View Full Version : Does Feudalism make sense as the standard for governments in a fantasy setting?

2018-06-25, 08:44 PM
My goal is to create realistic government systems for my fantasy world. I am planning to have feudalism be the norm in my sword and sorcery world, not because I prefer it that way, but because I think itís logical.

Here are my thoughts. If you guys think I missed anything big or if you have any interesting alternate theories to look at, let me know.

Would monarchies organized along feudalistic lines be the norm for sword and fantasy settings?

Feudalism in a D&D world.

A (over) simplified take on real world feudalism
Let us start with a real quick primer on feudalism in the real world. The basic premise is you have a powerful individual, for simplicity weíll say a warlord just defeated or co-opted every army in a large area and declared himself king, but he canít hold all the land he conquered with naked force.

If heís a conquering warlord heís probably got some trusted lieutenants. He can give them a piece of the newly conquered land. ďHey, you can rule this nice piece of land and draw income from it, but you got to rule it in my name as well as your own.Ē Assuming the warlord didnít literally exterminate his opponents, he probably wants to hand out some parcels of land to defeated foes who surrendered and cooperated. Maybe some of them turned to his side during the war, even if it was out blatant cowardice, he probably needs to reward them. Maybe there are a few minor warlords who were neutral the new king has to buy off by giving them new titles or letting them retain their old ones.

So the king claims a lot of land. The king parcels out large pieces of land to various men who we shall we call dukes. The dukes might parcel out some of their lands to barons, and the barons might parcel out little fiefdoms to knights. The titles may change depending on history and culture but the basic idea is everyone works their piece of land and gives a portion of their income to their feudal superior, who gives a portion to his superior, and so forth and so on, all the way up to the king. Most if not all the titles are hereditary. This is so you donít have a power vacuum whenever someone steps down or more likely dies.

Most feudal lords will have some basic military training at least, but the day-to-day muscle aspects of rule probably rest on the bottom layer of the nobility, be they knights, samurai, chevaliers, or whatever you call them. Iím going to use knights from here on out for simplicity.

What about the non-nobles, how do they fit in? A burgher has more rights than a peasant who has more rights than a serf who has more rights than a slave, but itís basically the same. Chances are they are living and working on some nobleís land. That means they have to give a portion of their income, either in coin or more likely goods to their lord. They might actually present all the fruits of their labor and then their lord gives them back enough food to live. This is more common when the staple crop of the region requires a mill or something similar to process because the feudal lords usually control the mill. Example, the peasants turn over all their raw harvested wheat and the lord gives them back some sacks of flour.

In exchange for these goods, the noble is obligated to use his military might to protect the commoners who work his land and make sure they have enough food and goods to at least live. Dead peasants canít do any work. This ďprotectionĒ has a mafia-esque connotation too. Not only are commoners paying for protection from external threats but there is generally an understanding that if a commoner doesnít pay his taxes, the local lords are going to come busting heads. Similarly if a duke shirks the king, the king will squash him. The same knights that serve as the landís protectors and the lordís bill collectors, also perform the same duties as police keeping basic law and order, at least in theory

In addition to coins and goods going up the feudal hierarchy, there are expectations of military service. Even wealthy kings cannot afford to maintain a large standing army all the time. Most of the kingís army is probably in reserve while you have a small standing force to protect the royal family and maintain law and order in the immediate lands. Same with his vassals, most of their military forces are in reserve. A feudal lord can compel military service from his underlings within limits, be they informal norms or formal laws setting requirements for military feudal service.

Does Feudalism realistically work in a typical D&D setting?

So D&D worlds typically have medieval(ish) technology but that does that mean youíll have a medieval(ish) feudalism system. What else could you have? In my oversimplified view Iím going to look at succession and the political machine different.

Feudalist societies typically have hereditary titles. You can easily have hereditary titles without feudalistic. You might be able to have feudalism without hereditary titles but it would not be easy in my opinion.

If you donít pick your leaders based on heredity, your main options are a challenge system, an election system, or a lottery system. If Iím missing something let me know.

In an informal society with a challenge with a challenge system, the ruler is the warlord who can beat or intimidate everyone else into submission. Eventually someone murders the ruler and takes his place. Rinse and repeat.

