Spicing up your nobility. Government forms besides absolute monarchies


Most settings I have seen, especially among D20 games, use absolute monarchies as the default for their fantasy realms. Often they also only really detail the monarch and his or her immediate family.
And this is completely sufficient if you use nobility as questgivers or tyrants to be disposed. Though if you want to set up a game focused on intrigue, either as as background to explain the motivations of the questgivers or maybe even for the PCs to participate themselves this might not be enough. Or you could simply want a different background flavour for your setting.
So as inspiration, here are some, but certainly not all variations on the absolute monarch template (which I tend to call Disney monarchy. Not because its an invention and never existed, but most people are probably most familiar with this kind of system through Disney movies

Ways to power. How to even become king.

The usual way to become king, baring a violent coup or revolution, is usually that the eldest (often male, sometimes regardless of gender) child inherits the throne. Everyone else has though luck. That is actually a fine system for adventuring. You have a clear list of people in line for the throne in order and an obvious motivation for the children to be evil and kill either their father or their siblings. Other common tropes are that the rightful heir is evil and needs to be deposed or that he is good but gets deposed by someone else.

Everybody gets a piece
Instead of one child getting everything it was actually rather common that every child gets something, carving up the realm and dividing them among all children. After all this is fair, right? You can't leave some of your children with nothing after all. Sometimes that meant everyone becomes a king, other times one becomes king and the others get land but must swear fealty to him/her.
This lead to possibly more content children who have less of a reason to murder their siblings (although it far from removes that danger. Especially if several years or even generation has passed, but everyone still remembers that the land was once united and all rulers could claim that it belongs to them, especially if the ruler of one of the smaller realms dies without heir). It also has the downside that each of the children now has a powerbase, so if he really wants to wage war for the whole kingdom he is now better prepared for it.
It also makes the kingdom weaker as it gets ever more divided into smaller realms (barring the influx of new land through conquest).
This type of succession can be useful for a more sandbox civil war style game where the PCs are free to get to know each of the children while the king is still alive and later can decide themselves whom to support.

Enter the Thunderdome. Let them fight it out.
While often the succession system tried to avoid conflict and war some also gave up on that idea and instead embraced the violent side. Your first thought likely is having the potential heirs fight it out in single combat, after all that is very D&D and also used in many movies with fantasy monarchies (Black Panther or Aquaman for example). If one of the contestants is a PC this fits very well into D&D.
The historical version is a bit different though (although selecting the ruler through combat might have also existed, I am not sure). In the Ottoman Empire as soon the children heard of the death of their father they raced to the capital and build up support there (meaning the children who lived near there had an advantage). If they managed to gather enough support to be made sultan they had all of their siblings killed (strangulation with a silk rope was the traditional method).
After a few close calls when the new sultan failed to have children they changed it into imprisonment for live though so that they have some "spares" when needed.
I do not want to comment on the historic Ottoman Empire, but in RPGs today this could be used to undercut that a evil kingdom is evil. A imprisoned sibling could also be the target of a quest for example.

Oldie but Goldie
In some systems it is not the children that inherit the title of king, or equivalent, but brothers and uncles. That was often common with merchant republics which did not had the trappings of nobility, thus the family patriarch, the oldest male of the household, was the leader.
The Ottomans also, after their Thunderdome phase, started to have the oldest family member be the next Sultan instead of one of his children. (Downside was that each member of the family was put under house arrest until it was his turn to be sultan which could take 40 years or more in some cases).
While interesting I personally do not see an advantage this type of succession would offer for gaming. Maybe of you want all the PCs to be related and noble without the hassle of one of them being the heir.

Summon the Elector Counts! Elective systems
Kings getting elected was certainly not the norm, but several of those systems existed. The further you get back in time the more common it is, even if it is implicit, simply because the other nobles of the realm tended to be powerful and no one could be king without their consent. More on that later.
Who was eligible for election and who could vote for them differed. For example under Tanistry (Tanistry - Wikipedia) only members of the male line of the current monarch could be elected. In the Holy Roman Empire (Imperial election - Wikipedia) only the (usually 7) Elector Princes (prince in that case means member of the Empire who is currently not the Emperor) could vote, but every prince could be elected. And in Poland every noble could vote and be voted for (and the numbers of nobles attending the election easily surpassed 10.000 Royal elections in Poland - Wikipedia).
Those type of election system are in my opinion perfect for intrigue games. Especially Tanistry or the Holy Roman Empire system as you have a limited number of people you have to detail and the players have to remember. The polish system is too much of a mess for RPGs, although it can serve as background for a couple of semi-unrelated quests.
Downsides of those systems is that often the electors had no interest of electing a strong leader who can tell them what to do, but preferred a weak leader who leaves them alone. And in Poland civil wars happened after half of those elections as someone disputed them.

