12 Tips For Using Nobles In Your Games
From Dariel R. A. Quiogue
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #189
- What Is The Nobility?
- Who Are The Nobles?
- Traditional Roles Of The Nobility
- Titles Of Nobility
- How Titles Are Passed On
- Noble Estates And Income
- Objectives Of The Nobility
- Problems Of The Nobility
- Roles Of Post-Feudal Nobility
- Creating Noble Hierarchies For Your World
- Possible Agendas And Story Hooks For A Noble PC
- A List Of Good Reads With Aristocrat Characters
- Dungeon Tiles Tips
- Faster Initiative (D&D)
Whether your campaign is set in a world modeled after medieval Europe, the Renaissance, medieval Japan, ancient China, or even the Victorian Era, sooner or later your player characters are going to run into some nobles. Indeed, the nobility can play a large part in your games, as the problems, schemes, and quirks of this privileged class are a very fertile spawning ground for all sorts of stories and adventures.
What Is The Nobility?
The nobility is that class of hereditary aristocrats distinguished by possession of lands (or other source of income) and titles. Often, they are granted privileges that are denied to the common man. For example, up to the present day, British peers have the right to a seat in the House of Lords, in Parliament.
Other examples of nobility rights:
- The right to wear certain things
- The right to carry weapons (or certain types of weapons)
- The right to wear armor, or certain types of armor
- The right to hunt certain types of game or prey or beings
- The right to membership in the royal council
- The power of life and death over commoners
- The right to enter certain temples
- The right to call upon certain services (i.e. clerical healing, draft laborers, etc.)
- The right to own land or other major resources
- The right-of-way on the streets (peasants, commoners, etc. must yield to him)
- The right of first refusal when making purchases (noble picks first, commoners must wait and buy what noble has already passed on)
- The right of entry into certain areas (King’s hunting grounds, royal gardens, etc.)
- The right to pay a fine or substitute a serf to escape most severe punishments
- The right to judgement by peers (commoners can be judged and sentenced by a noble or designated magistrate, but a noble can only be judged by other nobles)
- The right of judgement (nobles act as judge in legal matters)
- The right to allow their mount to graze anywhere they wish (as long as it is not on another noble’s lands)
- The right to a certain name, or type of name (i.e. the caste system in India where the name shortens as you rise in caste)
- The right to use magic/psionics/extraordinary ability
- The right to be literate
- The right to lie (A commoner lying to a noble would be a big no-no)
- The right to look upon the King/Emperor/High Priest without having to avert one’s eyes
- The right to carry a non peace-bonded weapon
- The right of ownership (to actually *own* something in the legal sense)
- The right to aspire (only nobles can raise their station, commoners simply perform their jobs and work to facilitate this)
- The right to demand shelter
- The right of taxation
- The right of Travel (they’re allowed to go where they please, whereas in many medieval countries, the commoners were not)
- The right to forces (allowed to raise, train and maintain a body of warriors, preventing private armies and mercenary companies)
- The right to education in formal institutions of learning
- The right of Prima Nocte/First Night (anyone who’s seen Braveheart knows this one)
Some sci-fi examples:
- The right to use certain kinds of money/banking services
- The right to use computers/mentats/androids/robots
- The right to space travel/air travel/high-tech transport
- The right to use long-distance communication facilities
- The right to carry high-tech weapons
- The right to use personal shield generators or advanced armor
- The right to use longevity drugs/rejuvenation
- The right to use gene-modification treatments/physical augmentation/cybernetic implants
For a twist in your world, take any of the examples above and add the word “NOT” or its sentiment. For example, the right to not provide shelter. [Comment from Johnn: thanks to David Fair, Joachim Schipper, Varianor, David Dankel, and Palmer of the Turks for their additions to the lists above.]
Who Are The Nobles?
Nobles can be:
- Royal relatives
- Descendants of past Kings or rulers
- The warrior class of the tribe or culture
- All members of a ruling tribe or culture, ruling over a conquered people
- Leaders given grants and titles by the King in return for submission and service
- Royal servitors granted titles of nobility as reward
- Landowners or officials who must assume governmental and military powers to defend their communities##
Also possible in a post-apocalyptic scenario are government officials or law enforcement officers who find themselves looked up to as protectors of the community when the system dissolved. In Mike McQuay’s novel, “Pure Blood”, the nobles of eastern North America bear the titles mayor, senator, governor, etc., these being the titles of their ancestors when the world fell into chaos.]
