Resolving Disputes the Tiwi Way

The Tiwi, an aboriginal group from northern Australia, have/had a unique way to resolve thorny disputes. This method – which involves old men throwing spears badly – is surprisingly gameable. If you introduce it in your campaign world, you can use it to resolve a whole bunch of loose plot threads quickly in a novel and memorable way. Plus, it has the added benefit of probably creating whole new set of plot hooks to keep the story moving!

Carved Tiwi funerary posts

(I’m going to use the past tense when referring to this Tiwi practice. The anthropological field research from which this post is drawn is old: by C.W.M. Hart in 1928-29, and Arthur R. Pilling in 1953-54. I have tried to ascertain whether the Tiwi still conduct this practice in the face of decades of Anglo-Australian cultural pressure, but I haven’t had much luck.)

First, why should we care about mechanisms of dispute resolution? Shouldn’t I be writing RPG content about politics, diplomacy, litigation, warfare, and the private dramas and jealousies that drive great plots? Sure! And all those things are ultimately about resolving disputes. Which family should hold this fief? Where should the border lie between our peoples? Did you sleep with my husband, and what should be done about it? All these are great subjects for an adventure. And this Tiwi practice gives you one more way to approach them!

Second, a word about the Tiwi themselves. Historically, the Tiwi as a tribe numbered about 1,000 people and lived on Melville and Bathurst islands, off the northern coast of Australia. These islands were too remote for white settlers to be interested in, so the Tiwi survived to reach the era when it became bad form to drive off or exterminate a tribe for the temerity of having lived for centuries in a place where you wanted to live. The Tiwi had little contact with the outside world. As far as they were concerned, Melville and Bathurst were the only habitable lands on earth, and the 1,000 Tiwis were the only real people who existed.

The Tiwi islands. Bathurst is on the left, Melville on the right.

The Tiwi world was too small to permit most of the common ways humans settle differences. Everyone was related to everyone else, so there were no impartial third parties to serve as mediators or judges. And organizing people into clear groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’ for warfare was effectively impossible. Instead, transgressions were resolved with duels. These ‘fights’ weren’t ritualized per se, but were structured such that they usually went predictably, with no lasting negative consequences.

The wronged party was inevitably an older man, the defendant usually a young one. The accuser painted himself head to toe in white, then gathered up his throwing spears, the defendant, and a few dozen people to watch the duel. The witnesses sat nearby as the accuser shouted and harangued the defendant about all the ways society had benefited the young man, all the people who’d done him favors. And how does he repay them? With this sort of impropriety! The speech usually went into excruciating detail. It could last twenty minutes!

Then the accuser started throwing spears at the defendant! This was less dangerous than it seems. The elderly accuser may have once been a mighty hunter, but old age and bad eyesight had usually spoiled his aim. It was easy for the young defendant to dodge the spears. Still, he needed to show he’d learned his lesson. If the defendant dodged the spears too many times or – God forbid! – threw one back, the spectators would also join in. Dodging one spear at a time was easy, but three or four was almost impossible. To end the duel safely, the defendant had to allow himself to be hit while maneuvering to earn as mild a blow as possible. A gash on the thigh or arm was perfect; there was plenty of blood to look good for the audience, but the wound usually healed quickly. The dispute was then considered settled.

But distance sometimes complicated matters. If the man who wronged you lived a few days’ travel away from you, you couldn’t easily confront him. So disputes between the men (and it was always men) of the different regions of the Tiwi islands would accumulate unresolved. Once a critical mass was reached, a group of mostly old men would march from one region to another to confront the men who’d wronged them.

A great example occurred in 1928. Men of many ages from the Tiklauila and Rangwila bands set off to confront the men of the Mandiimbula band about various seduction cases, broken promises, and other festering complaints. You might call this a war party, but you’d be wrong! All these disputes were with individuals, and usually different ones. So while one Tiklauila might have a beef with one Mandiimbula, he’d have no problem with another one who was the subject of the ire of one of his traveling companions. Even though all these Tiklauila and Rangwila men traveled together, they were really on different errands.

The defendants were forewarned of the not-a-war-party’s approach, and met them in an agreed-upon place. So did a large crowd of onlookers. Everyone formed a ring, into which stepped pairs of disputants, one pair at a time. They harangued and conducted duels as normal, save that many of the pairs were both old men, and were both throwing spears at each other.

Then a curious thing happened. The onlookers pressed in. Relatives and friends of the disputants wandered into the ring to provide moral support. And when people got hit by spears, it wasn’t the disputants. It was these bystanders. Every time someone got hurt, the duel stopped immediately. Everyone needed to figure out who got hurt and how it changed things. Was the woman who just got hit your mother? Now you’ve got to fight a duel with the dirty snake that hurt your mom!

By the time the day was over, the disputes that the Tiklauila and Rangwila came to settle were put to bed. In their place was a whole new set of disputes! Most of the people with the worst injuries were folks who hadn’t even come intending to fight a duel. And since all Tiwi were closely related, regardless of band, many of these new disputes were with people who theoretically arrived at this ‘battlefield’ on the same side.

Image credit: Sailko. Released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

At the gaming table, a Tiwi ‘battle’ – with dozens of duels fought, and dozens of new disputes generated – would be a lot of fun. (Obviously, you’ll have to change some details to better fit your setting.) If you find yourself with a lot of loose minor plot threads, consider resolving them Tiwi-style! You’ll wrap up your loose ends quickly, and replace them with a fresh, new batch of disputes you and your players get to hash out in the sessions to come.

You can handle each duel with a single roll. The trick is interpreting the roll in a way that’s interesting. Before the roll, figure out which PCs and NPCs are stepping into the ring for moral support. While it may seem like only a dummy would willingly go into the line of fire, not going in to support your buddy could generate bad feeling – and perhaps a future dispute in its own right! Resolve the roll in a way appropriate to your rules system, but giving lots of opportunities for bystanders inside the ring to get hit. If none of them are hit, check to see if any of the witnesses making up the ring are hit.

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Source: The Tiwi of North Australia by C.W.M. Hart and Arnold R. Pilling.


Everyone needs content for their RPG campaigns: adventure hooks, puzzles, NPCs, political machinations, combat encounters, and adventure sites. That’s what this site provides! I draw RPG content from real-life fact and folklore, then give advice on how to adapt it to your fictional campaign. I believe content that is grounded in reality (however fantastical) is richer and more vibrant, and your players will appreciate the difference.


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