Limits of power

I am the state
Lets start again with the system most common (in my experience) in RPGs, that of the absolute ruler. You have the king and his word is absolute. If you have other nobles they are more decorations, advisor or people who want to schmooze up the king because they want something. But apart from their personal power, be it martial, evil magic, poison and maybe some personal guard they are powerless.
For most games this system works fine. The PCs do not have to worry to step on someone's toes when doing a quest for the king nor if they have to worry about the king being allowed or able to pay them. And other nobles need adventurers because they do not have much power themselves other than the name and money.

First among equals
Especially in the earlier middle ages nobles tended to be powerful, often equalling or even surpassing the king himself. The Holy Roman Empire or France before the 100 years war is a good example for that.
Under this system a king can't get away with whatever he wants. When the nobles, or just the majority of them, say no then the king is powerless to oppose them (or has to risk a civil war).
This is again good for an intrigue heavy game as you have multiple actors, each with a powerbase but not so many that the players lose oversight about who is who and wants what.

Parliament/constitutional monarchy and other hybrid systems
First, to my knowledge, used Britain you have both monarchy and a parliament with different levels of power. This kind of system might feel a bit too modern for most fantasy games (although if you want to present a country to be very progressive that might actually be exactly what you want). For gameplay I do not see an advantage of this system over elective systems.
There was also the Dutch Republic which was structured like a republic with each state having a representative, but that post was not elective but hereditary. Here to I do not see a gameplay advantage over elective systems unless you want a bit more exotic (because fewer people will know about this system) feel.

What else is out there? Nobility besides royals

Especially if you want to have an intrigue game you often need other nobles than just the king and his family. Sometimes it is enough to just assign them some random title like duke or count without any power or meaning behind that title. Other times, be it for flavour or because of the type of campaign though you want the title to mean something. So what was out there and how was their relation to the king?
One book, in a RPG context, I found interesting was the Knights of the Grail supplement for Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2E. It touches, in typical over the top warhammer fashion, the feudal system and what it means for the structure of nobility, including some edge cases when the king was also a duke (actually rather common) and what it means when you are vassal to this person as king versus this person as his function as duke. All that without being so in depth or complicated to make it unsuitable for gaming.

Duke and Counts
I lump them together because they are just different levels of nobility with dukes controlling more land and have more vassals than counts. Some countries had another level between them, different names and some persons made up their own titles to differentiate them from the common nobility like archduke. But in the end they have no special powers or obligations.
Depending on the power balance between the king and the nobles they might rule absolutely within their own lands, or they might be more like governors and have to listen to the king all times.

Barons are a special case. When it comes to power they are often, not always, the lowest level of nobility which hold land slightly above knights. What makes them special is very often they are not subjects of a count or duke who controls the land in which their fief lies, but are vassals to the king himself.
This means the only laws that apply to them are the ones the king makes and no one else. If you want your players to be land holding nobles (or at least one of them) barons are a very good choice. They do not hold enough land to turn the game into a management simulation and they also do not need to care about a chain of feudal obligations.

Margrave is the other noble title very suited to PCs and adventurers in general. Magrave was a special title given to people, together with territory on the border and the order to make this territory, henceforth called march, defensible. And in a monster infested fantasy world that certainly includes driving all of them off which is basically what adventurers do anyway.
So if you want one or more PCs to be nobles but also be able to go on normal adventures this is the ideal title.
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In my long-running fantasy setting, which has seen several hundred PCs played since 1979, I've only ever had one who wanted to be a land-holding noble, and he went to the effort of setting up an entire country. This is quite expensive. He didn't write a constitution, and is theoretically an absolute monarch, but he is well aware that if he started to rule oppressively adventurers would come along and overthrow him. After a few years he retired to let his eldest child rule, since he seemed better-suited to the job.

