I just lucked into a ticket to see Henry IV part 2 at BAM this evening, and I am awash in ideas centered around traitors and uprisings, as well as the interaction between the Low and the High. Saturday’s performance was particularly notable for its climactic snub received by the hopeful Falstaff and issued by the ascendant Hal, but John of Lancaster’s performance at the traitors-treaty-turned-trap and the conspirators reactions is equally at fault.
D&D doesn’t usually have enough structure to support any of this “on screen”. The feudal system is tacked on, and the ecclesiastic system even worse. Players deal with autocrats with dependable rebellion, conversations between multiple NPCs are hard to run as a DM and unengaging for the players, and the support given by the skill system is unequal to the problem. Not to mention that the support given by the spell system is immoral and usually illegal!
This is odd, because introducing social structures would logically make everyone happier! Being a member of an organization means a source of quests when you’re questless, somewhere to sleep when you get to town, a place to start the quest that isn’t a tavern, information gathering, access to bowyer/fletchers and armorers, post roads and horses, banking, the list seems endless!
So: Feudalism for dummies, or “How to coopt your revolutionaries into the system”. The carrot is “access to chosen magical items”, the drover’s-whip is “possible enemies with access to chosen magical items”*. Below, find a discussion on the various ways in which one can participate in the feudal system.
The basic unit of feudalism is the vassal/lord exchange. The lord owns the land (from their lord, from their lord, from the king) and the villeins on it, and lends them to the vassal in exchange for the vassal’s service or money-in-lieu of service.
We are going to do two things: extend the same rule to magic items***, and we are going to simplify service down to the fee or at most an expenditure of downtime, because most PCs aren’t interested in dying offscreen during a war in Jersusalem.
For our purposes, though, let’s consider the feudal levels of Commoners, Knights, Nobles and Royals as separate entities.
Acquiring a title
These titles can be purchased outright. The cheap ones (knighthoods simple, baronetcies, and so forth) can be bought for money from barons, local to everywhere and always willing to trade. The more expensive ones require interacting with counts or dukes, traveling to their courts and becoming invested in the land. It carries with it the requirement to expend time and money in service to one’s liege, but gives access to title, privilege, and the royal lending library.
Max Purchase Rarity: Common
Anyone without a stronger feudal tie is a Commoner.
Title Value: 100gp
Minimum Required Lifestyle: Comfortable (2gp) or face expulsion
Duty: 50gp or 15 days downtime/year
Max Purchase Rarity: Uncommon
“Knight” has a lot of history behind it. It’s tied up with notions of chivalry unless they’re just mercenaries, it’s the same as the nobility unless it isn’t at all, it’s hereditary unless it isn’t, it’s got “orders” unless it’s a professional class, and so forth. It’s only slightly less generic than warrior.
Knights, befitting their unspecific definition, express vassalage to the crown but need not select a more specific lord. While during many historical periods a knight required a lord, for our purposes those are knights as well as being petty nobles.
The Knights we’ll consider as landless knights. PC knights likely have a very lightweight interaction with the crown, mostly owing scutage (money instead of service). Usually a knight is groomed from youth through a period of apprenticeship as a page, then a squire, before finally being dubbed a knight. This applies to martial knights as a class, but for our purpose we’ll say that this is a common mechanism but not a required one: the crown will sell knighthoods at the indicated rate, and the path through squire is used mostly by nobles hoping to train and employ their children usefully.
Advancement as a knight takes the form of recognition into orders of knighthood and advancement within them. Knights can also be drawn into the nobility, since they come to the attention of the crown.
Knights can be minted by any other knight or royal; technically nobles cannot nominate knights but often nobles have knighthoods themselves.
Knightly orders are resolved in the same ways as Guilds (if sponsored by the crown) or a Church (if sponsored by a church). Those details to follow.
The Nobles are any number of titles up to but not including the royal house itself. There are a dizzying array of them, but the thing that unifies them is the grant of land and a direct position of vassalage to an individual.
It is likely the case that only a royal may create a noble. In some periods subinfeudation was allowed, whereby a noble split their domain to create the noble. It’s also possible to assume the political title of nobility with none of the rights and responsibilities. Since the purpose of this is to tie players into the feudal system by giving them specific land (with tenants!) in exchange for magic items, you can bugger off with that. Crown only, get land.
