Thinking Medieval: the Law - Trials and Tribulations

Early medieval laws are concerned about two things: injuries and the transfer of property. The Germanic/tribal idea of law as a personal custom shared by your family and community ran smack into the Roman ideal of law as a series of rules for the protection of the citizens of the state. After a period of arguing they produced some ugly babies that grew into the modern conception of laws and justice.

In order to understand the medieval worldview, you need to understand how medieval society functioned. 
Rather than deal with interesting bits of early medieval law itself (which will go into another post called "Thinking Medieval: the Law - Oh Fine"), I'm going to cover trials and the enforcement of punishment in this post.

This post doesn't contain any gameable content, but I'll be referring back to it later.

Side Note: A Modern Trial

Goes something like this, in a very condensed form:

A person is accused by the state (for serious issues) or by another person (for minor issues or disputes that are not criminal). Both parties meet in a set location, at a set time, and present their cases with the aid of professionals. The accused goes second so they are able to respond to all the charges against them. At the end, the judge - an impartial representative of the state - decides if charges have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Alternatively, the judge receives the verdict from a group of people who have listened to the entire trial and formed an opinion. In either case, the judge then imposes a judgement, based on the demands of both parties and existing law.

But what if you don't have an impartial state representative? What if you don't have trained advocates? What if the social apparatus required for a trial doesn't exist?

Revenge is a Dish Best Served by Relatives

Someone stole your cow. You get your family together, get some axes, and march over to the thief's house and take your cow back.

Someone killed your brother. You get your family together, get some axes, and march over to the murderer's house. Only he's got his family there too. There's a fight. At the end, three people are dead... and their relatives are all looking for axes.

Blood feuds are messy and complicated and a terrible way to solve problems. Virtually all early law codes are prefaced with "We, the King, really hope this stops the fucking blood feuds." It eventually worked. Personal vendettas were outlawed and replaced with trials. Justice became a thing disconnected from immediate personal responsibility.

Early medieval rulers, sick of blood feuds and fighting and endless individual cases, used their power to publish books of laws. The laws are appealingly simple and follow a few very basic templates:

"If you do X thing, you must pay Y fine."
"If you are accused of X thing, you must to Z to clear your name or suffer death."
"If X happens, it is OK, and N person is in the right."

Separate the Wheat from the Chaff: Courts and Trials

A court used to be a very different thing. It was literally the court-yard or hall of a noble or warlord or landowner. Two parties, subordinate to the noble, would appear and offer their cases. The noble would decide, based on custom and the books of law, the truth of the matter, and set a fine or a punishment. If you didn't like the punishment, you could, if the law allowed, instead take a trial to clear yourself of guilt.

I want to establish this now: medieval trials, by ordeal or compurgation, were not jokes. They aren't the nonsensical bits of theater you might have read about online.Trials were mostly used when guilt or innocence could be determined by no other method.

Harold Swears His Oath. From the extremely baffling "Zigzag Journeys In Europe", 1882.

Twelve Friendly Men: Trials by Compurgation 

Clearing a charge by compurgation is one of the oldest methods of trial known. A person charged with a crime would appear on a set date with twelve oath-takers and swear, on an altar or a sword or a holy stone or something equally revered) that they were innocent. The twelve oath-helpers would then swear that the accused had truly made the oath.

To modern eyes this seems ridiculous. Kill someone and all you need to do is find twelve people who will swear you didn't do it? How could anyone be convicted under this system? It's not justice - it's a popularity contest!

Well, yes and no.

Take debts, for example. I loan you $100. When it comes due, you refuse to pay and say the loan never happened. We go to court. You need to assemble twelve people who will stand by you while you swear not to have accepted my loan.

Now maybe you can find those twelve people. But they have to be people you know. Your friends, your neighbors. Your family. In a small village it could literally be every landowning male over the age of majority. And you have to stand in front of them and swear, and they have to believe you.

If even one of them remembers the loan (we'll get to that in the post on property), you are done. They won't uphold your oath. Not only that, but everyone now knows you tried to cheat. You won't have an easy time getting loans in the future. In a small community, that could mean economic disaster. The entire community - all twelve of your oath-helpers - have a very deep-seated interest in keeping the system going. Today, you avoid paying me back. Tomorrow, it could be one of them.

