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Middle Ages/Fantasy era

There's an order of couriers who carry messages between the rich and powerful. The world is dangerous and there are many bandits so any message that needs to get to it's intended recipient must be sent with a large contingent of troops or use their services.

However these messengers can and will refuse to carry any message that violates their ethical code (orders to assassinate an innocent etc.)

I'm looking for ideas on how they could correctly or mostly correctly identify messages they found unethical. Magic is OK but I'd prefer to avoid just hand-waving everything with a spell that "knows" if a message is evil or not.

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    $\begingroup$ ...They could read the message? $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Jul 31, 2017 at 1:39
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention steganography. $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 5:43
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    $\begingroup$ One problem for these couriers would be the use of code phrases, that seem inoquious but have serious consequences to those that know what they mean, During WW2 the French resistance was given orders by radio broadcasts from Radio Londres that sounded like personal announcements Butbto someone with a key book told them of actions they needed to take. Famously the first line of a famous poem told them that Overlord was about to take place. Unless your couriers use magical means to tell intent it would be impossible to tell if a message about anything was secretly a kill order. $\endgroup$
    – Sarriesfan
    Jul 31, 2017 at 6:05
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    $\begingroup$ I hate to break it to you, but this order probably wouldn't get off the ground. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jul 31, 2017 at 6:29
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    $\begingroup$ I've always thought that ethical courier is the one that don't stick their nose into message they carry and just do the job minding own bussiness. $\endgroup$
    – user28434
    Jul 31, 2017 at 9:58

7 Answers 7

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Rather than have the couriers read and approve messages, or use magic to fathom the purpose or intent of the message, have the couriers carry verbal messages.

Using verbal messages you also eliminate the potential for the message to be intercepted and altered, lost or damaged by natural mishaps (running ink from sudden torrential rains?), or just plain stolen by the bandits.

Since it appears you're willing to apply magic to the situation, you can have the message "locked" by a specialized spell, making capture and torture of the courier pointless as well. If you add in having the couriers as part of the troubadours in the realm, their random travels become normal. That makes knowing if and when a message is being carried nearly impossible as well. This further protects the message, and the courier.

To further safeguard the messages, and the couriers, it can be part of the service's methods that the initially contacted courier passes the message to another courier, possibly in a relay of couriers, before its final delivery. This has the additional effect that, for all practical purposes, the entire service could know the secrets of anyone who has entrusted them to the couriers. The ethics of the couriers, and possibly the magic spell, preserves those secrets, but they are available to the couriers if need be to use in reparations for violating the limits of what messages can be carried, and as retribution for violating the person of a courier.

You can then add in other services, such as safeguarding testaments, wills, and other official information. These could be verbal or documentary since others wouldn't even know of the existence of such, until it was needed - such as the announcement of the will upon the death of the one who made it.

Look into the Vestal Virgins of Rome for some other possibilities for sanctity of the couriers and the potential for influence the couriers might gain.

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    $\begingroup$ The idea of oral transmission is nice; much harder to steal than a regular parchment, and of course does not show up as evidence later on. It also makes it more difficult to "hide" messages in messages (steganography) if the courier will paraphrase the original, and translation to another language comes for free. Neat! On the other hand, I am not convinced about the idea of traveling with troubadours; at the very least, this wouldn't allow carrying any urgent missive. $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 6:50
  • $\begingroup$ you can have them travel alone, not as part of group. Think travelling bard with a lute instead of whole band. As for urgent missives, those would be delivered in "walking speed" anyway, nobody will run for 200km unless horse relay is available (which would be very expensive) $\endgroup$
    – Lope
    Jul 31, 2017 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. Our modern communications systems have us very spoiled. In our own Middle Ages a message taking several weeks to arrive across a distance was normal. Add in a sea crossing and it can be a couple months, or more. That was why the building of the Roman roads were so important. $\endgroup$
    – user39523
    Jul 31, 2017 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver: Agreed. However, if a dedicated courier focused on speedy delivery can only achieve days or weeks, how much time would be spent by a courier traveling with entertainers? I am afraid it would add an order of magnitude, and thus threaten the relevance of the guild (because a concurrent organization would spring up for speedy deliveries, etc...). $\endgroup$ Jul 31, 2017 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthieuM. Troubadour is more a class of people, or a job, if you like. Not all traveled, and seldom associated as a group any more than a bard would have. The difference between a troubadour and a bard is more level of esteem and purpose. Bards were more entertaining than troubadours, and more itinerant, as well as more accessible to the common man than a troubadour would have been. A troubadour would be more appropriate to entrusting a high-level communication to than a bard, in this world's Middle Ages. Fictionally anything's possible. $\endgroup$
    – user39523
    Jul 31, 2017 at 18:34
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They would have to have rules for what messages they would carry. Primarily, they would have to be unsealed - Or, at the very least, the transporting courier would read it, verify it, and seal it.

