You may have seen recently how one of our readers challenged us to write about “titles, ranks, and the organization of everything”. Why? because it is hugely difficult to understand the noble progressions, along with the military rank progressions, and somehow fit it into a fantasy world that includes clerics and warlocks. You know why it is hugely confusing and difficult? Because there are no two cultures in the world that are exactly the same.
Yeah, it gets worse! Over the span of time, titles and ranks don’t always mean the same thing even within the same culture. Want an example? Compare the monarchs of England. Compare King Richard to King John (brothers and vastly different powers). Now compare either of those to Queen Elizabeth I to Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II. Different times, and King/Queen mean completely different things! They may not have different definitions, but they are certainly different roles with different powers.
Now try to throw the rest of it in there. But the truth is vastly worse than you know. Try to understand the USA political landscape, when people like Valerie Jarrett and Sylvia Mathews Burwell exist. When titles get into the Senior Aide to the Deputy Chief of Staff (I made that up, but there are vastly worse ones out there), you don’t have a chance of figuring out what is really going on!
So what do you do as a world builder? Well, you can take a few different approaches. Here are a couple:
- Try to create a stacked hierarchy for the various governmental bodies in your world. Determine what each title means (generally), along the lines of: Lord owns one castle and up to a square mile of land; Baron owns at least one castle and up to 10 square miles; Duke has more than one castle and up to 100 square miles of land. The problem with this is that it is never that easy. Whether you wind up with individuals who have multiple titles or just because the king knows that his word is law and he can change the rules whenever he wants, it won’t work out in end. Too rigid!
- Try to rank individual people according to their political clout. This is what we tried to do in our book Royalty - We included a “Power” rating to represent how much influence each character had, mainly over Baron Forsbury but also in general - in the public understanding. The way we did this wasn’t intended to be used as a die roll target, but instead to rank the people as to whom the Baron was more likely to listen to. But in order to do something like this, you do need to have an understanding of the characters involved.
So how does it work in Royalty? When I first started to flesh out Baron Forsbury (like 20-25 years ago), one of the first things I did was make sure that he had gone off to war in the past. I then put together his squad including his closest personal friend (who was of no use at war), the veteran charged with keeping him alive, the kid intended to be his “squire”, and some others. Guess who has really low level titles, but a whole lot of influence? You guessed right - the guys he went off to war with. Quicker than he would take advice from another Baron or nobleman, he’s going to listen to the counsel of these men, each of whom he has kept close.
Let’s get into another fun little role-playing thing I did during a campaign. Let me let the cat out of the bag on Royalty: more than one character in that book is/was a player character. Hints: Not Edward and not Roberto. OK moving on ... When Caitlin and Edward were planning to get married, one of the things they needed to do was prove that Caitlin was a noblewoman. So a small group traveled to Purity and then on to her family’s lands quite a bit outside the city. When her family heard she was going to marry a baron, they felt they need to support her financially. You see, while the Barony of Forsbury is 70 miles by 45 miles, a barony in Purity is maybe 5% of that size (one of the ones controlled by the Countess Davies is 120 sq. miles of hill country). So in the Central Plains, one of the baronies of the Council of Baronies is huge, while it is far more moderate in the Tandish Lowlands. Honestly, each self-governed land calls itself anything it wants. We’re getting ready to release a supplement all about the Kingdom of Birrowdaum - yep, a kingdom that is about 14x8, so right in line with a Tandish barony. So King MacBirrow sits reasonably close to Baron Forsbury and yet controls 3.5% of the land.
So what is the point of a title? Not very much to be honest. I happen to know a guy who went from being an Assistant Vice President at a bank to an Accounting Supervisor at a major company. HUGE pay raise, huge cut in title. At a bank, titles are a dime a dozen, just like “kingships” are in the Greenlands.
So do we think you should figure out which is more important High Priest or Duke, Guildmaster or Clanmaster? No. Because depending on who holds those titles and who is the real boss of the land, it will change. It will probably change from generation to generation. It will probably change under the same ruler. Want history - check out how often the pendulum swung from side to side during Henry VIII’s reign. Best friend today - chopping block tomorrow, no matter what your title was.
The history of our Earth typically has feudal titles that sort of make sense. A Baronet reports to a Baron who reports to a Count who reports to a Duke who reports to a King. There is nothing wrong with using a system that works like that. But is a Baron with a personal relationship to the King more important and politically powerful than a Count who rules over swamp lands that have nothing but fishermen and shepherds. That is something you’ll have to figure out for your world.