Or consider a murder case. You went out for a walk with someone and they didn't return. Their body was later found in a ditch. The evidence is unclear. Maybe you did it, maybe you didn't. There are no criminal investigators or detectives. The victim's family brings the case forward. You assemble twelve oath-helpers and meet in front of an altar. Your alleged victim's family is also there. They've brought weapons (or nosily left them outside).

You have to stand there and swear your oath - word perfect, no hesitations or stuttering - in a very high pressure situation. And then all twelve of your oath-helpers also have to swear too, while looking directly at the faces of your alleged victim's family and their very shiny axes. No doubt, it will occur to them that false swearing on your part could very well lead to a massive feud that involves everyone. It doesn't need to, though. They could just... not take the oath, hand you over, and end the trouble before it starts, or accidentally stumble over the words to the same result. Are they willing to risk it for you? Are you willing to risk their lives?

Trial by Compurgation could be called "a trial by one's peers", in a much more visceral and immediate way than any modern jury trial. You need to convince twelve people to enter into a solemn pact with real consequences before the eyes of God and all your neighbors. It's a modern conceit that the law is blind, and that two people who commit the same crime will be punished equally. Medieval laws were also theoretically blind (or, more accurately, cared about class but not about individuals), but their trials were wide-eyed and utterly pragmatic.

For example, if a man well known in his community - an upstanding person, loved by all, generous, fully integrated into the structure of the village, with a large family and spotless reputation - if he killed a stranger or someone who was despised by everyone... well, what good would it do anyone if he was punished for it? God would see to his sin, but in the mortal world... was it a crime at all? Such a person would have the entire community at their back, ready to swear that the oath the person took was true... provided there was even a sliver of doubt.

But if there could be no doubt, then the oath-helpers could not in good conscience swear that the accused had told the truth. Making a false oath was a weighty and torturous thing, but they might do it anyway.

Or take a man who was despised by his community - a cheat, an oath-breaker, a scoundrel, a person of no worth and no connections. When he is accused, twelve oath-helpers would not appear, and he would be convicted or fined or otherwise punished. The guilt of the matter is barely important - he could not find twelve people who were willing to say he was telling the truth. Just as the community could save you, it could also damn you.

Laying Down the Law: Trial By Ordeal

If you knew you could not find twelve oath-helpers, or if the law demanded it, you could instead accept trial by ordeal. You would be subjected a test. Your survival or another measurement would indicate your innocence or guilt. You still had to swear an oath attesting to your own innocence, with all the usual religious and social consequences if you broke it.

In theory, if you were innocent, you'd agree to the trial knowing you would suffer no harm. If you were guilty, you feared failing the trial and suffering both an injury and a fine, so you'd settle your case or confess.

Trial by Fire
Complete the following without wincing or stopping.
-Walk over red-hot ploughshares
-Hold a ball of hot iron in your hand and walking a set distance
Your wounds would then be bandaged and examined by a priest after a set period of time (3 days later, for obvious biblical reasons). If they festered or rotted, you were guilty. If they healed well (or if you were unharmed), you were innocent.

Trial by Water
-Plunge your hand into boiling water (to the wrist for a minor offense, or to the elbow for a major offense) and retrieve a stone or iron ball. If you complete the task, your arm is then bound and examined by a priest after three days.
-Sink in cold water. If you float, you are guilty. If you sink, you are innocent.

Trial by Ingestion
-Eat a consecrated piece of bread and cheese. If you choke or fail to swallow, you are guilty. Used only for minor offenses, and even then, mostly for offenses where a personal oath was too minor, but a formal trial was too severe.

Aside from the trial by consecrated sandwich, the entire thing sounds very brutal and unpleasant. How could any modern person possibly consider this to be justice?

If Trial by Compurgation was, effectively, trial by jury, then Trial by Ordeal is a trial by judge. The judge in this case was God... in theory. In practice, it was the priest. The priest administering the trial could bias the results significantly. (The paper I linked to is important.) They acted - unofficially, of course - as an impartial arbiter. The law might be blind but the local priest wasn't. Priests also tended towards mercy and forgiveness and were often unmoved by mob violence.

