Legal Systems in Cobrin’Seil

Let’s talk about the complicated way people in a D&D setting find justice.

Understand that a body of this thinking is a byproduct of watching this Burgerkreig video. I’m summarising some points and his overall structure, and I’m trying very hard to not just copy his metaphors and jokes. This kicked me into realising that I had, in fact, actually done this for part of my setting, which meant I had something useful, a default.

Having the Eresh Protectorate as a central setting component is very handy, because they help to standardise things across the entire vast continent of Bidestra. Not that they impose a singular standard per se, but because when there’s one cultural marker spread across a region, other cultures can point to it and say ‘we do it that way’ or ‘we don’t do it that way.’

Art by Santeri Soininen

What I like about it in this case specifically is that when we look at the legal system of the Eresh Protectorates, it is ridiculous and full of uneven, inadequately distributed systems for stupid reasons. But those reasons are all to some extent realistic and create points of tension for when I run the game, and give players a meaningful relationship to the systems in the world.

Let’s talk about the basics, then.

In any given legal system, there’s three basic components; a legislative branch that sets the rules, an executive branch that enforces them, and then in the squidgy middle between them, you have a branch whose job it is to work out how those rules actually apply, which is what we call a judicial branch. It’s a wonderfully clean system when diagrammed.

Now that we have this tidy system all set up, it immediately gets all jam on it. Because in the Eresh Protectorates there are two legislatives. Each city is its own independent city-state, which gets to set its own rules and laws in the space around it, and there’s the laws of the Eresh Protectorate itself, which are set from the capital of Eresh, known as The Crown (and used in other references, like ‘Crown Law’ and ‘Crown Holdings). Mostly these laws are separate — after all, Eresh is just plain out too far away to really set up meaningful laws about how people arrange their farms around the city, and most of the laws from Eresh are either extremely high-level philosophical ones, or are laws that delegate responsibility for specific situations.

The Executives are also diced up – each city has its own Watch, which are explicitly a civilian force disconnected from the military with the right to perform violence in the name of protecting the citizenry and enforcing the law. There are two complications there, though, because there was a point in history where it was seen as unacceptable for nobles (ladies and lords and theydies) to be addressed by Vulgar Citizens — anyone who didn’t own property. That meant most Watch just couldn’t do anything if a noble committed a crime, which was a privilege that the nobles exploited. For a while there the historical line was that nobles just didn’t commit crimes, and there was a cultural myth around that. Nobles played their part in the cultural myth by making their crimes non-obvious and everyone else ate shit. Put a pin in here.

Now, there are two other power factors in the city, which are the Church Knights (divided into three (and by three I mean four)) factions, and the Church itself. The Church positions itself as the Arbiter of the Immortal; in the official vision of the legal system, the State oversees the Material, and the Church the Immortal. There was a period of history in the Eresh Protectorates when the church was seen as legislative for all moral concerns and the state (in this case referred to as the Crown) was seen as legislative for non-moral concerns, so things like property and taxation.

This obviously presented tension because neither side had to consult one another for determining laws, and you don’t need to go very far to start making non-moral arguments for certain laws. Yes, murder is bad on a moral level but it’s also incredibly inconvenient for everyone murdered’s personal business and banking history, which means that both sides can make a case that it’s their affair.

The church also had a standing army which was ostensibly for defense of Olifar, the holy city, but also supposedly used to do things like missionary efforts or protecting people when the case for doing so was moral and not legal. These church soldiers (note, soldiers not knights) were therefore also technically, an executive arm of a legislative system, and, at least if you asked their bosses, were to be punished and administered as an internal matter and not by the watch. Put another pin in here.

The Church Knights were made originally to be a sort of half-way between the Crown and the Church meant to serve particular purposes. They were independent of both, with an at-first position from both Church and Crown that well, yeah, obviously, sure, we say you’re independent but you know where your bread is really buttered, right, so don’t get smart with us. One of these groups, the Raguzans were made to be an executive force for protecting the entire Kings’ Highway, which meant they had to be extremely independent and were given responsibility fit to make judgment calls on their own while they’re out there.

Then there’s the Tzarumites, who were founded to be a military shock force that was independent of the Crown and Church and therefore, nobody needed to be scared if the Tzarumites became immensely powerful. Again, big wink here. The Tzarumites were a military force that could behave in a retaliatory fashion against anyone who struck at an Eresh City and were expected to be able to mobilise faster than the Crown or Church armies.

The Lethenites were made to be a sort of like containment service for magical stuff, tomes, arcane stuff. Now you may think that that should have fallen to the Crown for some like, wizard library, but ehhhh the Church thought it should fall under their control for their holy libraries and rather than resolve the tension there they just elevated an existing Knightly Order to have that job, with the again, understanding that of course, that Knightly Order would know who was really in charge.

Then then then, secretly, the church founded a fourth order by elevating a knight of their own called Chardun, who had been responsible for the genocide of psychic rat people that lived underneath the city of Olifar. The Chardunists were founded to be the ‘invisible hand of the Church,’ which they then made into a sort of strike team to send out to try and exterminate threats to Church power, which meant sometimes rooting out beholders and mind flayers but usually meant killing any citizen of the Protectorates who demonstrated psychic powers. And if you’re not out of pins, we need one here too.

Now following that you may see what a mess of a setup this is; you have functionally three power bases (Crown, city, and Church), each of which see themselves as a fully contained, equal or actually predominant source of legislative and executive, and sort the judicial situation out amongst themselves. This gets complicated further when most citizens see the church’s job with clerics and priests to do moral guidance, so for a time, it was not uncommon for a crown affair being executed by the watch being adjudicated over by a priest who determined how it was sorted out and what they couldn’t do.