Because a properly coded message will always be able to get through, there needs to be punishments in place for those who disregard the rules. A fine, perhaps, for lesser offenses. For greater ones, a refusal of service even for valid messages.

The political power an organization such as this would have would be immense, so there needs to be a way for people to be willing to use them. Again, they need to be proactive in punishing offenders - This time, within their own ranks. Anyone found to be tampering with messages, accepting messages against the rules, or otherwise making the organization less biased than they want to appear needs to have a public punishment.

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Use magic on the person who writes the letter themselves to determine intent

The courier could use some sort of truth telling magic to ask them a set of questions:

  • Will this letter lead to someones harm?
  • Will this letter violate someones rights?
  • etc, etc

Or the all inclusive:

  • Will this letter lead me to violate my code of ethics?

If the person says no to all questions, then the letter can be carried.

If the person says yes at all, then don't carry it and blacklist the person.

If the person is unsure, then its not their letter to send, send that person away.

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  • $\begingroup$ I prefer the first form of questions mostly because the all inclusive style feels too hand-wavey. Still it leads to some interesting meta-gaming stuff where you have to be careful with subjective truth ex. Q: Will this letter violate someones rights? A: No (I'm king peasants don't have rights) $\endgroup$ Aug 1, 2017 at 2:54
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If magic is OK, you can made them telepaths.

This could explain both why they are so good in delivering messages (telepathically send message to order member in other place) and how they know if the message is unethical (read unethical intentions from the customer's mind).

Depending on the story, other people might or mightn't know about telepathic abilities of order members.

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I actually read a similar thing to this in a novel: there were regular note carrying couriers, and also ridiculously expensive couriers (although cheaper than sending a contingent of troops) that would be told their message and carry it in their head, rather than on paper. They were specially trained to remember long messages perfectly.

If they were ever captured, they would swallow a poison pill to ensure that no one could ever torture the message out of them.

If ever the courier didn't return to their central headquarters in time, they would dispatch another in their place with the same message. This would repeat until the message was sent.

Anyone found intercepting or killing messengers would be blackballed from ever using their service again, and efforts would be made by the courier faction to actively undermine anyone who attempted to ever intercept their couriers.

Eventually, everyone knew to simply leave the couriers alone, as the only incentive to killing anyone's messenger would be to slightly delay the message, and the consequences would vastly outweigh any benefits, as the courier faction was pretty powerful.

As they are an independent faction outside of politics, it wouldn't be such a stretch to adapt this system to have them only carrying messages that aligned with their own ethical responsibility, and didn't harm their own interests.

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I'd suggest a more subtle form of magic: Couriers are born lie detectors with abilities that are (or seem) magical, and they are highly intelligent to boot.

(You can have other people born with this ability that do not become couriers; but being a courier pays very well and is a highly respected position. Their own ability lets them test and recognize fellow couriers, and those born with the gift, without error.)

There is no magic object, amulet, rope or ring; it is the courier that is magical, and any sender must tell the courier their message, and why they are sending it, in private if they wish. The courier can question them as long as they wish. If the courier detects a lie, they will not bring the message.

They take various precautions before such an encounter: Other couriers know where they are going, it does no good for a king to kill the courier if they detects his lie. If a "Carry" is turned down; the courier immediately notifies the Courier community; so in this culture the very act of attempting to deceive a Courier may cause a penalty to the King of no Carry service at all, either for some period of time or permanently.

The Courier is free to reword the message however they wish. There is no secret code or marks or secret keywords or hidden messages inside of pictures.

If a picture or map is necessary; the sender can explain why (with full Lie Detection enabled for the Courier), and the Courier can then reproduce the essence of the picture upon arrival. In this way messages cannot be stolen or taken by force or torture: Give the Couriers the ability to wipe their own memory of any messages, past or present, at will in the event of capture. In fact, that can be part of their service, once a message is delivered, the Courier will only retain the message for about a month before intentionally forgetting it.

Of course non-delivery of the message is always a risk for senders, Couriers can be intercepted and killed or captured like any other person; but at least the senders know their message was not revealed.

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A very simple option is that the couriers cannot read the entire message because of magical protection, but they CAN magically test if the message contains certain words or phrases or expressions.

This creates an interesting dynamic in which people may want to try to cheat the couriers by using very indirect ways of stating their thoughts - kind of like people in my country of origin avoided the communist's censorship (dig around eastern europe communist censorship in XX century, it's a very fun topic).

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