In the beginning, being a “knight” simply meant that you had enough cash for a warhorse, decent equipment, and some combat training.
Money, however, tended to run in families. Human nature being what it is, the fact that you, your father, and your grandfathers, had all had more money then everybody else, was soon taken as proof that they were better then everybody else.
Unfortunately for egalitarian modernists, better education, more and better food, better training, better living conditions, better shelter, more warmth, less filth, and less backbreaking dawn-to-dusk work, lent an element of truth to such an assertion. It certainly meant that the rich had a near-monopoly on major military force – and therefore became the government by virtue of the ability to kill anybody who argued with them. “Nobility” by economic right.
Of course, from the beginning, there were individual “knights” who felt that they had “a duty” to the people they lorded it over. While the “code of chivalry” was honored more in the breach then by observance for quite some time, the “traditions” and “responsibilities” of a “true and chivalrous knight” became more and more popular with the nobility as increasing technology and prosperity made it less and less likely that they’d ever really be called on to risk their necks actually fulfilling them.
Eventually, of course, things were prosperous enough to simply train people for mounted combat as needed. The old nobility fell back on pure tradition for authority, while the actual combat duties fell to the professional Heavy Dragoons.
In gaming, Knights fall under any of several closely related categories;
- “Realistic”. This knight is a big tough fellow on a horse who’s family had enough wealth or connections to get him (or her in more egalitarian worlds) the best gear and training around. While they may be decent enough at heart, realistic knights tend to be quite aware that their real power and status depends on strictly enforcing their (numerous) social privileges and keeping everyone else from getting above their stations. The “Realistic” Knight later became the “fallen”, “black”, or otherwise “unworthy” villain of chivalric romances… Realistic knights are trained in the use of multiple forms of armor and a lot of weapons (preferring both to be as heavy as possible; chainmail for earlier settings and plate armor after it’s invented), are skilled in fighting while mounted, are tough and in good shape, and usually have a combat-trained horse and a fair selection of secondary skills and connections based on being raised as nobles. On the obligations side, they normally must uphold their noble status, keep up a rather expensive lifestyle, and package of gear and make occasional concessions to “honor” and to feudal requirements. Knights who renounce those obligations have a very hard time finding training, and are usually a lot less skilled.
- “Chivalric”. This is an idealized, and slightly larger-then- life, version of the realistic knight. Often known as “Arthurian” knights, these usually possess some (minor) special powers (and are inhumanely tough) as long as they’re sufficiently “pure of heart”. They’re invariably dressed in plate armor, even if it has yet to be invented in the setting. They will often use a “signature weapon”, commonly show enhanced characteristics compared to normal folks, and may own a special mount. They rarely, however, possess blatant magical powers. They tend to “pay” for those abilities with either strict adherence (often to the point of total idiocy) to the code of chivalry or by numerous ignoble personal faults and a bad reputation (for most of the “bad guys”).
- “Mystic”. This knightly variation starts getting seriously far-fetched. A mystic knight was trained and equipped by some sort of supernatural being, or by some mysterious ancient mentor, and now is on the loose with some special gear, some mysterious (and ill-understood) powers, a lack of familiarity with the world, no idea of who they really are – and with some sort of destiny, or great quest, bearing down on them like a freight train. Not all that reasonable perhaps – but a classic pattern reaching from Perseus to Luke Skywalker. To make a mystic knight, throw in some psychic or magical powers – whether simple boosts that come from a divine bloodline or mystical training or actual active powers. “Pay” for them with a mysterious past, being secretly manipulated by something, some (often unknown) enemies, naivete, and obligations to your mysterious teacher(s). Mystic knights will have a set of feudal obligations if they received conventional combat training as well. If not, reduce their resistance to injury; mystic knights generally aren’t as tough as other knights are.
- “Dragoon”. After effective cannon began making war an exercise in mass slaughter, rather then a contest of skill, maneuver, and capture, the increasing prosperity and technology of Northern Europe let the lower classes take over the combative functions of the knight – while the nobility retreated to officer’s roles. While fine armor was still fairly effective against hand weaponry, it was expensive and fairly useless against cannon. Thus dragoons generally still used armor, but it was a light, and relatively cheap, combination of the simpler unjointed pieces (breastplates, helmets, etc) and a variety of flexible materials (usually leather). While such light armor was less effective then plate armor or even chainmail, the combination came relatively close to the military ideal of one-size-fits-all – and had little effect on mobility. Dragoons usually employ gunpowder weapons with skill, even if they aren’t normally common in the setting, and are very good at scrounging up supplies (and alcohol and sexual companionship) – but they usually lack most of the social skills and connections – and feudal obligations – that come with noble rank. Those few nobles in this category tend to be “dashing cavaliers”.
- “Religious”. With the priesthood a common refuge of younger, combat-trained, noble sons, it is unsurprising that orders of religious knights put on an appearance as soon as the local churches accumulated enough secular wealth to support their own military forces – regardless of the fact that most socially-acceptable faiths have a somewhat pacifistic orientation. Of course, the times often virtually demanded that any organization with resources or influence resort to physical force to protect them – and it did provide a method for talented members of the lower classes to move up. A religious knight could come from any social background. Religious knights generally replace feudal obligations with an obligation to expend time and resources on the prayers, rituals, and causes appropriate to their faith, owing obedience to the orders of their superiors on pain of losing their status, and dedication to their faiths. On the other hand, they generally add in a thoroughgoing knowledge of religious doctrine and – in worlds that permit it – either a bit of magical ability and some innate protection against opposing supernatural forces (for the seriously clerical types), or a bit of magical / mystical martial arts training (thus creating eastern-style temple knights).
According to legends, the “Templars” had a definite mystic bent – and are still around as a secret society. In strict historical worlds eliminate the arcane powers of the religious knights in favor of skills – unless, of course, you’re simply representing someone who didn’t really belong in any kind of religious group; lots of people wound up in churches and temples who weren’t really suited for such an occupation.
- “Paladin”. A paladin was originally just an outstanding knight with a decent personality and reputation. In games, however, a paladin is a chosen champion of his or her faith. As such, they are imbued with a measure of divine power, giving them exceptional combat skills and limited mystic abilities. Like other religious knights, a paladin may arise from any social strata. Sadly, the paladin is subject to numerous limitations; they have massive obligations and duties as a primary champion of the faith, must adhere to the dictates of the faith or lose their special status and powers, are readily recognized, normally have – as divine representatives – to be exceptionally charismatic, strong, valiant, intelligent, etc – and must be truly dedicated to their faith.
This, of course, is why the classical AD&D Paladin had to be “lawful good”. They were “lawful” because living up to all those obligations, goals, and dictates required and organized commitment – and they were “good” because evil was pretty much defined as being selfish (what’s in it for ME?!) while neutrality was assumed to put “survival” at the top of their list of motivations (thus all animals were neutral). If you were selfish or simply put survival ahead of your dedication to your faith, then you could not be a divine champion. Ergo the only possible alignment for a divine champion was “Lawful Good” – and only lawful good gods were interested in having generic orders of divine champions. AD&D Paladins were thus more than a bit fanatical – and, like most fanatics, were very hard to live with.