RPT#128 – Different Ways Of Kinging It: A Quick Look At Alternative Traditions Of Monarchy
A Brief Word From Johnn
Monarchy Tips For World Building
This week we have an awesome world building article for GMs who are serious about their campaigns, or for game masters who just want a cool story idea or two. I personally found it a most interesting read and I hope you enjoy it and find it useful for your games.
Johnn Four email@example.com
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A Guest Article By Dariel R. A. Quiogue
Hi Johnn! The idea for this article came from Neil Faulkner’s excellent article, Ten Ways to Enrich Your Campaign With Lists of Rulers. I hope this can be useful for my fellow GMs out there.[ https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue108.asp & https://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue109.asp ]
- Rules of Succession
We are all familiar with the European model of monarchy where the eldest son (or sometimes eldest child, son, or daughter) is the default successor to the throne. But primogeniture was far from universal, and the stories of foreign dynasties can be very interesting because of their strange succession laws.
The rules of succession are of special interest to a GM because they have such rich potential for generating conflict and thus become the seeds of great stories.
Many dynasties, such as the current British monarchy and the ancient Hindu kingdoms, practiced the selection of a Crown Prince to stabilize the succession. The choice was usually restricted to the sons of the incumbent monarch, and the choice was made by the monarch himself or with the aid of a council. The chosen prince was formally named Crown Prince, designating him successor to the throne well before the death or removal of the incumbent.
Often the title of Crown Prince was accompanied by a grant of additional lands and powers to increase the power base of the chosen successor. Prior to the adoption of this practice, there was always the danger that brothers would compete over their father’s throne; by making one more powerful than the rest well before a succession struggle could occur, the future of the kingdom was (hopefully) secured.
Story hook: A king wants to introduce this practice for the first time in his country, but is opposed by the powerful nobles and some of his own sons who want to keep the field open for themselves. The PCs get involved in the machinations of one or another of the parties. Maybe they get appointed envoys to convince the nobles of the king’s plan, or they are made guardians of the Crown Prince designate.
Sometimes, the next king or emperor is not chosen from among the incumbent’s natural children, but instead adopted. The more successful Roman emperors practiced this.
A man of proven ability was chosen by the incumbent and steadily raised in rank until he stood second only to the emperor. He was then formally adopted by the incumbent so that the legal fiction of inheritance through the male line would be preserved. On the death or abdication of the emperor, the adoptee was elevated to the vacant throne.
With a responsible monarch choosing capable successors, this system has the potential to be very successful and stable. Furthermore, it eliminates one of the biggest headaches of monarchy: the possibility of having a child king or queen.
Some Japanese shoguns and daimyo also practiced this, adopting likely male relatives – nephews, grandchildren, etc. – who showed promise, and also to avoid being succeeded by a child heir.
Story hook: A king wants to adopt a competent nephew as heir, but is opposed by another relative. The PCs get involved when the king dies before he can formalize the adoption and the evil relative makes his bid for the throne – was the king poisoned? The PCs have proof, but how to use it?
Survival Of The Fittest And Nastiest
Sometimes, there is simply no fixed law of succession. Instead, the most powerful candidates for the throne – usually, but not always restricted to, the sons of the last ruler – scramble for the throne as soon as it falls vacant.
This was the tradition of the Turkish sultans, in Moghul India, and many other Islamic and Mongol dynasties. Indeed, without a formal law of succession, such a scramble is almost bound to happen and the death of a monarch is always the signal for disorder in the kingdom.
Often, a prince would come to the throne only after a civil war in which he had to defeat his brothers’ forces, and remove his brother from the succession. Many are the tales of princes having their brothers executed, assassinated, or blinded and maimed.
For example Shah Jahan, famous for having the Taj Mahal built, had his brother Kurram’s eyes stabbed and doused with lemon juice after a bloody civil war. (There was an ancient law, quite common actually, which forbade the blinded, maimed or deformed from becoming a monarch.)
In the Ottoman Empire, the struggle often took the form of a race to the capital. The sons of the sultan were given governorships or similar posts far from the capital; on the death of the sultan, which was kept secret as long as possible, spies and scheming courtiers would vie to alert their chosen prince first, who would then ride hell-bent- for-leather to Istanbul. The first prince to reach Istanbul would be crowned sultan by the nobles and court eunuchs.
