DMing a Fantasy Police Force – Part I – Agency

Most fantasy campaigns at one point or another take their players through some type of civilized settlement. Asides from being mere way-stations to sell loot, recuperate lost hit-points or receive the next quest, fantasy settlements are often accompanied by some type of policing body that regulates the town, thorp, city or region.

As a DM, fantasy police forces, or as they typically come under their more common guise as city watches, offer a great way to mitigate more impulsive players and subtlety guide PC behavior. Prohibitions against certain trades, professions and laws against mundane activities such as garbage disposal to serious crimes like murder go a long way in creating a living, breathing campaign world.

However, why not go a little further when it comes to fleshing out your own personal fantasy police force and truly make them a vital part of your campaign?

1. Agency

The first step in deciding what type of police force a particular settlement has is who actually is in control of the policing body? While the obvious answer may be an individual government, this may not always be the case.

Governmental. For a historical example of highly developed government-run policing force, ancient China employed ‘prefects‘ as their policing agents. These persons were appointed by local magistrates who in turn reported to higher authorities like governors who themselves were beholden to an emperor.

Chinese Prefects - Ancient 'Police'
Chinese Prefects – Ancient ‘Police’

Such a police force implies a lesser amount of judicial agency on the part of these prefects but potentially a greater body of legislative codes, meaning that criminals, or adventurers, can expect a good deal of surveillance when operating within a given settlement. Such a landscape may take special interest in a group of wanderers possessing a great deal of arms and equipment traipsing about a city. Any actions such a party may take, however minor may quickly be communicated up the chain of command. With this type of setup it may be good to emphasize the omnipresence of police forces, or their auxiliaries, as a handy means of presenting players with the proverbial stick when necessary.  The focus of these types of police forces should generally be on the following, preferably even, in this order:

  • Protecting property
  • General legislative enforcement
  • Public order and riot control, including guard duty and criminal arrest
  • Fire and catastrophe protection
  • Criminal investigations

In settings where police are operating within a governmental context, criminal investigations present the clearest opportunity for players and parties to operate as agents within such a framework, through writs, charters and other items that may grant minor or temporary deputization.

Private. A slightly less common but certainly more interesting possibility is the case where a policing body of a given region is under the direction of private organizations, complete with their own special interests. In this type of setting, merchant houses, wealthy overlords or even democratic unions may employ a police force to act at their behest.

The important difference between this type of police force and a purely governmental one is the fact that these special interest forces have the potential to play a much heavier role in the setting itself. Whereas government police forces may emphasize public order, private forces may do so with unchecked restraint or have even more self-interested motives. Competing merchant forces may wish to maintain relative peace within an urban setting, however they may demand heavy dues and assessments on the part of those they are protecting meaning that such regions are rife with thievery on any business who lacks the protection of such syndicates.

Given the fantasy nature of certain campaign worlds, its even entirely possible that policing bodies may exist to enforce fantasy organizations whose goals and motives are entirely singular but nonetheless codified in such a way as to be rightfully enforceable.

For instance, the most obvious type of private organizations with potential policing bodies in a fantasy world are religious orders, any of which may offer protection to their practitioners and serve as enforcers of particular domains and systems like usury and agriculture. Real-world examples of such organizations include modern Islamic societies that have such religious police who enforce Sharia law, on willing or unwilling members of a particular community. The medieval Spanish Santa Hermandad or “holy brotherhood” also serve as an example of a militarized peacekeeping force originally formed as temporary protection forces that morphed into a true power in their own right, complete with their own interests and autonomy.

Santa Hermandades of medieval Spain formed as policing body
Santa Hermandades of medieval Spain formed as policing body for traveling pilgrims

From a fantasy perspective, asides from religious factions, other metaphysical organizations such as arcane ones may have strict local codes when it comes to those practicing the art in their domain without affiliation and may employ their own agents to enforce this ban. Even more comical notions, such as the Vegan Police from Scott Pilgrim vs The World may grace your campaign settings, with potential druidic agents arresting characters for even minor infractions like plucking flowers from a public garden.

The focus of these types of police forces should generally emphasize the following:

  • Protecting organizational and affiliate property, especially against banditry
  • Private guard duty for organizations and affiliates
  • Enforcing laws related to organizational areas of influence
  • Criminal investigations and summary judgements
  • Public order

While such types of police forces may seem somewhat lawless, the intense overriding concerns of private organizations serve as a strong hand against public disorder. What’s more, these types of policing landscapes are rife with potential for players and parties to become enmeshed in local or regional conflicts as private mercenaries, investigators and auxiliary agents to the various factions and powers.

Mercenary. The last option is the most simplistic of adding a policing element to your campaign: the hired ‘gun’. Generally this option should be reserved for smaller settings like towns, villages or border-regions. These types of policing forces are what happens when a government or private organizations hire out the policing duties to a single person or group, such as a mercenary band, who enforce a loose collection of laws. These laws are probably under the purvey of the governing body that hires these law-persons. The difference between this type of police force and a true governmental police force is the near independence of the hired gun in implementing their enforcement duties: they are in effect, judge, jury and executioner. The difference between mercenary police forces and private ones are that private police forces should generally be viewed as having at least a modicum of allegiance to their institutional codes and belief systems: mercenaries enforce the law simply to earn a paycheck.

A staple of these settings is either the overwhelming fear, or respect that individual mercenary groups or individuals have within a given setting, making their policing match their corresponding personality traits. Historical examples of such mercenaries who relied largely on passive power would be English constable’s who were appointed by lords and nobles, paid through tithings, and relied on the good conduct and social obligation of the community their served to aid in their enforcement duties. On the opposite side of this mercenary spectrum are the historical American sheriffs and lawmen of the Wild West who relied on the threat of hangings and the Way of the Gun to enforce public order.

Old Western Hired Gun One-Man Police Force
Old Western Hired Gun One-Man Police Force

These situations are probably the easiest in terms of allowing players to have largely free-reign in a campaign with only a hint now and then that consequences may lie on the distant horizon.

The focus of these types of mercenary outfits should generally emphasize the following:

  • Public order
  • Criminal investigation and summary judgements
  • Protecting property and enforcing legislative codes
  • Guard duties, especially during ceremonial and significant events

Parties operating in hired gun territories should be given wide latitude concerning their activities – until they break the law, at which point the hired guns should prove merciless in their enforcing duties.


Thanks for reading the first part of DMing a Fantasy Police Force – Agency. The next part will go into detail on CompositionWho exactly makes up these fantasy forces?




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