Traditional Roles Of The Nobility
Traditional noble roles have been:
- Professional warriors and war leaders
- Rulers, administrators and judges
- Government officials and military officers
- Royal emissaries and ambassadors
The role of the noble class in society often depends on how old the culture is. Historically, most noble classes originated as a professional warrior class. Their wealth allowed them to equip themselves with the best arms and armor and bring followers to fight for them, while leisure – the lack of need to work for a living – gave them time to master the complex weapon systems that they used.
You can think of the training needed by a typical knight as comparable to that of an F16 pilot – they had to become very physically fit, learn to use a variety of weapons, and most importantly learn how to manage a warhorse in complex fighting maneuvers. A man who has to farm or work at a craft simply wouldn’t have the time to learn to fight like a knight.
However, as time goes on the profile of the nobility might change. Long periods of peace and plenty might turn the nobility indolent and uncaring of their duties. The nobles spend more and more of their income on luxuries, and spend their time in pursuit of pleasure rather than in training. The luxuries and liberties permitted a noble can be thought of as incentives for them to do the dangerous work of fighting for their communities (there’s a part in the Iliad where Agamemnon exhorts the Greeks by reminding them they have to show their people why they’re so privileged), but a life of luxury and pleasure can become addictive and the reason for those privileges forgotten.
The changing nature of a society may also change the roles of the nobility. Britain’s nobles originated as fighters and leaders of fighting men. Now, they are industrialists, bankers and investors, and members of Parliament. Similarly, the samurai of Japan found that during the Tokugawa shogunate they had to put aside their swords for writing brush and abacus as they were pushed into new roles as tax collectors and magistrates.
Titles Of Nobility
Titles of nobility indicate their precedence in the hierarchy. Because the nobility functioned as a ruling and warrior class, such a hierarchy was necessary in order to establish a chain of command.British system: Duke > Marquess > Earl > Viscount > Baron, where the earliest dukes were royal relatives; duke or duchess is still the usual rank given a near royal cousin.
Other titles and their origins:
- Tribal titles of chieftainship (Earl, Khan)
- Military ranks (Duke)
- Government offices that became hereditary (Pasha, Nawab, Count)
Note that “courtesy titles” were sometimes created as rewards for service. Also note that precedence and actual power may not correlate precisely. It is possible to have barons that are wealthier and field larger armies than dukes, especially after a war.
Where do noble titles come from? The English titles we know of now – Earl, Duke, Viscount, etc. – are a mix taken from two main sources, Roman and Anglo-Saxon. Duke, Count, Marquis, Viscount and other French-sounding titles came from Rome via the Normans (who came from France); under the Roman Empire, these were titles given to provincial officials with certain roles.
Duke, for example, comes from “dux,” meaning a war-leader, a provincial commander or military governor. Count comes from “comes,” which seems to have been a title from the fiscal side of the government – in other words, someone in charge of taxes. This is a good example of how a government post once passed by appointment becomes a hereditary title during a time of chaos (in this case, the fall of the Roman Empire).
Earl, Thane, and other Old English titles came from Anglo- Saxon tradition. These were originally tribal titles, adapted to a monarchical government system; the purpose was mainly military, the holders of the titles being responsible for raising troops for the King and defending their domains.
Earl, for example, comes from “eorl,” which is similar to the Nordic “jarl,” a tribal chieftain. The transition of earldom from being a tribal title to a feudal title mirrors the transition of English society from tribal to feudal.
This transition of titles has happened elsewhere in the world. We associate the word “Sultan,” for example, with Islamic kings; but the first sultans were actually military governors subservient to the caliph, in the early days of Islam when it was united under a single caliphate.
In India, the dissolution of the Moghul Empire saw a mushrooming of petty states ruled by lords with all sorts of titles – Wazir, Nawab, etc. – and many of these titles had their origins as governmental offices under the Moghul Empire. The same happened in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East with the decay of the Ottoman Empire. These officials seized power in their respective territories and declared their independence from the Empire when it became too weak to keep them from doing so.
