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Basic Information

Let's say you're a scribe in an era long before the invention of the photocopier. Your boss, who happens to be His Majesty The King, wants you to draft him up a new treaty, and provide copies not just for his records but also those of the former enemy that will be signing the new truce. But since he doesn't completely trust the other party, there needs to be a way for both parties to verify the contract. The good news is, scribes like you have this figured out way before there was ever a Kinkos - the answer is to draft him up a chirograph. The bad news is, you gotta write the darned thing up by hand, twice on the same piece of paper.

A chirograph is a document in duplicate (or triplicate, or etc) written on a single page. Between the various copies of the text you write some long word ("chirographum" being the most common choice) in really large letters. Then you cut the documents apart right down the middle of the oversized word. Each copy of the main text now has part of the letters of the big word on it. If there's ever a disagreement about the text of the legal document, both parties can get together and compare that the two halves do indeed line up to make a single whole.

The cut across the oversized letters was often made in a wavy, indented way that made it hard to just fake the other half after the fact. This is the source of the term indentured servant - if you owe somebody 7 years of your life in hard labor, you've no doubt both got indented document halves to prove the agreed date you get your freedom back.



Game and Story Use

  • Mainly a chirograph is just a fun little bit of flavor and color to work into your RPG. It shows the importance of the scribe, sounds all primitive in the process, and empowers the modern gamer to look back on the past and smile at the quaintness of ancient times.
  • Chirographum are great at being a reminder of the details of a contract if both parties play nice. However, all sorts of trouble can pop up if one party or the other decides to try to forge their half. A quick comparison shows you that somebody is trying to pull a fast one, but not necessarily who the guilty party is. All sorts of plot-lines could hinge on determining who's being legit and who's up to no good.
  • In a magical society, a mystic version of a chirograph might exist, able to defeat forgery or even magically enforce compliance with the words of the contract.
    • In a land with functional magic that shades into magitek, there may even be a minor spell whose only purpose is to duplicate a page of text. Would the local scribes embrace such a time-saver, or fear that they were in danger of being put out of work by it?
      • The scribes created it. It is one of the mysteries of their guild and is a standard for document verification across the literate nations.
  • The PCs are hired to "obtain" (by dubious means) a chirograph for any of a variety of reasons.
    • A superstitious or legally ignorant slave wrongly thinks he can free himself by destroying the indentured chirograph of his servitude.
    • An illiterate man fears he may have been swindled into signing something other than what he thought he was signing.
    • The contents of the chirograph are terribly shameful, a black mark upon someone's family honor.
    • Consider the Dustman Contracts from TSR's Planescape setting (or the cRPG Planscape: Torment) - these bind the signatory to post-mortem service as a zombie, usually in return for a relatively trivial payment. Plenty of time for remorse to set in in most cases, and the Dustmen most unwilling to redeem the contract.
  • A treasure haul the PCs drag back from a dungeon includes a chirograph reading "the bearer of this certificate holds a 50% share in the Mordor trading company, and may upon demand once per year call upon the services of 2,000 able-bodied orcs of the death hand clan for a period not to exceed one fortnight."
  • Someone invents a way to magically reconstitute incomplete text.
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