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Basic Information

A king is a head of state of a nation, usually of a kingdom or a realm. It is the second highest title of nobility after emperor. The queen is either the female counterpart of the king or the wife of a king. The appropriate adjective pertaining to a king (specific cases aside) is "royal" and kings and queens as a group are referred to as "royalty" - a classification which may also include their immediate family. A king may also be referred to as a monarch (A.Gk. "one who rules alone") and their government as a monarchy. He (or his role) may also be referred to by syndoche as "the crown" or "the throne". He is typically addressed as "your majesty" (although "your grace" was used in England for much of the Middle Ages).

Of course being a king is a relative thing - he may rule over an extensive kingdom that covers all or most of a continent, or reign almost as far as he can spit. In some circumstances, any tribal leader who isn't doing homage to someone else may call himself a king - in early medieval Ireland, any man who could raise sixty spearmen was entitled to call himself a Ri (king), although it might not always be wise to do so. In this sort of context it may also be a courtesy title for the more powerful sort of tribal chief. The cheaper sort of king may be referred to as a "petty king" … although likely not to his face (not least because this tends to be a retronym). Many petty kingdoms later went the way of the Saxon Heptarchy in England, which were reborn as duchies after unification with their rule passing to an appropriately titled Duke. Being a petty king within an Empire is also possible, albeit probably as the remnant of a larger nation of which many of the nobles have been made direct vassals of the Emperor. A king may rule in his own right, as the figurehead of a nation with some other system of government or as the subordinate of an Emperor. The typical pseudo-medieval fantasy setting typically places the king at the top of a feudal pyramid.

Speaking of relatives, monarchy is generally thought of as being hereditary by one means or another, but this is far from universal. By way of examples, the Saxon Kings of England were subject to acclamation by the Witengamot - being a son of the previous king made you "atheling" ("throneworthy") and therefore a contender, but far from certain of the job. Likewise, the biblical kings of Israel were appointed by annointment by the High Priest or an appropriate Prophet. Other cultures passed the role in other ways. Hereditary monarchy, by contrast, whilst common could be something of a lottery - in theory it should guarantee that a successful family remains in charge, but in practice poor breeding decisions and bad luck could make the business something of a lottery, especially if royal descent is seen as the only source of a claim to the throne. Where succession is not hereditary, there may be significant effort required to seperate crown estates from those of the current royal family - where it is, the amount of upheaval require to change royal house generally means the distinction is more or less irrelevant.

The king's duties could also vary - from being the universal font of government (in many medieval monarchies), to a glorified general (like the kings of Sparta) or priest (like the Roman Rex Sacrorum) … sometimes to the extent of being sacrificed to the gods at the end of his tenure (or when things started to go downhill). Most modern monarchs are primarily ceremonial with limited or no executive powers.

See Also



Game and Story Use

  • Outside of an empire, kings will generally be the highest secular authorities the PCs will have to deal with in fantasy settings, and thus will be people the PCs will need to thread carefully around - or which they will want to cultivate as patrons.
  • Petty kings can be interesting figures - either as a study in hubris if they face off against a true kingdom, or as pitiable or comic figures trying to keep up with actual kings or haunting the court of an emperor and trying to look down on other magnates with lesser titles but larger estates.
    • In the Colonial Era it was not uncommon for a European empire to contain several "native" vassals of nominally royal esteem who would nonetheless receive little actual respect should they appear at their suzerain's court. Certainly not to the degree that nobles of that court would defer precedence to them except perhaps in condescension.
    • The king of a city state is a useful example of a very early petty king. Within his own boundaries he may be despot of all he surveys, but that kingdom may not extend beyond the borders of his city's irrigation system and his actual population may only be a few thousand people - a teeming multitude for the bronze age, but a bit of a joke by the standards of later eras. He may or may not claim divine descent (and even rank) but historically speaking, is likely to end up bowing the knee to a King-of-Kings sooner or later (or becoming the former king of a pile of mud-brick rubble). Even a "god king" must judge his hand against powers like Babylon, Egypt or Akkad.
  • Becoming a king is a fine, epic aspiration for a player character, as this kind of title means, at least in theory, that no one else can tell them what to do.
    • Of course, realpolitik might force them to bow them to the pressures of others - either influential citizens or more powerful neighbouring realms. And they might only find this out when it is too late…
      • This was a big part of feudalism - in practice, most medieval kings ruled at the sufferance of their great nobles. Those that forgot that fact tended to be deposed sooner or later.
    • It is important that the other player characters are interested in helping with this goal, or else they might get bored with the campaign. After all, making them all kings is unlikely.
    • Being someone's sacred king on the other hand - the sort that gets sacrificed at the end of the year - could be an interesting gig.
    • Indeed "fugitive sacred king" could be an amusing character concept.
      • Especially if the failure to sacrifice him has created a disaster in his former domain…
    • Also, playing the king's immediate council could be an interesting exercise - especially if the king in question is a drunken idiot, a child or some other sea anchor.
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