A more civilized or formal version could have very specific rules about who can challenge the leader, when they can challenge the leader, and how a challenge is fought. A challenge doesnít even have to be a fight. Maybe you have to beat the king in a foot race or artistic competition. Whatever form the competition takes shows you what the society values. The basic process is the same whether you make your ruler the most powerful fighter or the most powerful wizard. The ruler has to be the best at ________, whatever _______ the GM decides her fictional nation or tribe values.

Before the 19th century most governments that used elections were pretty small. You sort of need post-medieval society to have campaigns and elections over a vast area with many people. Maybe you could use magic to make this easier, but why would your mages want to do this when they could instead use their magic to seize power for themselves? But in a Sword and Sorcery setting you could have something like Ancient Athens or the Roman Republic where only a relatively small portion of the population can vote. I think itíd be interesting to have a small democracy or two in my fantasy world but I cannot easily imagine it being the global norm.

Lottery systems kind of seem crazy to many modern viewers. Ancient Athens actually did appoint some state positions by random lot. They assumed the gods would help create a favorable outcome. In a fantasy setting, you can actually have proactive gods or magical forces make a random process actually not random. Still a fantasy setting a lottery system means ďwhatever the GM or writer thinks the plot demandsĒ which might be a little too deus ex machina. You can dress up a fantasy lottery by making your ruler ďthe child with the crescent moon birthmarkĒ or the ďfirst person to pull the sword from the stone.Ē Same principles, the gods basically assign a leader.

Okay, so I might make a few exceptions but Iím okay making hereditary titles the norm.

Okay so if you donít a feudal hierarchy to filter the power of your hereditary kings and queens. What are the options?

Anarchy, the strongest bullies are in charge within the range of their ability to lay down raw might in the short term. This might work for a band of marauding orcs or other intelligent monsters but you arenít likely to get sustained work like agriculture done. Such a group might cross the land raiding and pillaging.

Communal, A group of people comes to mutual decisions about how to handle their issues. This is like anarchy with a conscience in a way. The main enforcement mechanism is social pressure. You want to be in good standing with your fellows, so you behave yourselves and help where you can. Once this becomes larger and more formalized, this becomes a series of absolutism with an elected individual or group at the head instead of a monarch, warlord, or religious figure.
Absolutism, the ruler or ruling council controls all laws, all lands, all soldiers, and all citizens either directly or through their handpicked appointees and agents.
Absolutism, multi-polar. There are several realms with absolute rulers. They are probably trading with, bickering with and fighting with each other but for all their jockeying, the realms keep more or less the same borders even as their rulers change.
Absolutism, confederacy. There are several realms with their own autonomous absolute rulers but a series of neighboring nations agreed to work together for trade and mutual defense for matters that cross their borders.
Absolutism, isolationists. A realm (or several realms) with an absolutist system of government work to minimize contact with outsiders as much as possible.
Absolutism, empire. Rather than sticking with a small realm, an empire tries to grab and hold as much territory as it can. For a ruler or council to have control over a vast area without allowing feudalistic autonomy, this requires a well-organized bureaucracy is needed..
The lines can blur between confederacy and multi-polar systems as alliances are created, strengthened, weakened or eliminated.

I actually think a Sword and Fantasy setting would be more condusive to feudal governments than non-feudal governments.

Here There Be Monsters!
Monster are not mere legends and myths, they are real and relatively common and certainly dangerous. If goblins are periodically raiding farms, then said farmers are probably going to come to rely on the protection of the lordís knights and be grateful for it. Monster attacks make all levels of the feudal contract stronger as mutual needs are that much strongerÖuntil you get to the point that the power level of the monster is so strong that a troupe of knights cannot possible overcome the danger. In which case, the monster becomes more like a tornado or a hurricane. You flee or hide and wait for the danger to pass. I donít see a feudal society withstanding a tarrasque attack, but I donít see a democracy, dictatorship, or fundamentalist doing much better against tarrasques either.

What about intelligent monsters? If a vampire is running a barony via a mind controlled puppet, than feudalism still holds up as long as that barony still pays its taxes. If a being is powerful enough, they might even openly take positions in a feudal society. If a Lammasu offers to serve as an advisor or guard to a good aligned king, the king would probably not say no. As long as we have pre-industrial technology, I donít see an alternative government system to feudalism being better at handling intelligent monster attacks, infiltration, extortion, or diplomacy.

