Monday, December 14, 2009


I must ask the gentle reader to do something difficult, something which he or she shall find goes against their beliefs - beliefs, that is, that have been taught to them since birth.  I ask the reader to discard any certainty that there exist human rights, or the perceived equality of human beings, or social contracts between the state and its people.  Let us say that none of them exist.  At the time that the monarchical system of government was established, they did not.

In their place, let us understand that a completely different philosophy dominated the political landscape.  Something that today makes libertarian-minded persons bristle with fury:  Might makes Right.

Understand, in the absence of all the political theory which we today take for granted, the argument that power has the privilege to rule is more than a simple acknowledgement of submission - it is the firm and concrete belief that power has the RIGHT to rule.  It should rule.  In fact, knowing that it does rule helps all the poor and huddled masses sleep better in their beds at night.

During my post about the alphabet, I made a point about increased numbers of persons living together created a situation where strangers dwelt together in the same conglomerate for the first time in history.  This would be the massing together of cities, surrounded by an agricultural halo, where tribal organization would break down due to the complexities involved in governing tens of thousands of people. 

In any society prior, the mixing of two tribes was likely to bring about bloodshed and murder, on first sight.  Even when it did not happen, it was in danger of happening, and so tribes did not mix casually even when sitting down together.  Brides were traded according to rigorous customs, like any other traded good, for the betterment of both tribes.  Such events were serious.

But cities, as they came into existence about 10,000 years ago, allowed for thousands of strangers to mix casually every day.  Blood feuds did erupt - people are human, after all - but they were not the order of the day.  They could not be, if the city was to survive - something that was seen as a very good thing, since the city's existence promised the satisfaction of materialistic needs, plentiful food, a strong defense against raiders and personal opportunity.  The very reasons we put up with strangers on the bus or the subway today.

By what means is this ancient city governed?  The people within are a hodgepodge of hundreds of clans and tribes, who share no common heritage as we understand it.  There's no nationalism to define persons from given regions - more often than not, any two persons from a given region would have more reason to despise each other than they would unrelated persons from elsewhere.  There are no binding religious belief systems - like any primitive peoples, religion does not play a significant part in their lives, something that makes it easy for the priesthood to incorporate strangers into whatever 'local' belief system is in play.  Language?  For the common person, there does not exist as yet any literary history, whereas most spoken stories are the same stories, told in different languages.  Language does not herd people together in the ancient period, it drives them apart - lest we forget the story of Babel.

To bind such a diverse mass together, there needs be a single principle.  Strength is something that is universal - a 'King' represents a single entity that be recognized by everyone, thereby lending the familiarity of a father figure to all.  The King possesses a cadre of loyal followers, who as soldiers are able to police the city, putting a stop to conflicts, bringing difficult disputes to the King for settlement, protecting the city against small groups of raiders and providing leadership when the whole city is threatened.

Such a society would defend the King's right to go on doing this very useful service, as the service itself would be more important than any sentiments of 'fairness' or 'liberty' as we understand them.  The King's word would be accurate because he was the King, and not for any other reason that needed to be named.

Later, of course, the King's privileges would be limited by ideas such as feudalism, but initially the King's word would be absolute.  In certain regions, Sumeria to be sure, the King was often a Priest-King, who represented both power on earth and power in heaven.  In appearance, this seems to be a sort of 'divine right' at work, but not so much in practice.  The king was not, at the time, seen to be invested by the gods with power.  Rather, the king simply served a dual purpose - he was in power, so what better person to communicate with the gods when the time came?

Finally, we come to D&D, where the King (when there is one) is a rather distant representative of a government that takes little interest in the party's affairs, even when the party is of high level.  The preferred relationship of Kings to parties is something like what's represented in the film Conan from 1980 - the King's daughter has been stolen, these adventurer's seem tough, he'll pay them to get the daughter back.

Rarely does it happen that the local King sees the tough adventurers as a legitimate danger to his authority, except as a DM's trick to drive the party out of the kingdom.  Most of the time, the party does its thing in a sort of bubble of indifference, wiping out a tribal contingent here, cleaning out a dungeon there ... acting as a sort of guerilla maid service, solving the kingdom's troubles, taking their pay and moving on.

It is easier for a DM to treat the party as operating on the fringes of whatever political monarchy might be present.  In actual fact, as a party continues to operate, its fame should spread and grow - descriptions of the various members should pass from person to person, as stories are told ... until such a time that the party's notariety actually proceeds the party, wherever it desires to go.  This, I see, is something  that should certainly begin to happen by the time the party reaches 8th level.  The smaller the campaign is geographically, however, the lower the level necessary.  Third levels would make a name for themselves in a world that consisted of only a few dozen hexes.

