I'm working on a high-fantasy alternate world setting, I explained it a bit here. But think of a deconstruction of tolkienesque fantasy. It's a society populated by humanoids, some based in traditional fantasy (elves, dwarf, and dragonkin), and most of the others created by me. There used to be free access to magic, but after a magical industrial revolution, the dangers of large scale magic within cities became apparent. Magic is now restricted to specific workplaces, armed forces (like the bounty hunter's guild), and very low scale magic (think of lighting a candle with your fingers, but never of throwing a fireball). Free use occurs outside of cities (because it's no man's land).

The setting used to be peaceful; everyone did their job and worked towards their communities. There was crime back then, but mostly on personal scale and nothing very serious (think of someone borrowing an axe but not returning it, or passion caused violence). However, there has been a growing amount of crimes, greed, violence and individualism, both in seriousness and in graveness. This sudden rise in the crimes started during the magical revolution, because settlements grew from a few families to more populated towns and eventually self sustained cities. (Assume this happened over the course of hundreds of years, and thus people didn't really noticed it until it was to obvious).

As the cities grew, so did the complexity of their politics. Normal folk were forced to take arms and there were a few wars, but after the first real bloodshed, most societies signed a truce and cut ties unless it was really necessary. This peace also carried consequences, as most of commercial trade between cities was cut, some needs stopped being fulfilled like before (the elves suddenly had a quality drop in their metalwork and the dwarfs were struggling with agriculture and nature related magic, for a simple example). Most of the upper classes in cities were fine, but the poorer folk were not and thus organised crime was born.

Now, here is the issue. All this cities were traditionally monarchies, with very few of them having any real army or some other armed forces besides the king's guards, and the crime rates were rampant. I'm going to reduce the issue for the particular city where the plot starts, we shall call it "City A" because I suck at naming things.

In our City A, the king was faced with violence, an ever growing criminal underworld, people committing crimes out of desperation and others out of pure spite, and his personal guard, while impressive, wasn't able to do much to help. He considers: "Maybe there is a way to get normal folk to take arms again, but this time to protect the city". At first he tried to inspire normal folk through moral and ethical arguments, but it became obvious that only money was enough motivation for anyone to risk his life. Thus, The Bounty Hunter's Guild was founded, with the King as the one offering the rewards.

How would work the legal system for City A, specifically in the criminal aspect? I'm not interested in particular laws (as they come from the morals set by each religion and particular god). Just how does a society with bounty hunters as their principal enforcers handle criminals?

Take into account that city a has the laws close to ours, there exists a magical bureau in charge of magical control and magic misuse. After someone commits a magical crime, this magic bureau investigates and informs the bounty hunter's guild. The king has the resources enough to set several investigation teams, including access to powerful telepaths (but there also exist countermeasures for this). Their magic and technology will mostly be equal or greater than the mafia's. Their principal flaw comes in the lack of organization and experience in fighting crime. I'm asking about their legal system would be different from ours. Would such system work? What are the principal flaws? How would the king control the bounty hunters? Eventually I planned for the bounty hunters become the principal political force, while having the king as their money and resource provider, but ultimately controlling him and his politics due his lack of other armed force. Is this viable or would the criminal underground tear them down before they reach that point?

  • $\begingroup$ okay. English is not my native languaje, sometimes I make some typos xD $\endgroup$
    – Silver
    Nov 18, 2015 at 20:00

4 Answers 4


Let's look at how it would affect our modern day world if our law enforcement system were replaced by a bounty hunter system.

First of all, we are changing their incentive system. Instead of being paid on salary they are now being paid commission. That will increase their motivation to perform the post-crime duties that law enforcement is responsible for, but what about pre-crime activities? Let's say you have a lone gunman threatening to shoot someone. You are a bounty hunter. Do you show up before he shoots someone or is it "not my problem" until someone actually ends up dead and someone offers a reward? And even if the former, what incentive do you have to settle the situation peacefully? Presumably you get paid more for bringing in a murderer than a person who has only waved a gun about.

That means serious crimes will happen a lot more often because there is no preventative measure in place other than the knowledge that if they get caught they will be punished. Not a great motivator. Most criminals are willing to gamble that they are too clever to be caught. It also means that trivial crimes will happen a lot more often because the better bounty hunters will pursue crime with a greater payoff. Who's going to bother with someone who steals lawn dwarves or commits acts of petty vandalism? Bob, the sloppy, disaffected bounty hunter who wants to get by with the least amount of work possible...

What kind of "licensing" and training is involved in being a bounty hunter? None? Then we have a bunch of amateurs with guns running around. What are the consequences of "civilian casualties"? How serious are they? Who monitors the bounty hunters to make sure they don't cheat? If a bounty hunter brings in the wrong corpse, what are the consequences? If he kills a bunch of people in pursuit of his bounty and claims that they were protecting the Bad Guy or threatening him, how serious is the investigation?

Since bounty hunters are in competition for their bounties, team activities will be severely lacking. Not only will they not trust each other and not cooperate, there will be no incentive to pass on knowledge or skill to more junior members of the profession. You might be tempted to liken it to a typical salesman situation where a newbie is sent out with an experienced team member, but in a sales situation the workers create their own opportunities with effort and persuasiveness. The pool of opportunity is, for most practical purposes, unlimited. However, in a bounty hunter situation there is a sharply limited pool of opportunity. So unless you create a system where a trainer takes a percentage of his trainee's "take" there is no real incentive to do a good job of training.

There are other disadvantages to the commission based system. If there are teachers they will probably be the ones who can't make more money "on the job". Unless you pay the teachers really well. Also, in a standard team situation, if you have a loose cannon he will normally be restrained to some degree by the oversight of his teammates, as long as they aren't of like mind. Take that away and the cannon gets a lot looser.