A trial by fire could be adjusted using any of the following methods. We don't have any clear written evidence that these were used, but the circumstantial evidence is compelling.
-Temperature adjustment. "Red hot" varies by 300 degrees Celsius, give or take. The priest in charge of the trial oversaw the heating of the iron ball or the iron ploughshares, and could judge the temperature accurately enough.
-Cold hands or feet. If you have to handle hot objects, the colder your skin and flesh are, the better. Churches made of stone are often very cold. Long periods of pre-trial prayer in bare feet or with your hands pressed against the stone could help prevent injuries without arousing any suspicion, even from the accused.
-Ointments and bandages. how the wound was bound, whether ointments were used, and the final condition of the injury were all subject to interpretation by the priest.

Trials by water could also be adjusted.
Boiling water:
-It is obvious when water boils and, no matter how much fuel you add, you can't get it to boil hotter, only faster. However, as most people know, you can have plenty of steam and bubbles appear before the water reaches its maximum temperature.
-Cold hands or arms. Again, ensuring your hands are cold would help you succeed in your oath.
-Determination and encouragement. The priest could encourage the accused to strike boldly, working them into a state of fearless preparation. Or they could cast subtle doubts and promote hesitation and a longer immersion in the boiling water.
-Ointments and bandages. How the wound was bound, whether ointments were used, and the final condition of the injury were all subject to interpretation by the priest.
-Body hair. I can't find the paper, but I've read that older men, in some cases ones who would not survive a dip in ice-cold water or could not be expected to hold an iron ball steadily, would try the trial of hot water in disproportionate amounts. According to the author, thick arm hair traps insulating air close to the skin, which allows for easier retrieval of a sunken object. I'm not sure if I believe it but it seems vaguely plausible.

Cold water:
-Women and fat men float. Skinny men sink. Since priests could select the ordeal, or offer suggestions to the accused over which ordeal to select, they could bias the results of the trial accordingly. Women almost never participated in trials by cold water until witch hunts became popular.

And as for the trials by ingestion... ever tried to swallow dry rye bread and sticky cheese on a dry throat? Guess who controlled access to water.

So a priest could protect the innocent and ensure the guilty were punished. They could act as the moral centre of a community, unwilling to let an innocent man die for a crime he didn't commit, or able to punish a powerful man the law could not ordinarily reach. The overwhelming majority of people who submitted to trial by ordeal were acquitted.

Trial by Combat

The most well known and therefore least interesting types of trials. Swear an oath. Nominate a champion. Fight to submission or the death. God picks the winner, so if your champion won, you were innocent. It was hated by kings and rulers and frequently legislated against or abolished completely.

Centralizing Power and Authority

There are a few (ok, more than a few) problems with the trial system described above. It only works on a small scale. Once a community grows large enough that individuals are no longer directly accountable to all other inhabitants, false oath-taking becomes feasible. Once individuals accrue enough power or money to influence the system the system collapses.

The burden of enforcing the law was placed on the party that was wronged. If you were murdered and had no family, your murder escaped punishment. Widows, unmarried women, and children with no family were also left unprotected by the law. Without someone to bring their case to trial, nothing would be done.

Rulers had solved the problem of personal law and changing customs by publishing law books. The next step was obvious.

The King's Justice

What if the law wasn't personal? What if it proceeded from a source - the King? What if, instead of a person's relatives bringing a lawsuit to court, the King himself could do it?

After all, murder is like stealing a life from the King. Theft from anyone is theft from the King.

The process of appeals also began to enter into the law books. If a local noble decided against you for personal reasons, or because he was bribed, or because you didn't bribe him, you could bring your suit to the King. This innovation made the King directly responsible to - and for - his people.

To help with this centralization, official judges (known in some place as sheriffs or by a hundred other names) would carry out the King's laws. Local nobles would be freed of the burden of criminal cases. And because trials, ordeals, and other contests were messy and challenged the King's authority, they were slowly abolished or changed. Trial by judge or jury and the true determination of guilt or innocence would be performed.

