za3k > archive > rich burlew's articles > the new world, part 5: Politics

The New World, Part 5a: Politics

by Rich Burlew - originally from

Time to start thinking about the historical and political distinctions of this new world. Since I have already decided on a Dark Ages style, I'll start by trying to nail down exactly what that means.

What I'm thinking about is setting the world in a Carolingian time period, drawing more from the time of Charlemagne than later feudalistic states like England and France. I did a little reading on Charlemagne, and I learned that he pretty much held his empire together with constant warfare. And I'm not talking about the threat of warfare; I mean the component barbarian groups were almost always in some level of revolt, requiring him to bring his armies in every few years to quell dissension.

I'm not sure I quite want that level of social upheaval in this world; it needs to be able to support independent adventuring, after all. That means that the civilization needs to be stable enough for the player characters to travel from town to town without getting pressed into someone's army or caught in the middle of an armed revolt. Looking a little deeper into the history book, I see that Charlemagne's empire was split up by his son and left to his three grandsons.

I'm starting to get an idea: a generation or two ago, there was a Charlemagne-esque leader who conquered much of the civilized world. During that time, there were indeed constant revolts, but eventually there was a form of stability forced on the world. His reign and the reign of his son cemented a sort of peace on the region, but a few years before the campaign setting's "starting point", the son died, splitting up his empire on his deathbed into three kingdoms. Those three kingdoms are fairly new and tensions are high; each of the three sons would like nothing more than to control the land of his two siblings. The nations themselves are varied based on what group were inhabiting the land before the empire was formed, and as a result has little loyalty to their king beyond what force of arms provides him. Nobles maintain their own armies, and scheme to seize lands away from the Three Kings.

However, due to the years under the rule of the empire, these lands share many common cultural traits. While they may squabble with each other, they are likely to come together when threatened by outside forces, like barbarian raiders or gnolls. It cuts both ways, though, as nobles from one kingdom may feel comfortable allying with those from another in plots against their king.

Each kingdom is human, with a large gnomish population. Gnomes have basically been absorbed into human civilization from ancient times; the two races are basically inseparable politically. Gnomes brought knowledge of magic to humans, while humans brought security and strength to the gnomes. Today, gnomes are almost like the priest class of Carolingian times; at once separate from human hereditary politics and yet undeniably involved with it. Gnomes are neither noble nor common, they are just…gnomes.

Obviously, social class is going to be a huge factor in this setting, which I think is cool. There is really no middle class for this time period; you are either a noble or a commoner, and commoners do not have much in the way of rights. Being a noble will be pretty easy and available to PCs, though. Still, this more authentic (and earlier) ideal will change the game in a lot of interesting ways. It will be more likely to that player characters will need a patron to support their efforts, whether that be a lord, a king, the church, or another organization.

Then of course I need to add in the Sun and Moon churches into the political landscape. Because they are equal and opposite, neither one should have the kind of dominant political power of the Catholic church in Carolingian times, but both are still major forces to be reckoned with. Each of the Three Kings has a bishop from each church as advisor, for example. The churches are more or less unified across the kingdoms as well, so the church can subtly keep the nations at peace through their influence. The churches will provide lots of the resources for certain characters, particularly those with clerical powers.

OK, so let's look at the major political units we have: three remnant kingdoms of the empire, the barely-controlled nobles that make up the baronies and counties of those kingdoms, a few odd states that managed to break away from the empire, two equal and opposed churches with various schemes to gain power for themselves, several human barbarian nations that were never conquered by the empire, a gnoll nation that would love to overrun them all, and a collection of unknown Trader ships that have no political affiliation. Sounds like we're starting to get a decent social system with lots of factions to struggle against one another.

But heck, let's add some more. The setting could definitely use some Viking influence; sure, the time frame isn't exactly right, but it is a fantasy. But we'll paint these Vikings not as heroic warriors, but as the Europeans saw them: murdering thieves who snuck into towns at night and pillaged. How about a group of islands in the north that was thus isolated from (and never conquered by) the empire? This makes them a nice unique culture with some evil tendencies and no central power structure or defined base of operations-perfect for adventurers to fight! I guess this sort of falls under the category of "barbarians," but I like the specific flavor thinking of them as Vikings affords me.

By the way, in case you haven't noticed, one of my favorite techniques is taking real-world material and twisting it before inserting it into my world. The fact is, aspects of the setting that are reminiscent of history ring more truly than anything made up out of whole cloth. After a few thousand years of human history, it's hard for an imaginary world to compete with the level of complexity of the real thing-so why not steal a little of that density of information? In particular, I find that looking to the real world helps me avoid accidentally writing the world's history to be too logical and organized. What I mean is, from a dispassionate point of view, splitting your nation up among your sons is a recipe for political disaster, but it happened. Studying the real world helps put me into the shoes of the men and women who shape my imaginary world and think about how they won't always (or even usually) make the best decisions.

On to our three kingdoms. If you've ever read King Lear, you know that Lear divided his kingdom up based on how much his daughters kissed his ass. (Maybe not the summary my high school English teacher would have gone with, but still.) I'm picturing a similar scene in this world; the old king, son of a much stronger man who conquered the whole continent, is dying. He calls his three sons-actually, make it two sons and a daughter-together to his bedroom, where he has the finest chart of the land that gnomes can draw. He asks them each to choose one of the empire's cities, which will be the new capital of their kindom.

The oldest son picks first; he's a greedy man, and so he picks a city near the mineral-rich mountains. He dreams of mining gold for his coffers and iron for his armies. The middle child, the daughter, chooses the largest port city, where The Traders bring their goods to sell. She schemes to gain political power over the others eventually, and thinks the large number of subjects and resources will aid her in that goal. The youngest child picks a small farming town, one so small that it's barely on the map. The other two children laugh at him, and the father scowls and questions such an odd choice. The youngest son replies that the town is at the heart of the richest farmland in the world, and will thereby ensure those he rules will have the best harvests. The dying king grants their requests, and the three kingdoms are formed.

Now, this story has a few purposes in my plan for the setting. It helps me define the natures of the three kingdoms, and easily telegraphs those to players reading about the setting for the first time. The youngest king is clearly the Lawful Good king, concerned with his subjects and interested in peace. The oldest king is the most belligerent, but rules rocky and difficult countryside. The daughter is most prone to intrigue; spies and assassins and manipulation are her tools. It also starts to suggest appropriate geography, as well as being an important part of the history. Other ideas will flow from this core story of the founding of the kingdoms; for example, I can now see that the youngest king's castle is still unfinished, as it is being built in a rural area. That's kind of an intriguing image, and very appropriate, as Dark Ages castles took years (if not decades) to finish.

OK, enough for now; there will be more decisions to be made on the subject of politics next installment.