This article was first broadcast in Episode Six on 3rd January 2018.
Lennon: Why does the break room wall have dry erase lines everywhere with some pictures of Duke Ellington, Elvis, and Christopher Lee from Star Wars?
Ostron: Oh, yeah, we wanted to add some stuff to our campaigns and have it be authentic. Royalty! Kings, Princes, Dukes. I mean an evil baron-
Ryu: Or Baroness!
Ostron: -right trying to take over the kingdom is classic! But we wanted it to be authentic and we’re not used to the whole royalty, lines of succession thing.
Lennon: Ryu, Ostron, I’m British. We’ve got this. Here’s your note sheet, here’s your note sheet…now, everyone follow along. We’ll have your Kings and Princes sorted out in no time.
What’s in a Name?
When adding nobility and royal titles to D&D, the most common pattern is to have nobility named based on the French or British systems of peerage. If you want to use the titles from the Ottoman Empire and deal with Sultans, Pashas, and Hanims then, well, this week you’re out of luck, but it’s something we do intend on covering in the future.
So let’s start at the top: King is the most common title to see thrown about but even this carries its own misconceptions. The King is the ruler of a country, whatever country that may be. Most people assume the King is as high as you can go, but if you’ve got a legitimate Emperor running around, they usually outrank the king. Much like the relationship between Captain and Admiral, what makes Emperors unique is that they tend to rule over several countries, each of which in most cases has a King. Or, in the case of vassalage, the Emperor may be the king in one of the countries and then the others have Kings that pay him tribute. This is why if you have a large outside force threatening a kingdom, it’s probably going to be led by someone calling themselves “Emperor.” Also, if you have a woman in the mix that’s Queen and/or Empress. How much power those figures have if the King is still around depends on what fits with the story and how progressive you want your feudal society to be. There are examples where queens ruled with as much power as kings, and ones where they were ignored and just around to produce babies. Strictly speaking, a King will always outrank a Queen (which is why in Britain Queen Elizabeth’s husband isn’t King Phillip and is merely the Duke of Edinburgh).
We’re going to skip prince and princesses for a minute because it’s more confusing than you might think. The hierarchy below the King in France and Britain is fairly well established. Just below the King you have a Duke or Duchess. Just below them is either an Earl or a Count depending on what country you want to follow. Mentally a lot of people will place an Earl above a Count, but that’s probably influence from the British since Earl is the British title. Below that is Viscount [VYE-count], and then Baron. That last bit may surprise people because “Baron” is a common title used in fiction, particularly for villains, but it’s actually one of the lowest ranks.
Now, circling back to prince. The simple definition is that the prince or princess is simply the child of the monarch. However, throughout the middle ages, particularly in the later period, the title of prince was also used to refer to a lot of people who controlled small territories of land that weren’t swept up in larger kingdoms or defined peerage systems, known as Principalities. Although its status has changed since the 1500s, a great example would be the country to the left of England, Wales. Although now a fully fledged country within the United Kingdom, when it was first originally annexed they initially called it “England”, before deciding to divide it back out into its own Principality of Wales, and thus creating the title Prince of Wales. It’s also how all the fairy tales got away with having princes marrying damsels all over the place; most of them weren’t related to kings, they were just in charge of a decent sized area.
Marriage, Kids, and Inheritance
Rules of inheritance and titles for nobility gets complicated quickly, and literal wars used to be fought over it all the time. We’ll scratch the surface here so that if you want to include some political intrigue in your campaigns it will follow some amount of real history.
First, kids of the Monarch are Princes or Princesses as we said, but what about the other nobles? Well, until they came of age (16 – 18) nobody really gave them a title because no one cared. After they were considered adults, they usually got the next lowest title in the pecking order. So the son of a Duke would be called a Count or Earl. That was done to give them some authority but without letting them override or challenge their parents.
It’s a very common plot point in period romance stories so most people know this, but marriage was rarely a love match in medieval times. It was usually arranged to cement some sort of treaty or expand the influence of a particular family. This is why there was so much inbreeding later in the medieval times, and why so many nobles of all genders tended to have flings on the side without anyone caring. Also this is how people ended up being “forced to marry” someone. Note to players – “lawful good” alignments will probably tell the princess “yes, you do have to marry that person.” Realistically, all those heroines who got themselves out of a forced marriage probably started wars and got a lot of people killed.
Finally, inheritance. This is a complete mess. If you want to have an actual political inheritance intrigue plot in your campaign and have it be authentic, we’d suggest doing independent research, particularly if you’re going try for more than one generation deep. Here’s the simplest example we could craft of how this works in the most well-known system, primogeniture: Oldest child of the current noble inherits the title and everything with it.
Again, whether a female inheritor qualifies depends on how progressive your peerage is; it’s been done both ways. If you have a strictly patrilineal or matrilineal system it’s the oldest child of the correct gender and the other gender cannot inherit the title under any circumstances. If nobody of the right gender is in the line, you go to the next oldest person of the previous generation. So for example: in a strict patrilineal agnatic-primogeniture monarchy (that is, fathers-line-first-born-legitimate-male-only) you have a king with three lovely daughters. None of them can inherit. The king has a sister, but again, wrong gender. However, the sister has a son! Congratulations, Nephew David is the next in line for the throne. However, as soon as the King’s oldest daughter finds herself a husband and has a male child, grandson Charlie is the new heir. And just in case this wasn’t confusing enough, if the king decides that he wants someone else to inherit, such as second-cousin-twice-removed-Louis because his children are all royal pains in the ass, he can just say that’s going to happen. You can see where Christmas dinners may have gotten a little tense, and occasionally stabby.
Another common misconception – the children who aren’t inheriting the title are not completely screwed. Under a system known as Gavelkind, the pattern is something like the primary heir gets the title and 40 to 50% of the wealth and assets, and then the remaining 50% is split amongst the rest of the kids. Still not fair by any means, but the third in line is hardly going to be begging on the street.
There are exceptions to all of the above depending on what culture and what period of medieval history you want to examine, and it’s not even touching on how illegitimate children mess things up. The idea here is just to give a sense of how a medieval peerage system would work, based on the most common assumptions of western audiences. In reality, the DM should have the nobility system work in whatever way makes the campaign fun and exciting — if you want Lord Vader to be second to Emperor Palpatine, even when King Skywalker appears, if it makes sense in your gameworld then by all means, go right ahead.