Last time we talked about how to sustain a successful long-term RPG campaign, covering scheduling, party size, prioritization, and leadership. One element I wanted to discuss, but didn't have space to, was the role of legal precedent in sustaining a long-running campaign.
Before I dive too much into the overlap of law and gaming, let me share two personal anecdotes. The first is that I got into law school, way back in 1997, after sending the admissions committee a set of game rules I had published. The committee was, I assume, impressed by my ability to formulate a set of rules that would guide behavior; as that is, after all, the essence of law. The second is that my law school thesis, published in 1999, was an argument that game designs are functionally the law of massively multiplayer games. (Yes, I was able to play Everquest and call it legal research. Magna cum laude, baby.) The point being that the close kinship between law and gaming is an idea that's been stirring in my mind for quite some time now, so I hope you'll bear with me as I try to flesh it out.
For those who wisely avoided law school, let me quickly summarize what precedent is. A precedent is a legal ruling on a particular issue that can be used to help decide subsequent questions of law with similar issues. For instance, if a court is asked to decide whether a semiautomatic pistol is a legitimate weapon of self-defense, a previous ruling that revolvers were legitimate weapons of self-defense would be precedent. If the precedent is followed, it is called "binding." If the precedent is ignored, the new case is said to be "distinguished" from the old by certain new facts. For instance, the court might distinguish pistols from revolvers by pointing out that their ammunition capacity is much greater.
What does this have to do with role-playing games? Harkening all the way back to my first column on GMing, I noted that the foundational role of the gamemaster was that of Judge, responsible for "ruling on grey areas not covered by the rules." The process of ruling on grey areas creates precedent - or what we call "house rules".
Is Your Game Common, or Civil?
How much precedent is going to matter will depend on whether your game is a "common law" or "civil law" game.
"Common law" originated in Old England as a history of legal rules created by judges when deciding disputes. The judges began with the traditional customs of how matters had been handled, and then over time built up a body of law based on those past precedents. Common law generally has little or no basis in anything written, except perhaps a foundational Constitution or some scattered medieval statutes. The main disadvantage of a common law system is that there is no written "code" that citizens can consult to understand the laws of the land.
On the other hand, "civil law" originated in the Roman Empire as a collection or code of statutes created by legislatures. Judges interpret the statutes, but their rulings are not said to create law. The main disadvantage of a civil law system is that citizens can't depend on different judges to interpret the law the same way each time there's a case.