Monday, August 27, 2012

Papers, Please

Under the heading, "Reality Makes the Best Fantasy," TristanJTarwater at Troll in the Corner reflects on identification and official documentation and wonders how such things may work in a roleplaying game setting.

Though I'm running a historical setting, many of the questions are pretty challenging for me to answer; I have a general notion of how many of these things are handled from my background reading, but I'm admittedly a bit short on details.

  • What kinds of official documents and identifications are required in the area? Are there ones for nationality? For work/certain professions/guilds? Ownership? What power and function do these documents hold?
In early 17th century France, with literacy restricted to a small portion of the population, personal documentation carried by the individual is minimal. The parish church or Huguenot temple is the repository of birth and death records for most people, and guilds, confraternities, colleges, companies, and other organisations keep their own records on membership status; under their royal charters the latter are also responsible for setting their own membership standards. Royal records are maintained for purposes of controlling payrolls, frex soldiers in companies, and royal offices and commissions are recorded and documents issued to the office-holder. Courts and magistrates produce vast quantities of documentation on their official duties. Merchants and bankers keep extensive records as well, including drafts replacing specie for trade. Genealogies and armorials are important records for tracking the status and relationships of the nobility. Records of land ownership may be kept by families, churches, and royal officials, and this is one of the reasons this is so litigious.

Passports are not required for most domestic travel, while for foreign travel they serve more like letters of introduction than identification; in a pinch, seals and signatures can be checked for veracity. They may limit where a person can travel.

  • Who makes these documents? Who has access to these documents? Where are they available to obtain?
Church records are maintained by the parish priest; one of the goals of the Tridentine reforms in France is to insure literacy among the clergy. Royal records are maintained by officers and courts, and local burghers - échevins, consuls, capitouls - maintain municipal records prepared by their clerks and officers. Guilds and similar organisations keep their own records in their halls or the parish church, maintained by their secretaries. Bankers and merchants keep their own records.

  • What makes these documents ‘official’? Is there a special seal on them? A signature? Are they printed on special material or in special ink? Who has these special seals and signatures and who is trusted to be able to tell genuine articles from originals?
Seals are used to identify documents and their creators; forging seals is a serious offense, comparable to forging coins. Important documents may have a row of seals attached by ribbons.

  • Is there a cost incurred for obtaining special documents? Or are they free for anyone eligible?
I've not come across this in my reading, and it hasn't come up in game as of yet; the adventurers have been issued passports but have not tried to obtain documents of other sorts - a bribe might be required if it seems appropriate, based on circumstances.

  • Is there a certain age one must be to obtain various types of identification or that require official documentation (working papers, ID, land ownership, etc)? How does one go about proving one’s age?
Birth records maintained by the parish provide proof of age, verified by a letter from the parish priest.

  • How are officials trained to recognize documents? What are surefire signs of forgeries?
Seals and signatures are the only telltale signs for most documents, and forgeries are certainly possible - there is no foolproof method of detecting such.

  • Are there checkpoints where documents/IDs are checked? Who is guarding these locations? What are they looking for/trying to keep out?
The maréchaussée are responsible for patrolling the roads and securing the borders, and they are concerned about controlling vagrancy, suppressing banditry, and protecting the integrity of the borders. Within in the cities, this falls to royal governors and the local burghers - imagine your local councilman also being a police officer, and you get an idea of what being a consul was like in this period.

  • What kinds are things are included on personal ID documents? Pictures? Physical characteristics?
Aside from seals and one's signature, personal identification is exceedingly rare.


  1. Good thoughts. I had wondered about this a bit in regard to gaming sort of eras. You've got me even more interested now.

    1. *hangs "Mission Accomplished" banner over computer*


  2. Now there's a topic I've honestly never given much thought. It seems like an absolute must for any campaign with a political intrigue element. Even ordinary dungeoneering might require some sort of letter of marque from the king or the local lord. Good stuff to ponder.

    1. Identity, ancestry, birth records, and blackmail are featured in the second Captain Alatriste novel, Purity of Blood, so yes, the intrigue potential for swashbuckling campaigns is great.

      Thinking about Tristan's questions for most fantasy settings opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities as well - what sorts of magical identification are available? how foolproof are they? I could see, frex, everyone in a high-magic setting having magical tattoos from shortly after birth.

    2. TSR's GAZ 3 The Principalities of Glantri attempted to explore aspects of that. It offered suggestions for how the bureaucracy would invasively regulate every aspect of life. It also has lots of intrigue and swashbuckling elves.

      It doesn't work for "standard" D&D but it's a great resource with some very interesting ideas, IMO.

  3. In an AD&D PbP game I'm currently playing in there is a guarded border between two areas. Some members of our party aided the local Merchant's Guild and the reward was a Border Pass.