Conclusion: I do not believe the inclusion of monsters, intelligent or otherwise will fundamentally change a medieval feudal society. If anything the presence of monsters makes feudalism seem more realistic.

Here there be demi-humans
A dwarf is probably not thrilled to be subservient to a human king or visa versa, but I donít see why demi-humans couldnít work in a feudal society. The real world history had feudalistic societies where not all the subjects spoke the same language, held the same culture, or had the same ethnicity. Did it make ruling harder? Yes. Did it make ruling impossible? No.

If anything, I think feudalism could make running a cosmopolitan kingdoms a bit easier. Generally a king expects his vassals to manage local problems with local resources. If you have a human king with 90% human subjects, he might have a province dominated by gnomes with a gnomish Count who has gnomish Barons serving him, and gnomish knights below them. The gnomes can manage their own affairs, police their own realm, and manage their own workforce. As long as the gnome Count pays his taxes, the human king doesnít care that some of his subjects are shorter. The commoner gnomes may know that they are ultimately under human rule, but very few of the gnomes without titles need ever even see a human if they donít want to.

Conclusion: I do not believe the inclusion of demi-humans will fundamentally change a medieval feudal society.

Magic is real and relatively common
I donít see an attack spell changing the nature of governance. Peasant or prince, a man is just as dead if heís killed by regular arrows or magic missiles. Peasant or prince, a man is not going to care if his armor came from a magic spell or a blacksmithís forge as long as he survives the attacks against him.

Magic can be used as a tool or weapon to strengthen or attack any government system, but I believe that magic will tend to make feudalism less attractive once you have individuals teleporting or passing messages with the efficiency of modern phones. One of the reasons why we had feudalism in the medieval age but not post-industrial revolution was because of technological limitations. If you are stuck with messengers on foot or horseback, or to go all Game of Thrones with ravens, itís just not feasible for a king to micromanage his holdings a thousand miles away. If you have a king who has wizards on his payroll that can cast Sending, Teleport, or Scrying easily, then I think an empire system makes more sense. On some level magic puts medieval technology for communication, transportation, and intelligence gathering akin to what modern rulers enjoy. You no longer need to base your government around connected local power structures.

Even lower level spells can have a significant impact on transportation and communication if used creatively. In D&D 3.5, Purify Food/Drink is a 0th level spell. A first level cleric or druid can desalinate about 24 gallons of water a day. A second level caster can desalinate 64 gallons of water a day. Ships can travel faster when they donít need to store as much fresh water.

Conclusion: I donít think mid and high level magicks will automatically cause feudal societies will topple, but I am going to assume that feudal lord with reliable magical access will be not give his vassals and subjects as much autonomy as their real world counterparts. On some level, the more powerful and readily available a settingís magic becomes, the less likely feudalism seems.

A small number of people are far more powerful than their fellows
Iím talking about PC classes. A first level representative of almost any PC class is way stronger than a first level commoner or any NPC class really. A person gains a few levels and they can really lord it over the common folk. Some classes are better than others, but Individuals with PC classes are much better equipped, to help and assist (or oppress and dominate their subjects. If you are in a setting with a skill based system instead of a leveling system you still have a small number of individuals much more powerful than the norm.

If the feudal lords command a lot of PC class characters, they are going to be better equipped to rule their realms than their real world counterparts. If the common folk have more PC class characters than feudalism becomes more difficult to maintain. Commoner born PC class holders can cause indirect or direct challenges to feudal rule.

First indirect challenges. If a do-gooder common-born hero that is slaying monsters attacking the peasantry than itís a double-edged sword. The nobles are probably happy the monster is dead since the monster threatened their income source, but the common born-hero is also undermining their legitimacy. If an adventuring party made of peasants can keep the monsters, at bay, why do the commoners have to listen to what the knights say?

A less civic minded group of adventurers can cause a lot of trouble if they rape, pillage and burn stuff. If the lordís knights cannot keep the peasants safe, they will be unhappy. A human/demihuman troupe of murderhobo PCs can probably circumvent and overcome knightly patrols better than a typical pack of orcs, so this can be a huge problem. If the evil adventurers are robbing the nobles of their magical items and treasures, the peasants probably wonít be angry, but it does make their lords look weak.

