Monday, October 28, 2019

Modernisms in Fantasy Gaming II: Absolute Monarchs

This is part II of a short series on Modernisms in fantasy gaming. Here is Part I.

These are those "modern" or out-of-period things that trip up players who expect to find them . . . not always knowing they're out of period or "modern."

These aren't deliberate modernisms put into a game, rather what players might expect only to find lacking.

These aren't meant as historical articles, exactly - I'm not going to dig into research and post sources. It's just a light conversation about expectations of "reality" versus what the game might actually feature.

Absolute Monarchs

All monarchs are not absolute rulers, ruling over their subjects of any rank with total power. That is something that came later in European history for the most part. Throughout the Middle Ages and even later, Kings were often just the most powerful noble. He or she might have a significant amount of power but not full reign to order around the more powerful (or even minor) nobles of the realm. Getting things done could take a lot of negotiation, gifts (in effect, bribery), subtle political moves, and expending of political capital and leverage. Even then, the King might not be legally allowed to take some actions.

The King won't always have access to all of the resources of the country - or even a lot of them. Kings could easily be poor relative to nobles, and limited in what they could give away as a reward. A King might be able to give out ranks of minor nobility or a particular estate that belongs to the throne, but equally might not be able to due to politics or lack of resources.

Ancient world despots were absolute rulers, of course. The extent of "absolute" can be surprising to a modern audience, too. Rulers could give anything to or take away everything from their subjects. Property rights don't really exist in the same sense as we expect now - or even in those days of absolute monarchy in Europe. Sometimes the ruler owns what you own, just by you being a subject.

Often I find the expectation is the King or Queen can do anything . . . hand out anything, parcel out any resources, deploy any military force, etc. But equally the King or Queen can't take things away from you because, well, it's yours.

It's a weird mix of assumptions. It's worth checking - is the game your playing making the same assumptions about rulership that you are?

Next: Banking!


  1. A good example that stuck around for a long time was Germany. The Holy Roman Emperor being unable to boss around his nobles was odd in 1800, but not in 1300.

  2. This came up for me when running my Ghinarian Hills setting with a Mycenean 'Palace Culture' - quite hard for me to get my head around the idea of these 'petty kings' owning everything in their tiny demesne.

  3. Inversely... being that I'm a big fan of 'norse' style 'monarchal' structures, I've always been fine with Kings needing to 'beg, borrow, or steal' from their Lords to get things done.

    My players on the other hand have had moments where they had real problems (in one particular campaign) understanding why the elected Emperor[1] had no power and minimal sway over his Ducal Princes[2] who in turn relied heavily on their Count[3] and Baron[2] supporters who in turn leaned heavily on their local Mayor[4] and Sheriffs[3]...

    And there were many, many other titles sprinkled in just keep things nice and confusin... err, I mean English sounding, these were just the most commonly encountered ones.

    1 - Elected by the Ducal Princes for 'foreign diplomacy' purposes in a campaign with global and world spanning politics. In theory the Princes would bow to the Emperor's wishes, in practice the Emperor was a figurehead who went to the "UN" meetings and mouthed their words so they didn't have to... but like the Japanese Emperor during the Shogunate, the Emperor had grassroot support and... it was complicated and messy and caused 'civil' war in the Empire at one point.

    2 - Earned by right of conquest or inheritance.

    3 - Purely appointed position. With Counts usually being a jumped up Mayor, merchant guild leader, or occasionally an impressive Baron, literally there to deal with taxes and be the 'bad cop' (or sometimes the good cop in two specific kingdoms). With Sheriffs (or Reeves) usually a local strongguy who has the Baron's blessing to squeeze taxes out of the locals and beat the law into them (Sheriffs being 'law and taxes', Reeves being just 'law').

    4 - A purely appointed taxation and "keeps the town/manor area running smoothly" guy. No /official/ power outside of taxation, usually appointed alongside a powerful (but politically incompetent) Reeve and often given said Reeve's leash.

    1. That's a great example of what I mean - it's a hard thing to entangle if you're not used to it . . . and even harder if you don't know such a weak monarchy even exists.

    2. Exactly. And then you can compound the problem by tossing in seldom used titles (for your game) that spring up 'seemingly' just to confound the PCs!

      For example, in the above campaign the PCs eventually got used to dealing with their direct Baron and even eventually become go betweens for Baron to the Duke (there was a 'not' war on between kingdoms in the Empire). They get tasked with disrupting yet another kingdoms communications, basically they had to convince a Baron that he being ordered to move troops out of an area so 'the good guys' could sneak through this neighboring kingdom and attack from the rear...

      Their first thought was just to fake orders from the Duke to the Baron, afterall that's how it worked in their (much, much) smaller kingdom... except this larger "neutral" kingdom had Earls. And Margraves. And thus a very subtle game of "figure out the power structure of this other country where spies are literally burned at the stake by it's draconic lords and they do things differently" started up...

      To their benefit it was also a land of "disobey the wrong Lord and you're burned for their displeasure" so once they figured out which absentee lord to fake orders from it was much simpler.


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