RPG Design – The Magical Ruler

    A stone rolls underfoot, and an opponent’s potentially-lethal lunge turns into a harmless stumble before he is swept away by the tide of battle.

   The experienced commander falls while inspecting the walls and breaks a leg, disheartening the fighters who will soon be defending those walls and throwing the field decisions back upon a green lieutenant.

   A momentary parting in the clouds lets a sunbeam momentarily sparkle before an opponents eyes, briefly dazzling him. For a brief – and fatal – moment he cannot see your strike to defend himself against it.

   Today that would be “oops!”, or “bad luck!”, or “the odds catch up with everyone eventually!”.

   That isn’t the way most people through history would have seen it. For them, what we would see as “random chance” was the constant intervention of supernatural powers; that sunbeam a blatant sign of supernatural favor or wrath. Had not your opponent been given into your hand?

   Most RPG’s tend to subtly reinforce the modern viewpoint. After all, despite the various jokes about bizarre ways to make your dice roll the way you want, I have yet to encounter a player who really believed that any serious magical forces were acting on their dice. Characters succeed or fail according to their decisions and abilities within the setting as they interact with the random results of the dice. The closest thing to the classical notion of “divine intervention” in most role-playing games is when the game master manipulates events – and that, at least in principle, shouldn’t be in favor of a particular character.

   That’s why the notion of “ruling by divine right” is difficult for most people to understand these days. The logic behind it was actually pretty simple:

  • It’s blatantly obvious that supernatural powers intervene constantly, albeit in subtle ways.
  • Everyone knows that lots of people want to achieve high ranks, but very few actually do so.
  • Anyone who does so, thus obviously has the subtle backing of those supernatural powers – of the local God or Gods – and whether those entities are good or evil powers doesn’t really matter a lot. They’re GODS. The person in charge is necessarily the one that they WANT to have in charge.
  • Defying the commands of a ruler is thus defiance to the will of God or the Gods – who have raised the person who will issue the commands they want to rule – and should thus be punished as both treason to the state, blasphemy against the gods, and an offence against the natural order that puts the entire realm at risk.
  • On the other hand, if you successfully rebel, you’ve just proven that the Great Powers no longer want the old ruler in charge; they want YOU – and the previous ruler must have lost the favor of those greater powers, and some truly gruesome punishment for him or her is in order to appease their wrath.

   It wasn’t that “Might makes Right”. It was that “Right” – the will of the gods – was enough Might to overcome any mortal opposition. No man could succeed if fortune was against him. The Great Powers were not to be denied. For the devout, whatever wound up happening was necessarily in accordance with their will – and the best that any mortal man could do was to try and divine the will of the powers and go along with it gracefully.

   When you didn’t understand the causes behind the caprices of the world and the mathematics of coincidence, that was a perfectly reasonable way to see things.

   Later on – albeit still in prehistory – that notion was developed a little further. The chieftain was often a strong and clever man to begin with. As chief, he tended to get the best food, more rest, better living conditions, the best gear, and many other small advantages. He was better groomed, generally healthier, and succeeded more often. He was offered advice and time for consideration. Many of those benefits even extended to his family.

   As usual when the causes were numerous, subtle, long-term, and ill-understood, cause and effect tended to become confused. The way in which the attentions of a body servant and the impressive tokens of rulership could change the impression someone produced confused things even more.

   It was plain to see that becoming a Chieftain conveyed nobility, wisdom, and health – and that a bit of that health extended to those in contact with the Chieftain. The notions that social offices bestowed special powers, and of the health-bestowing touch of the Chieftain, entered the human lexicon.

   About the time that the Pharaohs started ruling Egypt that notion developed a little further: it was obvious that the priests (or shamans or whatever the local title was), had some influence with the Powers. That, after all, was their job. To believe otherwise was to believe that men had little or no influence over many elements critical to their lives, and that was unbearable.

   But as the areas to be governed started to spread, the old methods of establishing authority ceased to work. A single man might govern a small tribe by personal presence, and a cluster of tribes by reputation – but that made succession problematic and soon reached its limits. Something new was needed to bind people together.

   Formal religions and priesthoods were a durable answer. A common system of beliefs could hold large areas together – and when the priests became involved in formally confirming a ruler, it placed the authority of the invisible powers behind him or her. Now it didn’t matter if a ruler was “born to rule” or not; power and authority, often over both the seen and unseen, descended upon their brow with their crown. They were anointed and appointed by God or by the Gods, given power and authority to organize the world according to the dictates of the higher powers.

   They were BETTER than other people,. They were granted wisdom, and a link with the land, and the power of command. In many places they were seen as the intermediaries between the unseen world and humanity – embodiments of the land and people. Thus, for example, when the Pharaoh ascended into immortality, he would carry his entire nation with him.

   Of course, when a rulers authority was partially drawn from a faith, that meant that the state needed to support and defend that faith – a system of unifying temporal and religious power that worked so well that it would be an enduring way of organizing humanity for thousands of years.

   Sadly, most rulers – however “divinely appointed” – seemed to fall afoul of all the usual human errors. Apparently all that divine wisdom and approval didn’t do a thing for their personal lives. Of course, countries that paid too much attention to that tended to fall into civil war, lost their religious bonds with the government they had been entwined with, and – frequently – were swallowed up and destroyed by neighboring states that had not been so foolish.

   Eventually, of course, new ways of organizing humanity were invented. Philosophical systems, ideas like “rights”, constitutions, corporations, and more – and nations could begin to acknowledge the flaws in the system of “Kingship by Divine Right” without falling apart.

   Still, like most things that endure for lengthy periods, as a social construct and system of government, the Divine Right of Kings WORKED.

   Of course, if you want it to work in a game, despite the modern sensibilities of the players, you’re going to have to take some special measures so that it actually does work. Next time around, I’ll put up something for those.

2 Responses

  1. This is an excellent and thought-provoking post, and tells you a lot about the psychology of ruling under this system – I can’t wait to see part two.

  2. Well, I’m glad you liked it – and part II is now up (although it looks like a part III will be necessary to finish up).

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