic, if memory serves.

I don't know if this may fit your concept for the campaign, but personally I'd aim for a gritty, darker theme: considering that forensics and actual evidence wasn't a very well defined concept in medioeval times, your party may have to take both the investigative and retributive roles. I.e. first of all use forensics (as primitive as these may be) and clue gathering to get an idea of who the culprit is... and then kill or anyway "hit" him/her because going through a normal trial would be impossible (especially in cases where the criminal is a nobleman or part of the clergy). As an example, remember that Jack the Ripper could have been a high-ranking noble in Victorian England, and in cases like that, the only way to stop him would be to kill him alright. Maybe simulating an accident.

This would also help give different "jobs" to the party members: one or more detectives, one or more "hit-men"... at least one thief-like class to gather clues or to spy on the suspect...

  • \$\begingroup\$ Wasn't he "Judge" Dee? Books about Judge Dee were my number one source for low-tech investigation, and I recommend them to everybody interrested in this topic. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pavel
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 15:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ You are correct, the books were about "Judge Dee", but the movies (a prequel have been produced in the meantime) use "Detective Dee", at least the English versions. \$\endgroup\$
    – p.marino
    Commented Jun 17, 2014 at 12:01

Not a direct answer, but most recent versions of Call of Cthulhu have a large section on forensics in the turn of the last century - very informative, and might suit some of your purposes.

I have v5.1.2, and it has a section titled 'Forensic Pathology', starting on p196.

I can't be certain it has the same info, but the latest rulebook is here


I think the consideration of primary importance is player engagement for investigation and evidence; if you want investigation and evidence to play a role throughout your campaign, then it needs to be integrated into the framework of all the legal systems.

Id make a list of each culture, and put that as a bullet point for each judicial system to support provision of evidence. But make everything else different and appropriate to the culture, for example:

1) Judges vs Juries. Some will support only one, have variable numbers or may have variable social standing requirements.

2) Penalty Phase. Is there a specific penalty for a specific crime, or is it up to the Judge/Jury/etc?

3) Evidence in Court (your biggest question). When is it provided? Does evidence need to be provided in advance? Does evidence have to be certified in some way?

4) Alignment. If you are using alignment, how does the cultural preference towards alignment impact the judicial system, especially in certifying relevance of evidence?

Legal systems are a reflection of the culture, and it will take magic and supernatural taboos into consideration, even if there is no evidence to support their existence - even in a low magic campaign.


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