The relatives of nobility, especially their wives and children, may be accorded “courtesy titles” acknowledging their noble ties. In European usage, the wife of a titled noble may take the feminine form of the title -Duke/Duchess, Baron/Baroness, etc. The eldest son of a titled noble may take as a courtesy title a title junior to that of his father; thus in British usage a Duke’s son may style himself a Marquess, a Marquess’ son may style himself an Earl, and so on. These courtesy titles, however, cannot be passed on to the courtesy title holder’s descendants if they do not succeed to the parent title, as they never held the title “in their own right.”
How Titles Are Passed On
Some ways titles are transferred to others:
- Titles are usually hereditary
- Hereditary titles may be passed to a new line by marriage
- Multiple titles may be apportioned among claimants
- Titles may lapse back to the King when no legal claimant is left
- Titles may be withdrawn (attainted) by the King as punishment
- “Life” peerages may be granted on a nonhereditary basis.
Hereditary titles are passed to the legal descendants of the original holder. Since only one person can become Duke So- and-So, there is usually some kind of system for determining which of a number of candidates will get the title. In European usage, primogeniture is the usual rule – the eldest son inherits. If no sons or daughters are left, the usual rule is to go back to the father’s generation and find the next-eldest of that generation. Obviously, there are a lot of possible loopholes and grounds for dispute here, especially if the original direct line is wiped out.
When a family has multiple titles to its name, the titles may be apportioned among the family’s scions in order of precedence. The eldest son inherits the highest family title, the next-eldest the next highest title, and so on down; any remaining titles will usually go to the highest- ranked heir.
For example if a family holds title to a dukedom, an earldom, and a barony, and has two sons, the eldest son gets the dukedom, and the second son gets the earldom; the barony defaults to the eldest son, since there is no third heir.
Titles to which no legal claimants can be found lapse back to the King’s possession – and with the title, the estates that come with it. Titles can also become “attainted” – withdrawn from their holders – by royal decree, usually in punishment for some serious misdeed like treason or rebellion.
When a title is attainted, the title and the right to claim it are taken permanently from the current holder and his family, and it may never be claimed again unless it is regranted. Attainted titles may be granted anew to someone else, beginning a new line.
Nonhereditary titles of nobility have also been granted. These titles are usually meant as rewards to individuals, but without the burden of creating a new noble family line.
Noble Estates And Income
Some sources of nobility income:
- Ancestral land (land not granted by the King)
- Hereditary land grant (fief), from which the holder collects rent/taxes
- The right to tax (but not own) land (often non-hereditary)
- Other property – herds, ships, etc.; holder operates them or collects rent/taxes
- Other privileges – right to tax trade, right to trade, monopoly over something, etc.
- Stipend paid by the state or ruling lord
- Titles may also be given without accompanying estates
Objectives Of The Nobility
Some possible objectives of the nobility for your campaigns:
- Gaining land/income/power/influence – through war, marriage, royal favor, politics, etc.
- Keeping wealth/power/influence in their own hands
- Limiting the power of central authority
- Preserving class privileges
- Service of the King/state/dependents
- Preserving a reputation
- Making a reputation
The powers and privileges bestowed on a noble come to him at the expense of the central authority’s power. When a King bestows land and titles on a follower, the land is taken from the royal estates and the privileges he gives away were once his own privileges. For a noble to keep his power, he has to keep the King’s power down so the King can’t take back those lands and titles.
Why should a King want to do so? Because all too often, a feudal lord will have reasons to disobey royal commands – maybe he’d rather expand his fief, or play in his own palace, or simply not want to risk losing his life.
When central authority is weak, a noble is free to do as he pleases on his own lands – so a weak King is good news to the nobility in general. On the other hand, a strong king can greatly improve his position by reducing the land and powers of his nobles.
An extreme case of this happened in Japan, where the Emperor ended up with zero riceland, all of the old Imperial estates having been divided up between the samurai lords and the great temples. Without the means to raise a samurai army of his own, the Japanese Emperor was reduced to a political figurehead. When Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, he made sure that a quarter of all Japan’s riceland was under his direct control, enabling him to field larger armies than any other daimyo.