Of course, this was a huge mess. Minor issues were still decided by the local nobles. Laws were rewritten, ignored, bungled, dredged up, and completely misinterpreted. Still, the slow accretion of rights and powers in the hands of the sovereign began to shape the late medieval world.

On apprehending in his forest three young squires of Laon, equipped with bows and arrows but no hunting dogs for taking important game, Enguerrand IV had them executed by hanging, without trial or process of any kind. Impunity in such affairs was no longer a matter of course, for the King was Louis IX, a sovereign whose sense of rulership was equal to his piety. He had Enguerrand IV arrested, not by his peers but by sergents of the court, like any criminal, and imprisoned in the Louvre, although, in deference to his rank, not in chains. 
Summoned to trial in 1256, Enguerrand IV was accompanied by the greatest peers of the realm - the King of Navarre, the Duke of Burgundy, the Counts of Bar and Soissons among others, grimly sensing a test of their prerogatives. Refusing to submit to investigation of the case as touching his person, honor, rank, and noble heritage, Enguerrand demanded judgment by his peers and trial by combat. Louis IX firmly refused, saying that as regards the poor, the clergy, “and persons who deserve our pity,” it would be unjust to allow trial by combat. Customarily, non-nobles could engage a champion in such cases, but King Louis saw the method as obsolete. In a long and fiercely argued process, against the strenuous resistance of the peers, he ordered the Sire de Coucy to stand trial. Enguerrand IV was convicted, and although the King intended a death sentence, he was persuaded by the peers to forgo it. Enguerrand was sentenced to pay a fine of 12,000 livres, to be used partly to endow masses in perpetuity for the souls of the men he had hanged, and partly to be sent to Acre to aid in the defense of the Holy Land. Legal history was made and later cited as a factor in the canonization of the King. 
-Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, Chapter 1
Source unknown. The Execution of Margaret Clitherow.

How Do You Plead?

When the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 banned members of the clergy from participating in trial by ordeal, a legal dilemma arose in England that was to last for centuries. The rest of Europe avoided this problem by, ironically, having a less diligently centralized system of law and more creative interpretations of existing laws, as well as the use of Trial by Compurgation well after it was abolished in England.

After a period of uncertainty and confusion, trial by jury was propelled - by royal force - into widespread use. Rather than letting God test the merits of a case, 12 or 20 peers of the accused would decide the verdict, in an adaptation of the oath of compurgation. When the accused swore he was innocent, he now had to convince his jury/oath-helpers to agree that his oath was valid.

This system was probably no more impartial than trials by ordeal. As we've seen, it may have been even less "just". The lack of divine intervention - trial by man, not by God - was terrifying. Many people refused to submit to such a trial, and, to put it mildly, that was a problem. The law could not convict someone who refused to accept a jury trial but there were no other options. Innocent or guilty, the courts could judge you, but if you remained silent they were powerless. The accused was not presumed to be innocent.

Prison forte et dure was invented to fill the gap. In 1275, Edward I declared that "notorious Felons, which openly be of evil name, and will not put themselves in Enquests of Felonies that Men shall charge them with before the Justices at the King's suit, shall have strong and hard Imprisonment, as they which refuse to stand to the common Law of the Land: But this is not to be understood of such prisoners as be taken of light suspicion."

Essentially, if the accused won't agree to a trial, put them in chains, leave them on a dirt floor, and make life unpleasant for them. It makes a twisted kind of sense. But by some obscure twisting process prison forte et dure became peine forte et dure, which means "strong and hard punishment" in legal French, but more importantly, in English, really means "squish someone with rocks until they agree to a trial or die."

You might assume a trial by jury couldn't be worse than being crushed to death by 400lbs of rocks... and you would be right. However, if you didn't go to trial, you couldn't be convicted. And if you were guilty anyway, or certain you'd be executed, you might be tempted to be crushed to death instead. Without a trial or a confession, your property could not be confiscated. You'd still die, of course, but you would die with your name intact, your family provided for (or spared from torture), and a clear conscience, in the case of arbitrary or political trials.

The mills of justice grind slow, and for a while, they also squished like a waffle press.


Useful Silly Voices

There's more to a silly voice than you might expect.

