Most popular fantasy RPGs tend to gloss over the mechanical details of things like succession law, but world-builders and DMs have a number of interesting options when designing a feudal (or quasi-feudal) society. Taking my inspiration from Paradox Interactive’s excellent Crusader Kings series, I’ve thought of some options for making your in-game monarchies more interesting and meaningfully different from each other.
A. Decide how gender affects succession
1. Patrilineal - only males may succeed the ruler
2. Matrilineal - only females may succeed the ruler
3. Sex-Biased - both sexes may succeed, but only if there are no eligible members of the preferred sex
3. Equal - both genders may succeed equally
B. Decide how relatedness is determined
What defines the dynasty (the royal family)? Are the children of both sexes considered dynasty members, or only those of one gender? This is important for determining dynasty membership of children born from dynasty intermarriages. If the child inherits membership from both parents, then they could inherit claims from both dynasties, while if they do not, claims to the other dynasty’s holdings would be considered illegitimate.
C. Determine the order of succession
There are a lot of options here (see wikipedia), but here are some possibilities:
1. Primogeniture - the eldest child of the ruler succeeds following the ruler’s death
2. Rota - the eldest sibling of the ruler succeeds
3. Seniority - the eldest dynasty member succeeds
4. Gavelkind - domain is divided equally among the ruler’s children
5. Elective - the ruler’s highest-ranking vassals select the next ruler
In my game world, the northerly kingdom of Ervala has a patrilineal primogeniture law, rooted in the traditions of their ancient clans, while the militaristic kingdom of Idalos follows a patrilineal elective law, having arisen from an alliance of smaller kingdoms (who selected a leader for their armies, now their elective king) centuries ago. The Empire of Varelia also follows a patrilineal elective law, but it is not the highest-ranking vassals that choose the ruler, but all of the titled land-holders in the entire domain. Although all titled nobility are eligible, in practice only the most prominent and powerful aristocrats are named Emperor, as the lesser land-holders wish to rely on them for support and protection. Although succession is elective at the highest level, lesser Varelian domains predominantly follow the gavelkind law, making Varelia a patchwork domain of many smaller, warring states.
D. Choose a royal council
Running a kingdom is hard work, and Game of Thrones fans will know well that sometimes you can’t trust the one in charge to actually … be in charge.
In a game system like ACKS, where your character can end up in charge of a domain, who says that your henchmen have to actually be your land-holding vassals? Why couldn’t your personal henchmen include, say, a trusted and charismatic chancellor who can keep your vassals in line for you while you go adventuring?
With that in mind, here’s some jobs you might outsource to (or augment with) a ruling council, taken right from the Crusader Kings.
The Chancellor is the ruler’s right-hand man/woman, with all the political know-how and charisma that the ruler didn’t develop while, say, dungeon-delving or carousing with the other aristocrats.
The Marshal cares for and commands the domain’s armies.
The Steward deals with all the economic, taxation, and accounting business of the domain.
The Spymaster defends against assassinations, plots and carries out assassinations, and gathers information on enemies foreign and domestic.
5. High Priest
The High Priest ministers to the spiritual concerns of the ruling dynasty, as well as ministering to the populace, while acting as liaison between the ruler and the rest of the spiritual world.
E. Determine the domain’s relationship to religion
If there is a High Priest, that probably means a de facto domain religion, and in ACKS, the possibility of church domains within the ruler’s domain. Do the church-held domains pay taxes? Do they pay them to the domain ruler, or to a central church authority (or local patriarch)?
Follow steps A-E and you’ll have the seeds of abundant political intrigue, and a pleasantly differentiated landscape of monarchies and empires.
Next up: governance, or how to summarize rulership styles.