For Dungeon Masters: Gaming in a world with nobility has a lot of potential for excellent roleplay for your players. If you rarely utilize these special NPC’s on a more detailed level, hopefully this article can give you some oomph to the NPC roleplay.
For Players: This article might help you out on how to roleplay your character when dealing with nobility and court situations. Hopefully for the positive.
When dealing with nobility and court settings, players can sometimes skip the roleplay aspect and jump straight to behavior such as, "I bow, greet all in the court, and ask the duke for his assistance." While in most scenarios this type of action is sufficient, taking it a step further can enhance gameplay (or maybe even manipulate a plotline).
This article’s intention is to teach the basics of courtly behavior among the nobility. The more players/characters that understand courtly etiquette, the more pleasant the NPC/nobles will be by the smooth running of their courts, and the happier the populace will be as they become capable of having themselves heard and understood in court.
How many plotlines or quests has a DM or player dealt with that was nobility driven?
Playing the courtly "Game" requires learning the rules. These vary from locale to locale but some things remain consistent.
- Know the ranking (and your character’s place in it)
- Respect the ranking, even if you do not like a ranking individual.
- Behave appropriately to and around the ranking. Rank (and respect of it) is essential in courtly behavior.
The most important step is listed first: knowing the ranking. Above the commoners are the Gentry, Nobility, and Royalty. These are not interchangeable terms; they all mean something different.
The Gentry typically are not truly noble. They are between the nobles and the commoners. This status varies a great deal from place to place, but usually it includes knights and Baronets, which is a title of hereditary knighthood. Nobility usually includes such titles as Lords, Barons, Viscounts, Counts, and Dukes which have mentioned in order from least important to most important.
Also, if someone is born into a noble family, they are noble whether they have a title or not. However, until they do gain a title, they are of the lowest rank of nobility. Royalty is a term for the family of the reigning monarch: Kings, Queens, Princes, etc. Many people confuse nobility and royalty. Nobles generally are not Royal, although Royals are Noble.
There is a great deal of intricate etiquette in ways to address people of each rank.
If your character wants to be safe, then refer to anybody above the rank of knight as "My Lord or Lady." It shows that your character does not know exactly what to say but are trying to be polite.
If your character knows that the NPC has a noble title of some sort, then it is safe in calling almost any of them "Your Excellency." This is a slightly more educated general term, but it is not correct for untitled nobility, or Lordships. Still, it is better to overestimate someone’s rank than to underestimate it.
However, just getting by is not the way to impress people at court. It will keep your character from looking rude but it will not show that your character knows very much. If you can, it is better to use the exact honorific when addressing a noble.
Here is a list of the most common honorifics:
- Knight,Baronet: "Sir" or "Dame"
- Untitled Nobles: "My Lord or Lady"
- Lordships: "Your Lordship or Ladyship"
- Barons, Viscounts, Counts: "Your Excellency"
- Dukes: "Your Grace"
- Princes or Princesses who will not inherit: "Your Highness."
- Crown Prince or Princess in line for the Throne: "Your Royal Highness"
- Hereditary Prince or Princess who rules a Principality: "Your Royal Highness"
- King or Queen: "Your Majesty"
Never refer to a noble by just their first name, such as "Hey, Alannen." It is like saying they are a common person with no title. If it is felt that your character did this intentionally, your character could be called to a duel over a slight to the noble’s honor, or brought up on charges depending on the laws of the land. At the very least, it will make your character look like an ignorant peasant which in some cases you may choose based on the style of roleplay.
Even amongst themselves and in their own families, nobles tend to refer to themselves by title rather than by name. For example, "Lord Edward." Nobles do not belittle each other in public by not using an honorific or title, unless they are trying to truly insult them.
Your character can be born a noble, but until they have sworn fealty to a greater noble and granted a title, your character does not have much to show for it.