GMing is hard. In order to maintain your invisible cast of thousands, you need to be ready to improvise characters at a moment's notice. Tables and online generators can help you with names, appearances, and motivations, but that's often not enough.

To play an NPC convincingly you need to get into a different mindset. It's all well and good to speak in a squeaky kobold voice, but if you're saying words that Joe the Accountant and Fran the Barbarian and Louis the Gate Guard would all say - if you haven't really changed characters - it's just a silly voice.

I call this "Rational Kobold Syndrome." The GM is a sensible person with a good vocabulary, and therefore all NPCs are sensible people with good vocabularies. Rationalism is a very modern invention, but it's so prevalent that it can be difficult to escape. But if every NPC behaves as sensibly and clearly as someone with knowledge of the subconscious, the nature of emotions, the rule of law, and the consequences of their actions, games can get pretty boring. All NPCs become one guy wearing different hats.

I've got a few articles drafted on "how to think like a medieval person". In the meantime:
Jeff Hong
This art has nothing to do with the article, but I've got nowhere else to put it.

Thinking Like A Different Person

Sometimes you need an NPC now. No time to plan.

Steal a page from improv shows. Actors in a two-person Harold will work together will build a shared cast of characters. One day, the character might be a carpenter. At the next show, they might be an elderly mer-person. The next, a talking tree. But the voice stays the same, the gestures stay the same, and - more importantly - the patterns of thought and action stay the same. One actor can build off the other's solid foundation. They might not know exactly what their partner is going to do or say next, but it helps limit the options and allows for synchronized improv.

By building a few characters and practicing their voice and gestures, you can easily step into their thought patterns. You will slowly build a library of templates. Bookmark this post and try one example per day. I've tried to include non-obvious choices.

10 Voices That Are Also Roles

1. 1930s Radio Announcer

Voice: fast, clipped, flat, nasal
Gestures: grip table, violent gesticulation, lean forward
Mindset: in a hurry. Misunderstands foreign or complicated ideas. Appreciates simple truths but willing to lie or scheme. Thinks they are very clever and can't resit a joke.
NPCs: Out-of-character announcements, used car salesmen, peppy reporter, new deputy, the king's jester.

More full of idioms than the butcher's cat on a Tuesday, see? It's the Radio Voice - the voice of official announcements, heralds, voiceovers, auctioneers, dungeoneers, and not enough beers. Gnomes too - gotta have them gnomes. And watch out for that Hitler, I hear he's a real bad egg!

2. Bored Socialite

Voice: drawling, slow, and vague
Gestures: stroking an arm, leaning over or back, eyes half closed, supremely relaxed
Examples: Edna Mode, Cruella Deville
Mindset: relaxed. Wants to look at beautiful things, listen to interesting stories that do not challenge their worldview, and be complimented (but not flattered - they're not blind). A poetic soul.
NPCs: art dealer, costume designer, expert wizard, noble, royalty, demonic patron.

Daaahling, it's wonderful to see you again. How aaaaare you? Oh, and me? Well, I'm just a whaaanderful, you know? I could be anyone - your lover, your contact, your friend from the otha side. Daaaahling, daaahling, you worry too much.

3. The Paragon

Voice: clear, from the chest, incredibly friendly
Gestures: back-slaps, thumbs up,
Examples: the Tick, Benton Fraser
Mindset: very firm on capital-G-Good and capital-E-Evil. Likes dogs, distrusts goats, helps old ladies cross the street. A pillar of the community, so can be close-minded and easily tricked.
NPCs: inbkeeper, paladin, park ranger, head of the mutant extermination committee

Protecting this land isn't just a job. It's a duty, and a solemn obligation. You should be proud of who you are. A watched pot never boils, and other bits of wisdom. And remember; don't litter in national parks. Ha ha! Patriotism.
Jeff Hong

4. Brian Blessed

Voice: Shouting in an indoor voice or just shouting. Enunciates everything, drags "o"s when not shouting. Shakespearean.
Gestures: constant activity, clutching or shaking fists. Leans head back to roar in laughter.
Examples: Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan, Brian Blessed as King Richard IV, Brian Blessed as Brian Blessed.
Mindset: decisive, not clever, but irrepressibly enthusiastic. Chews scenery.
NPCs: baron, pirate captain, king, auditor, alien overlord

WEARERUNNINGOUTOF TIME, Gordon! You FOOL! Have you no sense of URGENCY? Do you not see that the PLANET is going to CRASH INTO THE SUN?!? Launch the rocket-balloon! LET SLIP THE HAMS OF WAR!

