Gaming the First Tribunal

Has anyone ever written a scenario around the founding of the Order and the writing of the Oath of Hermes? I know of a LARP scenario about the Twelve Founders a little later one (Bonisagus is already showing the first signs of Twilight and doesn't yet know what it is.) but I have had a long loathing for the Oath which really deserves the title "the longest suicide note in history".

I'd like to rerun the First and Founding Tribunal and see if I can get a better result. Or maybe run a LARP about founding a totally different magical order after the return of magic.

Any input?


What do you dislike so much about the oath that you call it a suicide note?

Because a) the clause on non-interference means that the Order cannot find a place in human society without changing the Oath b) it is apparantly unenforceable given that all justice must pass through the Tribunal other than the summary justice used against diabolists. Oh and c) there is no means of altering the Oath.

The Order must perpetually retreat before the progress of human civilization and the wild places are getting fewer every decade. The Order is doomed if it sticks to its own code. If it breaks its own code it is doomed in another way.

I could rant about Certamen and other things but they are part of the Code rather than the Oath.

But I'm sure I would find other things to object to in other Oaths. I am desirous of seeing what players might come up with.


While I agree with the criticism that you raise in point a) about the code I find it strange to refer to the code as a "suicide note" as the term usually refers to messages left by people who commits suicide rather than to actions that turn out to have disastrous consequences for other people later on.

I do agree that the code is rather more of a hodge-podge of compromises that the founders struck with each other in order to reach a mutual understanding than it is a strong and consistent foundational document or constitution if you will (although it does serve that role).

In reading Ars magica sourcebooks I do get the distinct vibe that the code is deliberately flawed and there are in fact several canonical groups dedicated to changing the code if not in name then in practise.

I am dubious about your statements on points b) and c) though.

As for the first of your original questions I have included visions of the original founding as part of a plot but never the founding itself.

On the last of your questions: I do think that the idea of running a first tribunal roleplay is inherently interesting and redefining the code is a good subject for the "main plot" of such a game.


I'm sorry: I'm assuming that everybody knows the origins of any phrase I use whether or not they're in the same cultural matrix as me.

"The longest suicide note in history" was used to describe the 1983 Labour Manifesto, a thirty-nine page document which set out perhaps the most radical Labour program since the 1940s. The Labour MP who said it was not part of the wing of the party then in control of the central apparatus. The authors of the manifesto didn't see it as declaring anything other than their good intentions. Much like the Founders in that way.

I too get the impression that the Oath and the Code are deliberately nerfed to provide conflict... But I think that the way the Order is set up means that they cannot reform themselves and a wizardly War Of All Against All is the most likely result.

I find it objectionable and uninteresting. But putting it right offends my sense of probability as things are set up.

I recognise that some Storytellers depict Hermetic law enforcement as working well... But Tribunals are only happening every seven years. The law must be certain (which the Order could manage) and swift (which they can't) to fulfill its function.

And if you can tell me a means by which reform can take place I'd be fascinated to hear it.


Technically the Oath could be changed, but only at a Grand Tribunal (as the Code is was written as Grand Tribunal law, with no special qualities beyond that; the First Tribunal did not grant it special privilege iirc) and the Magi might need to 're-swear' it if the changes are overly different,

I don't think there is a limitation like referendums (which require a majority of territories to agree as well as a majority of the population); but that feels like a logical proviso that would be pushed for after the first such change. I wonder if they would put Houses as territories, or use the regional Tribunals?

Well, the route of changing the Oath via the Grand Tribunal would require the Primi of the Order (a simple majority? A super-majority Who knows?) to agree enough to do so. It nearly destroyed the Order (and did destroy its original form) to expel and hunt down the Diedne. Could this be done without an Order wide reform movement forming? Can you create an Order wide reform movement when magi are used to have to make like legislators and judges once every seven years? There is no fast communication system and you'd have to build that first. Having the magical equivalent of printing and regular political journals on top of the equivalent of the Royal Society's PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS would help immensely.