Then you get the problem of actively hostile low born PC class holder with good intentions. An ambitious party leader could want to seize the kingship for himself and then displace the kingís dukes with the other members of his adventuring party. In fact, that is probably how the ancestor of the last king came to power. Or maybe the powerful commoners simply want a new noble in charge like Robin Hoodís Merry Men.
To a feudal lord, a hostile adventuring party with a just moral code is the most terrifying. If a good party of adventurers protects the peasants and walks away, itís embarrassing that the local knights were upstaged but the kingdom is ultimately helped. Legitimacy is harmed but physical safety is protected. An evil adventuring party is dangerous but at least you and your subjects have a common enemy. Physical safety is protected but it indirectly legitimizes the rulerís rule (or at least it can) A hostile Chaotic Good adventuring party threatens the nobles in terms of their legitimacy and their physical safety.

On the other hand, a much higher proportion of the children of nobility would have the training that PCs have than commoners. Itís harder to limit who trains as rogues than it is wizards, but they can limit commonerís access to advance training a bit. The way I figure it, PC type characters that are born from peasants learn their abilities from the school of hard knocks. About 80% of them die in the attempt before they get to third level. PC type characters that are born from noble families receive expensive training backed with a dash of tough love. 80% of them survive to third level.

If a commoner born-PC class level character is useful enough, they could be given a title or married into a noble line quietly.

2018-06-25, 09:38 PM
Should be moved to the world-building subforum.

Whoa, wall of text, you should probably bold your conclusions somewhere. Normally I'd suggest that in a world such as D&D, you're obviously discounting all of the living demigods and high-level wizards strutting their stuff, thus logically making most cities Magocracies or Theocracies, or just the nature of high-power beings just existing leading to smaller city-states, but...

On some level, the more powerful and readily available a settingís magic becomes, the less likely feudalism seems.

...it appears you've answered your own question. The nature of how a setting's general type of government ultimately falls into the DM's hands, since the setting nor the players are likely to have a say in how many monsters in the Monster Manual are still walking the material plane, how easily a commoner can take levels in a PC class, how often divine intervention is granted, whether or not extraplanar interests get involved, the airspeed velocity of an unladen sparrow carrying a coconut, who wins which war, etc etc etc.

2018-06-25, 10:07 PM
Feudalism's use in D&D depends to some extent on how you define it. The pyramidal form of feudalism -- knights owe service to lords owe service to kings -- wasn't as common as it first seemed; England was about the most clear form of it, and that only because the English kings held considerable military power to themselves. In places like France, the king was often a very weak figure who could be pushed around by the very barons who supposedly owed him service.

I think you get the real levers for feudalism out of what ended it:

(1) Professional mercenary groups removing the need for nobles to provide armies; and
(2) The Black Death, which devastated the peasant workforce base and gave those who survived considerably more negotiating power.

Feudalism comes down to a series of promises and obligations: peasantry to work the land, nobles to protect them, and the clergy to minister to their spirits. Remove the need for those promises and obligations, or provide alternative ways to achieve those aims, and feudalism changes or disappears.

The implied agricultural technology level of "classic" D&D is still in three-field-rotation systems for the most part. Obviously druid spellcasters all over the place change the need for agriculture, but unless magic is common as dirt I don't think this changes a lot: it's been estimated it took a workforce of 10 peasants to support one townsman in this period. Major changes in agricultural efficiency are the most obvious lever for changing how feudalism works.

2018-06-26, 06:05 AM
If you want a realistic medieval fantastic world, here is some important questions:

1) How does magic work? If it is hereditary, then the ruling class is probably trying to preserve the "purity of their blood" in order to have the strongest mages. If it is taught, then again the ruling class will have the better education, so the best mages, however they will fear uprising and try their possible to have the monopoly on those knowledge. If it is random gift that anybody can have... Then your feudalism will probably collapse soon, or turn into an organized empire.

2) What are the place of gods? Even in real world, a lot of monarchy were "from divine right". In your setting, do gods actually support some kings? And what are the place of Devils? Maybe they are the reason why the universe is blocked into feudalism, each time it would stabilize itself into an empire or reach a renaissance, the devils / demons make them fall into a new dark age. (or maybe the gods does not want the mortal to have a renaissance and challenge their power)

Also, don't forget that feudalism is usually strongly linked to the Guild system. Guilds (and Churches) have a lot of influence on politics, and offered to everyone the possibility to climb in the society.

