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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #394

Court Etiquette: Do's and Don'ts


This Week's Tips Summarized 

Court Etiquette: Do's and Don'ts

  1. The Rules Of Rank
  2. Addressing NPCs Of Rank
  3. Rules Of Fealty
  4. Rules Of Behavior
  5. Getting Heard In Court

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. You Are Not Mel Blanc
  2. Use Props As Clues
  3. Call of Cthulhu - Tips For New Players

Johnn Four's GM Guide Books

XRP Releases PDF of Final Relics of Olindor Adventure

The PDF of 1 on 1 Adventures #10: Vengeance of Olindor is available at, the publisher cooperative. Crafted for 1 GM and 1 player (level 8-10 Rogue), this adventure is the final installment of the Relics of Olindor trilogy. Journey into the heart of Granite's End, an island prison, to find the fabled Vengeance of Olindor!

Final Relics of Olindor Adventure at Your Games Now

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

Gary Gygax Passes On

It is fitting that Gary Gygax left us on March 4th - GM Day. His legacy lives on, and it is amazing to think how D&D and RPGs have had an impact on us all. We set up a forum thread at work for folks to pay their respects and say goodbye. Feel free to drop in and add your own farewells.

Bioware Forums: Gary Gygax

5 Room Dungeons Volume 14 Now Available

The next volume of 5 Room Dungeons contest entries is now ready for download. Featured in this volume:

  1. Caravan of Courage
    by Nathan Wells
  2. Escape From Slavers' Isle
    by Jason Kemp
  3. Vault of the Wiglord
    by Ken McCutchen
  4. The Towers of Wisdom
    by manfred
  5. Through the Maze
    by Margaret Coffey

Download (PDF 1 MB)

Previous 5 Room Dungeons

Have more fun at every game!

Johnn Four,

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Spycraft 2.0

Beyond espionage and military mayhem, Spycraft 2.0 is your gateway to an unlimited world of modern action-adventure. It takes the wildly popular Spycraft RPG d20 system to a whole new level: expanding and updating character options, condensing and refining the rules set, and providing the platform for any scenario you can envision. Whether your play style is intimate or epic, freeform or stat-driven, this landmark release contains everything you need to launch into the adventure today!

Spycraft 2.0 at RPG Shop

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Court Etiquette: Do's and Don'ts  

By Stephie
Originally posted at Strolen's Citadel

How many plot lines or quests has a DM or player dealt with that were nobility-driven? When dealing with nobility and court settings, players sometimes skip the roleplay aspect and jump straight to behavior such as, "I bow, greet all in the court, and ask the Duke for his assistance." While in most scenarios this type of action is sufficient, taking it a step further can enhance gameplay (or maybe even manipulate a plot line).

This article intends to teach the basics of courtly behavior among the nobility. The more players/characters that understand courtly etiquette, the more pleasant the NPCs/ nobles will be by the smooth running of their courts, and the happier the populace will be as they become capable of having themselves heard and understood in court.

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1. The Rules Of Rank 

Playing the courtly game requires learning the rules. These vary by locale, but some things remain consistent:

  • Know the ranking (and each character's place in it)
  • Respect the ranking, even if you do not like a ranking individual.
  • Behave appropriately to and around the ranking. Rank (and respect of it) is essential in courtly behavior.

The most important step is listed first: knowing the ranking. Above the commoners are the Gentry, Nobility, and Royalty. These are not interchangeable terms; they all mean something different.

----- Sidebar -----

Rank order:

1st: Royalty

2nd: Nobility

  1. Dukes
  2. Counts
  3. Viscounts
  4. Barons
  5. Lords

3rd: Gentry

4th: Commoners


Gentry typically are not noble. This status varies a great deal from place to place, but usually it includes Knights and Baronets, which is a title of hereditary knighthood.

Nobility usually includes such titles as Lords, Barons, Viscounts, Counts, and Dukes, which have been mentioned in order from least important to most.

If someone is born into a noble family, they are noble whether they have a title or not. However, until they do gain a title, they are of the lowest rank of nobility.

Royalty is a term for the family of the reigning monarch: King, Queen, Prince, etc. Many people confuse nobility and royalty. Nobles generally are not Royal, although Royals are Noble.

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2. Addressing NPCs Of Rank 

There is a great deal of intricate etiquette in ways to address people of each rank. If you want to be safe, then refer to anybody above the rank of Knight as "My Lord or Lady." It shows you do not know exactly what to say but are trying to be polite.

If you know the NPC has a noble title of some sort, then it is safe calling almost any of them "Your Excellency." This is a slightly more educated general term, but it is not correct for untitled nobility or lordships. Still, it is better to overestimate someone's rank than to underestimate it.