This meant that these systems were all in place, but as far as what did or didn’t apply in any given situation wasn’t really the responsibility of a system with rules but was often more of a ‘what works right now’ kind of situation, and that meant that secretly a lot of the legal system was handled in stratas of privilege and territorial dispute with different groups. And you’re holding a fistful of pins.

Let’s diagram that situation:

Great job on that separation of powers, am I right? This situation is one where you’re kind of entirely in the control of a single wing and it’s entirely possible the person who pulled you in is also the person who determines what the rules say they can do, which is obviously a crappy situation.

It all went to hell the second a noble decided to do something a Raguzan didn’t like on the highway.

See, the thing with the Raguzans is that they’re knights, but they’re the least knightly knights. They don’t get titles or lands with their comission from the crown; lots of people in the Raguzans are knights because that gives them authority on the highway, which meant that the city didn’t have to deal with things like Raguzans needing to apprehend people on the highway then transport them sometimes hundreds of kilometers home to start a court process where the only witness to the misdeed was the Raguzan. Raguzans are therefore the knights most likely to do things like have working class jobs beforehand, and had skillsets for things like long-distance travel. If you live in the city and never bother travelling outside of it your impression of a Raguzan is a knight, but out there and may be a bit more like a combat butler – someone who’s there to deal with ruffians, but they know the law, right?

Anyway, so when a Raguzan killed a lord on the highway, the entire system of conflicting powers absolutely pissed its pants and all those pins started to get a bit too sharp to hold on to. What’s more, investigating the situation involved the Lethenites (who had magical artifacts that could be used to talk to the dead and tell if they were lying), and the city watch in Eresh proper – which meant that suddenly, there was this unfolding case, nobles wanted to know why the Raguzan wasn’t being tried for murder, a whole web of conversation with the Crown and Church was grappling with whether knights were Vulgar or not, and things were getting very flammable.

And then the head of the watch deputised the Tzarumites.

Like, all of them.

It was a simple and audacious move: The head of the city watch, in Eresh itself, gave every single member of the Tzarumite order a comission that said they were, technically, City Watch members, which meant the Tzarumites suddenly had a legal right to investigate and enter some locations, and Tzarumites were definitely not Vulgar subjects; to be a Tzarumite, you needed to own land, and that meant that the Tzarumites involved with this were taking action against nobles and dragging nobles into the street to arrest them, which obviously was an immense problem for the noble power base.

What ensued was some unpleasantness and then some reforms and then some very uneasy, slightly grey areas of overlap to get us to our current situation, which is still yes, full of exceptions and if-then-else routing statements, but it is also, notably, an agreed upon set of rules.

First things first, the Tzarumites are deputised into the watch of whatever city they’re in. This doesn’t always go comfortably, but ostensibly, they have the authority of the police, the ability to search and seize, and to make arrests. Watch members with them use this to mean they can do things like travel onto noble or crown land legally, and the Tzarumites are also given the right of Just Pursuit – which means that as long as they have reasonable belief they are pursuing the duties of their deputisation, they can make a mess and understand it will be sorted out. Part of why this is is because again, they have land – so if you break a window bursting into a noble estate, you can pay to have the window replaced.

Second, the Raguzan authority over the highway was solidified. What was expected to happen was the rights were going to be stripped off them or their authority was strictly curtailed. The problem with curtailing Raguzan authority on the highway (which they take very seriously) was that if the Raguzans were pissed off, they’d just… stop it, and the King’s Highway is a really important piece of infrastructure that the Raguzans were already extremely good at defending. What the nobles wanted was the Raguzans disbanded, which the Crown rightly saw as a great way to immediately create an insurgency of the best bandits they’d ever had to dealt with. Instead, the Raguzans were codified, the rules of their authority on the highway was defined, and notably, other competing rules were set up. Particularly, Lethenites were the legal authority on the Highway if they were transporting something considered Of Interest, and Tzarumites were the authority if they were protecting the boundaries of the Protectorate.

This legal snarl is one reason why the orders tended to get deployed all at once, to move together. That way, no matter what they do, they can always argue one of them was the legal authority and they don’t have to put this to a test case.

Third, the legal rights of the Church were clarified, and the legal system was unified under the Crown. The church was instead repositioned to be responsible for, in most situations, the adjudicating of the law; rather than make and enforce the law, it was the purpose of the church to determine what the law meant in any given situation. In the reforms, it was clarified that outside of Church Holdings, the Church had effectively become a common-access form of Judiciary… which meant that over time, the church started to develop and recruit law nerds. In most towns, a healer or soothsayer also served as some variety of law or legal consultant for the people of the town to talk to, who was usually being kept by the Church, not by the town. That was important because it meant nobody in the town could threaten their livelihood and hypothetically they were more neutral.

This was obviously an immense bollocking of church authority, but they were currently reeling in light of how the three factions they had helped to found suddenly got removed from their authority entirely, and the job of determining how laws got enforced, codified and clarified, seemed a very powerful exchange.

It also meant that one particular prick of a pin, the Church Soldiers, hung around with a big question mark over them, because… well, they weren’t part of the reforms. Church Soldiers are considered to be an Immortal Subject; the Church sets their rules, assigns them to tasks, and also forgives them their sins. Church Soldiers therefore have a reputation to most as being a kind of hardworking warrior who usually is there to protect the nice cleric in your town, and, in a large group when being mobilised and put adjacent to the Church Knights, a fantastically irritating body of arseholes who imagine they can try and push the Church Knights around.

Which they can’t.

Through this, what we’re left with is three major Legislative branches, five Executives, and three judicial groups, and the actual argument about who is or isn’t in charge of any given situation is still an argument… but one where there are reasons players can hope to or expect things to break their way. It’s all territory fights but it’s resulted in a fairly even legal system that now other nations try to copy, but to get right this time, like competing programmers arguing about standards.