A serious change that wasn't supported by the vast majority of the Houses (one supported by a majority but not a supermajority) would be a recipe for civil war. If only the Tremere or only the Tytalus objected they could be over-ridden. If both of them objected in alliance then you'd have more problems. If three houses weren't happy... War most like.

And no Primus is going to OK a change if he isn't sure that the majority of his house is in favour. There is no established way to ascertain this.

It's theoretically possible but utterly unsupported by the law: an argumentative opponent could probably make a good case that it cannot be done. It may be technically possible but practically impossible.

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Two points:

In True Lineages, p37 discusses the life of Guernicus and says
"Although Guernicus was happy to live in peace, he could not believe other wizards could. Although he
acknowledged exceptions, he thought immorality intrinsic to the Gifted nature. He would swear an oath and keep it, but had no faith others would. Given that Trianoma was promising to teach Parma Magica to any who join her Order, Guernicus accepted, so he would not be disadvantaged when it inevitably fell. He agreed to share his knowledge with Bonisagus, again so he would not be disadvantaged in the ensuing chaos."
So one of the Founders was convinced the order would fall in a generation or two.

The second is that in Against The Dark the Transylvanian Tribunal holds emergency summits every year, for the purposes of making sure any crimes are investigated and punished within a year, and for encouraging magi to meet up and trade. It is possible to change the peripheral code for your Tribunal if you think the gap between Tribunals is too long for effective justice. (Alternatively there's a throwaway comment in the description of a covenant boon affecting time that there's a regio where time passes very slowly that is used as a prison by the quaesitors - they throw people in there, and bring them out a short subjective time later when it's Tribunal time - you can use this if you want a "remanded in custody" system for the quaesitors.)

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It's easier for the Tremere to do this in the Tribunal they control so completely. In lands where more mixed Covenants are the rule it's a lot harder.

I admire them in this but they are constantly in violation of the Oath and their long term plans are not compatible with the continuation of the current Oath. Which is another source of the upcoming civil war and another reason the Oath needs reform. (Question to self, if a movement towards reform began would that tell the Tremere that the moment to strike for their New World Order was right now?)

It seems to me the problem is not the ones you catch and can throw in magical prison. It's the ones who you can't capture, the ones you can't identify and the ones who say "Yes, I did that. Who are you to say it's against the code?" (Especially the ones who stay at large and can use their connections to start conspiring against the Quaesitor and fixing votes for their trial.)

I suppose it's a larger, longer-lived version of the problem facing medieval powers - which of your disobedient vassals do you punish, and who is too powerful to be punished? How do you make people show appropriate repentance?
King John never managed this well, hence the Baronial wars. Pope Innocent III was forever excommunicating people and using interdicts like no other pope since.

Thinking about this, it's a bigger problem in history in general - how many times was the Roman Empire threatened by rebellion and multiple emperors? How do countries reconcile after wars of religion and civil wars? How does Boris Johnson cope with being surrounded by people who all want his job and long to do to him what he did to his predecessors?

Roleplaying games like to set themselves in a world where dramatic conflict is a heartbeat away so there is always plenty for players to do. I suspect Rein Hagen was exploring politics between wizards and the Houses of Hermes helped inspire the clans and bloodlines of Vampire, where elder vampires are a law unto themselves and the younger vampires are used as pawns.

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Transforming Mythic Europe has rules for that. Both the length of time and effectiveness thereof it takes to change opinion via writing, as well as, in a later chapter, a magical printing press, long distance communication devices and the like.

Which is not to say the first Magi of the Order would have had these tools; they are still exploring this new magic system. But said tools would be available without any breakthroughs by the 1200s, if not a century earlier.
So the Order can adapt to be more efficient, if you get the votes.



The thing to keep in mind about "Nor will I interfer with the affaris of múndanes and thereby bring ruin on my sodales." is, that it just gives a Tribunal a veto after the fact of a magus' relations and interactions with mundanes. If a Tribunal sees fit to define specific interactions with mundanes harmless, they are harmless within that Tribunal. If the Grand Tribunal defines them harmless as well, they also are within the Order.
Otherwise, even mid-power magi without a standing in the Order could use mundane relations for enormous effect. It protects the other magi of a Tribunal, that they can rein in magi who did not ask for permission first.