However, just getting by is not the way to impress people at court. It will keep you from looking rude, but it will show you do not know much. If possible, use the exact honorific when addressing a noble.

Here is a list of the most common honorifics:

  • Knight, Baronet: "Sir" or "Dame"
  • Untitled Nobles: "My Lord or Lady"
  • Lordships: "Your Lordship or Ladyship"
  • Barons, Viscounts, Counts: "Your Excellency"
  • Dukes: "Your Grace"
  • Princes or Princesses who will not inherit: "Your Highness"
  • Crown Prince or Princess in line for the throne: "Your Royal Highness"
  • Hereditary Prince or Princess who rules a principality: "Your Royal Highness"
  • King or Queen: "Your Majesty"

Never refer to a noble by just their first name, such as "Hey, Alannen." It is like saying they are a common person with no title. If it is felt this was done intentionally, you could be called to a duel over a slight to the noble's honor, or brought up on charges depending on the laws of the land. At the least, it will make you look like an ignorant peasant, which in some cases you might choose based on the style of roleplay.

Even amongst themselves and in their own families, nobles tend to refer to themselves by title rather than by name. For example, "Lord Edward." Nobles do not belittle each other in public by not using an honorific or title, unless they are trying to insult them.

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3. Rules Of Fealty 

A character could be born a noble, but until they have sworn fealty to a greater noble and granted a title, they will not have much to show for it.

A character could marry a titled noble, but that will not make the character one. They would just be along for the ride, so to speak. A character also cannot 'turn' into a noble from a commoner in this way. Title is very much an individual honor, not a default granted by circumstance.

This brings us to the subject of fealty, by which a title is granted to a noble. Only the gentry and nobility can swear fealty. Anyone else can make personal oaths of allegiance, but it is not the same.

In the rare instance a sovereign grants a title to a commoner, the commoner will be made a knight or a noble first, so an oath of fealty can be taken.

Swearing fealty means you become a vassal to a greater noble. You are required to support and aid your liege, and they are required to look after you. If possible, a vassal is usually granted land, legal jurisdiction to an area, or some other important thing to look after, which is often termed a benefice (requiring a formal ceremony, a contract, and witnesses).

The second rule, respecting the ranking, is more important than you might think. If one does not respect the position of the lords, chaos will result. In a battle, it is essential that troops listen to their commanders if they are to prevail. So it is in society, where it is necessary for the upholding of the law, order, and security to have skilled leaders.

Lords and ladies are the framework upon which our principalities' governments depend. Cities likewise depend upon the organization of county justice and their guards. Casually defaming the importance of these institutions is a wish for disaster.

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4. Rules Of Behavior 

The third rule requires perhaps the most study and practice: how to behave according to rank. Here are some general points about dealing with nobles, in court or out:

  • Do not sit down if an out-ranking noble is standing in the room.
  • Bow or curtsy to a ranking noble upon arriving, leaving, or being acknowledged by them for the first time.

During court, you should be as formal and respectful as possible to the noble in question. You need to take what you would normally do around a noble and multiply it by ten, because any insult made to a noble during their court is also multiplied by ten.

It is vital to understand that a noble's court is the physical and public manifestation of everything their rank stands for. This is when nobles take vassals, pass judgments, and address their populace.

Here are some basic instructions for court behavior, as a commoner or as a lesser noble:

  • Ask for permission to speak, do not just start conversing.
  • Be brief when you do speak.
  • Do not waste their time.
  • Do not approach the noble without permission.
  • Do not bare any weapon or prepare any spell unless your character is on the noble's personal guard or payroll.

And the most important: never undermine the authority of the noble holding court.

This means:

  • Do not expect to chat with the noble during court. Even if you are the best of friends, this is not the place.
  • Do not tell the noble what he or she should do.
  • Do not question the noble's judgment during court.
  • Once the noble makes a decision, never argue it in court!
  • Never, ever cut off a noble while he or she is speaking. They, however, are fully within their rights to interrupt you. If a noble begins to speak, you should fall silent.

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5. Getting Heard In Court 

How does one get their opinions and requests heard in court?