Your character can marry a titled noble but that will not make your character one. Your character would just be along for the ride, so to speak. Your character also cannot ‘turn’ into a noble from a commoner in this way. Title is very much an individual honor, not a default granted by circumstance.
This brings us to the subject of fealty, by which a title is granted to a noble. Only the gentry and nobility can truly swear fealty. Anyone else can just make personal oaths of allegiance but it is not the same.
If in the rare instance that a sovereign grants a title to a commoner, the commoner will be made a knight or a noble first, so that an oath of fealty can be taken. Swearing fealty means that you become a vassal to a greater noble. You are required to support and aid your Liege, and they are required to look after you. If possible, a vassal is usually granted land, legal jurisdiction to an area, or some other important thing to look after, which is often termed a Benefice (requiring a formal ceremony, a contract, and witnesses.)
The second rule, respecting the ranking, is more important than you might think. If one does not respect the position of the lords, chaos will result. In a battle, it is essential that troops listen to their commanders if they are to prevail. So it is in society, where it is necessary for the upholding of the law and of order and security to have skilled leaders.
Lords and ladies are the framework upon which our principalities’ governments depend. Cities likewise depend upon the organization of county justice and their guards. Casually defaming the importance of these institutions is a wish for disaster.
The third rule requires perhaps the most study and practice; how to behave according to rank.
There are some general points about dealing with nobles, in court or out:
- Do not sit down if an outranking noble is standing in the room.
- Bow or curtsy to a ranking noble upon arriving, leaving, or being acknowledged by them for the first time. During court, your character should be as formal and respectful as possible to the noble in question. Your character needs to take what they would normally do around a noble and multiply it by ten, because any insult your character makes to a noble during their court is also multiplied by ten.
It is vital to understand that a noble’s court is the physical and public manifestation of everything their rank stands for. This is when nobles take vassals, pass judgments, and address their populace.
Here are some basic instructions for court behavior, as a commoner or as a lesser noble:
- Ask for permission to speak, do not just start conversing.
- Be brief when you do speak.
- Do not waste their time.
- Do not approach the noble without permission.
- Do not bare any weapon or prepare any spell unless your character is on the noble’s personal guard or payroll.
And the most important -
Never undermine the authority of the noble holding court.
- Do not expect to chat with the noble during court. Even if your characters are the best of friends, this is not the place.
- Do not tell the noble what he or she should do.
- Do not question the noble’s judgment during court.
- Once the noble makes a decision, never argue it in court!
- Never, ever cut off a noble while he or she is speaking. They, however, are fully within their rights to interrupt your character. If a noble begins to speak, your character should fall silent.
How does one get ones’ opinions and requests heard in court?
- Be exceedingly polite. If your character wants to be heard, do not annoy the noble in charge.
- Do not speak constantly. Think carefully about what your character wants to say, and say it just once. Constant chatter, even if your character has received permission to speak, makes the noble not want to listen anymore. Make each word count. Make it brief.
- Follow the rules as given by the noble. If he or she tells your character to give counsel, use that time to speak. If he or she wants your character to write a letter, write a letter. If your character is supposed to talk to an officer appointed for that purpose, do so. Thinking yourself above the rules impresses no one.
- Choose your character’s battles. If your character is always arguing, even if you are right, your character will look like an argumentative boor instead of a useful advisor.
- Do not take it personally if the noble does not have time for your character. They are busy. Whining when being ignored makes your character seem petty and ego-driven. Nobles are not under any obligation to cater to your character’s ego. To be granted an audience in a court is a privilege, not a right.
- Remember your character’s place; your character is not the one who has the responsibility of decision making and judgment resting upon their shoulders. All your character can do is help, and sometimes it is most helpful to be silent or leave the noble alone.
- If your character truly feels that the noble’s mind needs to be changed about something, try to contact them when court is over. They will usually be much less formal and open to changing their mind away from court.
There are many finer points to courtly behavior of course, but they are numerous and varied depending on the situations and the different places.