What Level is the King?

James of Grognardia published a post earlier this week wondering what level a king might be and if they had to be a high level character. He makes a good point. Many rulers, particularly in a sophisticated empire with rulership that is inherited, would not be involved in the activities D&D rewards with experience. In old school D&D experience points and levels are achieved by acquisition of treasure and the slaying of monsters. The ruler of a highly sophisticated culture, would not be doing those sorts of things and therefore, wouldn’t be gaining experience or be high level.

At the end of the post James asks, “Have you come up with a way to deal with it or is it something you don’t worry about in your own games?”

I was thinking through a comment and it ended up being long enough to warrant turning into a blog post so here it is.

I have a hard time imagining a ruler in a D&D world not having a fairly high level. There are just too many threats for such a ruler to keep their position for long. Most likely, they ‘d be dead soon after taking the throne unless they had substantial protection. In my current Swords and Wizardry campaign, all rulers are over 10th level and several are in the high teens.

Many historical pre-modern kings and rulers were well known as warriors. At least in human history, violence has been a most effective tool for acquiring and gaining power. Being knowledgeable and skillful in the application of violence was frequently a prerequisite for acquiring and maintaining one’s position on a throne. Notable examples of warrior kings would include Alexander the Great, Penda of Wessex, the Spartan kings, Henry V, Genghis Khan and his sons.

Der Weisskunig (The White King): How the French King made war on the King of Feuerisen in his realm and how the King of Feuereisen died in the battle, 1512–16. Hans Burgkmair (German, 1473-1531). Woodcut; sheet: 22.1 x 19.7 cm (8 11/16 x 7 3/4 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art

Harold Hardrada is a particularly good example. He fought his first battle at the age of 15. That particular battle went badly and he had to run away and seek refuge. This event launched him on a life of adventure. He traveled and fought as a mercenary, amassed a large fortune and a warband willing to back him in his bid to become king of Norway. He met his end at the Battle of Stamford Bridge against the king Harold Godwinson, who likewise met his end a few weeks later at the Battle of Hastings.

In certain cultures, like the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, kings were elected by the leading men or earls who were themselves warriors. A king who couldn’t fight, or at least command warriors wasn’t going be chosen by the earls. The examples I’ve given so far were of people who had to take their kingship which wouldn’t necessarily apply to a ruler who acquired their throne by inheritance. There were a lot of kings who inherited the throne but that inheritance was no guarantee of keeping it. Being able to fight and command were critical skills.

No matter the pretext, the founders of even most the most decadent dynasty got the job through violence. Their descendants were expected to, at minimum, put on a show of looking like a warrior. Unless an empire had become incredibly decadent, those in line for the throne would need some basic understanding of warfare. The heirs had the best teachers available to train them in fighting and generalship.

In our history, one of the most popular past times of nobility has been hunting. In a world that has monsters, nobility likely spend some time hunting monsters. Here we would get a king, who over a lifetime of hunting minor monsters and dangerous animals (aurox, bears, boars, wolves) is going to get some experience points.

Maharao Ram Singh II of Kota (r. 1828–66) Hunting Buffalo, 1832. Cleveland Museum of Art

Between their training in childhood and their hunting; a ruler would have at least a few levels as a fighter. That wouldn’t make them “name” level characters but at least they would have a few more hit points than the village baker. Let’s assume for whatever reason someone who isn’t trained in war and doesn’t hunt monsters or dangerous animals becomes the ruler in a the context of a D&D world.

In a D&D context, there would have to be a lot of institutions in place to protect the ruler. As far as physical stats go, they’d be barely more capable than a peasant, maybe less as they are not used to hard labor. Soft living makes for a soft person. In my campaigns, NPC’s are just as clever as the PC’s. Taking into account the existence of wizards, magic devices, poison, and monsters; A ruler will have to be capable of self defense or have a number of capable guardians and powerful magical defenses.

When an assassin who is invisible and silent, can climb a wall like a spider, fly through a window or teleport into the king’s bedchamber and stab him with an enchanted weapon there has to be a layered and robust defense involving a lot of guards, wizards and clerics. A relatively high level wizard can send a couple invisible stalkers out and call it a day without even risking himself. If you have a ruler with ten hit points, they better have some serious protections or their enemies are going to easily deal with them. You wouldn’t even need high level magic to create problems. The first level spell charm person would be a problem in a kingdom with a low level ruler.

Even with low hit points a ruler might still be difficult to kill. Besides having capable body guards, their wealth and influence would mean having the best available protective magic devices. Their regalia would likely have some sort of magical enchantment. They may have protective spells cast on them by the court wizard (assuming they have such a thing). Various protections from poison, scrying, and targeted spells would be active continuously in order to protect the august personage. Vigilance would be key.

Isfandiyar slays Arjasp, the king of Turan, from a Shah-nama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi (Persian, about 934–1020), 1600-1605. Haidar Kashmiri (Indian, active late 1500s-early 1600s). Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper, text on verso; page: 36.7 x 24.4 cm (14 7/16 x 9 5/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art

A genteel ruler that did not have a lot of levels would have other mechanical characteristics a DM would want to note. A higher INT, WIS or CHA would be warranted. A ruler in a sophisticated society would be highly educated and trained as a courtier and diplomat. They would be able to read and speak several languages. If you are running a newer edition of D&D or use some sort of skill system, the DM’s skill selection would take that kind of training into account. Again, there would also likely be magic items that would enhance skills they have or compensate for ones they don’t.

Another way a ruler could have power is as a direct conduit of divine power. Many real world cultures have had traditions in which the ruler was a descendent of a god or goddess. In a world where gods are directly intervening in the affairs of mortals, a family line descended from the gods would be likely. This may give the ruler abilities or even invulnerabilities that normal mortals do not have, further increasing their potency as a ruler. This may be how you get around the problem of a ruler lacking combat skill. If they are invulnerable to non-magical weapons, certain kinds of magical attacks or have a general magic resistance then they would be able to survive assassination attempts more readily.

I don’t think I would make a low level ruler the norm in my campaigns but one who is might create some interesting situations for players to deal with. Maybe they become the emperor’s protectors or have to find out who did kill a low level emperor or get involved in a succession struggle. There are a lot of different ways you could approach it. I hope some of my suggestions here have spurred your creativity and you can use them in your own campaigns.

2 thoughts on “What Level is the King?

  1. Good article, and excellent food for thought.

    I would imagine that there would be a different sort of Experience Point system for NPCs involved in these sorts of non-combat occupations. Debate, planning & executing plots, negotiating trade agreements and treaties of various sorts are XP-worthy activities that come to mind.

    Second, there is the concept of getting XP for GP that involves “returning the GP to civilization and then actually spending it” before the XP will accrue. As a ruler would have access to, theoretically, treasure-vault amounts of gold, they could earn XP by spending/investing that gold in civic programs, state-funded construction projects, hiring experts in various fields for assistance with farming/architecture/ship-building, etc.

    There is also the historical example of sons being “traded” (as hostages, almost) with those of the nobility for martial training outside their own household. A prince might to to live with a Baron that is a high-level fighter and renowned general for advanced-level instruction in warfare, tactics, logistics, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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