The neighbouring countries are not monarchies. Well, one of them pretends to be, but the post of King is rented out by the day to raise funds. You get a parade and a banquet, and get to wear a crown, but you don't get to make laws or administer justice. The power is in the hands of an oligarchy, which balances the interests of the churches, who have popular support, the Thieves' Guild, who do the day-to-day administration, and the wizards, who can blow people up, but are usually more interested in their research. The country used to be ruled by a conventional military dictator, but he got thrown out, along with his army, by an alliance between the wizards and thieves. I'd like to point out that I developed this polity several years before Terry Pratchett published The Colour of Magic, and he never went so far as to have the police force employed by the Thieves' Guild.

The other neighbouring country used to be ruled by a bizarre cult of absolute lawfulness, which suppressed most normal religions, most non-human races and almost all magic. They had some strange biological arts that enabled them to create extremely capable humans in bulk, but were overthrown when some PCs organised a war against them. The country is now run by a syndicate of merchants, and a lot of the population are still having trouble with the amount of weirdness that's common in a high-magic AD&D setting.


Solitary Role Playing
There are many. The 1e DMG had a list of political systems:

"AUTOCRACY — Government which rests in self-derived, absolute power, typified by a hereditary emperor, for example.

BUREAUCRACY — Government by department, rule being through the heads of the various departments and conducted by their chief administrators.

CONFEDERACY — Government by a league of (possibly diverse) social entities so designed as to promote the common good of each.

DEMOCRACY — Government by the people, i.e. the established body of citizens, whether through direct role or through elected representatives.

DICTATORSHIP — Government whose final authority rests in the hands of one supreme head.

FEUDALITY — Government of a feudal nature where each successive layer of authority derives power and authority from the one above and pledges fealty likewise.

GERIATOCRACY — Government reserved to the elderly or very old.

GYNARCHY — Government reserved to females only.

HIERARCHY — Government which is typically religious in nature and generally similar to a feudality.

MAGOCRACY — Government by professional magic-users only.

MATRIARCHY — Government by the eldest females of whatever social units exist.

MILITOCRACY — Government headed by the military leaders and the armed forces in general.

MONARCHY — Government by a single sovereign, usually hereditary, whether an absolute ruler or with power limited in some form (such as the English monarchs, limited in rule by the Magna Carta).

OLIGARCHY — Government by a few (usually absolute) rulers who are coequal.

PEDOCRACY — Government by the learned, savants, and scholars.

PLUTOCRACY — Government by the wealthy.

REPUBLIC — Government by representatives of an established electorate who rule in behalf of the electors.

THEOCRACY — Government by god-rule, that is, rule by the direct representative of the god.

SYNDICRACY — Government by a body of syndics, each representing some business interest.

This listing is by no means exhaustive, and you should feel free to use other forms, or invent your own, as the needs of your particular campaign direct."


I tend to have guilds/merchants against the nobility. The nobles have the law and power, but the merchants have the money. Of course, there is a lot of overlap with marriage and such to bolster coffers and sway law.

I also tend to have several layers where the PCs may never see the King or even a Duke. Maybe after they save the realm the second time.


There are many. The 1e DMG had a list of political systems:
Interesting list.
And don't forget that you can mix those governments.
For example the Holy Roman Empire was a elective monarchy at the highest level, used feudalism to subcontract land to lesser nobles and also contained several theocracies in the form of bishoprics who were also electors and you also had oligarchies (or republics, depending on how you want to interpret it) with the Hansa and its members.


I often use confederacies/principalities - a rarified group of individuals who have absolute power in their own area but depend on mutual support from an outside enemy/country. Usually one prince is elected to oversee disputes between the other princes, lead combined forces and otherwise unify law and order Among the nation-state. The lead prince may be elected for life, reaffirmed every few years, rotated out by law or may seize power through political means and only keep it by being the most power (politically, financially or otherwise).


In the real world, particularly when looking at historical forms of government, taxonomic labels tend to be applied descriptively and post-hoc.

In FRPG world design there often seems to be a tendency to treat a taxonomic label as normative/prescriptive. Which then tends to result in descriptions of government systems that are implausibly rationalised even for the modern world, let alone a pseudo-mediaeval one.


