"Excuse me?" Samantha said. "Did you just say twenty percent?"
"That's right, my hair-footed friend. All salvaged goods in the Duchy of Zolmanna are subject to an imperial tithe and a ducal excise on salvaged goods. For the support of peace and order in the realm, you understand."
"Oh, I am not believin' this, Eddie," said Michael. "Just because you gave out too much loot last session, now you're giving us the shaft!"
"No, Michael," Eddie replied. "Guard-Captain Sisera is simply informing your characters of the legal realities of operating within the empire. If you wanted to go black-market, you should've stayed in the borderlands."
"Yeah, like that's safe," Ally said, "Your buddy Kohath started a rumble at the Brazen Banner while we were eating so he could rifle our rooms. He'd have gotten away with it if Melantha hadn't gone upstairs right before then and found him."
"Hey, it's highway robbery either way as far as I'm concerned, whether the shakedown is done with a knife or a badge!" Michael shot back.
With a smile, Eddie slipped back into character: "Excuse me, good folk, but are you referring to Teman Kohath of Seba?"
"Um, yeah," Michael replied.
"Interesting. I'm afraid you will have to come with me now."
"Arphaxad demands to know what's going on," Samantha said. "Our imperial adventuring compact is in order, isn't it?"
"Oh, your papers are in order, but Imperial Inquisitor Laban Kohath has a few questions for you about the recent disappearance of his brother. . . "
WORDS TO THE WISE
What legal rights do adventurers have? Are they free to do as they please? Do they have the right to arrest people, kill them, and/or take their stuff? Can they go about armed and armored in public?
How can adventurers enhance their legitimacy? Can they organize as a registered adventuring company? Does doing so give them extra rights? What if they are working for a wealthy or respected patron, or are deputized by the legal authorities?
What about collateral damage? What happens if the PCs damage or destroy something or kill someone in the line of duty? What kind of restitution do they need to make?
What if PCs run afoul of the law? Will magic be used in the investigation? How corrupt is the legal system? If PCs are found guilty, how will you factor their punishment into the campaign?
What does it cost to adventure? Are there taxes or fees to be paid for the privilege of adventuring, or on treasure found? Who is paid? How much? How often? Do you get some proof you've paid (so you don't get shaken down twice)?
Sometimes adventuring situations are not simple. Character actions can have legal consequences, even if the PCs have a reasonable excuse for their actions. In this case, they didn't know Teman Kohath was working on an investigation for his brother, the Imperial Inquisitor. They figured he was just another petty thief. Maybe they should have known (and ignored some clues Eddie had dropped), but it's not reasonable to expect the PCs to know (or care) about the motivations of every NPC in the world, and to a degree they have to take NPCs at face value or they'd spend more time doing background checks than adventuring.
Still, they messed up the investigation and could get in trouble for it. Say they return to Elath to try to make amends, only to find that Teman (whom they left tied up and unconscious in their rooms) has been sold into slavery. Troubles can pile on top of troubles, and this is all still an accidental incident. Things could get much hairier if the PCs can be proven to have done in someone on purpose. Messing with a well-connected villain could land the PCs, rather than the real bad guy, in trouble with the law.
PCs can cross the line with wealth as well. Say they come into town to sell the loot from their latest haul, only to be confronted by someone else who has a legal claim to their stuff. Salvage taxes are one form of this, but maybe the whole pile will be claimed by an heir to the family that once lived in the ruins of Greenstone Keep, which Mikko and his buddies have just looted. Do they have to give it up? Do they have "salvage rights" to what they found? What if they are accused of selling counterfeit or stolen goods? What if the PCs didn't know the origins of their items and sold them in good faith -- can they still get in trouble?
In a game with mind-reading and lie-detecting you'd think getting to the bottom of a legal dispute would be easy. Just cast the right spell and everybody knows what really happened, right? Well, the judge in Elath isn't likely to take Melantha's word for it that she just cast discern lies, so even if PCs can cast these spells it may not do them much good. Also, unless you are in a major city or a magically oriented culture, casters able and willing to do these spells for the legal system are not going to be stacked up like cordwood. There is also, of course, the chance that someone with legal connections can get someone to do a bogus divination to incriminate the party.