If in 1220 Mythic Europe a Tribunal - Romans and Lotharingians, I'm looking at you - feels able to define their relations to mundanes in sufficient detail to not have to put every magus' activity to a vote, they can try.
A good SG will have one or more examples of failed attemps at hand, to spur PC magi on in their endeavour.
The Oath clearly does not hinder them in this: it is their sodales, whom they did not involve and convince - and just maybe these could be right.


I always considered the Oath like the Prime Directive in Star Trek: it's not really good law, it's just there to create conflict when you need it.
OF COURSE players want to interfere with local politics and they SHOULD, it makes for a great game. But you need a reason for the Order to come after them sometimes, too. But does that mean you should have the Order watch them like a hawk and always bring the pain? No. That's no fun.
I'd just haul out the oath when I want to play medieval politics (which, on a side note, were never actually fair, even when they weren't magical.)

I would not consider the Prime Directive in Star Trek to be a good comparison.

The Oath, while often silly or painful, serves the members of the Order. It provides them with protection from/against other members of the Order, while providing no provisions for people not members of the Order. Its restrictions against actions are specifically in defense of its members. If someone not of the Order attempts to have some part of it enforced, their chance of success is zero unless they can convince a Magus to take up their cause. Over all while a restriction, it provides tangible benefits to those subject to it.

The Prime Directive on the other hand provides no protection or service to people who must abide by it. It places harsh (and often immoral) restrictions on their actions which are easily exploited by people not subject to it for their own gain. Despite pretending to be some great moral stance, it is a naturalistic fallacy more a cover for Social Darwinism, genocide, and an excuse for inaction.

So while the Oath is at times a pain, it is actually valuable to people restrained by it. The Prime Directive on the other hand is a stupid "TV Trope" based on a failed philosophy specifically used to cause conflict while actively encouraging dishonorable and immoral actions.

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And that's kind of what's interesting. The Oath of Hermes has some basic moral stuff in it, like don't put a whammy on the other wizards, don't steal apprentices and stuff like that. All of which is pretty straightforward for living in any community, and all of which might be broken with just cause in a variety of specific dramatic circumstances.
But it's medieval and simplistic. And therefore a wonderful source of conflict.
Now, I think it's something from a game which touches on real history, but doesn't fully embrace it, so I tend to treat it lightly. I believe in having fun and telling stories with games, so there's no rule, in the world or out of the world, I hold hard and fast to. And I very much think TV Tropes are Tropes for a reason, so I will say this:
If you want to tell good stories in Ars Magica, find every way you can to break the Oath of Hermes and give the characters who do a good reason for it. It will be interesting! That's the very soul of legal drama: when, where and why should a law be broken or upheld?

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I am wholly in favor of stories which push the players to skirt or break the Oath. The conflict brought about by an lead to very enjoyable games.

Personally I find tropes often actually damage enjoyment rather than increase it. When they are bad enough to cause the audience to react with "That is stupid!" then they break suspension of disbelief. While I have always enjoyed Star Trek (currently re-watching ST:TNG), episodes in which the PD are central are more likely to distract rather then enchant me. Since I am a retired Army NCO, military tropes are even worse and tend to just piss me off.

So if you wish to use Tropes in games, I would recommend that making them subtle and non-formulaic enough to not distract from the game is important.

I find that the subtleness of trope use varies from group to group.
I prefer to let people use cliches as tools from which to build their own version of the game world rather than hard and fast rules, of course.
And to be honest with you, I am not skilled enough personally to use tropes subtly. But I'm not getting paid either, so I don't sweat the details.
I do like to throw historical details into games, though. One of the most fun Ars Magica games I played was a real mash up where everbody just used anagathics to have their wizards advance from the 900s to the 1400s. But it didn't exactly use Ars Magica rules. And we SHREDDED the Oath, I mean just left it in tatters

I have to disagree! The Oath was first introduced in a supplement ("The Order of Hermes") of Ars Magica 2nd edition. The corebook of that edition only spoke of a generic "code of conduct", that included provisions against "dealing with demons, killing magi, endangering the Order, and magically spying on fellow wizards", with the notable exception of "just" wizard wars. The idea was that the greatest threat to wizards came from other wizards, and the second greatest from other great "powers", so the code was just meant as protection for everyone.

