Back in the heyday of 3.5e, they used to sell miniatures with stat cards for use in D&D wargame, but were also usable as monsters or NPCs in the core game. I had a binder with several pages of these cards, so if I ever needed some stats on the fly, I’d have them handy. I think the single card that got the most use was the ‘Town Guard.’ We had a particularly unruly dwarf in the party, so town guards would need to show up fairly often to keep the peace.
In most games I’ve played, guards behave more or less like a modern metropolitan police organization. They patrol the streets, arrest criminals, and control crowds. However, this configuration wasn’t particularly common in a medieval setting. Policing as we know it now, didn’t really become the standard until the 1800s. Today I’d like to dive into how law enforcement functioned in a feudal setting. You can use this to add extra flavor to your homebrew, or perhaps make a group like one of the following a part of your next character’s backstory.
Santa Hermandad (Holy Brotherhood)
In 13th-century Spain, regional kings were often unable to provide security peacekeeping services to most under their reign. In fact, in continental Europe the nobility were exactly who the populace needed protection from. Despite the common conception, chivalry wasn’t a code, and it wasn’t consistent. When knights didn’t have anything else to do, they would often end up robbing, pillaging, or otherwise terrorizing the peasantry.
Additionally, bandits made conducting trade between villages particularly difficult. In response, the citizenry formed paramilitary bands to protect themselves from highwaymen and robber knights. They were known for the distinctive green garments they wore under their armor, which earned them the nickname the “Greensleeves.” However, like most poorly regulated, armed groups, altruism was the only product of their auspices. It was only a matter of time before The Hermandades descended into corruption and incompetence. They became better known for their commission of crimes than their solving of them. In fact, there’s a phrase in modern Spanish “a buenas horas mangas verdes,” meaning “just in time, greensleeves.” Idiomatically, this is roughly equivalent to “better late than never,” owing to the Hermandades reputation for showing up too late to do anything whatever crime just took place.
In your game, your players can traverse a town wherein the authorities can’t be trusted. Maybe the players will bristle at the injustice and try to right the wrongs of the local de facto police force? Or maybe your next fighter or ranger will be the last honest member of a once proud order now wallowing in malfeasance.
Reeves, Bailiffs, Hue & Cry
Lords in medieval England would appoint a villager as their chief law enforcement officer known as a bailiff. The bailiff would in turn recruit assistants to aid them usually on a one year basis. These assistants were called reeves, which is where the word sheriff is derived from. In addition to keeping the peace, the bailiffs and reeves also had significant administrative duties including the collection of taxes and the day-to-day management of a lord’s land. Having so few in charge of policing, crime prevention was distributed to the villagers themselves.
If any person witnessed a crime against one of their fellow villages or heard them in distress they were obligated to help in any way they could and attempt to apprehend the criminal until they were able to be handed off the reeve. This concept became known as Hue and Cry. If villagers were known to have failed to act to stop the commission of a crime, they themselves could be held responsible.
As a DM, you could have your players enter a Hue and Cry town. Your party’s rogue might get some ideas when they discover there aren’t guards in this village and only two law enforcement officials in the entire county; only to discover the entire populace after them after palming a few unattended coins.
As a player, your new character could be one of the aforementioned reeves that has just finished their one year term. After doling out justice, they’re eager to set out and right more wrongs.
Edo Period Samurai
During the Edo period in Japan, the country was united under the Tokugawa shogunate. With no wars to fight, this meant the elite samurai warrior class had little to do. While some were employed as bureaucrats or guards, samurai in the era were forbidden from owning land to produce income. Most survived on a meager stipend guaranteed to them by their social class. Although they still trained daily, without any campaigns to embark on or battles to wage they sunk into an aimless existence. Their modest wealth was often squandered pleasure seeking in the Edo’s redlight district, Yoshiwara. The endless loop of sex, sake, and song became known as “Ukiyo” or the “Floating World.” This concept was meant to convey a sense of the transitory nature of existence and suffering, but (and you’ll just have to take my word for this) also contained the homophone for “Sorrowful World” in its original Japanese.
I’ve never been able to use this concept but have wanted to for a long time. Imagine a city that is crawling with paladins, but the region is in a time of peace. With nothing else to do, the rigid warriors drunkenly prowl the nightlife causing more issues than they’re meant to solve.
I’ve also wanted to adapt this concept into a character, but have never had the chance. A sorrowful soldier who was born into a time where their skills were not in demand. They take up a life of adventuring to fill the void left in their heart and escape their urban Ukiyo lifestyle.