What happens if the party does get in trouble with the law? Do you really send them to jail? You could. The episode might become a sort of enforced down-time as the PCs sit there and take their punishment, however fair or unfair it might be. Or they could try to bust out. You could roleplay some of their prison experience (there may be useful contacts to be made "on the inside"), or hand-wave it away as a certain amount of time passing before their release.
More commonly, PCs are required to make restitution. This may be a payoff of some kind to the person they have harmed (or are believed to have harmed), in money or items. They may have to pay fines and fees to the government. Perhaps most commonly, they may be required to perform some service to make things right, like the Fair Warning gang being sent back to Elath to find and rescue Teman Kohath.
Eddie is playing a dangerous game here, as Michael is not the only one who would cry foul at what could feel like blatant DM power plays, slapping a surprise "treasure tax" on them or getting Mikko and friends into legal trouble for something they couldn't reasonably have known. Life isn't fair, but players need to know the basic ground rules so it's not actively unfair.
At heart, adventurers are vigilantes, making life-and-death decisions and confiscating property, but what separates them from brigands besides (usually) alignment? PCs are at home in wild borderland areas, where your legal rights are as strong as your sword-arm. They are beholden to no one but themselves. What's theirs is theirs unless someone stronger or sneakier takes it from them. It's finders keepers, losers weepers.
In civilized lands, adventurers are not a law unto themselves, so what are the rules for adventurers? Local customs will vary. Special legal rights may attach to being a citizen of a certain land, while outsiders are at a disadvantage. How will Mikko react when he learns that dwarves are banned from all bars and taverns in the Duchy of Zolmanna? Knowledge (local) is the ideal skill for this, but Gather Information or bardic knowledge could substitute as well.
More generally, what are adventurers considered to be? Are they total free agents, working outside the law, looking for adventure in whatever comes their way? If so, are they feared and hated as killers, scavengers, grave-robbers, and thrill-seekers, or are they seen as a helpful (if potentially dangerous) way to deal with threats beyond the capabilities of regular folks?
Adventurers can gain legitimacy by accepting commissions from the wealthy and influential, or taking up religious or political causes, or working with rather than outside the legal authorities. This makes PCs more like private investigators or mercenaries -- often with a patron who can get them out of trouble should they break a few laws along the way -- or even deputized in the service of the legal authorities. This is more restrictive than heading to the Adventurer's Guild and seeing what rumors are posted on the board (or using Gather Information to get the word on the street), but it can help avoid legal complications later.
One idea Eddie borrowed from the Forgotten Realms is that of registered adventuring companies. This practice gives a group some legitimacy and legal standing that can be recognized from place to place, though each new land they enter may require a fee and periodic renewals to validate their registration. This is more than just a cash grab by governments. It is a way to keep track of potential rogue elements in the realm. For the PCs, it is a way to give themselves a public face and help build a reputation, which can attract more and better opportunities. You could make adventuring groups document their adventures (and taxes paid) in an annual report to the government to get recertified, though this could get silly; this is D&D, not accounting class. Still, an adventuring compact could prevent the legal shakedowns that Michael hates. Some groups might even hire an agent to handle the PCs' affairs (and money) when they are adventuring.
Civilization has its own set of dangers, which can be more frustrating than those in the wilderness because they are a little too much like those we face in our own everyday lives. D&D is escapist fantasy, and in balancing escapism with "realism" don't go overboard or be punitive about the legal challenges you place in the PCs' path. It's fine if the players get frustrated now and then, reminding them that there are other people in the campaign who have their own agendas. Just don't make it so much hassle to go adventuring that they'd rather stay home and play Farmer: The Roleplaying Game!
About the Author
Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife (Judy), daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He is a part-time homemaker, part-time medical transcriptionist, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in two others.