Problems Of The Nobility
Some problems to saddle the nobility in your world with:
- Shortage of cash
- Conflict with central authority over power and privileges
- Conflict with each other, open and covert (think Dune!)
- Genetic diseases acquired through inbreeding
- Changes in society, economy, technology, and warfare
- Dissipation – forsaking duty for pleasure
- Scandals and family black sheep
- Forbidden romances and illegitimate children
- Abuse of power (overtaxation, breaking/disregarding the law – “might makes right”, violent crimes vs. the common folk)
Most nobles had estates in the form of land, from which they extracted rents or taxes in kind – grain, livestock, etc. – but little or no coin. As trade grew more important and the nation went to a cash economy, nobles often found themselves short of money and at the mercy of moneylenders and merchants. The world’s first commodity futures exchange was the Osaka rice market, where merchants traded rice futures, allowing them to advance money to the daimyos on the daimyos’ expected rice harvests.
Another problem was that of dividing land between heirs. Where there was no law to keep an estate unified, land grants could be subdivided again and again until there was too little left for the individual to maintain himself in proper noble style – especially when called to war.
In Robin Lane’s biography of Alexander the Great, he mentions the case of a noble in the service of Darius the King of Persia; the noble’s father owned a fief, but poverty had caused him to adopt a Babylonian merchant and split the inheritance between the merchant and his own son. When the Persian armies were being mustered, the noble found he did not have the means to arm himself, so he went to his foster brother and made him promise to buy him arms and a horse, letting the noble answer his family obligation to the King.
Inbreeding, as someone on another mailing list pointed out to me, is not a problem when the breeding stock is not flawed; unfortunately, some noble lines do have genetic flaws, and inbreeding concentrates those bad genes and makes them more likely to manifest in conditions like haemophilia.
Change can take away or erode the foundations of a noble class’ power, or even make their original roles obsolete. For example, longbows, pikes, and gunpowder began a trend in warfare that would make horse cavalry obsolete – and thus made the noble knight obsolete.
A shift to a mercantile economy pushes the merchant to prominence and leaves the country baron behind in cashless poverty. Some historians argue that the Black Death in the 14th century severely eroded the power of the nobility because it made labor much more expensive – lords had to offer more and give more concessions to commoners to get them to work for them.
When professional armies became the rule in Europe, the noble class expected at first to provide its officers. These armies were funded in part by the sums that noblemen paid to buy officers’ commissions. Often, though, mercenaries and sergeants brought up from the rank and file proved more able than nobles. In Queen Victoria’s reign, the practice of selling officers’ commissions was abolished in Britain, and thenceforth officers were promoted from the ranks.
Roles Of Post-Feudal Nobility
The remnants of nobility after the feudal era often had two things in ample supply – money and free time. This gave them the freedom to do a lot of interesting things. Some became explorers, some scientists, some scholars or philosophers, and some became inventors. The history of the Victorian Era is especially full of expeditions to remote and unexplored places by Lord This or Lady That; in many cases, the expedition was made possible only by the funding of that noble’s estates.
Example roles for your world:
- Military officers and government officials
- Patrons of the arts, culture, or the sciences
- Eccentrics – scholars, inventors, scientists in new fields, cult leaders, etc.
Creating Noble Hierarchies For Your World
- What is the basis of nobility? What is the origin of the noble class?
- What are the roles of the nobility?
- What are the privileges of the nobility?
- What are the titles?
- What is the order of rank – which titles have precedence?
Specific ranks and titles will add realism to your world, but they can also add unneeded complexity. You need only as much as will hold your players’ interest and figure in the story of your campaign.
Possible Agendas And Story Hooks For A Noble PC
- Regain a lost title
- Marry into a powerful family
- Win or regain the King’s favor
- Vindicate an ancestor executed for treason and regain an attainted title
- End a long-standing feud with another family (one way or another)
- Vengeance against an enemy (family or private matter)
- Remove a family curse
- Win the throne (possibly in competition with other noble houses)
- Raise a rebellion against a tyrannical King
- Hide a shameful family secret from the King
- Found or re-establish a dynasty
- Gain a new estate or privilege
- Make enough money to clear a debt
- A powerful lord comes to collect on a devil’s bargain made with him by your father
- You are to host the King and his train for a festival
- You are commanded to escort a royal Prince/Princess to another country
- A near relative is plotting against the King; do you join him or turn him in?
