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Musings from an Empty Tankard: Trial by Fire

Musings from an Empty Tankard: Trial by Fire

Not every legal system deals with lawbreakers in the same way. Throughout our own history, the accused have been dunked, skewered, burned at the stake, and even crucified by those seeking to determine their guilt. While many societies in fantasy settings are civilized enough to give accused criminals a trial by jury, there are always those who measure innocence with a good old-fashioned trial by fire. Here are sixgrueling punishments for lawbreakers, upstarts, and heroes captured by villains.

For ease of explanation, individuals on trial will be referred to as the accused—and the individual running the trial as the lawgiver. Trials resolve with only a few ability checks, though the appropriate challenge DCs and damage penalties should be determined by the GM based on the PCs’ level.

Additionally, some trials draw spectators. Once per trial, the accused can make a Charisma (Deception or Persuasion) check to petition the crowd’s favor. The DC for the check should be appropriate to the situation and the nature of the crime. For example, a beloved folk hero accused of despoiling a despot’s authority should have an easier time petitioning the support of a crowd of peasants than a necromancer accused of filching bodies from the town cemetery. If the accused wins, they may gain some leverage or boon. If they fail, the spectators boo, jeer, and hurl objects, forcing the accused to make the next trial-related ability check at disadvantage.

Brand of Deceit

Heavily Guarded, Many Spectators

When two individuals stand accused of the same crime, this trial determines which one is guilty. First, the lawgiver manacles the accused by their hands and feet. Next, the accused are led to a small arena. On either side stands a fiery forge and bellows. Within each forge rests a weighted iron ball linked to a long and heavy chain. The lawmaker’s agents affix the contestants to the chain whose weight sits in their opponent’s forge. During the trial, contestants fire their forges until searing heat from the ball travels the length of the chain and reaches the opponent’s manacles, branding their ankles and wrists. The first person to pass out from the pain is considered guilty. Additionally, the scars left by the branding shackles mark the loser for life.

Determining the Outcome. Manacled individuals are grappled and cannot leave their positions until unlocked. The accused must fire the forge by working the bellows with a Strength (Athletics) check to heat the ball and chain. The winner successfully heats their opponent’s manacles, searing their flesh for 3d6 fire damage and forcing them to make their next Strength (Athletics) check at disadvantage. An individual loses if they take enough damage to pass out or fail three ability checks. Individuals attempting to break free from the manacles are deemed guilty. Similarly, attempts to cheat or attack the other contestant draw the crowd’s anger, who viciously pelt the accused with stones and garbage and force them to make their next Strength (Athletics) check at disadvantage.

Hunt of Truth

Unguarded, No Spectators

This trial places the accused at the mercy of the beasts of the forest. At dusk, the lawgiver’s agents strip the accused, bind them, and carry them deep into the forest. Next, the agents cut the soles of their feet and ride off, abandoning them. The accused proves their innocence by safely returning to the lawgiver’s settlement before dawn. However, if they don’t return or return with their wounds healed, the lawgiver proclaims their guilt.

Determining the Outcome. The lawgiver’s agents deposit the accused 5 miles outside of the settlement, within the territory of a monstrous forest creature such as an owlbear. With their feet bare and lacerated, the accused moves at half speed and makes Dexterity checks at disadvantage. Nevertheless, the accused makes whatever ability checks needed to navigate the creature’s territory in one piece.

Judgment of the Ancestors

Lightly Guarded, No Spectators

The lawgiver seals the accused in an ancient crypt to face the judgment of the ancestors, who were wronged by the accused’s actions. Guards keep watch over the crypt entrance during the trial, though only the accused enters. Left alone, unarmored and unarmed, the accused remains within the crypt until the morning of the following day. Then at dawn, the lawgiver unseals the crypt to pass judgement. Individuals who emerge from the ordeal unscathed are presumed innocent.

Determining the Outcome. Running this trial requires some prep work because the GM must create a ghostly ancestor the accused must confront. The undead ancestor must be intelligent and somewhat neutral regarding its opinion of the accused and must possess an interest in interrogating the accused before passing judgment. To prove one’s innocence, the ghostly ancestor asks the accused to recover an item of significance, such as a lover’s ring or a holy torc. The item is hidden elsewhere within the crypt, protected by traps and puzzles. The ancestral ghost gives the accused a fixed time to complete the task before it presumes the individual’s guilt and attacks.

Special. As a reward for completing the task, the ghostly ancestor enlightens the accused by revealing an ancient secret tied to the area’s history or its people.

Mercy of the Crows

Lightly Guarded, Few Spectators

Lawgivers use this trial to determine if the accused is truthful. At dawn, the lawgiver binds the accused and hangs them from a tall oak tree by the ankles. Next, animal fat and carrion are rubbed upon the accused’s face, after which they are left to the mercy of the crows. Finally, at sunset, the lawgiver cuts down the accused. If the crows haven’t blinded them, the lawgiver proclaims their innocence.

Determining the Outcome. The accused is restrained for as long as they are bound. After hanging for several hours, a murder of crows arrives and begins feasting. The accused can attempt to use the Dodge action to wiggle and shake to protect themselves from the crows pecking at their eyes. If they successfully dodge the crows for 3 rounds, the birds are driven off for a short time, and then the accused must make a Constitution check to avoid passing out from being hung upside down. If they pass out, the crows return for a few more rounds. If the crows drop the accused below 0 hit points, they become blinded.

Special. Weather can affect the outcome of this trial. Rainstorms, high winds, or other weather conditions that keep away the crows are a sure sign of the accused’s innocence. Conversely, escape is considered an admission of guilt.

Pit of Impairment

Heavily Guarded, Many Spectators

This trial determines which of two accused criminals is guilty. The accused are bound back-to-back by their hands and feet and then dropped into a large, spike-lined pit. The first individual to either stop moving or surrender is considered guilty.

Determining the Outcome. Bound together, both of the accused are grappled. Once the rope bindings are broken, the combatants must shove each other into the spiked walls of the pit. An individual shoved into the walls takes 1d6 piercing damage and continues to take an additional 1d6 per round from their bleeding wounds. The first person to bleed out is deemed guilty. Some lawgivers poison the spikes before trials to reach a decision sooner.

Rock of Justice

Unguarded, No Spectators

In this trial, the accused is judged by the mercy of the raging sea. The lawgiver holds the trial on a stormy day. First, the accused is locked into heavy wooden stocks mounted to a barrel, and a rope lashes their ankles to an anchor. Next, they are placed on a rocky outcropping along the shore at low tide. When the tide rises, the barrel keeps the accused’s head above water while pummeling waves dash their body against the rocks. If the accused lives until the tide recedes, the lawgiver declares their innocence.

Determining the Outcome.A complete tide cycle takes about half a day, but there is only an hour when the waters rise high enough to float the accused and batter them against the rocks. As the tide rises over the next few hours, the cold water forces the accused to make Constitution saves to avoid gaining levels of exhaustion. During high tide, waves toss the accused against the rocks, dealing bludgeoning damage. The accused can attempt to maneuver or otherwise brace for impact by making either a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check to reduce damage by half. If the accused falls unconscious from the damage, they risk drowning.

Special. The trial continues if the weather changes and the sea calms, though the accused likely survives and is presumed innocent.

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