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Fantasy stories are replete with tales of noble adventurers. From princes like Charming and Valiant, to knights in shining (or dented and hard-used) armor, to sorcerer queens and pirate lords, it seems like you can't go more than a few chapters before finding someone with a title and a piece of land to call their own.
If you're thinking about playing a character of noble birth, though, you might find it's a lot harder than it appears from the outside. So before you start reaching for your dice, here are a few tips for you to think over.
For those who enjoy this list, you might also want to check out my 5 Tips For Playing Better Fantasy Races series, as well as my 5 Tips For Playing Better Base Classes series over at my blog Improved Initiative.
Tip #1: What is your rank?
Noble characters are born to a certain rank in a hierarchy, and it's important to know what rung of the ladder your character is on. Were you a prince born in the upper echelons of power? The child of a baron in a smaller, more rural province? A member of the landed gentry with a small sliver of respect and authority in the local area? Or are you simply someone with a title, and little more?
Your rank determines a huge amount of your character when you're nobly born. It lets you know who you are above socially, and who is socially above you. Who you should make nice with, and who you can snub or ignore without much in the way of a penalty. It even determines which characters can give you orders, and who would come to you with a request for your aid. If you're a princess of the realm, then a local lord mayor will be very deferential, for example. If you're simply the daughter of a landless knight, though, then you may be accorded a polite use of your title, and that's about it.
You can have some extra fun with this by creating systems of nobility completely outside the ones drawn from human culture. The supplement 100 Nobles to Encounter has elven High Boughs and orcish War Dukes, as examples of ranks that clearly mean something, but which aren't immediately obvious to those outside those cultures. This can allow you to add some multicultural aspects, where your noble might receive more respect than they're accorded by people who don't know exactly what their rank entails, and so decide to err on the side of caution. Get creative with it, but nail down roughly what your social status is so that both you and your dungeon master understand the kind of privilege you were (or weren't) born to, and how much influence you can wield.
Tip #2: What's your family's legacy?
Noble families, regardless of how big or small they are, tend to be built around their own legends. Whether they were founded by great warriors, or once stood as advisors to kings, or were dragon slayers back when there were dragons who needed slaying, the lineage always has a legend or two woven through it.
In addition to their legends, these families also have reputations for their more recent members. Sometimes the two are aspects of the same story, and sometimes they're completely different. A family more known for its savvy business sense and trading routes today might have started as a group of vicious mercenaries who fought for an upstart king in a rebellion several hundred years ago. Now with land and resources, they make it a point to buy their own steel, because coin always ensures loyalty from quality free companies. Alternatively, a family that once bred potent sorcerers and learned sages may have rested too long on its laurels, its fortunes spent, and the latest generation little more than arcane dabblers who can occasionally pull off a parlor trick and read tea leaves.
These legends are often places where you can put down roots for who and what your character is. Are you a throwback to the founding of your family, with a barbarian's potent rage or a sorcerer's unbridled magic pumping through your veins because of your bloodline? Or are you the black sheep of your family, finding your skills and interests lying far outside the path others tried to set you on? It's up to you!
Who your family is now is very important, but who they were, and the legacy you are now a part of is equally important. If you're looking for some inspiration, you might want to check out A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families.
Tip #3: What are your colors?
Your family crest, and your coat-of-arms, are the ways you identify who you are to others. It's something you'll typically have on your court attire, on your banners, your signet ring, and it may even be worked into the metal of your weapons and armor.
Additionally, your family colors may also be particularly important for letting people know who you are at a glance. Some rich-looking guy riding down the road? Bandit bait. A rich-looking guy riding down the road with a red sash and golden sleeves on his tunic? Probably best to tip your hat and wish the Lord of Lances, Champion of Arms for House Denaron a good morrow.
In short, crests are gang tags for noble families. It's important to know what other people's are so you know whose turf your on, but it's equally important to know the meaning behind your own heraldry. As an example, are your colors red for blood shed in the name of the king? White for faith and purity? Do you boast a skull because your family have stood as the king's executioners? A rampant wolf for bravery and loyalty? Crossed arrows for valor and defense of the realm with longbows? There are all sorts of elements you can include, here.
