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They held me to ransom back there in the foothills
And nobody stumped up a bean
Not Swifty, nor Eddie, came up with the ready
It can make you think people plain mean

(from) Miss Patsy Richard Thompson

(not to be confused with the herb ramson - a relative of garlic and onions)

Basic Information

A ransom is a some of money required to redeem a person, creature or object from captivity - the captive is said to be "held to ransom" until the fee is paid and then to have been "ransomed".

In the modern era, this is generally associated with criminals - and specifically the crime of kidnapping (although modern judicial fine-or-imprisonment deals probably appear more or less the same from the target's end) - but has historically been a common part of life in general and warfare in particular.

Fixing a ransom is something of a judgement call - a criminal may simply bleed the victim's relatives for all they are worth (and hilarity may ensue if they misjudge their ability to pay), but in a more formal setting, the ransom may be related to the victim's social status and possibly tied to their blood-price or oath-price … in which case the victim may actually demand to pay a higher ransom to inflate their status1. As Richard I of England, Jean II of France and David II of Scotland all demonstrated, a King's ransom was predictably huge.

Likewise, the ransoms paid as tournament forfeits could be token amounts, or could be close to the market value of armour, horse and other gear - not to mention the personal ransom to be paid on the defeated contender.

The ransom culture was something of a lifesaver for medieval combattants - especially those of the middle and upper classes who would likely be worth the effort of ransoming: a dead man could not be ransomed. Likewise mutual ransoming was part of the feudal compact.

A ransom may also be payable to neutrals who have recovered - usually rescued - someone and demand a reward before handing them back. The blood-chit is commonly used for this purpose, but on a less serious note, downed US Navy Aviators in WW2 were also ransomed back to their carriers by the smaller vessels that typically recovered them … the ransom being traditionally set at the flier's weight in icecream, which the carriers had the equipment to produce in bulk but could not be made on the cruisers and destroyers that accompanied them2.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • PCs who have been taken prisoner could find themselves held to ransom - and thus hoping that their patron or family will come through with the ransom. Which they will then need to refund.
  • Alternatively they could be required to ransom their feudal lord.
  • Also, plenty of work escorting ransoms.
    • Or intercepting them to assist with someone's intrigues.
  • Don't overlook the delights of attacking someone after the ransom has been paid and grabbing it either.
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