    If you didn't have one, you could show up on the border with goods to sell, insist you were a merchant, and they'd probably let you through if only to go pay the fee at the Customs House up the road to allow you to work as a merchant.

    It effectively closed off part of the game world until the players wanted to go exploring it without being ham-fisted or rail-roady.

    1. I love that sort of setting detail, particularly as it affects player choices.

  4. This kind of thing relies on widespread literacy, though. I might cook up a similar answer for Arunia, but it would be much more ad-hoc considering that most people (imperial secretaries excluded) don't know how to read.

    1. Yeah, the obvious question is, why aren't forgers rampant? Well, for starters, the number of people who can forge a document in the first place is fairly low . . .

    2. The penalties are stiff and severe.
      The cultural groups are much smaller: it's harder to pass yourself off solely with forged documents when everyone in a particular caste grew up together, knows one-another, etc.
      Connections/Network/Reputation and the Old Boy Network are more important than the documents.
      Duels and vendetta.
      Sense of Honor, even among thieves: it's one thing to take what isn't yours; it's a whole 'nother level of skull-duggery to arrogate to yourself privileges and perfections you do not possess. does present an interesting opportunity for the enterprising rogue. I just don't see it ending well for the character. :D

  5. Actually, once you accept that identification isn't limited to the written word and that symbols are sometimes much more potent, you have a whole world of intrigue involving fraud, forgery, mistaken or stolen identity, etc.

    I noble's signet ring and his coat of arms were legally protected devices because they were often the only way of identifying a man an determining his proper rights and privileges.

    To steal the ring, to misuse the arms, was no different than the modern problem of identity theft.

    I can actually think of a lot of ways, even in a largely illiterate society, for identity papers and the like to be important elements in the game.

    And I really like the idea of the local lords requiring a Letter of Marque under which all dungeoneering must be done. Treasure hauled with the Letter is subject to tax. Treasure hauled without is forfeit...if you're caught and/or prosecuted.

    Much food for thought here...

    1. That's actually only true once nobility become entrenched (1500s+) but in earlier periods of the Middle Ages that was actually not the case. Indeed, heraldic features weren't even registered in any organized way.

      Of course, the more centralized and record-based a society is, the more this will change. Byzantium had a much different approach to records (and thus identity) than did the European West.

      This sort of feeds into a whole thing about nobility that I like to talk about sometimes: in the Middle Ages, up till the mid-1400s, social mobility was much greater than the premodern period. In the 17th and 18th centuries the nobility became concerned about its rights as a class and identifying who was noble and who was not. In the 10th and 11th centuries you could prove you were noble not by drawing familial links (though those never hurt) but by showing you had never been subject to "servile" duties and that you owned a certain amount of land.

    2. Essentially, nobility (nobilis) went from a quality (something you have of yourself) to a social class (something you must be born into by right).

    3. It is just about that time that the centralization of power in the hands of a growing bureaucracy leads the sovereign to begin selling titles.

      So it should be no surprise that nobles start asserting their privileges and attempting to make them exclusively hereditary at the same time that centralization and an upwardly mobile merchant-clerical caste begin whittling away those privileges.

    4. Absolutely. It's actually a fascinating progression, particularly in terms of strategies employed to ensure familial survival. Prior to that, most strategies were extralegal such as investing in monasteries and giving land to familial holdings (such as churches, bishoprics, abbeys) rather than systemically and legally establishing a closed class.

      Interesting stuff either way!

  6. I wondered about this when I had my character forge papers during out last 7th Sea session. What exactly was I forging anyway? I decided on a passport and some personal papers that were not official documentation, like letters and bills. After reading all this here, I'm going to add a seal. And worry about the fact that I'm going to get arrested for that as well.

    1. The seal is probably more important than the contents from the perspective of legal violations...but it does depend on the assumptions of the game world you're working in.

      Also, literacy rates in the Medieval and Early Modern world weren't as poor as popular opinion assumes. So you really could, without doing violence to history, assume widespread functional literacy. People didn't read for leisure but that's a very different sort of thing than being completely illiterate. And that, really, had more to do with a lack of leisure or the cultural preference to spend leisure time in religious or social activities.

    2. Literacy in 1680s France is about 1 in 20 for poor peasants, 1 in 5 for wealthier peasants. By the time of the Revolution it jumped, however, as rural schools became more widespread during the 18th century.

      It's also geographically variable, with literacy much more common in the langue d'or (north of the Loire) than the langue d'oc (south of the Loire).

    3. We assume a fairly high degree of literacy at least in the urban(ish) areas and relied on that when we used the broadsides to spread rumours. 1 of 5 sounds about right.

      7th Sea hasn't much to say about all this, but we've always kept fairly close to history with everday life, so I would assume that forging the seal is indeed a serious offence, more so than the papers themselves.


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