  • Be exceedingly polite. If you want to be heard, do not annoy the noble in charge.
  • Do not speak constantly. Think carefully about what you want to say, and say it just once. Constant chatter, even if you have received permission to speak, makes the noble not want to listen anymore. Make each word count. Make it brief.
  • Follow the rules as given by the noble. If he or she tells you to give counsel, use that time to speak. If he or she wants you to write a letter, write a letter. If you are supposed to talk to an officer appointed for that purpose, do so. Thinking yourself above the rules impresses no one.
  • Choose your battles. If you are always arguing, even if you are right, you will look like an argumentative boor instead of a useful advisor.
  • Do not take it personally if the noble does not have time for you. They are busy. Whining when being ignored makes you seem petty and ego-driven. Nobles are not under any obligation to cater to your ego. To be granted an audience in a court is a privilege, not a right.
  • Remember your place. You are not the one who has the responsibility of decision-making and judgment resting upon their shoulders. All you can do is help, and sometimes it is most helpful to be silent or leave the noble alone.
  • If you truly feel the noble's mind needs to be changed about something, try to contact them when court is over. They will usually be much less formal and open to changing their mind away from court.

* * *

There are many finer points to courtly behavior of course, but they are numerous and varied depending on the situations and the different places.

[Comment from Johnn: if you are interested in more information about medieval life, especially in a gaming context, I highly recommend you check out this e-zine sponsor's book, A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe. ]

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Combat Mat - Large: 3 Feet x 4 Feet

Combat Mats designed for the serious gamer. They roll up for easy storage and have a wet erase surface for smudge-free use. Unlike most mats you have seen, these are two-sided, providing both square and hex grid systems. Perfect for every role-playing game scenario, small, medium, or large.

Combat Mat - Large at RPG Shop

Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. You Are Not Mel Blanc 

From: Danny East

Unless you've just finished your solo tour as a ventriloquist, or are an actor in a one-man show, it is likely most of your NPCs sound the same. Your dwarves probably sound like your orcs; your elves are likely higher- pitched gnomes; and goblins sound like halflings with a cough. They probably often have an accent similar to the almost British accent that was popular long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

There is a simple cure to this malady, that should at least be attempted by you and your tabletoppers. You might have to swallow a bit of pride and wash it down with a tall glass of "I'm not an actor," or a cup of "I don't have enough ingenuity to come up with all this stuff on my own," but it will be worth the attempt once you're able to keep track of and easily role play any race NPC.

It is a simple procedure. Take the race and couple it with a known, real-world cliché race/culture. Here are some examples that have worked well in my campaigns:

Dwarves: Classic Russian. They drink their "Woodka" and wear circular fur hats. Everything they wear has some trace of fur on it. They refer to each other as "Brootha" and are passionate about their country and their wars.

Goblins: Cartoon Scottish. The pungent, recognizable aroma of their scotch tends to hang like a flammable cloud around their plaid kilts. The accent is difficult to mistake, too.

Elves: African. A culture steeped in ritual, family, nature, and music. There is magic in the tribal dances and songs. The long, colorful robes of nobility and the ruling class are only outshined by the jewelry they wear. Be careful when attempting an African accent. Remember that much of Africa speaks French.

Orcs: Nordic. You know, like the Vikings. Exposed torsos and legs, with bits of armor in all the places it probably doesn't need to be. It's easy to play up the horned helmets, clumsy but large weapons that hurt the wielders as much as their enemies. Just imagine walking into a large, dirt- floored hall, only to find twenty orcs blessing Odin with their mugs and voices raised.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. You don't need to use these specific examples - try some of your own. Try mixing mind flayers with an Arabic tongue, or Chinese Gnomes. Be careful with what cultures and accents you play around with. There are some things just plain aren't right. You don't want a French Kobold.

Using this technique helps make you a better actor, and is useful in running a campaign. Using the above guidelines you can identify an informant as smelling of vodka, with his fur trimmed boots just barely peeking out of the leather cloak covering his shorter body. Or listening through a door and hearing a creaky voice whispering out, "Aye, Laddies, MacThompson says 'e knows where she'll port at, and we've got a fair chance of catchin' 'er guards a'slumberin'."

Use this technique to leave clues, as well. The party comes to a hastily abandoned camp, only to find tattered strips of plaid cloth and broken scotch bottles.

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2. Use Props As Clues 

From: Patrick Riegert

Most people think visually. When someone says apple, you don't think of the word apple. You see an apple in your mind. Just as using a battlemat for combat encounters has become essential for many, role-playing props and handouts can add a new level of immersion and enthusiasm in non- combat encounters and during down-time. I once had a player whose background included having come from a royal line, though his family (and most of the continent) had been displaced generations earlier. All that remained as a clue to those days was a single sheaf of paper, old, yellowed, and burned.