See it as a growing circle of influence that surrounds a party, somewhat in reference to the overall point of this post - that Might makes Right.  As the party gains in notariety, there should also be gained a kind of acceptance that what the party needs ought to be provided.  After all, these adventurers did get rid of that ogre problem in the next county, and they did return the daughter to the Lord of Pynt ... "If they need a horse, why, they can take mine!"

It helps when considering the sort of End Game I was describing in my last post.  The party becomes a political entity in their own right.  Rather than creating conflicts between the local monarchy and the party, to shunt them on to the next kingdom, and rather than inventing harder quests, why not have the monarchy offer the party an arrangement?  (A feudal one to be sure, and we're not talking about feudalism yet, so I'll leave the principles of the arrangement be for the moment).  Eventually, the party becomes masters of their own domains, with their own daughters, whom they have to pay other adventurer's to bring back.

All too often, the shift from Adventurer to Lord is something which happens overnight.  "Oh look, the party stops and now they're lords."  It just couldn't happen that way.  A group of name-level persons would leave too big a wake in their travels.  And they would be just too damn valuable to whomever the local King was - or too big a threat.

Suppose you owned a piece of land in the wilderness, and that the land you owned ended at a particular riverbank.  Suddenly, without warning, a group of tough-looking strangers show up across the river, where they start building fortified houses and loading the place up with weapons.  Would you turn a blind eye because it wasn't actually happening on your property?  That's the scenario dreamed up in the DMG - that because the party chooses to set up their castles in the wilderness, no problem.

Uh uh.  Might makes Right, remember?  First thing the local kingdom is going to do is establish just who is more powerful, and just how is that power structure going to be reordered for the benefit of everyone.  If it turns out the party are a bunch of self-righteous louts, they're going to find an army on their doorstep before they get halfway through building those castles.  And not just to drive them off the land, mind - but to eradicate them, for the good of all.

Isn't that what parties do to villages of goblins?  Ever had a party suggest they should just drive them off and let them go their way?

Once a party has established themselves, they should recognize that the attitude of all those within their environs will be the base expectation that the party will act according to their power - if pushed far enough, a peasant population will rise up, but such uprisings rarely succeeded in changing the power structure.  More often than not the peasantly was brutally murdered afterwards.  In any event, a party that treats its peasantry kindly will likely encourage revolt rather than suppress it.  Kindness is seen as weakness, and weakness has no right to rule.  Keep mindful of that as a DM.

I think that's enough for today.  I could write more, but I will save it for articles I write later on about Feudalism and Divine Right.


Ian said...

Fantastic post! I'm curious how much research went into it and how much was of your own ingenuity.

Ryan said...

A substantial number of kings in various D&D games I've played and run in have been proclaimed to be of Good alignment. After reading your post, I realize that this should probably not be the case, and that I have the sudden urge to rethink my Kings...

Chgowiz said...

Are we connected these days? In my world vision, the world at large is going to look at the players with the same suspicious, hoary eye that they players look at the world. Adventurers and ne'er-do-wells at best, criminals and possible thugs/brigands at worst. My monarchs, lords and high priests are all self-serving in the end, but I never put the pieces together as to why.

I never thought about the commoners actually desiring the strong as a security blanket, but duh - it makes sense. Many different types of personal relationships are based on power exchange and inequality serving as the "protocol" or basis for existence, so why not extend that to the needs of the peasantry? I think you just made my Dark Ages players' lives a lot more difficult.

We're not so far removed from feudal times as we like to think. One good crisis and we (the US) could look like the 1990 Balkans very quickly.

Great post!

Carl said...

I like your Civ to D&D series quite a bit. Walking through the various discoveries and juxtaposing them against D&D concepts is a great idea for a series of articles and your execution has been superb.

I agree with a lot of what you say in this piece, but I have issues with your third paragraph. The whole "right to rule" thing grinds on me. Part of that is my modern sensibility. Another part of it is the nagging question, "When and how did we start to civilize ourselves?" I think the characteristics you refer to in the third paragraph are justifications made by those in power. They have a "right" to rule. The poor and huddled masses "want" to be ruled, "must" be ruled and look! Here I am with my wealth and my thugs. How convenient.

