WFRP: Imperial Magistrates

Author's Note: This career was inspired by Van Gullik's Judge Dee novels: The Chinese Maze Murders, The Chinese Gold Murders, and The Chinese Bell Murders. This series of investigative adventures set in ancient China is based on stories of a famous historical Imperial Magistrate Ti Jien-Chieh and are recommended for GMs looking for inspiration or ideas on Cathayan campaigns, especially running murder-mystery type adventures. BTW, these books (first published in the 1950s and 1960s) do a terrific job of bringing the culture of ancient China to life and the intricate plots are far better than TSR's anaemic Murder in... series.

Andrew L
Dec 1999


Imperial Magistrate: A Cathayan WFRP Advanced Career

A staple feature in almost all old Cathayan detective stories is that the role of the detective is always played by the magistrate of the district where the crime occured. This overworked official is appointed by the Imperial Bureauracy to oversee the entire administration of the district under his jurisdiction, usually comprising one walled city and the surrounding countryside for fifty or so miles around.

In the Cathayan government organization, the district magistrate is at the bottom of the colossal pyramidal structure of the bureaucracy. Each magistrate reports to a prefect, who supervises twenty or more districts. The prefect reports to the provincial governor, who is responsible for a dozen of so prefectures. The governor in turn reports to the central authorities in the capital, who are answerable only to the Emperor.

In theory, every citizen in the Cathayan Empire, regardless of his wealth or social background could enter the government bureaucracy and become a magistrate by passing the Imperial examinations. These examinations test the candidates' knowledge of history, law, and the classics and are a requirement for all who aspire to an official post. In practice, wealthy nobles unable or unwilling to take the tests often hired more capable individuals to sit the examinations in their place.

A magistrate's term of office was usually three years. Thereafter he was transferred to another district, to be in due time promoted to prefect. Promotion was selective, and was supposed to be based on ability and performance. In practice, less able officials could often secure a promotion though judicious application of 'hand-gifts' (i.e. bribes). Less gifted or totally honest officials often spent the greater part of their lives as district magistrates.


Duties of a Magistrate

The magistrate is typical underpaid, permanently overworked minor official in the Imperial bureaucracy. He lives with his family in separate quarters inside the compound of the tribunal, and as a rule spends almost every waking hour upon his official duties. The magistrate's duties are manifold. He is entirely responsible for the collection of taxes, the registration of births, deaths and marriages in his district.

In addition, as the presiding judge of the local tribunal he is charged with enforcing the Imperial laws and administering the Emperor's justice. This includes the apprehension and sentencing of criminals and the hearing of all civil and criminal cases in his district. Magistrates thus wield considerable power over the common folk of the district. Since practically every phase of the daily life of the people is supervised by the magistrate, he is commonly referred to as the 'mother-and-father official'.

To exercise his general duties, the magistrate is assisted by the permanent staff of the tribunal, such as the constables, the scribes, the jail warden, the coroner, the guards, and the servants. In addition, the magistrate is often assisted by several trusted helpers, frequently members of his own family or close relatives. These assistants accompany him to whatever post he goes as the magistrate is transferred from district to district. They have no local connections and are therefore less likely to let themselves be influenced by personal considerations. For the same reason, it is a fixed rule that no official shall ever be appointed magistrate in his own native district.


The Cathayan Court

Cathayan court procedure is conducted with much formality. As a rule there were three sessions of the tribunal everyday, in the morning, at noon and in the afternoon. These sessions are held in the tribunal's main hall and open to the public. In each session, after the tabled matters were concluded, anyone could petition the magistrate with new issues to resolve.

When the court is in session, the judge sits behind a high bench on a raised dais, with his assistants and scribes standing by his side. The constables of the tribunal stand facing each other in two rows, left and right of the hall. Both plaintiff and accused must kneel between the two rows of constables on the bare flagstones during the entire session. They have no lawyers to assist them, they may call no witnesses, and their position was generally not an enviable one.

The entire court procedure was in fact intended as a deterrent, impressing on the common people the awful consequences of getting involved with the law. In theory, the court was supposed to be impartial in all cases, whether they involved peasants or nobles. In practice, the wealthy often got away with light sentences assuming a proper 'hand-gift' was cunningly presented to the presiding magistrate. In many cases, innocent peasants were tried and sentenced in the place of noble wrongdoers who had enough political clout or wealth to escape punishment.

One fundamental principle of Cathayan law is that no criminal could be pronounced guilty unless they had confessed to their crimes. To prevent hardened criminals from escaping punishment by refusing to confess even when confronted with irrefutable evidence, the law allowed the application of such legal severities as beatings and torture. This law was often misused by corrupt officials to charge and sentence innocents if a confession could be wrung out of them by hideous tortures.

While legal under Catahyan law, a magistrate had to be careful in using torture. If an accused person should receive permanent bodily harm or die under severe torture, the magistrate and the entire staff of the tribunal were held accountable and punished, often with the extreme penalty. In classical Cathayan detective stories, magistrates like the legendary Ti Jien-Chieh, never resorted to torture, depending more upon their shrewd pychological insight and their knowledge of their fellow men to bring the wrongdoers to justice.


Advanced - Imperial Magistrate

WS BS S T W I A Dex Ld Int Cl WP Fel
+10 - - - +2 +20 - - +30 +30 +10 +10 +20

Etiquette: Imperial Court
Heraldry (Cathayan)
History (Cathayan)
Law (Cathayan)
Public Speaking
Read/Write (Cathayan)
Theology (Cathayan)

Richly embroidered court robes
D4 Assistants
A tribunal (constables, servants, cooks, etc)
Any other trappings befitting an official of the Imperial Bureaucracy (fine clothes, horse, etc)

Career Entry: Scholar
Career Exits: Prefect (Treat as magistrates with a lot mpore trappings)


Adventure Ideas

These are written in the L5R Challenge-Focus-Strike format which I think presents adventure ideas in a very usable form. These are The Chinese Gold Murders where the magistrate has to deal with several parallel investigations (a staple of classical Chinese detective stories) in addition to the main plot:

Challenge: One of the players is appointed by the Imperial Court to the post of Imperial Magistrate in a town close to the Northern frontier. It appears that the previous magistrate was murdered by poison and the first order of business is to solve the crime.

Focus: Numerous other distractions should draw the players on wild-goose chases: rumours of arms smuggling to rebels and a close encounter with a were-tiger. In addition, the ghost of the murdered magistrate has been seen by servants in the tribunal.

Strike: The rebels are actually smuggling gold, not arms. The previous magistrate discovered this and was killed to silence him. The main plot is to bring in a large statue of a deity supposedly of marble but is actually gold beneath the surface. The 'ghost' of the magistrate is actually the victom's twin brother who is trying to solve the mystery himself.

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