For our purposes, we’ll say Nobles are divided into the ranks of Baronet, Barons, Viscounts and Counts (we’ll consider Dukes royal, even though that isn’t really accurate). Title costs are provided for a character to simply buy their way in to the title or for an equivalent wealth value as a reward.
In each case the amount of duty due the liege from the noble is a flat amount of coin or a block of downtime. The downtime is assumed to not be spent on dangerous tasks; even during wartime a liege will generally raise wealth instead of arms from PCs, though NPCs will generally provide service. A desperate liege might require duty multiple times in one year, inviting revolt; a generous one might waive a PC’s duty in gratitude for services rendered or provide additional incomes.
Title cost (from Crown): 1000 gp
Required personal domain: 2-5 square miles
Provided Lifestyle: Comfortable (2gp)
Duty: 50gp or 15 days downtime/year
Max purchase rarity: Uncommon
I just needed a term for a knight with land. Tadaa. The land generally is slightly less than sufficient to the needs of the crown, so the shortfall is made from the Baronet’s pocket. Other investments, rich resources, or other recurrent sources of wealth generally make up the shortfall for NPCs. This title doesn’t ACTUALLY make you a peer, and as a result it can be purchased from a Baron or higher trivially.
Baron (or Lord)
Title cost (from Crown): 10,000 gp
Required personal domain: 5-10 sq miles
Provided Lifestyle: Wealthy (4gp)
Duty: 100gp or 20 days downtime/year
Max purchase rarity: Rare
Barons are the most common non-working nobles. They generally support their vassals with advice and spare largess from their domain, but since they are expected to maintain a larger retinue than the Baronet are, they are likewise more likely to experience drains on their means and time. This is reflected in their higher duties; they often spend time solving problems through their domains, hearing legal cases, or rendering support to their liege.
Barons can be minted by Counts.
Viscount (also Lord or Shire-Reeve)
Title cost (from Crown): 100,000 gp
Required personal domain: 10-20 sq miles
Provided Lifestyle: Aristocratic (10gp)
Duty: 300gp or 30 days downtime/year
Max purchase rarity: Very rare
Becoming a viscount through investment outright is rare, but not unheard of. The incomes are clearly valuable, but the initial setup value is quite large, and by the time this much wealth is accrued, other options are often available. However, access to the goods of the nation is valuable.
Viscount’s duties often include executing the will of the crown in their region, travel at the behest of the king, or functionary duties in the capitol.
Viscounts absolutely require multiple vassal barons. Without them, you’re just a baron with a lot of land; this means becoming a viscount likely requires purchasing multiple baronies as well, even if the viscountcy was itself a gift.
Viscounts can by minted by counts.
Count (also Earl, Marquis or Margrave)
Title cost (from Crown): 1,000,000 gp
Required personal domain: 20-36 sq miles
Provided Lifestyle: Aristocratic (20gp)
Duty: 1200gp or 40 days downtime/year
Max purchase rarity: Legendary
Counts are the highest level of noble available to most PCs. Often trusted individuals in the court, their duties involve strategizing battle plans, making laws, or judging cases.
Counts can mint new barons and viscounts, but are themselves minted by dukes or royals.
Most of the time, this is our of reach of PCs. Sure, you might topple a throne and seize it for yourself, but you’re not a KING king, just the autocratic ruler of a monarchic state. Obviously.
The royal family are usually nobles as well. In particular, however, creating a new noble requires the assent of the crown — thus, of a royal. In addition, there are some noble titles so wedded to the state that they might as well be royal; new titles cannot be conferred nor new lands designed freely; there’s only one crown.
The royal category also, to a very loose extent, includes the functionaries of the royal household. These are generally nobles also, but additionally have the assigned duties.
* During an early draft of this document, a paragraph I couldn’t squeeze in wondered whether certain items in tombs were put there because they weren’t politically expedient, “burying the hatchet”. A great way to seal a peace treaty would be to bury your dead with their arms, and may the peace last so long as Regdar’s Needle lies beneath the dirt.
** You might consider disjoining item price from rarity; a quick table of adjusted prices is available in this thread.
*** Which means there’s a legal theory that the magic items are all owned by the Crown, by the grace of god. That’s… well, the PCs ain’t gonna like it, it’s not a very 20th century western property owning mindset!