Also, because this is a fantasy game, your heraldry could also be a source of power for your character. The totems your family prayed to when they were highland barbarians may still have power to protect and inspire when you carry them on your flag, for example. Or you may be able to tap into your family lineage, bringing forth aspects of your crest to empower yourself and your companions. Letters From The Flaming Crab had a supplement with feats to do this titled Inspired By Heraldry, and it's definitely worth checking out if this is something that interests you.
Tip #4: What are your responsibilities?
While your family may have a certain position within the overall social hierarchy of the nation or region, it's important to know what's expected of you given your particular place in the family. It's going to determine a lot of the hurdles you have to deal with, and the justifications you'll have to make.
As an example, say you want to play a prince or princess. If you're the crown prince or princess, that means you're next in line for the throne. You are super important, and generally speaking you won't be allowed to go anywhere or do anything without an armed escort. You're a valuable resource, and you can't be put at risk. On the other hand, say that you're the king's niece or nephew. You might still hold a very high rank in court, but you're pretty far down the line of succession. This would give you the freedom to pursue outside interests, and while there are going to be demands placed on you, chances are good that the fate of the kingdom will be someone else's problem most of the time.
These same issues fall on smaller noble houses as well. Are you being groomed to eventually take over your mother or father's seat as the head of the family? Or as the second or third-born are you expected to go out and make something of yourself (typically by joining the clergy, or by riding for a more powerful lord as a knight to earn honor and rewards)?
You could be going against your family's wishes, or doing something that wasn't expected, but it's important to establish what your character is supposed to be doing before you start flipping the script.
Tip #5: How actively involved in your family are you?
Some nobles find themselves constantly caught up in a life of politics and pageantry. Walking through the halls of power, fighting for their personal causes, and making decisions that will affect all those who live beneath them.
Others, though... They walk different paths, shall we say.
When Calder Breakwater's ship was attacked by pirates, he volunteered to join the crew. A far better pirate than he ever was a merchant, his black flag bears a skull with the twin silver coins of his house sitting in the eyes. Dennerai Barabbas was a naturally gifted evoker, and had only the best teachers during her youth. When a pestilence destroyed her family's lands, and the crown wouldn't help, she took service with a mercenary company, using her magic to earn enough loot to restore her family's land so they had more than just an empty title. Brent "Boar" Barnault was always a bully and a braggart, and no one missed him when he rode from his family's holdings... though he's been a scourge all along the Setherine River in the desert country, leading a band of brigands and taking whatever he desires.
Some nobles are shunned by their families, even if their names aren't stricken from the records. Others may have left home far behind, their titles and birth of no consequence in the land they ride in now unless someone recognizes them. It's perfectly possible to play a character whose noble lineage is a minor facet of their personality, but it should be held in reserve as a way to enhance the plot. Such as when Benjin Tarker realizes that the local bandits have not just kidnapped a traveling diplomat, but rather a cousin of his that he was always close to. Does he save her? Will he escort her home again? And will the rest of the party who know him as the Red Blade of the Delta find out why he left the comforts of Darune Keep behind him, half a world away?
Also, if you're looking for groups your noble could have fallen in with away from their family's influence, you may wish to look at:
- 100 Random Bandits to Meet: Some of the gangs depicted in this supplement are run by former or disgraced nobles, making them an ideal choice for "cousins" looking for adventure.
- 100 Pirates to Encounter: Whether your noble character was born to the seas, or brought skills to the table that enhanced the crew, a pirate's life is often filled with risk and reward. And some successful ones may even be able to call themselves privateers, and rejoin so-called "polite" society.
- 100 Mercenary Companies: With some companies begun by noble bastards and the children of houses who cast them out, there are dozens of sellsword units that would gladly take another member willing to add their crest to the company's colors.