A couple of months ago, I opened a history book for the first time since high school, and I realized I had no idea what a knight was. I imaged them as noble warriors who lived by a strict code of conduct and defended the weak from tyranny and oppression. The reality, however, wasn’t as glamourous…
In this article, I’m going to talk about knights and nobles. I’ll explain what they were, how to include them in your Dungeons and Dragons world, and what the latter implies. Hopefully, it will also mean the beginning of many fun adventures you never thought were possible.
The Tiny Kings
For most of the Middles Ages, when a king wanted to reward one of his warriors for his valor in combat, he would make him a knight and let him rule over a portion of his kingdom. On their land, knights could raise taxes, make their own laws (to some extent), and exercised justice. They also possessed an army to defend it.
The kings’ favorite warriors could also award a parcel of their domain to their subordinates and make them knights. The person receiving the land was the vassal, and the one granting the land was the liege. These rulers, named nobles, controlled a territory, which was their manor or fief.
This system ensured that every town and village had someone to protect it from bandits and “barbarian” invasions, but it also had problems of its own. Nobles mostly lived to fight, and they often went to war with each other. During most of the Middle Ages, the kings didn’t have the military power to keep their knights in check, and the nobles were the de facto kings of their own small country.
The kingdoms of your D&D world face far greater threats than bandits and “barbarians”, and the rulers of your world most assuredly have people to protect their land. Since Dungeons and Dragons draws its inspiration from Medieval Europe, nobles are the natural candidates for the job.
The extent of the nobles’ power depends on how powerful the king’s personal army is. Fortunately, this isn’t a piece of information you normally find, even in published settings, which means you get to decide who holds the power in your game world.
For example, if your Forgotten Realms book says that the kingdom of Cormyr has an army twenty thousand men strong, you can decide whether Suzail, the capital, has one thousand men to defend it, or ten thousand. In the former case, the king is powerless and the nobles can do whatever they want; in the latter, the king is all-powerful, and his or her knights are nothing more than officials.
This Means War!
I always wanted to have my PCs overthrow an evil prince like in Robin Hood, or play a central role in a war. Unfortunately, my friends and I mostly played in the Forgotten Realms, and ridding the world of Fzoul Chembryl or going to war with Hillsfar wasn’t exactly something we could do at the levels we played. It turns out we could have run these adventures all along!
The good thing about having that many “countries” in your game world is that you have a nearly unlimited supply of protagonists to replay your favorite war adventures and revolts. You don’t need entire nations to fight each other, and you can scale the nature of the threat to the level of your PCs. A revolt can be as simple as helping a village get rid of an evil baron and his half-orc lackeys, and a war can be between two small towns, and offer a suitable challenge for your mid-level characters.
Adventurers for Hire
Strong independent towns and regions also creates the need for adventurers. Local rulers don’t feel like they belong to a larger nation, and view each other as allies or foes, in the same way modern countries do with each other. This means that a noble might be reluctant to ask for his neighbor’s help.
If you’re having trouble explaining why a town or region has to deal alone with a horde of orcs or a revolt, you can use any of the reasons below.
- Stay Out. Countries normally don’t want outside help. Most rulers see it as a sign of weakness and insist on dealing with their own problems. By the time they ask for help, it’s usually too late.
- Not Worth It. Intervening in the affairs of another country has a monetary or human price that most rulers don’t want to pay. In many cases, countries only help each other when there’s something to gain.
- Thank God. The other rulers might even be happy if something bad happens to their neighbors. They might have been waiting for such an opportunity to start a war or get rid of an unlawful vassal.
- Too Dangerous. If another ruler wants to intervene, the regional balance of power might not let him. Even a king might trigger a foreign invasion if he sends troops to stop a war between his barons.