Now, a fantasy world isn't going to experience an exact replicate of modern day dynamics, but I think if you consider the general principles of the paradigm shift you will find some useful applications to your storyline.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Now I'm envisioning a stock-market for how much the various bounties are worth in order to match the bounties to how much the people care about particular crimes. Democracy via law enforcement! $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Nov 19, 2015 at 10:33
  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of trainers earning a cut from their trainee. There will be restriction to avoid much abuse. Im also thinking to have high ranked bounties only available to teams, due their complexity and danger. $\endgroup$
    – Silver
    Nov 19, 2015 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ They were at first completely controlled by the king's goverment, but after a while they became almost independent, and only turning to the king for more financing. They have government issue licences, and mandatory basic weapon and magic training. The rest of the issues are there and real, as there WILL be irregularities and oversights due the lack of a stricter control $\endgroup$
    – Silver
    Nov 19, 2015 at 14:38

It sounds like the American "Old West" in a way, where you had isolated towns surrounded by a lot of nothing. Most towns had a sheriff, who's job it was to keep peace in the area surrounding the town, that's about it.

The government would put up bounties on criminals, and the bounty sheets would specify the reward and the amount of force allowed. So, "Reward for the capture of" meant that the bounty hunter was to arrest them and take them to a jail for trial, but try not to kill them. "Wanted Dead or Alive" meant just bring them in, on their horse or over it.

Bounty hunters would be bound by the law not to kill innocent people as collateral damage, but like police officers they would have a lot of leeway when it came to bring in their bounty.

Essentially, you could treat them just like the police, except they only get paid if they bring in the bad guys.
Being in a guild would be interesting, since you'd have a bit of organization to keep to many hunters from going after the same high bounty criminal. This might lead to some jealousy if a few hunters always get to go after the best bounties.
You'd also have to deal with some guild enforcement going after non-guild members who are bounty hunting. Since each guild member would have to pay dues to have the privilege of being a bounty hunter, they wouldn't look kindly on individuals that go off on their own.

They'd be skilled trackers, since a lot of criminals would be out in the wastes between towns, robbing and killing as opportunity allowed.
They'd also be powerful magically, and skilled with weapons too.

  • $\begingroup$ Great advises. The organization part comes by a rank system, you can only go after a bounty with equal or lower rank than yours. (a bit cliche, but seems reasonable enough to work). Each rank also posses an internal control structure, to solve conflicts between hunters and bounties $\endgroup$
    – Silver
    Nov 18, 2015 at 20:46

The bounty system really only works in a world where the central government doesn't have enough strength and wealth to enforce the law directly. For all the reasons Francine listed full time soldiers and cops have the right motives and are better trained have better oversight and work together better.

How rich or poor are your cities? In the American west bounty hunters where only widespread for around 50 years a brief period where there were some towns in the Midwest but most states had to few people and to little money to mount a real police force. The main advantage of bounty hunters is they are a way of getting a larger police force briefly for one bounty, for a high cost. If the kingdom is having a high crime problem then a standing police force will be cheaper.

One of the few ways the modern world used bounty hunters in for people who post bail and flee. The bail is then used to help pay for the person's recapture, either by police or private individuals. This is a method for pushing the cost of recapture on the escapee.


In the United States, bounty hunters are tied into the bail system. They don't do the initial arrest, they only get into the picture when a suspect is released and fails to show up.

In the system you describe, who sets the bounties?

  • Either somebody who feels wronged goes to the courts, makes a case (in the absence of the accused?), and the court sets the bounty. Presumably only if the accused didn't show up when summoned. How does that system deal with unknown perpetrators?
  • Or the king and courts set a preemptive bounty, organized by the type of crime. So many gold pieces for a murderer, so many for fraud. That means the bounty hunters become the principal investigators. What happens during the trial if the main prosecution witness has a financial stake in the outcome? In any decent legal system, the defense would rip them apart ...
  • Or interested parties other than the king and courts set the bounty. So there is only justice for those who can afford it. If a criminal wrongs a man, he or had better kill him so there will be no bounty. An rob all the assets, so the heirs can set no bounty. Can you buy insurance which posts bounties for you?

I think the only fair and sustainable system would involve a highly formalized bounty hunter guild that is a police force in all but name, perhaps with a tradition of "performance bonuses" for the capture of high-profile criminals.

Since we're on Worldbuilding, your fictional world doesn't have to be sustainable and fair. A villain could be a bounty hunter who shoots two people and claims to bring in a murderer and his victim, both dead. The plot could be diverted by a poor widow who asks the heroes for help because she can't afford a bounty hunter.

  • $\begingroup$ The magical bureau its very competent at investigating magic related crimes, and since telepaths exist (but are particularly rare in City A) most of the bounties are set by the government itself. The tricky part comes from non magical crimes (no amount of magic is gonna tell who stabbed the guy found without a wallet on a night street), or highly planned crimes from an organized group. The bounty hunter guild spends most of its resources at tracking the second kind of crimes, but for the first most of the time the guild just send low rank members and let them be. $\endgroup$
    – Silver
    Nov 19, 2015 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ I also like the idea of a preemptive bounty, especially for low rank members who aren't allowed for the juicy bounties. This way they would be act mostly like a police, but keeping the hunter's guild idea intact. I must also note that Im in fact interested in a sustainable idea that isn't completely fair. The guild is in fact highly formalized, and I plan them to have a lot of indirect political control. At the point the story starts, the king cant really control anymore the guild, but he's also completely dependent from it. $\endgroup$
    – Silver
    Nov 19, 2015 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Silver, so you would have "lawmen" who are allowed act if they learn of a crime, but they are not required to do so. Lots of abuse potential, from racial profiling to extortion. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Nov 19, 2015 at 16:21

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