5th Edition,  D&D,  DMXP,  Other Games,  RPG,  World Building

From The Ground Up – Feudal Society pt2 – Structure

Last time, I talked about what a feudal society was made up of, and it took so long, I wanted to start a second part on how it is all put together, and how you can adapt it to an adventure. 

The Feudal society is part of many standard fantasy worlds, and holds a lot of traditional baggage with it. There are many ways the monarch can rule, and many ways that the subtle layers can form. Based on the components from the previous article, we can start deconstructing them and putting back into place what makes sense from a fantasy world, and a world perspective, of a game. 

Structural Integrity

The Monarch is the head of a feudal society, and the font from which all of the worldly blessings flow. The Monarch, however, has to pay strict attention to the way the clergy views him, or else he may be cast out from the basic structure of the society by the church, and the pope. 

This presents us an interesting dynamic withing the power structure, and something I often find missing in many fantastic settings, that of the Church. This often comes about because religion is a hard topic for many, and some don’t want to bring it into their fantasy games. I understand that. However, if the group is ready to engage in imaginary religions, how they work and where they belong, then feel free to start adding it.

Adding a known pantheon, though, is harder than simply adding a monotheist religion. I’ll go deeper when I talk about the divine right of kings in its own article, but  I find that creating at least one god that backs a given kingdom or monarchy. Its a strong tie in to both historical and game contexts, and gives the monarchy a much more realistic feel than simply having them be the strongest, or the lineage that has existed for ages. Both of those are good and time tested methods of rulership, but they often will seem bland compared to more mystical or realistic forms of leadership 

With a god backing the king and the king backing the nobles, it creates a strong synergistic relationship that creates a feedback loop that is hard for common people to break. This loop is important, no matter how you decide to create it, and will define how your kingdom function. The tensions between the two forces, combined with how they join together to keep everyone else out of the loop . Mages, Druids, Monsters or even different races can both combine in order to create an interesting dynamism between themselves and the standard monarchy. 

Keeping along this theme, there are also tensions in the lower level ranks of nobility. Everyone under the Dukes are vying for power, prestige and land, even among themselves. Often, this could lead to Intrakingdom conflicts and while it was uncommon for war to break out, raiding, fighting, and battles could, and would, erupt between the local lesser lords. This second level of conflict would serve as further pressure to keep the locals peasants under control. infighting wasn’t unheard of, and many of the lords and ladies of the time were just as ambitious and scheming as you would imagine. Much like everyone wants to be rock gods and movie stars today, the ambitions in those times were toward the crown and its closest court, and often the only way to achieve that, was through violence and war. 

Dark Days

While the nobles bickered over land and squabbled over inheritances and titles, the lesser nobility and the common folk often suffered a rough lot in life, though not one completely under the thumb. Many peasants, tied to the land though they were, lived adequate lives. They fell in love, raised a family, and suffered loss. It wasn’t grand and surely wasn’t something that was to be romanticized, but they got by. They were often able to sell the extra that they produced from their lords land – what wasn’t required as tithe, tax and sustinance – for a bit of money to use at the lords mill to grind the grain, or on an extra helping of pudding on a holiday. Sure, they were tied to the land by taxes and by law, forced to work for what the lord needed, treated as part of the land for deed and title, as well as conquest. They might also be required, by the laws of the land and the force of the lord, to work as a lumberjack, miner or on the lords highway. They couldn’t move without the consent of both lords – that which they were abandoning and that which they were moving to. 

Again, we have a dynamic relationship that keeps the status quo. As long as the lord that the serf belongs to isn’t to tyranical or maniacal, its likely that the serfs will stay. With a solid roof over their head and the right to farm the land they live on, they risked being pulled off to the mines – something that most often was the sentence for criminals and vagabonds – and had to submit to working the lords land for a short time each year. It is no wonder that many stories don’t include serfs and peasants. They are boring and not particularly adventuresome. The cities are much more vibrant, even if it is a million shades of dirt, and more susceptible to grand stories. 

Kingdoms revisited

When creating serfs and peasants for a fantastic fiefdom or world, consider making them more personable while still creating a relationship that is oppresive. Elven lords ruling the human serfs, or Mages who take pity on a halfling peasantry are much more intriguing that a single, monopic and often flawed version of the kingdom. Combining that with the dual layers of lordship and rulership will create a much stronger semblance of the tensions of a feudal realm.

A Dwarven Queen, a hundred of years old, ruling a land of Humans and halflings. The land harbors many Colleges of Mages, who are advisors and council to the lords and ladies of the realm, their power in both magic and in the lands that they have owned for decades stronger than the Queen wishes to challenge. The Mages provide for the subjects with free, necessary magics performed for the good of the people, creating a strong tie between the Colleges and the peasants, but the peasants still distrust the mages for their arts are thought to have been originally derived from a pact with a great demon, and the presence of tieflings and half demons among their ranks has done little to quell the rumors.

This is a much more interesting kingdom, with a much more fantastic bent, than your standard human monarch ruling over a human kingdom with bits of elves and other races interspersed. We are humans, all of us, and we tend to look at things in an extremely humanocentric way. Ina land with real gods, Fay creatures from beyond the realm of human understanding, and dragons taking to the skies, humans, are going to have made their way, co-mingling with other races and peoples.

Another interesting thing to take into account, is that nobles of various countries would often intermarry. A Dutchess of one country, with a sizeable grant of land, would marry a prince in another, granting her land in both countries. This could easily be used in a fantasy world. A Human bloodline in a house of elves, owning land because centuries ago an elf fell for a human. The same could happen across many lands. A Noble Dwarf fighter is granted a title, nobility and land in a kingdom for their service to the crown, and this section of land retained its heritage for generations. Taking this even further, a single elf could be granted lordship over a human demesne and spend centuries as its sole owner and leige as generations of monarchs rise, age, die and are replaced. 

Thanks for taking this look at feudalism with me! till next time!