This kind of succession rule (or lack of rules) can easily spawn adventures – get the message of the sultan’s death to the prince stationed far away on the desert frontier; escort the prince back to the capital; expose the impersonator who’s taken the throne in the name of an imprisoned prince…
The Celts had a succession custom called “tanaise ri”, in which the default successor of a chieftain was not necessarily his son, but his eldest or most able male relative – often a brother. It seems this practice was mainly to ensure that the tribe would always have a capable adult leader. On the downside, this means that the son of a king or chieftain might find himself in rivalry with an uncle when he reaches adulthood.
Introducing conflicts stemming from the practice of tanaise ri makes for good stories and adds to the Celtic flavor of Celtic-inspired milieus.
King by Election
Some monarchies had a tradition of election instead of direct succession. This was a practice also of the Celts and some of the medieval German kingdoms. The candidates for the throne typically had to come from a single family or family line – in Celtic, the “righ domna” – and the electors were limited to the high nobility.
The common folk of course got no vote. This can be a lot of fun when one or more of the PCs is a candidate for the throne. Is the player going to run for election or avoid it, and how will he deal with his rivals?
Sometimes, a monarchy would fall under the power of a kingmaker, a power behind the throne, such as what happened in England during the Wars of the Roses, and Japan during the time of the Fujiwara Regents and the shogunates. Then, the monarch could expect to reign merely as a figurehead, coming to the throne by the choice of the kingmakers, and enjoying his position only as long as convenient for the kingmakers.
The Fujiwara Regents are a good example. Their modus operandi was to have the incumbent emperor marry a Fujiwara daughter; when a son had been produced and reached an age of about ten, the incumbent was made to retire and the child heir enthroned, to marry another Fujiwara daughter in time and be made to retire in the same way after supplying his own heir.
This practice was continued by the Minamoto shogun and the Hojo Regents, so that for hundreds of years Japan was to have a child as an emperor. The real rulers of the country were then free to do as they pleased, their every deed backed by the claim of acting in the Emperor’s name.
Again, the intrigues and dirty shenanigans that could accompany the selection of a successor, the maintenance of a regent’s power, or a monarch’s attempt to regain his rightful powers, can form the basis for an exciting campaign or adventure.
Where Do The Losers Go?
What happens to those princes who do not get to the throne? Such princes are always a potential source of danger should they try to claim the throne. You can’t just imprison the innocent (unless the heir or incumbent is evil), and denying a prince power and dignity might be exactly the spur needed to drive him into rebellion.
The Ottoman sultans gave their princes governorships far from the capital, and later on put them into virtual prisons where they idled their lives away amid harem women and opium – which partly explains why Turkey was in such a state of decay in the 19th century. Check out Robert E. Howard’s great story “The Way of the Swords,” where the plot is built upon just this kind of situation.
Excess princes might be placed in a monastery, especially if the rules of the monastic order are very strict against members leaving the order. This was a favorite resort of the Byzantine emperors. Some Buddhist kingdoms, and the Japanese, also resorted to this practice.
The Assyrians seem to have practiced castration of some princes to prevent their ever being considered candidates for the throne. Blinding and maiming have also been used to keep princes from becoming legitimate successors, thanks to ancient laws requiring that a king be physically fit and unmarred.
The Thai monarchy has a long-term solution for dealing with burgeoning royal relations; unless the prince becomes a king, his children are born one rank of nobility lower, and their children yet another rank lower, until by the fifth or seventh generation the scions are born commoners.
On the other hand, a king might find that his family is the best source of trustworthy aides and ministers. In a lawful, good kind of kingdom, you can expect the king’s brother and uncles to have important positions, since he can trust them.
Sometimes a succession struggle can arise over a point of law that is obscure, or when different succession rules are being used. Tolkien gives an example in the history of Middle Earth, where the claim of Arvedui of Arnor to the vacant kingship of Gondor is refused by the Steward of Gondor on the grounds that the king of Gondor must be a descendant of Anarion (Arvedui being descended from Anarion’s brother Isildur).
Then there is the question of whether succession belongs to the eldest son, or the eldest child regardless of sex. Worse yet is the problem of twins; if there can be only one king, which of a pair of twins can succeed to the throne?
Sometimes a monarch comes to the throne as one of a pair of joint monarchs, as Peter the Great of Russia did, and some Byzantine emperors. Usually this is the result of a compromise agreement between rival factions, but the solution is often no solution at all – sooner or later, one of the joint kings will try to be the sole king, for one reason or another.
For some time during the middle ages, Japan had not one but two Imperial families from which Emperors were selected. The Hojo Regents worked out a system by which Emperors were selected alternately from one family then another – but both families maintained an equal claim to the throne, the source of much conflict.