5. The Nervous Talker

Voice: fast whine, punctuated by little rises for emphasis. Stutters sometimes. Talks to self. Changes topic mid-sentence.
Gestures: pacing, wringing hands, shaking head, nervously tugging/scratching ears or beard, fidgeting.
Examples: Jerry
Mindset: panic. Looking for the fastest way out. Willing to seize onto any saviour, but will hesitate just before taking any risk.
NPCs: shipwreck survivor, random civilian, incompetent thief, new hireling

Oh jeeze guys, I'm kind of worried about this plan. If f f we don't get out, I mean, and the dragon. Did we plan for the dragon? Coming down here was a stupid idea. Come on, pull yourself together. You're better than this. Oh who am I kidding, I'm not. I'm going to die down here and it'll all be your fault!

6. The Smuggest Guy Ever

Voice: clipped, spoken through a grin without moving the jaw, with eyes half closed. Short sentences, usually in response. Rarely initiates conversation.
Gestures: still, leaning back, tilting head from side to side
Examples: (I don't have any good examples of this voice. Just making the face should be enough.)
Mindset: just so fucking smug. Eminently hateable.
NPCs: waiter, receptionist, rival party leader, banker, diplomat

Yeah man. Not a problem at all man. Good for you. Good.
Jeff Hong

7. The Languid Professor

Voice: butter smooth, drawn, considered. Tutting kind of laughter.
Gestures: steeples fingers, adjusts glasses, drinks carefully, looks around slowly.
Examples: (still looking)
Mindset: critical, cautious, but capable of devastating opinions. Difficult to ruffle. Wants to determine the truth, but is not a fanatical seeker.
NPCs: critic, expert, assayer, plot-point-deliver-er.

Weeeell, that is a very interesting point to consider. Yes. I can see how you might attempt that approach, but I think you will find that if you consult Lomsky and Hoyle on the matter - that is, in chapter 6 - you will find quite a different method. A different method indeed, oh ho ho ho. Yes, I think it will suit you nicely.

8. The Goblin

Voice: squeaky, mouth-breathing, short words, lots of spittle. Has to pause to try and remember what it was doing a lot.
Gestures: twitchy, wide eyes, scuttles from side to side
Examples: (still looking)
Mindset: driven by needs (food, smells, fear) and not much else. Anything too complicated is either a threat or a god. In either case, poke it with a stick and run. In time of great confusion, run around and make as much noise as possible and hope something turns up to make the confusion go away.
NPCs: goblins, kobolds, peasants who don't speak your language, animals

Wha? Oh ya. No. No fud here. Onle goblans. I... I am goblan. Yes. Inna cave. Inna woods. Rabbat? No rabbat. Bleeeeeh. What do?

9. Radical Firebrand

Voice: intense, low, or soars into oration. Intense. Loves phrases that start with capital letters. This is not so much a voice as a look and a way of emphasizing words.
Gestures: lots of eye contact.
Examples: Enjolras, Flammen
Mindset: devoted to the cause. Consumed by ideology, but focused like a laser.
NPCs: assassin, mob leader, politician, revolutionary, inventor

Don't you see? This is the dawn of a new era. A new chapter in the book of life. You can turn away now, but then you'll be no better than the others. Or you can come with us and help build a better world.

Jeff Hong

10. The Royal

Voice: some ridiculously precise accent. Faintly hissing, as if teeth are stuck to lips. Repetitive, genial.
Gestures: hands together, leaning in to listen, staring at something else and thinking very hard.
Examples: King Charles I, Eddie Izzard (both in general in in this bit
Mindset: distracted, as if they are trying to solve a difficult problem while not letting anyone know. Intensely loyal and patriotic. Bemused by new things.