- Your father wants you to become Lord This; but you want to become a troubadour …
- You want to spend your life drinking, wenching, and gambling, but the world won’t let you …
- Form and lead a mercantile or scientific expedition into unknown lands
- Win a reputation in a scholarly or scientific field
- Invent something new and strange
- Pursue a weird or forbidden area of research (CoC, anyone?)
- Pursue the ultimate thrill or adventure (you’ve the time and money for it)
- Win a seat in the Council/Parliament, for some personal purpose
- The government appoints you to some important foreign post (ambassador, governor, etc)
- Investigate an ancient family mystery
- Prove that you are (or aren’t) the heir to a family title/estate
- You inherit the ancestral castle/manor, which is haunted/has strange secrets
- You discover an ancient and horrible family secret; what do you do?
- Rebuild the family fortune
- Find a missing relative
- Find and discreetly deal with a black sheep of the family
- Find a cure for a hereditary family disease
- Recover a lost family heirloom (which OF COURSE has major occult significance …)
- You are a student in a military academy that caters exclusively to the scions of nobility
- You bought a lieutenant’s commission for a lark; suddenly the regiment is sent to war – and you know *nothing* about war!
A List Of Good Reads With Aristocrat Characters
- Raymond Feist, Magician and its sequels
- Katherine Kurtz, Deryni series
- Harry Turtledove, The Time of Troubles series
- Anthony Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda
- Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
- Frank Herbert, Dune and sequels
- George RR Martin, Song of Ice and Fire series
- George Griffith, the Astronef stories
I also recommend the Pendragon RPG book for its *superb* section on the world of Arthurian Britain and what it means to be a knight or lord in that milieu. It also has rules for keeping track of a fief and family. [Comment from Johnn: another superb reference is
“A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe”
A Brief Word From Johnn
Dariel’s article this week is excellent for world building, plots hooks, and PC hooks. Hope you find it useful for your games! I’m off for a week, so feel free to email–but expect a bit of a reply delay after I return.
Have a game-full week.
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Dungeon Tiles Tips
From Dale Thurber
For those using Dwarven Forge Dungeon Tiles or the like:
One thing I’ve noticed about the Dungeon Tiles is they take forever to setup. Especially while playing. So, I have a few tips about how to speed up the usage of the tiles without getting bogged down into during-game assembly, and to preserve the mystery of the dungeon.
First, pre-assemble the tiles into sections. I like to place the tiles on 2’x4? sections of plyboard. This allows one to carry the section throughout a house, including into the garage for storage (my wife hates them left inside!). It also allows for ease of use during game where you can move sections around pretty easily to make room for a new one.
Secondly, pre-stock the dungeon with obvious enemies, traps and treasures. This eliminates more “stocking time” during play. Don’t worry about your players being able to “see” what their characters are about to encounter because…
Thirdly, cover each section tightly in newspaper, using tape to secure it to the edge of the 2’x4? board. Now, when the party adventures through the dungeon, use an exacto-knife to cut away at the newspaper, exposing just what their characters can see.
This has been play-tested and works fairly well. An alternative is laying down 8?x11? pieces of cardstock and rearranging them as the party explores.
Happy gaming, and I hope this tip was useful.
Coincidentally, I own Stone Anvil Creations, a d20 company that produces Spell Effect Patterns, a product very useful for a miniature-based D&D game.
From Debbie Johnson
I tend to be subtle when presenting clues, so they are often missed. To correct this, I simply give the clues again, being more obvious each time, until one of them ‘gets it’. Just try to refrain from saying “Finally!”, at least out loud.
Faster Initiative (D&D)
From David Geer
I have a way to do initiative in combat faster. Use 10 + initiative mod for each combatant. This cuts out an extra dice roll and all the player polling–you’ll already know their initiatives in advance. Make notes of monster and NPC initiatives before the game and you’re set!