I am putting more energy to other things this week, getting myself ready for a fanatical effort I fully expect to fail at ... but that's not important right now. The online campaign is going gangbusters, and sometimes it just feels good to play, you know, rather than just talk about D&D. After all, that is all this blog is. Talking. The real work is being done next door - and I'm astounded at the general lack of interest.
But anyway, something came up that inspired this post, so I thought I'd make a few clarifying statements.
The town guardsmen consists of a group of individuals whose purpose is primarily to promote and defend the interests of the general town - which means, fundamentally, to protect the money. Nobody in a medieval town really cares if you beat up a vagrant, or a prostitute, or any other member of the town who is seen as a scourge or a parasite. Even in the present day its hard to get cops motivated to look for a hooker's killer - that pig farmer in Vancouver is a good example. In the medieval world, there was virtually little or no force to stop you from doing it ... so long as you didn't do it openly and in public, since there has long remained an adage that if you'll kill a hooker in a bar fight, you might kill anyone. Best to remove you from the general populace. But the town guard don't care about the squabbles between the poor, if no one gets hurt. They'll stand to the side and watch, but they won't get involved unless a rich person tells them to.
The idea that the town guard investigates crime, or does anything more than stop people from committing it at the given moment, is pretty much an anachronism. When someone commits a murder, and flees town, there's no artist's rendering being sent about to the other towns warning them of such and such a killer, with such and such a bounty on their heads. This was a matter that rose out of an entirely different culture, one that won't arise for many years, due to the development of national governments and mutual business corporations, and the globalism that started forthwith in the early 18th century.
Of course, screw over the wrong mage and you might get recognized anywhere ... but that's not the town guard. The town guard will watch you run over the far hill and that's the last they'll think of you. You won't be back for revenge - the town guard don't own anything.
The town watch, on the other hand, is very like the mafia. They really don't care who kills who, as long as their clients, being some part of the business community represented by a guild, aren't harmed. Kill a prostitute? No problem. Kill a prostitute by shoving dough in her mouth in a baker's shop? You're in big fucking trouble.
It's bad for business, isn't it? In the meantime, the watch isn't wandering the streets 'protecting' them like the 'Angels' do ... they're making sure no one else is getting a piece of the pie. A sneak thief breaking into a shop is taking money out of the hands of the watch as surely as the shopkeeper - and the watch isn't going to take that thief to prison. That thief is going to get a last look from a deep hole somewhere, just before the stone is put back in place. Permanently.
Moreover, the watch doesn't care about anyone who isn't directly connected to their clients. You want to beat up a city council member opposed to guild privileges? The watch will help. But you don't see city fathers like that wandering around, not with out their -
Retinue. These are private guards who are there just for the lord, noble or official in whose pay they reside. Sometimes the town will pay for someone's retinue, but the town doesn't want them getting distracted and chasing pick pockets. That's not their role. Their role is to get Joe council member from the council to his palace of a house, without his being hassled by persons on the street. Which means you don't have to break the law around these authorities. You just have to be in the way.
This is all different from the reeve. In England, the Shire reeve, or the Sheriff. The reeve's primary purpose is to make sure that people living in the rural countryside contribute the hours and days of labor they owe to the local lord ... and in later times, they'd be called forth if you failed to pay your rent. In order to keep the lord's manor in good stead, sometimes it was necessary to bust some heads, particularly anyone not obeying the law (that is, the noble's word of command). The reeve would spend a lot of time in the village associate with the local castle, since that's where the people who did the largest part of the labor directly for the lord lived: the carpenters, masons, millers, brewers, bakers, candle-makers and so on. Farmers too, but they tended not to work immediately upon the noble's residence, so if they didn't show up in the field, the reeve was less likely to notice.
On the other hand, the hayward would notice immediately. This would later evolve into what we think of as the village warden, the person who looks after the countryside and keeps everything in order there, stopping poachers and such. The hayward looked after the forests, yes, and did keep out poachers ... but he watched over the shepherds, the herders, the farmers who tilled the land, and any one else who worked on public lands for any period of time. Roughly half your time as a medieval farmer was spent looking after your own land, so you could eat. The other half, you worked for the lord, and you worked under the hayward's careful guidance.
If you're in a rural setting, then, and you commit some action against the source of labor or against the lord's holdings themselves, you would find yourself dealing either with the reeve or with the hayward. And let me explain: they weren't nice about it. Probably they wouldn't kill you. It was probably enough just to hamstring you, or if not your hamstrings your ankles.
Then the pigs, or the hounds, could have you.
The whole manor, and sometimes multiple manors, were looked after by the steward. This would typically be a hireling standing in stead for the lord, when the lord was not present ... and he would be judge and executioner all at once. The reeve and the hayward, when they had their doubts about you, would bring you before the steward, and he'd decide your fate. Sometimes the steward was the head of his own retinue, which for the manor represented a sort of local police force - sometimes, and sometimes not, separate from the reeve or the hayward's personal helpers (try to imagine a bunch of sadistic young men). The steward's men would get interested in anyone who seemed to take a little too much interest in the lord's affairs - really, that was all you needed to do. Ask too many questions.
That should provide a general idea of what kind of 'police' your facing. It's good to remember that the primary way to avoid arrest is to placate the authorities. It doesn't have as much to do with breaking the law as you might think.