A wizard, you say? Fascinating. What on earth is that? Make things fly and so on? Well how about fixing this weather - it's been raining for a bloody fortnight. No. Well, not to worry, I'm sure you'll get the hang of it soon. Oh hello! And who are you?
Jeff Hong
Side Note: You can practice your "silly voices" with writing as well. If you need to get inside an author's mind, try writing like them. If you aren't sure what their writing "sounds" like, study it. Write bad Lovecraftian fiction and lousy poems and paragraphs about horrible hateful things that live in caves. This might not be fun, but it wouldn't be called exercise if it was fun all the time.


OSR: 3 Level 1 PCs Solve 20 Black Doors

Michael Prescott of Trilemma fame crowdsourced 1d20 "black doors" on G+. In his words,
A Black Door is a dungeon obstacle (in Ben Robbins' original West Marches, an actual black door sealed by magic) that clearly separates skilled, versatile, resourceful and powerful parties from less experienced ones. Often adventurers will be completely unable to get past until they return later, having levelled up a bunch or brought special tools or hirelings.
Versatility is fine. Skill is fine. Resourceful is fine. But powerful, well-leveled, and experienced? Not needed. All you really need is a plan.
For a job like getting rid of the drug dealer next door, I'll take a hardware store over a gun any day. Guns make you stupid; better to fight your wars with duct tape. Duct tape makes you smart.
-Michael Westen, Burn Notice (Pilot)

I try not to include explicit black doors in my dungeons. In my opinion, all good OSR problems should be solvable with a very, very good plan and no rolls, or by a lot of rolls and considerable danger. Rolls represent risk - if the PCs are good, they might be able to avoid risk entirely. Looking at an obstacle and saying "not worth it" is fine and sensible, but if the PCs really want to get past an obstacle, there should be a way - without being Level 20 or knowing one specific spell or hiring 30 experts.

Sometimes it works, and a group beautifully avoids a challenge or comes up with another way around a problem. Sometimes it doesn't.

Paladin of Beauty, regurso

Here's a thought exercise; can  a party of 3 generic Level 1 PCs could get through these doors? I've only included doors I like, or ones with enough detail to be interesting.

If the door is too easy, it's not really a challenge. If it requires one very specific tool to solve, or some other equally targeted requirement, it's not worth including. But if it looks difficult to solve but can be overcome with a good plan, your players will be very happy when they succeed. There's no better feeling than "outsmarting" the GM and defeating some impossible challenge with three eggs, twine, and a false mustache.

The trick, as the GM, is to design challenges that can be solved, but not to come up with specific solutions beforehand. Exercises like this help calibrate your design process.

Maybe I'll make a "GM Exercises" series.

Doors and Solutions


OSR: 1d100 Baronial Grievances

If you're going to hexcrawl in a populated, feudal area, you will run into several barons. They all have problems. Most of them aren't problems the PCs can solve.

The table can be used with a d100 roll, or a d10 roll on a particular topic, or (and this is my personal favourite), by picking an entry and rambling on and on and on, listing subsequent entries, looping, and changing the subject until the players beg you to stop. Barons often get angry and throw things in the middle of a good rant.

Barons won't normally reveal their troubles to strangers, but if they are drunk, surly, duplicitous, manipulative, extremely tired, or just notorious windbags, the PCs can get an earful

If you want to see how the peasants feel, check out this table

Symbaroun, official art. Artist unknown.

1d100 Baronial Grievances

You can barely understand my troubles.
1 The weather is ruining my crops.
2 My mill is constantly breaking down.
3 My horse is sick. I've never seen such a decrepit beast.
4 I am accosted by flatterers and liars.
5 The burdens of my Estate would crush a lesser man.
6 My manor is collapsing and my castles are little more than ruins.
7 The natural order of Creation is unraveling.
8 Merchants overcharge me for everything.
9 Moneylenders seek to ruin me.
10 And my own knights are little better than knaves.

And my peasants are...
11 Revolting. Have you smelled them?
12 Stupid.
13 Superstitious.
14 Petty.
15 Bickering.
16 Drunken.
17 Lazy.
18 Filthy.
19 Animals! No better than animals!
20 Or perhaps worse, for I love my hounds more than any peasant!