I decided right away to create the actual piece of paper. I typed it up using a fluid, archaic-looking font, printed it, and wiped down the front and back with a damp tea bag. I then turned on the oven to 350 degrees F and put the sheet in for about 2 minutes, which was enough to dry it, giving it the right yellowed look. Then I took a lighter and burned the edges. However, here's what made the handout or prop vital: there were two places that had purposeful and significant scorches or burn holes. There were also about half a dozen insignificant burns so the player didn't immediately assume I had burned away clues.

To give an example of a significant burn, one line said something to the effect of: "Seek out the Black Crown lo! and within its argent teeth ......" The result? Not only did the player have an authentic- looking prop that he could return to for reference, but he thought his character was looking for a "black crown" of some kind. However, what he ought to have been looking for were the Black Crown Mountains.

The real beauty in this is that, because the player had the prop as his character would have possessed it, both he and his character believed they looking for a black crown. In other words, it drew him into character and kept him interested in his character's motivations.

So, use props and turn them into clues. Props that are just one-offs not only take time, but players will ooh-and-ahh for a few minutes...then discard them. Do something to make props worth holding onto, increasing their value to the players (and giving you a great deal of satisfaction, as well).

A prop will continually be a source of excitement when clues lead back to it, or it creates the hints. Examples might be encoded words, number sequences, half names, a missing step in important directions. You can do this same sort of thing with a radio transmission for a Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, Shadowrun, or other modern game. Record a message on your computer or a hand-held recorder and use a brush on a piece of paper, or crinkle paper, to create static. Use static to garble clarifying bits, and let the players find out that they weren't trivial. One word can change a great deal!

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3. Call of Cthulhu - Tips For New Players 

From: Jay Shaffstall

Bella Online Role Playing Games Editor

In every game setting there are certain expectations. Role playing game theorists call this the Social Contract. Play a fantasy setting and you don't expect laser guns and bazookas (at least not on a regular basis). Players don't have fun if they expect one thing and the GM is expecting another.

I see a lot of people have trouble when they first play Call of Cthulhu (CoC), because they bring expectations into the game from other settings. This is especially true when a typical Dungeons and Dragons player gives CoC a try.

D&D is typically heroic fantasy. Players expect their characters to overcome the obstacles and win through in the end, defeating the villain, often wading through hordes of the villain's monsters on the way. That's heroic!

Call of Cthulhu is based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Pretty much every story by Lovecraft has the main characters going insane or dying. It's a horror genre where the good guys don't win. At best, they merely stave off the inevitable for a while.

Take D&D expectations into a CoC adventure, and you'll be sorely disappointed.

Here's a list of what you can expect going into a CoC adventure, and ways to have fun with it.

  • Insanity

    Based on books that are steeped in insanity as the final result of discovering "what's really out there," it's no surprise that Call of Cthulhu characters go insane fairly easily. The system itself is designed to help them go insane.
  • Going insane is not a bad thing

    Insanity in CoC models a character becoming more tuned into what's really going on, and less able to interact with those fools who are still living in blissful ignorance. One way to get the most fun out of your character going insane is to give them some goal in their background that they want to achieve. As they become more insane, they will stop at less and less to achieve their goal.
  • Starting Sanity

    Most new CoC players want to maximize their starting Sanity score, partly because it makes it easier to stay sane, but also because of a perception that a low starting Sanity score means their character is starting out insane.

    Unless you're deliberately creating a character who is insane to start, all characters are sane at the beginning of the game. The character with a high starting Sanity is just more resistant to recognizing the truth when it is put in front of her. Characters with low sanity are more accepting of new ideas.

    For the most fun in a CoC game, make your character's starting sanity relatively low. She goes insane more quickly, and you're able to act our her insanity through more of the game.
  • Death

    Character death, in most game settings, is a bad thing. Players go to great lengths to avoid having their characters die. Go into a Call of Cthulhu game expecting your character to die. Have them do stupid things (e.g. the sort of things you yell at characters in horror movies for doing), as long as they're in character.

    A good CoC GM will not arbitrarily kill off your character. It makes for a more exciting story to toy with characters and let them live longer than it is to kill them off early. Characters should die at dramatically appropriate times.
  • Have Fun With It

    Approach a Call of Cthulhu game not like you're playing D&D, but as if you're starring in a bad horror movie. That will get you into the right frame of mind to be able to enjoy the game, rather than be frustrated when you cannot manage to kill the monster or banish the demon.

Who knows, you might actually manage to save the world, and end up writing your memoirs in an insane asylum, just like the characters from Lovecraft's stories.

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Johnn Four's GM Guide Books 

In addition to writing and publishing this e-zine, I have written several GM tips and advice books to inspire your games and to make GMing easier and fun:

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants - new

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG's most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice as well, plus several generators and tables

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

GM Mastery: NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.