I believe that our evolutionary development, our psychological, cultural and to a lesser extent our biological evolution have been driven by self-domestication. We as a species have in some part of our consciousness carried these thoughts of perceived equality and social contracts between the state (the civilization) and its people. The fact that we're packed nuts-to-butts on buses, trains and city streets without hourly violence is a testament to that. And for those who didn't carry the "civilized" gene, for those who believed that "might made right" they have been, and are being culled from the breeding pool. That I'm writing this while eating a doughnut and not fighting some lunk for my morning meal is testament to that. There are a lot fewer of those hyper-aggressive types around. Many of them are in prison. Many more have been killed.

I've spoken about Lake Toba in the past, where two strange tribes of humans meeting each other were as likely to fuck as to fight. (

Along with that, I'm dropping two more links, self-domestication ( and evolutionary psychology (

These ideas of "equality" and "justice" have been with us for a long time -- far earlier than the age of enlightenment. I posit that a peasant revolt, or a series of them is what kicked off civilization to begin with. Our first acts of self-domestication were probably to kill the marauding bastards who were stealing our food. Every peasant revolution since has been a variant on that theme.

Chgowiz said...


"And for those who didn't carry the "civilized" gene, for those who believed that "might made right" they have been, and are being culled from the breeding pool."

One only has to look at the parts of the world where a power vacuum exists to refute that. I think it's more of a "herd mentality" that leads to self-domestication than any genetic tendency.

It would be nice to think that we're moving beyond destructive tendencies where "might is right", but I'm not so sure.

I also think that if you look at places where totalitarian rule has been in effect for awhile, you see a large amount of the population that wishes for the "good old days", oppressive as they were. The former Soviet union is a good example - and look at how a great many Chinese are perfectly comfortable with Communist rule.

Alexis said...


I read a lot. The post disputes nothing I can think of, but it was the result of three weeks of steady conjecture of how best to describe the principle.


By god, you’re a Jeffersonian.

The question, “when and how did we start to civilize ourselves” is the key rebuke to your argument. Civilization may derive, in some fashion, from a biological imperative as you say, but it is not necessary to biological function, and at some point we know it did not exist. Believe it or not, the institutionalization of absolute power was a forward step from random, blundering jungle law ... which had gone before. A plain monarchy, like any other system of government, including the ones at present, are transitional phases of the civilizing process. Civilization has to be invented.

The inventors have never been the ignorant masses. The argument you make, that is “convenient” to think of the masses as ignorant, was not made by one of them, but by an educated man, a Jeffersonian hero named John Locke. Locke who had read Hobbes, who had read Thomas More, who had read Aquinas and Abelard and so on. I can think of examples going back to Homer, arguing exactly what you are arguing ... but these things were not argued by all people, just as you won’t find fifty questioners of the American method in your local Dunkin’ Donuts. The masses don’t question. They don’t invent new systems of government. They accept. They line up for Sarah Palin’s book because it helps them to sleep at night.

Whatever compels the educated to question is certainly a good thing, but I doubt it is biological because it does not foster in everyone. It seems to foster only in the very few, who in turn ‘sell’ it to the very many. Thankfully, throughout history, the very many have been capable of being convinced, else none of this experiment would have worked. The compulsion, I believe, is that the educated are easily rankled, just as you were by this post, just as Jefferson must have been to propose a change in government which he knew would sacrifice lives.

And that is how we have civilized ourselves. By technological principles, employed first then later discarded by what we can invent later. You, me, all of us live on the pinnacle of that effort – which is why I began with denying your beliefs. When monarchy was first employed as a method, your beliefs hadn’t yet been conceived.

R said...

Alexis - do the alignments in your campaign have a modern or medieval bent to them? If "might makes right" is the social standard, does the Lawful Good Paladin defend the King's right to treat lesser individuals however the King sees fit? If a Baron or Lord kicks villagers off his land is that an evil or even unlawful act? Are those who believe in capitalist ideals seen as chaotic since it's against the norm? (do you even use alignments?)

Alexis said...


I do not use alignments. They are a silly principle, invented by silly people who believed that character somehow stems from silly black-and-white ideals. They should have read more drama.

As such, I don't care what a paladin does. No gods that I know of in human conception would have found any trouble in treating lesser individuals as scum in favor of the King. By definition, the power in charge kicking ANYONE off land is a lawful act - which still applies anywhere on earth, including in the U.S.

As far as capitalistic ideas, my world takes place at just the point when capitalism has begun to challenge religious authority just at the point when religious wars have weakened every clerical institution in Europe - at the end of the Thirty Years War. Chaos? Certainly.