In D&D and related games, there’s a somewhat unusual problem that pops up every now and then:
- Adventurers most commonly gain strength by going out into the wilderness and defeating monsters. The standard pattern is “kill things; take their stuff.”
- Members of the nobility spend most of their time at home, ruling, and never seem to go on adventures or defeat monsters; it stands to reason that they are not personally very powerful.
- So… what is there to prevent a party of adventurers from killing kings and taking their stuff?
There are a number of possible answers, from the blunt (kings are powerful and hard to defeat because I said so) to the boring (the best way to become stronger is actually through controlled training with a master-of-arms, not mucking about in dungeons on the hunt for orcs or dragons to slay, so kings tend to be powerful warriors) to the delicate (kings know they could be murdered at any time, and tend to surround themselves with bodyguards, rituals, and other security) to the Machiavellian-but-unrealistic (all the fragile kings have already been overthrown, meaning all living rulers are actually powerful former adventurers) to the historical (usurpers tend to find themselves unpopular, and on the wrong side of armed rebellions).
What I want to suggest today — the idea that got me out of bed in the middle of the night to write — is another solution that taps more directly into fantasy-gaming conventions.
My inspiration was HBO’s Game of Thrones series (disclaimer: I haven’t read the books, and may well have misinterpreted Martin’s world-building. C’est la vie.) I was struck by the Starks, Targaryens, and Greyjoy families in particular, and by other aspects of the world as it is shown and told to us:
- The Starks keep wolves as pets, and after his injury Bran dreams of wearing a wolf’s body. Robb Stark is called “the young wolf.” They worship “the old gods,” although the exact implications of this aren’t clear.
- The Targaryens are said to have historically commanded dragons. Viserys Targaryen refers to himself as “THE DRAGON!!1!”, while his sister Daenerys is genuinely immune to fire and forms a bond with dragon hatchlings.
- I think I read somewhere online that the Greyjoys also worship one of the “old gods,” a dead god of the sea (not Cthulhu, alas), and ritually “baptize” themselves through drowning and resuscitation.
- Magic is portrayed as returning to the world after a long absence. What (if anything) this has to do with the looming capital-W Winter, with the birth of new dragons into the world, etc. I’m not sure, but what is certain is that magic once existed in the world, has in some part been lost, and is resurgent during the story; I imagine a storyline in which the noble houses, during their struggle for dominance, find and are forced to use their supernatural abilities. It would be interesting, if that’s the actual arc of things, to see whether the Lannisters have any actual power aside from “filthy rich.”
The idea that sprang up in my mind very early on was that each of the noble families is “in charge” specifically because they have some special power. The Starks, to me, are obviously werewolves. And probably not “cursed to change during the full moon,” either: the kind that can change when they want into especially large and intelligent wolves, communicate with and command normal wolves, and perhaps enjoy some sort of immunity to weapons not made of silver or the like. The Targaryens have dragon essence in them, giving them similar communion with dragons and various other gifts as well. The drowned-and-reborn islanders are perhaps living zombies, unable to be slain unless some magical condition is met (say, forcing them to drink salt water, which is after all what killed them the first time around).
A nice nod in all this to real-world royal politics lies in the “old gods” — what if the royal houses of Game of Thrones got their powers from the gods themselves? Perhaps each family has its own patron deity, and their powers reflect the god’s associations: a wolf-god gives wolf-gifts, a sea-god gives sea-gifts, etc. A much more concrete display of divine favor than the real-world “divine right” or “celestial mandate,” and perhaps requiring a special ritual, like a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation but even less pleasant, to become effective.
The application to your friendly neighborhood D&D campaign is simple. Noble X holds the title not just because of wealth, or connections, or even a relatively familiar trope such as magical powers (your good old witch-king or mageocracy, although they tend to rule exotic foreign realms in a lot of campaign settings). No, this guy has a hard-core fantasy superpower, which at its tamest means being able to command monsters. They’re still killable, of course; everything in D&D is killable if you’re powerful enough and lay your plans well enough. But most adventuring parties will at least be given pause in their murder spree if they know that almost all nobles, and especially royalty, are liable to have a nasty ace or two up their sleeves.
My use of the term “superpower” above wasn’t casual, either; you can mine comic-book superheroes for ideas for the secret powers that keep royal bloodlines royal.
- Lots of money plus super ninja training (Batman)
- Invulnerable to harm except in the presence of a special material or token (Superman)
- Echolocation plus also I guess super ninja training (Daredevil)
- Super-speed (The Flash)
- Can shape-change into something smashy and hard to hurt (The Hulk)
- Able to be on fire at will and obviously immune to fire (The Human Torch)
- Can shoot friggin’ laser beams out of his eyes (Cyclops)
- …etc, There are probably thousands. Have fun!