I generally like Feudalism where the Barons/Counts/Dukes have a lot of power, possibly more than the Monarch. This is the model I use for my FR Damara 1359 DR campaign. The central monarchy is weak and rarely seen outside the capital city and the monarch's own holdings. The Duchies & major Baronies operate as close to independent realms, often clashing over border disputes and such. Much politics is about these major nobles enhancing their own power while avoiding the attention of the Monarch, eg a Duke may try to take land from a rival Duke, but not depose that Duke since this would draw unwelcome attention from the King.


If you want a wonderful (and giving the author's credentials: accurate) description of how the various royals, nobles, merchant houses, states and merchant leagues in Europe interacted during the late Middle Ages (and if you can spare the time to read eight lengthy volumes), I highly recommend Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series, about the rise of a merchant and banker from Bruges in the 1460s.


If you want a wonderful (and giving the author's credentials: accurate) description of how the various royals, nobles, merchant houses, states and merchant leagues in Europe interacted during the late Middle Ages (and if you can spare the time to read eight lengthy volumes), I highly recommend Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series, about the rise of a merchant and banker from Bruges in the 1460s.
Thanks for the reference it looks really good. I put it on my wishlist but I may pick up the whole set soon.

I think for me creating these societies has been a lot of fun and I definitely mix it up. If you create really compelling NPCs your world will be more compelling for your PCs. Great NPCs play themselves to a degree just like great characters in a novel sometimes take over the story from the author.


Thanks for the reference it looks really good. I put it on my wishlist but I may pick up the whole set soon.
Beware, though: Dorothy Dunnett is not for the faint-hearted. Niccolo is full of medieval Latin, French and Scots like her earlier Lymond series (without translations), but she does expect a lot from her readers. At the very least, you have to pay close attention. There are a couple of "companion" volumes to explain background details.


Beware, though: Dorothy Dunnett is not for the faint-hearted. Niccolo is full of medieval Latin, French and Scots like her earlier Lymond series (without translations), but she does expect a lot from her readers. At the very least, you have to pay close attention. There are a couple of "companion" volumes to explain background details.
I've read Colleen McCullough's entire Roman series is that about the same level of hard in your opinion?

And I think I found Lymond and not Niccolo so I will have to go back and look for Niccolo.

I love good history so I'm hopeful.


I've never read any Colleen McCullough, but Dorothy Dunnett is the toughest writer I've ever read. Very rewarding, but she makes you work for it. Lymond is particularly difficult, with puns and quotes and references in medieval Latin, Scots and French that she won't bother to explain, but Niccolo requires you to pay very close attention to almost every word. A lot of reading between the lines too. Dame DD is very much of the "Why use a paragraph if you can use a word?" school of writing.

It's all steeped in actual history, drawing on written sources. So don't expect any sugar coating. People die a lot. Bad things happen.


I'm over absolute monarchies. I'm especially over ones where the King or Queen is just a nice person who pals along with the PCs just because. Monarchs just don't do that.

The games my wife run are set in a representative Republic.
One of mine has a council of churches. The council is fairly argumentative, rarely agreeing on anything. The other one I run is set in the City of Greyhawk but with the Ruling Council being subject to regular elections. I believe in canon they are mostly selected by the Mayor who is effectively ruling for life. My version has regular elections.


You can also have a traditional monarchy that isn't an absolute monarchy. In Dune, the Emperor of the Known Universe has a vast amount of power but he's got several checks against him. He has to take care to crush the Atreides in secret lest he anger the Landsraad and they overthrow him and he steps lightly around the Spacing Guild because of their monopoly on faster-than-light travel.


I really like the model of the German Free City for something a little different. Focused on citizenship and a couple of layers of rank therein, often with a heavy leavening of Guild and the like. It scales up to a more interesting state level entity too IMO.
I agree. I like city states a lot and use them frequently in my games.


A suffusion of yellow
The White City of Al-Qahira (so named for its shining walls) is ruled by the Council of Judges, learned men who dwell in the upper city and appoint lesser judges to apply the Law in the market and public places.

The power of Bishnagar comes from the dragon who dwells beneath the City of Bishnagar, but the authority is in the hands of the Guild Merchant.

The Twin Cities of Karina are split between the Holy City of the Griots and the lower Market City, it is the griots who sing the law and histories so that the people will know what is right. The people who live in the village between the cities are free to decide for themselves.

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