The damn peasants, I say...
21 They come to me with the strangest problems.
22 Cases and injuries only idiots could invent.
23 And then they whine about taxes.
24 And food. And fees. Ungrateful creatures!
25 In my father's time, they were not so rebellious.
26 And their demands are often outrageous.
27 They know nothing of honour or warfare or the order of the world.
28 They seek only food, fornication, and sleep. A curse on all peasants!
29 Not one of them goes to church.
30 Or if they do, it is only to sleep and laugh at the service.

And speaking of the Church...
31 The parish priest harangues me day and night.
32 He wants more money.
33 Or he objects to something I've done.
34 Or maybe something I didn't do; I can never tell. To him, I am always in the wrong.
35 But what does he know of holiness?
36 He's a hypocrite, I say. He keeps a mistress or two, drinks, fights, swears.
37 Berates the peasants for wickedness while practicing the same vices.
38 And then has the gall to order me around?
39 I should write to the Bishop and have him replaced. Or better, flogged.
40 In my father's time, he'd have done it himself, but now you can't flog priests. Bah!

The Count?
41 Well, he's an honourable man.
42 Chivalrous, certainly. Usually to the wives of other men.
43 And brave. He has never shown weakness by courting allies.
44 And generous. Everything he has, he spends. Everything I have he spends too.
45 Wise, in a worldly way. Theological matters do not trouble him.
46 Nor the use of letters, I think, but what good have letters ever done?
47 And he fights well. He will happily fight friend and foe alike.
48 He has no shortage of people willing to speak his praises.
49 And the King pays very close attention to his movements.
50 And his barons can only express their total devotion.

As for me...
51 Gout in my feet.
52 And gout in my fingers.
53 And my hair is falling out.
54 My teeth ache.
55 And I can't swing a sword like I used to.
56 I'm getting fat, I know, like a pig in a sty. Fattened up for slaughter, no doubt.
57 And I have a rash on my neck.
58 Not to mention this horrible cough.
59 And my old wounds from the War ache on cold nights.
60 And sometimes it hurts to piss.

My family? 
61 My wife was beautiful, once. Now she looks like a turnip.
62 But when she was younger, every man desired her.
63 How can I know if my children are my own?
64 Perhaps it would be better if they were bastards, for they are my burden and my curse.
65 My son and heir is a lazy fool.
66 He chases the serving girls and drinks at all hours.
67 My daughter keeps the company of troubadours and thieves.
68 And she speaks to peasants in an unsettling manner.
69 My uncle is a snake and a murderer.
70 My aunt is a poisoner and witch.

There is always more...
71 My bastard son is competent, but the Count would never legitimize him.
72 And half the young women in the barony look like me, or my father.
73 My younger brother plots my death.
74 My older sister married a barbarian and sends me scandalous letters.
75 My younger sister became a nun. Her letters are worse.
76 I swear, my cousins are the largest pack of fools in Creation.
77 Unlike my dear neighbor, Baron X. His children are paragons of virtue.
78 What did he do to deserve such worthy children, when I am so afflicted?
79 My squire can't tell one end of a horse from the other.
80 And my butler is a thief, a liar, and probably a sodomite.

The War? 
81 Our enemies are cowards!
82 They use dishonorable tactics.
83 They hide in fortresses and avoid battles.
84 They burn their own villages tear down bridges.
85 And while we might use the same tactics out of desperation, we do not enjoy it.
86 Unlike our enemies, who love to break the code of chivalry.
87 Some of them are decent men, I admit, but most are bastard sons of dogs.
88 There is no place for peasants in warfare.
89 And mercenary peasants are even worse. What a plague! What a disease!
90 No wonder we can't seem to win the war. Perhaps things will go better this year.

And also...
91 Many of my villages have not recovered from the Plague.
92 And the War that followed it.
93 And then the terrible storms last year.
94 My knights practice farming or poetry, not warfare.
95 Bandits and stranger things lurk in the hills.
96 Every neighboring baron desires my death.
97 What the Count and King do not take, the Church demands.
98 As though I had wealth to spare, with all my many expenses.
99 These are troubled, disordered, and unfortunate times.
100 But I suppose things could be worse.