Harridans Of The Harem!
Polygamy can be a major headache for a king, especially when it comes time to choose an heir. When two or more of a king’s wives have sons, they could end up in deadly conflict as each tries to protect her children and ensure their future. For example, in the Ramayana, Rama’s father is convinced by a junior queen to exile the virtuous Rama and name her own son as successor to the throne.
A female PC might be cast as the mother of one of the princes being considered for the succession. It is up to her to protect her son – still a child or youth – and shape his destiny.
- Exit the King!
A monarch usually holds the position for life, or until he relinquishes the crown. Some monarchies practiced strange or interesting forms of exit, though, so let’s take a quick look at those.
The Year King
Some monarchies were held only for a short time – sometimes only as long as a year – after which some means would be found to unseat the incumbent and replace him.
The King of Ys novels by Poul and Karin Anderson give a good example, based on actual Celtic practice. The incumbent King of Ys had to spend so much time every year in the Sacred Wood, where he must fight any challenger to the death; if the challenger won, he got to be king in place of the man he killed. Sir James Frazier mentions similar practices in some South Indian kingdoms in The Golden Bough.
Sometimes, the trigger for removal of a king was the onset of old age. From the Celtic Europe to Cambodia to Africa, there are monarchic traditions where a king’s reign is allowed to last only as long as his virility.
The tradition comes from the belief that the king is “married to the land”, and that the fertility of the land is directly derived from the king’s own virility. For example, the kings of Angkor were expected to go regularly to a certain temple, where supposedly a Naga queen waited for him; should the king become incapable, he would be killed and replaced, lest the rice crops fail and the nation starve.
Some kings retired – sometimes quite early in life – to a religious life in a monastery or similar institution. Some medieval Japanese emperors, as mentioned above, were made to retire into life as Buddhist monks. Other Buddhist monarchies in Southeast Asia had similar practices. The basis for this seems to be the Brahminic ideal of the Hindus, in which a man is expected to spend the last phase of his life in religious contemplation and the practice of mystic austerities.
A king or queen might also be motivated to seek sanctuary in an ascetic life after a troublesome reign or personal tragedy. Guinevere is said to have ended her days as a nun. Charles the V is said to have wanted to become a monk. And the Ramayana tells of Hindu kings who decided to take up the life of a religious hermit after suffering personal loss, or in the case of one king, after he was cursed to die in the act of making love, by a stag he had shot while in the act of mating!
Royal Burial Customs
It is of course a fantasy standard that dead kings must be buried in grand tombs with treasure. But we can make that much more elaborate and interesting by looking at royal burial customs and stories from around the world.
When Genghis Khan died, he was taken to a secret burial site in the Altai mountains, and the warriors of the royal cortege slew everyone who had the misfortune to cross the funeral march’s path. This was supposedly to keep the burial site secret.
Other kings, like those of the Chinese Shang Dynasty, had themselves buried with their slaves and perhaps wives, who were strangled or poisoned, even decapitated, before burial. In a fantasy setting, these would of course provide the bodies for the buried’s undead guardians.
An ancient Irish king was said to have requested burial standing up, sword in hand, and facing the lands of the enemy tribe. He promised that should this be done, his power would continue to strengthen the tribe in battle, and indeed, his tribe continued to be victorious in every encounter with the enemy – until the enemy dug up the dead king and reburied him upside down.
- It’s Good To Be The King! At Least, Most Of The Time…
Ancient laws and pagan customs and beliefs have resulted in monarchs being saddled with some odd obligations and privileges. You can add these and variations of these to your campaign world for extra flavor, as story hooks – perhaps as pitfalls for PCs, and opportunities for knowledge-based PCs like clerics to shine.
A monarch is often also the chief priest of the national religion, or at least an important figure in it. As a result of this, he may be expected to perform some unique religious duties, such as taking an annual pilgrimage to a special place, leading the midsummer’s day celebrations, etc. For example, the Thai king is expected to plow the first furrow at the opening of the rice planting season.
You could hang an adventure on this by having something prevent the king from performing his sacred duties – perhaps the sacred grove has been invaded by a monster, or the sacred royal vestments which must be worn at the great festival have been stolen, and the PCs are charged with solving the problem.
A king may be forbidden the strangest of things. Some African tribal kings go veiled for it is a serious offense for a commoner to see the face of a king.