Finally, in case you don't know much about it, I suggest you to learn about the Bronze Age Collapse. It is a real life occurrence of "fall of the world", and the standard D&D setting with "ruins of a fallen advanced civilization" is quite near to real life on this point
(Greece completely lost literacy during 5 centuries after the collapse, and the ruins of the mycean empire were considered to be build by cyclopes).

brian 333
2018-06-26, 12:03 PM
Feudalism is a step in the evolution of social organization.

Let us begin with the great apes: they live in family groups typically built around a core of sisters and cousins who 'marry' a dominant male. This dominant male controls those junior males either born into the troop or migrating in from another troop.

This forms the basis for a clan, in which a central leadership influences several families. This step is assumed because it is still common among humans in very sparsely settled regions.

The clan naturally leads to the tribe in which often unrelated families band together under central leadership. This allows a culture to spread out over greater territories while retaining the protection of membership in a large group. This is also the stage where specialization by task, and thus commerce, becomes viable. Specialist warriors are now possible. Prior to this every member of a clan was needed to fight off lions and other clans.

Townships can grow only when the culture is capable of feeding and defending itself, and the difficulty of doing so is dependant upon how many soldiers are required to defend it. Tribes allow sufficient diversification of skills to create a soldier class.

The advent of the military class allows feudalism. Note that modern romances often overlook the fact that this is more like the protection racket than the Knights Of Malta. When there are enough soldiers they can demand tribute, (taxes,) from the peasants. Refuse to pay and they kill you, enslave your family, and give your farm to someone else who is more amenable. Fighting other groups of solfiers is not desired, but raiding neighboring peasants is an excellent way to gain food stores and slaves.

With the advent of a separate military which controls a sedentary society that sustains it, the soldiers can control a larger zone around their settlement, allowing the advent of city-states. City-states eventually reach a stage of diminishing returns in which more growth requires more soldiers to defend it, which requires more food and supplies which requires more slaves which can only be obtained by capturing more land. At this point either the city-state collapses or it stabilizes at a size commensurate with its communications technology.

City-states can form confederacies, but these are impractical organizations which compete and fracture. A single 'king' can gain control of multiple city-states through politics or conquest, and at this stage rules about what soldiers are allowed to do begin to form to prevent the actions of a single soldier from fracturing the alliance. The size of these new kingdoms is small, but over time they can grow, (or shrink.) This is the advent of imperialism.

With imperialism comes internal trade in a polyglot society which is held together through military power. Because so many competing systems have been subsumed by Empire, the empire must clearly define the duties and obligations of all soldiers from the drummer boy to the general. This is where feudalism we would recognize originates.

Note that the feudal systems of Britain, Japan, and the Zulu Nation were vastly different because they emerged in different societies with different values. The common element they share is central control of a military which imposes the will of an authority upon the peasantry and is nominally obligated to defend the territory claimed by the central authority.

Beyond Imperial Feudalism modern humans have really not grown. We still band into kindoms protected by professional militaries which impose the will of central authorities upon the peasantry pretty much right around the world. The only real modern innovation is the dillution of central authority through elections which regularly replace the central authority. It is not yet certain this method is ultimately superior because leadership often tries to recreate the class system elections were intended to abolish, but this time with them in charge.

Now, one will note that I didn't mention capitalism, communism, or any of the 'modern' forms of government. That's because they aren't forms of government. They are economic models. And none of them are new. Capitalism was common in The Warring States era of China, and it was the foundation of the travels of Marco Polo, Bartholemew Diaz, and Christopher Columbus. Communism was the economic model of Ancient Egypt. Socialism is the economic model of tribes. None of them are governments, and none of them are modern.

Over the vast stretch of time in which humans have existed, humans have been ruled by strong men who control a military. One must look for exceptions to this model throughout history rather than think of feudalism as limited in a specific, usually romanticized, era.

With this being true of the real world, it is natural to assume feudalism as the default form of government in a fantasy setting. One must work very hard to demonstrate how another model succeeded in your setting because in the real world those groups which did not develop specialized warrior classes were subsumed by those who did.