The Oath makes it a little more explicit, but really, it's just a few guidelines with a lot of common sense in them. Other than the Bonisagus privilege (apprentices) and duty (sharing findings) it boils down to a simple precept: the Order is a democracy, in which each member should avoid robbing others of their life, of their magic, of their secrets, at least outside of fair duels -- and more in general every member should avoid stirring up trouble for the Order at large (for example by dealing with demons, angering faeries, and messing up with mundanes) and instead make sure the Oath is followed by all.

One crucial aspect is that it's all based on consensus, and its enforcement is left to other wizards. The majority of the Order understands the reasons why following the Oath is a sensible code of conduct, and will just stomp on anyone who goes against it because of enlightened self-interest of the stompers. Because of this, you don't need clauses and counterclauses and resolution mechanisms. If your fellows think you are a too much of a troublemaker, they will put you down plain and simple, no need to wait 7 or 33 years.

Of course, there will be borderline situations, and so over the centuries what to do in the most frequent has been codified to make sure the line is clear(er) to everyone. But the Oath should not be thought as modern law, very detailed and left to an all-powerful impersonal "justice" that you can maneuver around via some "loophole". If you are clearly exploiting a loophole, your fellows will put you down plain and simple. So you don't really need complex mechanism to "reform" stuff. Besides, an Oath is not a Law -- once you've sworn it, you are forever bound by it.


I think it's fascinating to watch the different sets of assumptions that play out in the way people think about how the Code of Hermes would operate and how they feel about codes of law in general. How they think about people and how common common sense is.

It must be said that I tend to be cynical about:

The general goodwill of people.
The beneficial effects of loosely defined codes of law.
The beneficial effects of locally variant codes of law aka Federalism.
How much a code of law or of government can survive 'overly mighty subjects'.

Perhaps my cynicism has been strengthened by the tendecy of the official narrative of fifth edition to include terrible and unjust acts which the code either can do nothing about or actively encourages. Why kidnapping children from their families to take them as apprentices has the common blessing of the whole body of Magi has never been clear to me ("It happened to me! Made me what I am today!" "Well, yes. That's rather my point.") and the fact that apprentices can be poached away from the masters who recruited them... Arrgggghhhh!

It may make for striking and stirring stories... but it buggers up my suspension of disbelief something horrid.


Once again, I think it's misleading to compare the Oath to a modern code of law, or the Order to a modern government. It's just a very small number of people who have reached a "common sense" consensus that some activities should be avoided (and any violators hunted down) because they endanger everyone else. Think of the students living in fraternity house, or maybe the petty criminals of a large gang.

There may be goodwill, but all that's really necessary is enlightened self-interest. And as for "loosely defined" codes of law... well, a lot of places I know have basic, common sense rules that generally are well understood even if loosely defined. "Clean up the kitchen after you've used it". "Label what food you leave in the fridge, and don't let it spoil". "Do not make excessive noise after ten in the evening, 'cause we've already had the neighbours call the police".

Whether something is "unjust" or "horrid" is often very much in the eyes of the beholder. There are real-world societies where you have to kidnap your would-be bride from her relatives, and it's not considered evil or sexist -- even by the would-be bride, who would consider unsuitable as a partner any man without the resourcefulness to pull it off. I would add that many magi think (quite reasonably, in my view) that their would-be apprentices would be better off with all the opportunities offered by life as magi; and those who don't ... well, their lineages Darwinistically tend to die off :slight_smile:

As for apprentices being "poachable", do you mean the Bonisagus clause? If so, note it's really made of two parts. The first is accepting that apprentices can be traded/ceded to others, with or without their consent. This has been common in many, many human societies. The second is that non-Bonisagus magi share their apprentices with Bonisagus magi, in part out of deference for their role ("we are all students of Bonisagus, after all") and in large part because Bonisagus magi, in exchange, accept to share so much more ("All that I may find my quest for knowledge and power").

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