The Japanese emperor was never supposed to step on bare ground, so carpets or mats were always laid where he must step, or he was carried about in a cart or palanquin.
The legendary Irish king Conaire of the Seven Geases had seven taboos, which, when he broke them all in the course of a day, led to his death.
Central Asians had a superstitious fear of spilling the blood of a king, so royal family members who had to be executed were killed by strangling with a bowstring, or in the case of a khan who rebelled against Kublai, was rolled up in a carpet and trampled by a cavalry charge.
Royal Foods And Hunting Rights
There are many examples of certain foods being held special to the king. Perhaps fish from a certain lake or river, or the first catch of a season, are reserved for the king.
Some game animals might be reserved for the royal hunt alone, as tigers were in India, and it is a crime for a commoner to take such game. Or if a particular kind of animal is caught, the law requires that it or some of its remnants be brought to the king – say the skin of a black panther or white stag. Again, this is a chance for the GM to get the PCs into strange situations because of obscure local customs.
Court Languages and Scripts
Sometimes, a king speaks a different tongue than his subjects – maybe because he is of foreign descent as many European monarchs were, or because custom requires him to use a special language for court ceremonies.
Tolkien mentions, for example, that a king of Rohan used the speech of Gondor in his house, having lived for long in Gondor and married a woman of Gondor.
Sometimes, royal proclamations are written in a different language or different script than what is commonly used. Sometimes this special language is so ancient or obscure that no one but the royal family and court understand it.
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- Weather Tool Tip: Use A Farmer’s Almanac
From: Andrew A.
For weather in your games, pick up a Farmer’s Almanac. A good one will predict the weather for any given day based on that day’s previous history. It will also tell you the times for sun-up and sun-down, the phases of the moon and much, much more interesting information, especially in fantasy campaigns where the weather is an important part of daily life.
- Look For Hidden Properties As Adventure Seeds
From: Skyler M.
I just had an idea that might find itself useful in someone’s game.
Just moments ago I carried a daddy long legs spider out of the house. I don’t usually have anything to do with spiders because they creep me out and I never know if they’re dangerous or not, but I’ve always been fine with daddy long legs because I know they are harmless, as most people know. What some people don’t know is that daddy long legs are poisonous enough to kill a full grown human, but cannot harm us because their jaws are weak and would break long before they break the skin.
This got me thinking about hidden dangers that creatures could have. It’s somewhat along the lines of certain plants that have curative properties, especially in the sense that not everyone knows the secret but there are those who exploit it. Imagine a villain who raises daddy long legs to extract their powerful poison for his own dastardly purposes.
Hidden properties could add new depth to an adventure, namely seeking rare plants or creatures for an antitoxin, or like in the movie Blade 2 where they dissected a foe and discovered an excretion that would aid them in their fight. I’m sure there are more possible applications.
- Creating Dynamic Campaigns
From: Johnn Four
A reader asked me about tips on creating dynamic campaigns. Here was my response:
Basically, you feel that your world is purely reactive to the PCs, that your world revolves around them and does not have a life of its own. It’s static, not dynamic. Did I understand correctly?
Creating dynamic campaigns is a great topic idea! Thanks, I’m adding this to the list for sure.
In the mean time, here are three quick tips to hopefully help you out:
- Establish one to three threads that are happening in your world right now. Perhaps a war in a remote place, a new trade route established by a local merchant, an upcoming royal wedding, etc.
Between sessions, spend a few minutes and update each thread. Just by knowing about these threads you should be able to weave them into your games and make the world seem a little less dependent on the PCs.
- Have the players do the work for you. Characters all have teachers, bosses, friends, and/or family who would have different things happening in their lives. Ask each player to generate three threads of their own and give you a sheet with rumours, gossips, and updates each session. Be sure to reward the players for this (usually by incorporating their threads into your stories to the benefit of the PC or entertainment of the player).
- Spend more time on world design at the local level (i.e. 50 mile radius). Start with the powerful forces (rulers, monsters, villains, rich merchants, nobles, etc.) and figure out what they’re doing to get more power.
Then plan out things like laws and law enforcement, goings- on of the local church(es), commerce, holidays and celebrations. Finally, throw in a few random events like drought, meteor , orc tribe uprising, etc.
Ultimately though, the world must always react to the PCs so that the stories you tell are personal and important to them. Otherwise, you might as well stay at home and play a Sim computer game. :)”
- Establish one to three threads that are happening in your world right now. Perhaps a war in a remote place, a new trade route established by a local merchant, an upcoming royal wedding, etc.